Lessons in “Bad Love”: Film noir and the rise of the American oil regime in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945)

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Journal of American Studies


This article examines Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) as an example of film noir's exploration of the affective dimension of early oil-regime America. Drawing on the work of energy-humanities scholars, the article finds the film, and by extension the genre, providing a much-needed ground-level perspective on the efforts of industry and government to stimulate oil consumption by creating desires in a public struggling with the inherent paradoxes of new technologies, foremost among them the car. The automobile gave rise to “automobility,” seemingly an expansion of democratic freedoms, yet that new way of life also entrapped its participants within destructive habits of consumption involving an entire suite of beliefs, practices, habits, and other technologies. These features of the new life, in turn, were understood within a racialized narrative of whiteness to be productive rather than extractive habits. The shadowy and fated network to which film noir gestures, the article thus argues, is not some abstract metaphysical contemplation or generalized conclusion on a period of war, but a felt recognition of the ways the rapidly expanding network of extraction, distribution, and consumption was compelling Americans to remake their lives in dramatic ways that felt beyond their control.




© Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2020



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