Dreams and Dead Ends

by Valentin Almendarez

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 37-38
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film, by Jack Shadoian. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977), 366 pages.

Ever since Claude Lévi-Strauss' ideas about myth have become widely known, critics have attempted to apply his idea of myth as a cultural dream to the various cinematic genres. This attempt, in its more complex manifestations, grounds itself in Freudian theory. Two distinct approaches grow out of the use of Freud and Lévi-Strauss, however. One approach, exemplified by the writings of Charles Eckert (particularly in his article, "The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film: Warner's MARKED WOMEN," Film Quarterly, Winter 73-74), uses the mechanisms by which Freud says that dreams are structured in order to analyze various films or genres. Under this approach, the film/genre is analogous to a dream, in that it uses the same mechanisms (condensation, displacement, overdetermination, representation) that structure a dream in order to attain the same end — the release of repressed contradictions, tensions, desires. The film/genre is analogous, but not equal to the dreamwork of a culture; a necessary qualification, since it is not clear what it means to say that a culture (an idea, not an individual) "dreams."

An alternate approach emphasizes Freud's idea that a dream expresses some (conscious and unconscious) desire which the dream imaginatively fulfills. This approach, perhaps best seen in the writings of Stanley Cavell and Raymond Durgnat, tends to do two things. First, it posits a close correspondence between a film and a dream; so close, in fact, that the collective and industrial process (a movie) is interpreted in the same way as an individual psychic process (a dream). Secondly, this approach concentrates only on the conscious level of the dream/genre. The subject matter of the film expresses the concerns of a culture in a direct way, so that, for example, thirties comedy celebrates the couple divorced from society because that society "stopped believing in its ability to provide that continuity [of order and family]."[1]

There is a crucial difference, then, between the two uses of Freud and Lévi-Strauss. The first approach sees films/genres as analogous to dreams because of similar structures. A critic following this method looks for what the film/ genre represses and displaces, for what remains unconscious. The second method equates a film genre and dreams. In following this approach, a critic searches for the overt desire which the work satisfies and reads only the conscious level of the film/genre.

Though I am being too schematic, the two approaches can be defined as follows: the first method uses Freud to look for the unconscious tensions/contradictions/traumas which underlie a work of art (thus, Eckert reads MARKED WOMEN as displacing the responsibility for the women's lives, from the social system to the overdetermined figure of the gangster, which serves to hide both the sexism and class nature of that society), while the second use of Freud concentrates on the idea that the artwork seeks to satisfy conscious desires (so that Durgnat analyzes King Vidor's films in relation to populism because Vicar consciously espouses populism).

Jack Shadoian, in Dreams and Dead Ends, uses the second approach in order to examine the gangster genre. Basically, he argues that the gangster/crime genre reflects U.S. society and changes as that society changes. In the early thirties, he says, gangster films such as LITTLE CAESAR and SCARFACE owed their popularity to the "public's fascination with actual criminals and their exciting, if alarming, exploits." (p. 15) Shadoian emphasizes the early gangster films' documentary aspects and says the films owed their hold on the audience to

"their [the gangsters'] show of strength within the disintegration of the depression. The depression created some desperate fantasies … and the gangster … is one of them." (pp. 15-16)

However, as the decade changed so did the genre. By 1941, the usefulness of tragedy, which was applicable to the thirties ("Audiences needed to encounter the truth of hard times, but also needed psychological support, to be reminded of the value of human endeavor", p. 59), was no longer valid for the country after the depression and, particularly, the war. Shadoian sees the genre changing and becoming concerned with restrictions on individual freedom. He says this concern was an outgrowth of the time:

"America had beat the depression and won the war, but all it had accomplished was to create new and more complex problems in place of the old, problems the structures of the genre was ready to handle." (p. 60)

The genre handles the problems by first entering into cynicism and nihilism (seen in the growth of film noir after the war), then reacting against the fatalism of film noir and society by affirming individual effort (examples being KISS OF DEATH and FORCE OF EVIL), and finally retreating into madness in 1949 along with the rest of the nation. As Shadoian says:

"The gangster/crime genre, more than any other, is allied in spirit to the dark side of things, and it has always reflected contemporary tensions. It should cone as no surprise, therefore, that it too starts disintegrating along with the national psyche in the year 1949 … By 1949, fears, guilts, and anxieties had achieved over four years' time a psychologically ruinous density and momentum … In 1949-50 it [the genre] too is reeling under the blows and groping to make itself a fit artistic instrument that can address the harried imaginations of its audience …" (pp. 167-163)

After this breakdown (examples of which are D.O.A. and WHITE HEAT), Shadoian argues that the genre in the fifties did two things: it mirrored the tensions of the cold war by linking crime to communism, at the same time that it reacted against the placidity of the Eisenhower years by exposing the "guilts, fears and disturbances [which] were hidden beneath social rituals that desensitized personal feeling and paralyzed individual wills." (p. 218) In this, Shadoian sees the films of the fifties as being essentially sentimental, because they want the audience to be appalled at the lack of humanity of the society portrayed.

Finally, Shadoian sees the genre moving into a modernist phase in the mid-sixties (e.g., in BONNIE AND CLYDE, POINT BLANK, and THE GODFATHER), a phase which the genre is still in. By modernism, he means a "non-illusionistic cinema" that prevents "the audience from nursing the illusion that they are watching a real world." (p. 285) This latest change in the genre occurs because of the breakdown in society:

"The gangster (and the gangster film) is no longer to be confused with reality but is obviously an imaginative accretion of the culture's schizophrenia and five decades of finding out how celluloid can he used and joined." (p. 291)

Shadoian sees the genre, then, moving from a beginning of naive pleasure in the actions and style of the gangsters to a stage of self-conscious questioning, a journey which paralleled that of society as a whole.

After examination, I would argue that Shadoian bases his argument on two faulty presumptions. First, that since all films represent some form of mythmaking, they are all, to a great extent, equitable (an assumption which may be derived from Peter Wollen in Signs and Meaninq in the Cinema). The result is that Shadoian sees no need to enumerate the common elements which define the genre he is writing about. The book's subtitle is "The American Gangster/Crime Film," indicating that the differences between the gangster film and crime films are minimal and unimportant. Further, Shadoian, following Lévi-Strauss, defines his already indistinct genres thematically. Thus,

"The genre may be defined by what its succession of films continuously expresses, and films may be generically aligned by determining whether their structures contain the possibility of that expression." (p. 3)

A genre, then, is the expression of certain ways of perceiving the world. A genre allows a limited number of modes of perception to operate, while not allowing alternate ones. [2] In the gangster/crime film, Shadoian states that the world is perceived in four ways:

  1. "A man, a woman, or a group in opposition to society …
  2. … By definition, the genre must shed light on either the society or the outcasts who oppose it, and by definition the gangster is outside, or anti, the legitimate social order. The gangster/crime film is therefore a way of gaining a perspective on society by creating worlds and figures that are outside it …
  3. The gangster film was generated by the historical appearance of the gangster, but it rapidly became a metaphor … What is more important is that its structure, which manifests distinctions between insider and outsider (however each is defined), survived and is still highly serviceable. This structure makes it possible to handle virtually anything the culture is concerned or distressed about …
  4. … The gangster/crime film looks at a world that is opposed to legitimate society. Focusing there, it can make discoveries not possible from within, make us see things that would otherwise be hard to see …" (pp. 3-4)

Though Shadoian's four points have the appearance of defining the genre's structure, such is not the case, He says that these perceptions are "the ingrained factors of the gangster/crime film's operation, that which its structure and situation inevitably express." (p. 5) However, his definition boils down to the observation that the genre is structured around an opposition between insiders and outsiders, which is used to comment on either society or the individual. However, such a structure cannot be confined solely to the gangster/ crime film for the structure is too general. It is possible, for example, to see melodrama in the same terms. I could argue that most melodramas center around a situation in which a woman opposes her class/society/family and that by this situation the genre comments on either the women or the society. There are, of course, obvious differences between the two genres. My criticism is that Shadoian's criteria are not specific enough to account for the differences.

While Shadoian's attempt to define the genre (if it is indeed a genre) is too broad to be of much use, that is not necessarily a harrier to valid insights into what the group of films "say." At this point, though, his second presupposition, which is that the genre directly reflects societal problems and concerns, reveals itself as a major problem. In the preface, Shadoian says, "Genres are cultural metaphors and psychic mirrors." (p. x) Fair enough. However, he implicitly describes the genre as a simple mirror, which needs only minimum decipherment. Shadoian seems to believe that films are the end result of a chain which goes like this: Society contains tensions which find direct expression in cultural myths which are equal to dreams (art/genres). Therefore, it is a simple matter to work backwards from the end result (art) in order to discover what society is bothered by. [3] Thus, he can conclude:

"Despite what Marxists may wish, the genre will probably continue to reflect the culture more than attack or expose it. Reflecting it of course involves, in some measure, attacking and exposing it, but it is most likely that an analysis of the disturbances captured by the film will have to be done by the critic. We have seen, though, that the genre's changing levels of awareness have been in their own way true and relevant to their respective periods, and the presence of cultural concerns and attitudes will continue to be a certainty that commentators, if they choose, can expound on." (p. 334)

Shadoian's argument rests on the premises that films are time-bound, "talking" only about the historical era in which they were made, and that a culture's psyche can be easily reflected and easily deciphered in the mirror of the cinema.

I think that such an approach is wrong. First, while I would not say that films do not reflect the era in which they are produced, it seems to me that the relationship between a film and its time is more complex than Shadoian argues. It is not enough to say that because a body of films from a certain time period (the sixties, for example) concern individual violence, that that society is troubled by violence from individuals, as a direct reflection theory would indicate. A genre is not a newspaper which reports the major events in society.

Genres grow out of a complex of factors, only one of which is the condition of society at the time of production. Other determinants, which need to be taken into account to understand the genre, include: the previous history of the genre; the way in which other genres affect the development of the genre; the relationship between the genre and other arts; the way the industry is structured; the strength of the star system; the personalities, and power, of studio heads, producers, writers, directors, stars. All those elements are linked and determine the shape of any genre. Genres are a much more complex mirror than Shadoian allows, which means that a critic cannot blithely assert a cause and effect relationship between one determinant and events in the genre, since there are always intervening forces.

Secondly, there is a problem with the use of Freudian ideas. Shadoian draws no distinction between manifest and latent content, so that genres consciously deal with the problems which bother society. Thus, he can assert about film noir that. "For those who remained at home, flair expressed through the civilian hero visited by sudden catastrophe, a version of the war experience he had been spared" (p. 63); or, "Its [THE KILLERS] tricky time sequence mirrors the complications of postwar life…" 65) Shadoian is too insistent on reading only the surface of the genre. It is true that the general tone of film noir revolves around purposelessness and dislocation, as Shadoian points out.

It is also true that the structure of film noir contains two specific, and linked, fears — of women and of individualism — both of which have roots in other genres. [4] For example, I would read a film noir like OUT OF THE PAST as essentially a cautionary, and moral, tale in which the private eye/hero dies because he assumes knowledge, and control, of the world. The element that the male hero cannot control is a woman, who becomes emblematic of the mystery of the universe. Viewed this way, OUT OF THE PAST (and many other films noirs) cautions the male to be satisfied with his position in society, since the hero dies attempting to control his life. Further, it can be seen that the film, and the genre, contain male fantasies of sexual powerlessness and female dominance. By linking the two fears, the film (and part of the genre) can be read as implying that change in one sector will result in a change in the other. It is not enough, then, to say that film noir mirrors post-war angst and uncertainty, as Shadoian does, for it is only by analyzing the specific fears that the genre focuses on that we will be able to understand the unconscious meaning of the genre.

It is apparent, then, that the book contains serious problems with its method, especially for a work which is supposed to provide an analysis of the development of the genre. There are good points to the book, of course, particularly the readings of the individual films, as, for example, Shadoian's reading of KISS ME DEADLY, where he works through the various levels of the film: characters, violence, sexuality, use of culture, photography, humor, etc., in a way which supports his thesis that the film is sentimental, at the same time as it opens the film up for further analysis. However, for anyone wishing to understand the genre, as opposed to the individual films, and the factors which determine its development, this is not the place to look. Regrettably, the book never approaches the evocativeness of its title. It becomes, instead, another dead end in the study of the gangster genre.


1. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (New York: Viking Press, 1971). p. 79.

2. I am using "mode of perception" and "perception" interchangeably here, and defining a perception as a structure which allows certain things and ideas, but not others, to be thought and viewed. There are obvious affinities with both Michel Foucault's idea of an episteme, found in The Order of Things, and Louis Althusser's definition of ideology, particularly as found in For Marx. However, my use of the term owes more to Kenneth Burke and his book Attitudes Toward History than to anyone else.

3. Implicit in Shadoian's argument is the belief that a film/genre is a neutral medium which reflects without any distortion. To believe otherwise would lead Shadoian to question his understanding of reflection, something he never does. Yet, I think it obvious that distortion is precisely the problem he needs to face. His failure to even acknowledge the problem severely limits the credibility of his argument.

4. In this case, the fear of individuality stems from the horror genre (which emphasizes that there are areas of knowledge which cannot be understood), while the fear of women has film roots in screwball comedies (which often pits a civilized man against an elemental and baffling woman) and sophisticated dramas about cruel women (some of Bette Davis' films, almost all of Marlene Dietrich's films).