While Audre Lorde’s proclamation that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” is so often borne out as sage—her thesis being woefully apropos to the milieus of contemporary American finance capital, electoral politics, and commercial artistry—there are myriad examples of creators and actors, acolytes to ideologies that are dead-left of the Overton window in their respective fields, weaponizing the means, methods, and terrestrial infrastructure of said field to levy a critique, be it broad form or surgically narrow (110). With the above as guiding credo, this essay will examine two instances of this kind of philosophical counterinsurgency in the film industry: Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir-thriller Out of the Past, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 lo-fi noir Detour. It is my opinion that these films—both conceived, actualized, and broadcast during the height of the Old Hollywood autocracy, in which money-minded studio executives and their political remora (think the Jesuit doctrinaire who authored the Hays Code, and the PCA bureaucrats who enforced it) held unassailable dominion—are not only pointed indictments of budding late-stage capitalism, assembly line-style popular culture, and the ambient anomie this cultural machine (in tandem with the embedded mode of postwar production) instills in the citizenry, but are encoded with condemnations of the commercial film industry; its fantasy-peddling and reactionary agitprop, in particular.
A note on methodology: it is my belief that both directors share a kindred, if well sublimated, political and metaphysical sensibility with certain members of the Frankfurt School, specifically Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. This shared sensibility stems not only from likeminded rearing—Tourneur and Ulmer, same as the listed members of the Frankfurt School, were born and bred in Europe—and the rangingly similar metrics of cultural discernment (what might be more aptly classified as ‘taste’) that said upbringing could engender, but a visceral distrust of the Hollywood model as a means of generating and disseminating culture to the masses. The reasons for this distrust varies widely among the names mentioned heretofore—for the directors, there is ad hominem-flavored personal grievance, while our scholarly émigrés phrase their disgust in terms much more academic—but a sense of spiritual malaise and dislocation is salient in the work of each. Therefore, I will frame my analysis around the postulations and diagnoses of the Frankfurt School. Historically, the Frankfurt School has often found itself at loggerheads with orthodox Marxism. Devotees of mainline Marxist-Leninist thought have convincingly argued that the FS proper was plagued by an aggressive strain of philosophical sophistry and anti-materialist charlatanism which lent itself to cooption by state-sanctioned forces of reaction and anti-communism (Rockhill). While the documentary record does support this assessment, I would still argue there is palpable ideological overlap between the two movements.
In particular, I believe the analytic exegeses of media and popular culture that were undertaken by several faction stalwarts constitutes the Frankfurt School’s most clear-eyed and salient discursive contribution, one which provides a useful corollary to classical Marxism’s understanding of the relationship between the cultural apparatus and the dominant mode of production. Thus, this analysis will utilize the critical framework and nomenclature of Horkheimer & Adorno’s monograph The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Procedurally, this will consist of a close reading of Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” and the application of the pronouncements/postulations outlined therein to Detour and Out of the Past. For breadth, this predominant thread of critique will be accented by selections from the writings of Herbert Marcuse, among other thinkers and texts associated with the wider discourse community of film criticism.
All that being said, the brand of critique—commonly known as Critical Theory—attributed most famously to the Frankfurt school is not just applicable to the two movies I have selected, but the genre of film noir as a whole. Coined in 1946 by the French critic Nino Frank to describe the style of moviemaking that was regnant in Hollywood at the time, a majority of critics now agree that the heyday of ‘classic film noir’ “fall[s] between 1941 and 1958, beginning with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and ending with Orson Welle’s A Touch of Evil” (Conard 1). But while other genres can be demarcated by their tonal conceits (romance, comedy), topographical setting (Western), or plot machinations (action, horror), film noir is most convincingly taxonomized by its themes. Film scholar Mark T. Conard lists noir’s eminent philosophical concerns as such: “the inversion of traditional values and the corresponding moral ambivalence; […] the feeling of alienation, paranoia, and cynicism; the presence of crime and violence; and disorientation” (1-2). Honing in, a nigh-ubiquitous alienation from what Robert Porfirio calls “that native-bred optimism that seemed to define the American character,” appears on many academics’ lists of the defining thematic attributes of film noir (Porfirio X).
Among scholars, opinions on what accounts for said alienation are myriad and spectrum-spanning. In his monograph Dark Borders, Jonathan Auerbach says this “profound sense of dispossession” is an outcome of “the [nascent] Cold War’s redefinition of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” (Auerbach 2). Conversely, Dennis Broe identifies the engine behind this detachment as something plain and barely obfuscated: “In the period immediately following World War II, when the hopes and dreams of American working men and women seemed about to be realized, they were dashed […] by the forces of [corporate] reaction” (Broe xvi). Mark Osteen, in what could be termed a summation of these other viewpoints, finds the locus of this alienation in the “quintessentially American […] quest for fame” which is purportedly possible through dogged wiles and “individual striving,” but ends in either atomized failure or, for the microscopically small contingent that does ‘make it,’ a “self that is emptied of meaning” (Osteen 1).
There is a strain of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique that corroborates these assertions, especially Broe’s. Steeped in materialist analysis and traditional Marxist dialectics, it is not heterodox to claim that they would agree with Broe’s classical anatomization of alienation: namely, that the industrial/capitalistic mode of production alienates workers from their own labor—i.e. by doing the physical work, the laborer creates surplus profits for a passive ‘owner,’ who in turn has complete dominion over said profits, while the worker is only remunerated a fraction of this surplus in the form of a wage—and this axiomatic alienation, which for most has to be endured and reckoned with on a daily basis, metastasizes, warping and destabilizing other aspects of the laborer’s psyche. Obviously, this identitarian discontinuity and sensory disorientation manifests negatively in the personality and conduct of the laborer. Thus, with such a fractured and neurotic populace, the forging of community becomes almost impossible (grimly emblematized by the world-weary and beleaguered truck driver who in a roadside diner tells Al Roberts, Detour’s protagonist, “I ain’t got nobody at all”) (Detour). Historically, this condition writ large has been the central exigence of Marxist thought and praxis.
Engaging with any part of Horkheimer and Adorno’s corpus, even at the most cursory or facile level, will reveal the above to be a foundational aspect of their methodology, but what makes them unique and exceptionally significant to this analysis is their emphasis on culture and how it augments, accents, and flat-out architects the heretofore mentioned alienation. Consonant with traditional Marxist historiography, Horkheimer and Adorno see the relationship between the economic base and the cultural superstructure as especially dynamic—symbiotic, even. In their critical conception, culture does more than just upkeep the status quo; to them, it is essentially as crucial in controlling and stratifying the public as the reigning mode of production, sustaining a level of “relative autonomy” far beyond that which some Second International-era vulgarians might have allowed for (Garrido). Furthermore, since culture in the age of infant late capitalism was largely authored by the same tectonic interests (or at their behest, at least) who most benefited from the current economic iteration, there is no authentic—i.e. created independent of, or outside the monetary incentive-structure of—culture to speak of. In its place, there is a lumbering and labyrinthian Culture Industry, which enshrines “the triumph of invested capital, whose title as absolute master is etched deep into the hearts of the dispossessed in the employment line” (Adorno 125).
The baneful impacts of the Culture Industry on the citizenry, particularly those in the most oppressed and put-upon classes, are myriad. As is noted by practitioners of black letter, by-the-book materialism, it does indeed serve to undergird and re-enunciate in the minds of workers their extant purposes: working and consuming. On this, Horkheimer and Adorno further align with the consensus—“Industry is interested in people merely as customers and employees, and has in fact reduced mankind as a whole and each of its elements to this all-embracing formula” (147). And though these two directives might appear to be dichotomized, they in all actuality manifest as an Ouroboros—the ancient serpent eating its own tale, ad nauseam—in the era of the Culture Industry, workers work so as to have the means to consume, and this consumption acts as a kind of triage, a balm or salve, that patches them up enough spiritually to continue laboring. Or, as Horkheimer and Adorno state it, “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again” (137).
In addition, the Culture Industry, through the brute amalgamation of both labor and leisure, also seeks to preserve the social and economic order. When consuming cultural products, “what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardized operations. What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time” (137). The end result of this procedural blending of what working and consuming entails content-wise, this “aesthetic barbarity”—embodied by the vapid, rote, and deadening nature of the actual cultural products being consumed, a majority of which, be it music or movies, are concertedly plotted to be banal, low-stakes, and easily digestible—is just another buttress for the presiding economic order: “having ceased to be anything but style, it [the Culture Industry] reveals the latter’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy” (131).
Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, Adorno and Horkheimer pinpoint in the Culture Industry a mandate to inseminate false wants and needs in the masses. These wants exhibit themselves in two ways: one is an almost zombielike urge to be the “eternal consumer,” to continue intaking this bland cultural product, which has such low potency that it demands more and more product, more and more extreme degrees of consumption, to elicit even a baseline response (124). Theoretically, the Culture Industry is supposed to function as a metaphysical unguent for the bleak toil of wage labor, but, in Horkheimer and Adorno’s opinion, “The paradise offered by [it] is the same old drudgery. Both escape and elopement are predesigned to lead back to the starting point. Pleasure promotes the resignation which it ought to help forget” (142). The second stripe of want is most typically associated with the long-vaunted and squabbled over concept of the ‘American Dream,’ and the level of access to it that rank-and-file Americans have.
The film industry, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, is especially guilty of instilling false dreams and quixotic aspirations, of propagating insatiable consumption as the one true avenue toward identity formation and genuine individuality. Said “Pseudo-individuality” is a result of the hoax air of possibility and meritocratic mythos emitted by an industry which “is represented as unceasingly in search of talent. Those discovered by talent scouts and then publicized on a vast scale by the studio are ideal types of the new dependent average. Of course, the starlet is meant to symbolize the typist in such a way that the evening dress seems meant for the actress as distinct from the real girl. The girls in the audience not only feel that they could be on the screen, but realize the great gulf separating them from it. […] [This success] might just as well have been hers, and somehow never is” (154, 145). This brand of mass gaslighting is what the British psychologist David Smail calls “magical voluntarism” (Smail 6). In layman’s terms, magical voluntarism is the notion that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they wish to be, and failing to do so is a sign of a particular person’s shiftlessness, not a shortcoming stitched into the societal fabric. This internalized policy, that of a structural problem being pathologized/reduced to the actionable purview of the individual, is one of the chief byproducts of the Culture Industry.
There is no more suitable synecdoche for these unattainable hopes and lofty hankerings, part and parcel to the Culture Industry’s unchecked proliferation, than the city of Los Angeles, including its outlying suburbs and exurbs; or, as it is metonymically known, Hollywood. Beyond its status as the creative womb and procedural birthing-place of film noir, where the lion’s share of these movies were filmed, it is also where the majority of noirs are set. The two films that this essay focalizes fall into the above category as well, albeit with a slight wrinkle. While not the initial setting, both Detour and Out of the Past claim Los Angeles as their physical and existential terminus. Hollywood, as an ontological aspiration and a destination, looms large in each. Detour begins—I am speaking of the linear plot (the film actually begins at the chronological ending, in media res, with Al hitchhiking to a diner in Reno, Nevada)—with Al Roberts, a lovelorn jazz pianist in New York City, trying to save up the necessary funds to join his girlfriend, a striving singer, in Los Angeles. As is wont for the genre, a lack of money hamstrings Al’s designs for his own life, and we find him from the nonce thoroughly enervated and embittered by the capitalistic scurry to accrue.
Though deeply skeptical and suspicious of the starry-eyed, rags-to-riches Hollywood narrative, Los Angeles does function for Al as a break from the tedium and monotonous familiarity of his life in New York, a chance to start anew. Because he has only his own labor to sell, i.e. he has no equity or capital to passively plump his coffers, Al is forced to work for proverbial peanuts at a cheap nightclub, squandering his talent and deferring any legitimate artistic yearnings (in-scene, this is represented by the riff-driven and mostly intuitive jazz we hear Al playing for pay, versus the classical music—Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor, op.64, no. 2—he plays for pleasure) (Cantor 149). This is a fact that Al laments throughout the film, time and again bemoaning that decisions which should be his to make, should feasibly be within any continent adult’s sphere of agency and autonomy, are in all reality adjudicated by an ever-lurking scarcity: “Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it” (Detour).
Evident in the quote is an object definition of classical alienation, which accords with the orthodox Marxist perspectives outlined at length earlier in this essay. But also implicitly present—given what we know about Roberts’s stifled potential and stagnating ambitions as a pianist, which are a direct result of his need to make money—is an example of the effect that a society schematized around maximizing production and profit above all else does to what Herbert Marcuse calls the creative “Eros” of the worker. Because his status as an industrial cog is so inviolably codified, fiscal precarity his lifelong affliction, the worker is at every turn forced to repress his own wants, to forgo the “instinctual needs for peace and quiet,” for the sake of streamlined manufacturing and the hallowed GDP (Marcuse xiv). Indentured to this capitalistic cycle of “production and destruction,” the worker recedes into the unwitting thrall of Thanatos, or the death drive (xi). Rounding back to film noir, the above dynamic could account for the aberrant and dissociative actions of not only Al Roberts and Jeff Markham (Out of the Past’s antihero), but countless characters throughout the entire film noir catalogue who seem to be operating in a cognitive fog, barreling toward their own ruin. Embodying this, from the opening credits we find Al not exactly suicidal, but with a tacit wish for insentience that only intensifies as the film progresses.
We find Jeff Bailey, assumed name of Out of the Past’s Jeff Markham, in similar straits. Once a successful private eye, a romantic tryst gone bad—with the runaway woman he was hired to apprehend, no less—has Markham laying low, leading a banal life in the rural mountain town of Bridgeport, California. At the film’s commencement, he is the owner-operator of a piddling gas station. Rather than feeling rejuvenated by the ambling, gently-paced domesticity of his new life—it is pertinent to note here that some film historians, Jonathan Auerbach in particular, attribute the “intense anxiety, paranoia, and disorientation” that so often plagues noir protagonists to “an absence of domesticity, a lack of fixity”—Markham is at best blasé toward the simple, low-octane wage labor that now constitutes his daily existence (Auerbach 151). In fact, I would argue that—given the glimpses of lusty avariciousness and laconic criminality we as viewers glean from Markham in the first act’s expository reminiscence, and the second act’s resumption of detective work—it is his newfound epistemological conception of himself as merely a wage-worker (since he owns the service station, one could quibble that he is more a member of the petite bourgeois than proletariat, but this is largely nullified by the lack of passivity in his income; besides a mute boy, Markham appears to be the sole operator of his service station) that is by and large the mother of his discontent. From its opening repartee, a pitch-perfect case study in the witty, idiomatic to-and-fro that would come to be known as the ‘hardboiled’ mode of dialogue, Markham’s subtle sourness concerning this recent change of profession is discernible in his reunion with Whit Sterling, the pedigreed crook and gambling kingpin who originally hired him to find his girlfriend:
Sterling: I understand you’re operating a little gasoline station?
Clearly, Markham’s status as clock-punching-everyman does not harmonize with Sterling’s initial impression, nor can it be understood meta-textually as anything other than a radical departure from Markham’s previous understanding of himself as someone who transcended the accepted bounds of societal hierarchy, a dauntless maverick who continually eluded the prison of the humdrum and workaday. Thus, given yet another shift in his comportment and bearing in the film’s second act, the noumenal aura of Hollywood—which, though several key plot-developments occur in other California and Mexican cities, I would argue is the presiding turbine of delusion and phantasm in Out of the Past--functions for Markham not just as a return to the procedural life of a private eye, but as hinge point and hearthstone in his entire psychic architecture of selfhood. And, with this crucial vantage in mind, it is easier to parse the manifest Thanatos that eventually leads to his demise—afforded form and flesh in the character of Kathie Moffet, Markham’s obsession (and an obvious nod toward the ‘femme fatale’ trope so famously associated with the genre)—as both an act of keen defiance against the deeply-entrenched mode of postwar production, i.e. quiet desperation and faceless ‘wage-slavery,’ and a thematic/proverbial recoupment of Markham, who made it his mission statement to flout the worker/consumer dichotomy at every overture, by the ‘universe,’ a euphemism for the purposely mystified facets of corporate propagandization and the superstructure which superintend the public. The lattermost claim—that Markham’s death can be read as celestial punishment for defying the established order of things, for not abiding the business-friendly version of the American dream—is lent credence by Out of the Past’s closing scene, which depicts a mute boy, Markham’s lone employee, smiling and saluting his name on the filling station marquee.
Like Jeff Markham and Al Roberts, several members of the Frankfurt School also found themselves, by choice or bitter necessity, in Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in particular, spent a great deal of column-inches trying to shed clarity on the estrangement and exploitation that underwrote so much of the buoyant optimism that surrounded this city—their interim homeplace—that film theorist Tina Olsen Lint says “[was] perceived as being the last metropolitan manifestation of the westward movement and the promise of personal freedom and fresh starts inherent in that migration” (331). Given their scholarly preoccupations, and the caste-based, aristocratically-calcified continent they had just fled, it is no gargantuan wonder that Horkheimer and Adorno would find worrisome and altogether Kafkaesque a municipal center where “[the myth] of incessant mobility broke down the social control agencies of the established communities and gave rise to rootlessness, lawlessness, and an overall sense of unreality” (332).
With its cultural product as critical aperture—i.e. the movies and music concocted there—Adorno and Horkheimer come to similar conclusions about Hollywood and its namesake industries; chiefly, that it is a varnished nothing: a steamrolled simulacra of the American experience that seeks to—in addition to what has already been discussed in this essay—strictly define ‘normalcy,’ viciously ostracize those who venture outside these boundaries, reinforce the inalienable laws of working and consuming, and pacify the masses with its soporific product (neutering any possibility of popular backlash; or, as stated in The Culture Industry, “Culture has always played its part in taming revolutionary and barbaric instinct. Industrial culture adds its contribution) (152). Throughout his storied career in letters, Adorno specifically made his distaste for popular forms of ‘art,’ philistine consumption, and the Hollywood model felt: “Every visit to the cinema, despite the utmost watchfulness, leaves me dumber and worse than before. Sociability itself is a participant in injustice, insofar as it pretends we can still talk with each other in a frozen world, and the flippant, chummy word [on screen] contributes to the perpetuation of silence” (Adorno Section 5). Castigating movie-going as a purely performative social activity that not only exacerbates the intellectual torpor of the working classes, but actually furnishes them a tangible excuse to communicate less with their peers, receding further and further into their own solitary orbits of disaffection. On the widespread dissemination of commercial music and talk-show chatter, a forthright result of the Hollywood apparatus, Adorno is equally acerbic: “The radio [has become] the universal mouthpiece of the Fuhrer; his voice rises from street loudspeakers to resemble the howling of sirens announcing panic—from which modern propaganda can scarcely be distinguished anyway. […]
The gigantic fact that [his] speech penetrates everywhere replaces its content, just as the benefaction of the Toscanini broadcast takes the place of the symphony. No listener can grasp its true meaning any longer, while the Fuhrer’s speech is lies anyway” (159). Interestingly enough, Adorno’s qualm with mass broadcasting—that its very omnipresence and infinite accessibility cheapens whatever scope or substance there was in the original piece—finds a vehement corollary in the form of Al Roberts’s dyspeptic reaction to the Jukebox that whines out in Detour’s opening scene (“Turn that off! Will you turn that thing off?!”). As is evident, neither Horkheimer nor Adorno had any romantic misconceptions about Los Angeles, and each would probably categorize both Roberts and Markham’s pilgrimages there as just plain old orthodoxy, a stab at fulfillment that is as futile and inevitable as the worker who tithes a percentage of his measly income to the Culture Industry in exchange for movie tickets, the newest and catchiest album.
In direct contrast to the boomtown hubris and parvenu brashness of Old Hollywood, as conceived and rendered onscreen by our directors, is the brute liminality of the rest of the country. Particularly in Detour, we see the space between New York and Los Angeles—in its sinisterly flat topography, all but irradiated flora, and abject dearth of municipal coherence—depicted as anarchic and barren. Paul A. Cantor, in an article on Detour, attributes this viscerally pessimistic representation of the American heartland to “Ulmer’s distinctively European vision of the United States,” which is underpinned by the belief that “there is nothing between New York and Los Angeles—just a vast wasteland” (Cantor 154-55). Cantor goes on to posit that Ulmer’s “dark vision of the rootlessness of America” is predicated on the total absence in this nation of the type of centralized order and ironclad hierarchies that many European’s associate with statecraft and standardized culture (152).
Furthermore, Cantor points out that many patently American pastimes and obsessions—automobiles and conspicuous automobile customization, simple and hearty diner food (usually prepared by blatant neophytes, and scarfed down more for ballast than pleasure), freedom of movement (made explicit by America’s synonymous nomenclature for its major roadways: the freeway and the interstate), ceaseless travel and provisional rooming houses—simply do not compute with the European outlook. Thus, when these aspects of American life are depicted in Detour, it is in a malevolent and dystopian light. And, indeed, Al Roberts’s cross-country hitchhiking trip is colored not only by the luckless bewilderment of the plot, but a physical and geographic dereliction that is seemingly inescapable. Far from exalting nominal freedom of movement and an intractably solitary populace as laudable facets of the American project, Detour shows how these sterile environs between the coastal megalopolises—interrupted only by featureless clusters of motels, sand-burnt filling stations, and roadside diners—function as a temporal totem of late-stage industrial loneliness, and mirror the blighted interiority of its characters.
Here, I believe, is another bit of connective sinew between Ulmer and the Frankfurt School. Theodor Adorno, specifically, is known for his hardly-cloaked loathing of what he saw as slipshod and makeshift in American culture. In fact, he inveighed amply against a number of the cultural mainstays listed in the previous paragraph. For instance, in Minima Moralia, he paints a scathing portrait of a country marred by innumerable highways and destinationless back roads:
[these roads] are always inserted directly in the landscape, and the more impressively smooth and broad they are they are, the more unrelated and violent their gleaming track appears against its wild, overgrown surroundings. They are expressionless […] it is as if no one had ever passed their hand over the landscape’s hair. It is uncomforted and comfortless. And it is perceived in a corresponding way. For what the hurrying eye has seen merely from the car it cannot retain, and the vanishing landscape leaves no more traces behind than it bears upon itself (Adorno 48-49)
Acclimated to the surprisingly congested and closely situated countryside of Europe, it is no small wonder that Adorno found disconcerting their American equivalent. In addition, he was essentially repulsed by the ad-hoc attitude of the service industry in the United States. While moth-eaten motel clerks, disheveled bus station attendants, and the staffers at fluff periodicals (especially those churning out horoscopes and star charts) all invoke ire, Adorno seems especially off-put by the roadside diner, where “a juggler with fried eggs, crispy bacon, and ice-cubes proves himself [to be] the last solicitous host” (117). Time and again, Adorno attributed the shabbiness, one-size-fits-all logic, and anti-artisanal nature of American tourist culture to capitalism, and the unquenchable compulsion, among its proprietors, to magnify profit and minimize infrastructural investment.
Paralleling the unconquerable homogeneity and awing sparseness of Detour’s landscapes is the cartoonishly poor luck that hounds Al Roberts throughout the film. Far from an injection of levity or some slapstick device, this ill fate can be critically understood as denotative determinism. In all his interactions—whether it’s with the sleazy bookie Charles Haskill (who dies of a heart attack suddenly and in such a way that Al is falsely implicated, forcing him to conceal the body and assume Haskill’s identity), or Vera, who blackmails Roberts into participating in her harebrained impersonation scheme, then dies in a freak accident that leaves him even more precariously implicated—Roberts appears not only defeated, resigned to some cosmic sentence he cannot even comprehend enough to contest, but abjectly puppeteered by circumstance. With each unwitting capitulation—taking Haskill’s money and identity, picking up Vera, agreeing under duress to her intrigues—Roberts’s ostensible autonomy, his self-authorship, is winnowed (or, as he feebly offers in explanation for his malaise and existential impotence, “until then I had done things my way, but from then on something stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself”) (Detour).
At the beginning of his arc, Roberts appears to be a character driven to amend his situation and pursue his passions (artistic, romantic, and otherwise), obstacles be damned. But by film’s end, the viewer is left questioning whether he had any substantive agency to start with. The notion that Roberts is more acted-upon than action-igniting is echoed by John Tusk’s statement that, given any scrutiny or inspection, he can be read as “almost passive from the beginning: things happen to him and they are not things he caused” (Tusk 212). Elsewhere, Tusk argues that Roberts is just one of a surfeit of film noir protagonists who are, for all thematic intents and purposes, “hostages of fate” (42). In scene, this crippling passivity, this idea that we are all just scraping past at the whim of some malign energy, is summarized by a haggard and dejected Al Roberts’s, imagining his eventual arrest for two crimes he did not commit, closing soliloquy: “[addressing mankind as a whole] Someday a car will stop that you never thumbed. Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all” (Detour).
In his own steely and tight-lipped manner, Jeff Markham appears resigned to the blind caprices of fate, as well. Though his stylistic mien is the diametric opposite of Roberts’s head-scratching befuddlement, Markham’s attitude toward the things that happen to him—whether they be turns of event without pinpointable causality, or those occurrences that are the direct consequence of his decisions (the predominant mode)—is markedly similar. As a general rule, in a film like Out of the Past, where the protagonist and narratorial consciousness perishes, one must be careful not to retroactively interpret the unfolding plot through a fatalistic lens. But, by and large, Markham seems from the inaugural second to be destined for demise. In a variation on the inscrutable and externally catalyzed plight of the ever-puzzled Al Roberts, Jeff Markham’s dissolution is mostly self-inflicted, his hamartia manifesting as an irrepressible obsession with Kathie Moffat. Early in Out of the Past, we are given glimpse of the opportunity Jeff Markham, alias Jeff Bailey, is afforded to lead a normal, quotidian life. Courting Ann Miller (who is portrayed by Virginia Huston as the archetypically guileless and goodhearted small-town girl), helming a small filling station, Markham appears to have acquired all the requisite trappings, all the bureaucratic ephemera necessary to be considered a shareholder in the American Dream, LLC. But, far from sating him, this stint as a proverbial Joe Public renders Markham deadpan and passionless. According to John Tusk, Markham “is corrupted by desires which vitiate his ability to be a good husband and provider,” and his words and actions do seem to bear out this blatantly Calvinistic reading (212).
Staking out a crummy gin-joint, Markham muses, in a detached and out-of-body timbre, on the utter senselessness of endeavoring to find Kathie again—an undertaking which previously almost cost him his life, livelihood, and mental solvency: “I knew I’d go every night until she showed up. I knew she knew it. I sat there and drank bourbon and shut my eyes [.] […] I knew where I was and what I was doing…what a sucker I was. I even knew she wouldn’t come the first night. But I sat there, grinding it out” (Out of the Past). And, most explicitly, in one of the film’s more memorable scenes, when Kathie confesses her past misdoings in a deluge of contrition, Markham simply responds, “Baby, I don’t care” (Out of the Past). As is evident, Markham’s obsession with Kathie—avatar of reprobation and ruin, antithesis of the seemly and upright Ann Miller—and his subsequent death, is not just chanced upon, a nasty situation stumbled into a la Al Roberts, but actively marched toward. For Markham, the tumult and devastation that Kathie personifies is preferable to the chintzy anguish of his life in Bridgeport. And, most importantly, he is metacognitive of this value hierarchy from the film’s opening.
In his monograph Mythologies, Roland Barthes famously described “the principle of myth” as the transformation of “history into nature” (Barthes 129). I can think of no better aphorism than this for parsing and translating the staunch determinism that hangs like a pall over the plots of Out of the Past and Detour. By bedeviling their respective protagonists—barraging them with overawing tribulations and, ultimately, relegating them to dysphoric and grisly ends (all while claiming the begetter of these hardships is ‘fate,’ a force at once undeniably innate and conveniently apolitical)—these films allegorize, and meta-textually chide, the trend in Old Hollywood, and the motion picture industry in general, to show characters whose epistemological standpoint or psychosocial orientation exists in any way outside the sanctified binary of worker/consumer summarily punished.
This narrative machination is, of course, demanded by the larger Culture Industry. As mentioned earlier in this essay, popular media must portray anyone who even in the slightest spurns this binary as mutant and unnatural: a fatally-flawed outcast, ostracized by polite society, teetering always on the fringes of disaster and disrepair (as Horkheimer and Adorno observe: “anyone [in the world of film] who goes cold and hungry, even if his prospects were once good, is branded an outsider”); lest the viewing masses—themselves fleeing the boredom and ennui of their jobs—get the idea that it is possible to live some other way, or permissible to even ponder it (150). According to Horkheimer and Adorno, in a late-stage capitalist society, the transcendent purpose of all culture is to “hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life[.] […] Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment” (Adorno 138). Thus, in Old Hollywood filmmaking, ‘fate’ is just the mystified—I am using the term in its Marxist sense—political agenda of the studio/production executives, legislative censors, and corporate elites who concoct and fund the films in question.
With that truth in mind, cohering the treatment of Al Roberts and Jeff Markham is a much simpler task. When we hear Roberts, bewailing the wage-labor system that compels him to play for tips in a lowbrow jazz band, say something like “so when this drunk handed me a ten spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it, I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted,” or see Markham gleefully abandon his Hallmark-esque existence in Bridgeport for a higher-voltage life of conspiracy and carnality with Kathie, we know that some kind of ‘celestial,’ i.e. corporal, penalty is coming (Detour). Because this fiercely polemical pressure determined narratalogical structures more so than any fidelity to artistic license or aesthetics, Horkheimer and Adorno view concepts like fate and destiny, in the era of late capitalism, as signifiers of false consciousness: “[Referring to verisimilitude in film] Life in all the aspects which ideology today sets out to duplicate shows up all the more gloriously, powerfully and magnificently, the more it is redolent of necessary suffering. It begins to resemble fate. Tragedy is reduced to the threat to destroy anyone who does not cooperate[.] […] Tragic fate becomes just punishment, which is what [the] bourgeois always tried to turn it into” (152).
In this way, the ‘tragedy’ of Al Roberts and Jeff Markham is both teleological and tautological; primarily, it is a didactic lesson for those watching: if you deviate from your state-prescribed vectors of identity (working/consuming), what awaits you is unequivocal downfall. But, since this message is packaged as ‘fate’—an example of what Kenneth Burke would call a “God-term”—then their downfall becomes a tautological necessity. By exerting their power and influence over mass culture, capitalists have indeed been able to make what was historically contingent (i.e. the largely one-sided relationship—glaringly so post Taft-Hartley act (1948)—between labor and ascendant capital in postwar America) seem fated and natural, hence the Barthes’ quote (Burke 355).
At this juncture, it seems pertinent to speak to the concertedness of Ulmer and Tourneur’s winking critique of the film industry. That is, how can we know that they intentionally weaponized, not simply parroted, the tropes and stylistic bromides of the Old Hollywood machine? And can these films in good faith be read as trenchant denunciations of American Culture, with the film industry functioning as a symbol of its alienation and bloodless excesses? The case for this, I hope, has been implicitly assembled throughout. But, beyond the prevailing critical estimation that these films “serve as counterweight to the typical product of the Hollywood dream factory,” there is further evidence that Tourneur and Ulmer, for reasons both personal and ideological, were disenchanted with commercial filmmaking and the postwar cultural climate (Cantor 141). Examining Tourneur’s oeuvre, there are numerous examples in the films he directed of moneyed interests, whether it be the landed gentry or urban, finance-based powerbrokers, using imagined culture grievances to misdirect the fear and anxieties of the masses, usually heaping them onto some equally oppressed ‘other,’ and preserve the economic order. In one of his better known films--Stars in My Crown, set in the Reconstruction-era South—an esteemed local businessmen fans the flames of racial tension and cultural embitterment to eliminate competition and expand his predatory mining empire. This mimics in miniature how the culture industry broadly functions in the real world: not only as a stifler of unrest and punisher of dissent, but gatekeeper for popular opinion and sentiment.
It also aligns with Horkheimer’s view of the teleological mandate of culture in our times: “The task [of culture] in late capitalism is to remodel the population into a collectivity ready for any civilian and military purpose, so that it functions in the hands of the newly restructured ruling class” (Horkheimer 120). Ulmer, as well, harbored a deep distrust for Hollywood. And, given the particulars of his career, this disdain is justifiable. According to Paul A. Cantor, Ulmer both lived and lost the Hollywood dream: after directing The Black Cat, a critical and commercial triumph, “Ulmer’s future seemed bright. But […] he had an affair with the wife of a nephew of Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal. The resulting divorce and Ulmer’s marriage to the woman he loved led to his being banished from the Universal lot […] [and] effectively exiled [from Hollywood] for over a decade, thus sending him off on his checkered career as a more or less independent filmmaker, or at least operating largely outside the major studio system” (143). With these distinct travails in mind, it is hard not to read Al Roberts as autobiographical; like his ever-dispirited fictional stand-in, Ulmer obviously knew what it meant to be a victim of the baffling caprices of fate and fortune, or the political and corporate potentates that masquerade as ‘fate’ in the era of late capitalism.
The lives and works of both directors, in fact, suggest overt ideological affinities with the Frankfurt school. That is why the critical espousings of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are such a useful heuristic for understanding Detour and Out of the Past. Not only do they make blatant certain thematic undercurrents and subtly implanted subtexts that might otherwise be glanced over, but they also outline how said films function as both mimetic analogs to the decade-specific (1940s) struggle between worker and owner, and enunciate how The Culture Industry’s infiltration of the working class psyche enkindled the ambivalence and apathy that would eventually allow the forces of capital to, through attrition, bridge the gap between what David Harvey calls the “embedded liberalism” of postwar America and the rampant, unleavened neoliberalism that was soon to follow (Harvey 11).
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Detour. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Producers Releasing Corporation, 1945.
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Out of the Past. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947.
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Ian Hall was born & reared in Eastern Kentucky. His scholarship is featured in Appalachian Journal and The Southeast Review, among others.