Women in Film Noir VII – Is Film Noir’s Visual Style Subversive?

Film noir constructs two archetypes based on a dichotomy between those who display legitimate desires and those who display illegitimate or excessive desire. Janey Place asserts that the most important element in the film noir genre is the style in which they are represented. Place asserts ‘Visually, film noir is fluid, sensual, extraordinarily expressive, making the sexually expressive women, which is its dominant image of woman, extremely powerful’.[1]  A vivid example of the destroyer’s power being represented visually can be found in Out of the Past. In one scene, during the male protagonist’s (Jeff Bailey) recollection of how he met the destroyer Kathie Moffat, the use of chiaroscuro lighting communicates Kathie’s exciting but dangerous sexuality.  When Kathie walks out of the sun, into the restaurant Jeff is sitting, the contours of shadow projected on her white dress and face obscures complete recognition. This obscurity communicates that there is a sense of dangerous “otherness” about Kathie. The lighting in this scene also forces the viewer to replicate Jeff’s gaze by locating her in the centre ground. Therefore in this scene the interplay between shadow and light communicates Kathie, wearing a white dress signifying innocence (a continued motif in Out of the Past), is dangerous. In Double Indemnity the final confrontation between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson is another example of the visually expressive way film noir communicates evil. In this climatic scene Phyllis sits in a darkened room smoking. The light filters through Venetian blinds cutting horizontally across Walter. The lighting in this scene communicates that Walter is fractured (broken) by gazing at the dangerous sexuality of Phyllis. The destroyer figure, represented as exhibiting excessive sexuality or ambition, is therefore, to Place, ‘expressed in the visual style by their dominance in composition, angle, camera movement and lighting’.[2] To Place this dominance in composition brings into question the validity of the film’s repressive resolutions. Place continues:

It is not [the destroyer’s] inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all, exciting sexuality… The style of these films thus overwhelm their conventional narrative content or interacts with it to produce a remarkably potent image of woman.[3]

Therefore Place’s assertion that film noir’s visual style exceeds the repressive conclusions is grounded in the belief that the powerful image of the destroyer cannot be contained by any return to the traditional moral status quo.


[1]     Place, p. 36.

[2]     Place, p. 45.

[3]     Place, p. 36.

Women in Film Noir VI – Containment of the Subversive Representation of the Domestic Sphere

Harvey’s position (explored here: V) regarding the subversive representation of the domestic sphere is flawed. Though Harvey is correct to note that the domestic sphere is often represented as poisoned or tense, as in Mildred Pierce when the unemployed Albert Pierce gets constantly undermined and nagged, the representation of the domestic sphere is far from subversive. In film noir the poisoned atmosphere is always qualified by some represented or implied transgressive act. In Double Indemnity the poisoned, stale domestic sphere is attributed to the evil of the destroyer Phyllis Dietrichson. The Dietrichson household is loveless primarily because they married, not for love, but money. Phyllis admits she married Mr. Dietrichson after his first wife died because she wanted a roof over her head. She also bitterly remarked that divorce was out of the question because all of his money is tied up in the business. Phyllis’s poisoning of the domestic sphere also extends to Mr. Dietrichson’s first marriage. Phyllis was a nurse for Mr. Dietrichson’s first wife who died of pneumonia. Lola Dietrichson (the daughter of Mr. Dietrichson) witnessed Phyllis attempt to murder the first wife by opening up all the windows and stealing all of the covers (thereby increasing the chance the first Mrs. Diestrichson would die from pneumonia). Therefore the domestic sphere’s poisonous atmosphere is attributed to the excessive lust and social ambition of Phyllis. Rather than communicate that it is the institution of marriage that is corrupt, Double Indemnity and film noir articulates that it is the individual who is responsible for the poisoned domestic sphere. The individualization of social problems is a recurring motif in Hollywood. As Theodore Adorno asserts:

Even a radical film director who wished to portray crucially important special developments like the merger of two industrial concerns could only do so by showing us the dominant figure in the office, at the conference table or in their mansions. Even if they were thereby revealed as monstrous characters, their monstrousness would still be sanctioned as a quality of individual human beings in a way that would tend to obscure the monstrousness of the system whose servile functionaries they are.[1]

That is, even if a director wishes to portray a social institution as corrupt that portrayal would locate the corruption in the heart of an individual. This individualization of institutional corruption or contradictions inherently obscures the system behind the corruption. Double Indemnity, like Adorno’s hypothetical film, represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being (Phyllis) rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage.

            Harvey’s second assertion that film noir facilitates the consideration of alternative “non-repressive” social institutions is also incorrect. In Mildred Pierce an alternative to the traditional patriarchal marriage is shown but the viewers are left without doubt that it is not viable or desirable. Mildred Pierce’s marriage to Monte Beragon – motivated by a desire to climb the social ladder – is non-conventional because Mildred is the “bread winner”. This reversal of traditional gender roles is presented visually through Mildred’s structured hairstyle and masculine dress-suits. The consequence of Mildred assuming the masculine role is that Monte feels emasculated. Consequently Monte conspires to undermine Mildred and does so by bringing about the downfall of her business. Therefore the “alternative” system of marriage, in which the woman controls the relationship, is shown in Mildred Pierce as being corrupt and doomed to failure. Harvey could argue that this is not the alternative to marriage implied in her article however, even if we accept this, Mildred Pierce still presents an alternative to marriage as being worse than traditional marriage. Furthermore there seems to be no ground to assume that any further alteration or alternative to the institution of marriage is going to be argued for positively in Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce’s resolution reaffirms my reading that film noir supports the traditional institution of marriage over the increased independence of women in the domestic and work spheres. When Mildred leaves the police interrogation room she is met by her first husband Albert who takes her arm and leads her through a massive archway into the sunrise. The message being that, although traditional marriage has its negatives, it is by far the best system available to society for the production of well-rounded individuals. Rather than criticising the traditional institute of marriage, Mildred Pierce reaffirms its place as the most natural and beneficial framework of society. Therefore, Harvey’s assertion that film noir promotes alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life is wrong.


[1]               Theodore Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’ in Theodore Adorno, The Culture Industry, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 61-97, p. 66.

Women in Film Noir V – Is Film Noir’s Representation of the Domestic Sphere Subversive?

In the previous four articles (can be accessed here: I, II, III, IV) I argued that Film Noir represents women as conforming to two central archetypes. These archetypes – the redeemer and the destroyer – are founded on a moral dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate displays of desire. The redeemer exhibits legitimate desires and the destroyer displays excessive desires. I highlighted that this representation conforms to, and was informed by, the repressive structure of the Hays Code. I then noted that this representation can be located in two other Hollywood genres; the screwball comedy and melodrama. I cited Double Indemnity as an example of film noirs continuance of this tradition. As well as conforming to the structures and tradition of Hollywood (the Hays Code, screwball comedy and melodrama) I asserted that film noir’s representation of women is determined by its socio-historical context. I then concluded that the vast de- and re-territorialization of women during and after WWII can be seen as being reflected both directly and obliquely in Film Noir.

In this article, and following ones, I will further explore this claim. I will explore two counter-arguments which assert that film noir, although reflecting the dominant ideology in its narrative resolutions, is subversive. I will first explore the claim that the representation of the domestic sphere in film noir, rather than being repressive, suggests the beginnings of an attack on the institution of marriage. I will disagree and note that film noir represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage. I will therefore conclude that film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere does not constitute an attack on the institution of marriage. I will then explore the claim that the style of film noir subverts its own repressive structure. I will argue that the “powerful” moments of expression are not subversive but rather another standardized means of expressing and containing excessive ambition, lust and greed.

In contrast to my position that the narrative resolutions and characterization of Film Noir reaffirms the traditional conception of family and gender roles Sylvia Harvey argues that:

film noir offers us again and again examples of abnormal or monstrous behavior which defy the patterns established for human social interaction, and which hint at a series of radical and irresolvable contradictions buried deep within the total system of economic and social interactions that constitute the know world.[1]

Harvey agrees that Film Noir utilizes the destroyer figure as an example of illegitimate and immoral excess but asserts that this does not serve to reaffirm the status quo. Harvey asserts that the destroyer figure and the representation of the domestic sphere communicate irresolvable inconsistencies at the heart of the dominant ideology. Harvey states that ‘it is the representation of the institution of the family… in film noir [which] serves as the vehicle for the expression of frustration’.[2] To Harvey, film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere subverts the film’s repressive conclusions. Harvey goes on to assert ‘the kinds of tension characteristic of the portrayal of the family in these films suggest the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family’.[3] Whereas I argued that film noir narrative structure and characterization reaffirmed the traditional conception of the family and domestic sphere, Harvey asserts that film noir subverts and attacks the institution of family. To Harvey this subversion and attack on the traditional institution of family is articulated through film noir’s visual style. This negative portrayal of the domestic sphere can be located in Double Indemnity. The Dietrichson home isn’t represented as flourishing or the site through which relationships thrive. When Walter Neff first walks into Phyllis Dietrichson’s living room he remarks on how stale the room smells. The music which accompanies Walter’s entrance into the living room is also dark and disharmonious. The feeling of discontent is further represented through the mise-en-scene. As Walter walks into the living room bars of light are projected across his body which appears to refer to prison uniform. The living room furniture is also stark and the darkness of the room, in contrast to the brightness of the exterior shots, further illustrates the sombre atmosphere in the Dietrichson household. Harvey further notes that the family unit is traditionally the arena in which romantic love is fostered but in Double Indemnity the domestic space only offers death.[4] To Harvey, Double Indemnity’s representation of the domestic sphere as a stale, disharmonious and ultimately deadly place constitutes a ‘violent assault on the conventional values of family life’.[5] Harvey goes on to assert that:

[The] terrible absence of family relations [in film noir] allows for the production of the seeds of counter-ideologies. [This] absence or disfigurement of the family… may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life.[6]

Harvey believes that film noir both subverts the representation of the domestic sphere as well as facilitates the consideration of alternative non-repressive social institutions. Harvey concludes by asserting that ‘Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained’.[7] Harvey is therefore asserting that film noir’s repressive narrative resolutions cannot contain the subversive representation of the domestic sphere.[8]


[1]     Harvey, p. 22.

[2]     Harvey, p. 23.

[3]     Harvey, p. 23.

[4]     Harvey, p. 25.

[5]     Harvey, p. 31.

[6]     Harvey, p. 33.

[7]     Harvey, p. 33.

[8]     Harvey, p. 33.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part VII – Variablism

4.1 Variablism

 

In the previous section I highlighted a criticism of Moralism which centred on the claim of Immoralists that sometimes a moral blemish may contribute positively to an artwork’s value as art. I explored the cognitive argument for Immoralism. This argument holds that immoral art’s ability to allow us to explore other beliefs and worlds, often radically different to ours, produces a more vivid aesthetic experience. I concluded that the Immoralist’s argument appears to give us good reason to accept that moral blemishes can positively influence an artwork’s value qua art (and therefore reject Moralism). However, rather than adopt the Immoralist account completely I will argue for a Variablist account. In the context of the ethical criticism of art Variablism is the position that moral value can vary in its influence on an artwork’s value qua art. Variablism holds that in some instances an artwork’s moral blemish is also an aesthetic blemish. The Variablism account also holds that sometimes a moral virtue can positively influence an artwork’s value qua art. However, like the Immoralist, Variablism holds an artwork’s moral blemish may positively contribute to an artwork’s value as art. What distinguishes my account (Variablism) from Immoralism is that I also assert that sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw. In this section I will provide another argument for accepting the possibility of a moral flaw improving an artwork’s value as an artwork. I will then illustrate that sometimes a moral virtue can cause an aesthetic defect in an artwork. I will therefore conclude that a Variablist account should be accepted.

            As well as the cognitive argument for Immoralism another reason to accept that moral blemishes may positively influence an artwork’s value is the “increased entertainment” argument. This argument holds that many morally dubious artworks are so successful because they dispense of moral norms and allow us to revel in immoral actions. Speeding down a motorway at twice the limit would undoubtedly be exciting but it would also be highly dangerous and potentially harmful. Although imagining it, or playing a computer game, will not have the same thrill there is something attractive about these activities because they allow us to simulate activities (such as speeding down a motorway) we wouldn’t do in the real world. Narrative fictions allow us, in our imagination, to live lives that we would not really want to live (but wouldn’t mind role-playing occasionally). In the same way that couples role-play to “spice up” their love life, we read fictions and watch films that let us imagine and engage with other worlds and moral possibilities. Many Hollywood films are successful and engaging because of, rather than despite, their immoral characters and actions. These films can let us experience, in limited fashion, a world without constricting morals, red tape and many consequences of action. One such film is Ocean’s Eleven (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2001) which features a group of thieves, confidence tricksters and criminals who con a group of casinos out of $150 million. The film’s charismatic crew draws us into revelling in their immoral actions and the film is much more exciting because we pull for the protagonist’s to get away with robbery. The aesthetic experience provided by this film is enhanced by its immoral characters.

            In section 2.3 I explored Carroll’s argument that a moral defect is an aesthetic defect if that moral blemish causes an artwork to fail to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. I agreed with Carroll that it seems possible that moral defects that inhibit an audience’s ability to engage emotionally and morally with an artwork are also aesthetic defects. Something that Carroll, and Immoralists, do not consider is that a moral virtue may function in a similar way. That is, sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw. The moral correctness of some artworks, their characters and narrators, inhibit us from responding how the artwork intends us to. These artworks may also inhibit our ability to engage with the artwork. One instance of this could be George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1.). The fussy, moral correctness of the novel’s narrator, who colours the whole novel with their opinions, clouds the readers’ ability to engage fully with the characters. Rather than allowing the characters personality and depth emerge naturally, Middlemarch’s morally correct narrator continuously informs the reader what emotional and moral responses they should have towards the characters and situations. The narrator is correct in many of their estimations however; the moral correctness of their observations inhibits the readers from being able to engage with the intended emotional and moral responses. Therefore, Middlemarch inhibits its readers from having the intended emotional and moral responses: Middlemarch’s moral correctness is an aesthetic flaw. The moral correctness of an artwork may also inhibit the range of perceived potential actions for a protagonist. If the audience believes that the morally virtuous protagonist won’t act in certain ways – certain ways that the artwork claims are viable options of action – then the artwork will be less interesting and offer a lessened aesthetic experience. This is because the audience may not believe that a certain character will act in a morally dubious way and will therefore not feel any suspense when they are told, in the artwork, that the character is under suspicion of acting immorally. Therefore the moral correctness of some artworks, their characters and narrators, inhibit us from responding how the artwork intends us to. Sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw.

(1.) If you didn’t find this to be the case in your reading of Middlemarch then imagine a similar novel but one in which the extreme moral correctness inhibits our ability to engage with the narrative.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part VI – Immoralism

3.3 Further Criticisms of Moralism: Challenge of Immoralism

In the previous section I explored two criticisms of Moralism. I noted that Carroll used the notion of an idealized, morally sensitive audience to sidestep issues arising from morally unaware audiences. I then examined how Carroll could conceive of that morally sensitive audience. I noted that Carroll was open to being either too strict, and therefore condemning many good and great artworks, or too moderate (losing any sense of being moralist). In this section I will explore another problem for Moralism. I will question whether Moralism is correct that moral blemishes, when they contribute to an artwork’s value, are always aesthetic blemishes. In section 2.3 and 3.1 I argued that it seems plausible that the moral elements of an artwork can affect the coherency and quality of an artwork’s aesthetic qualities. However, if a moral blemish can positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork then Moralism is false. Therefore, I will argue that some immoral artworks are aesthetically superior because of their moral blemishes and that Moralism should be rejected.

The position which holds that an artwork may be valuable as art because of, rather than despite, its moral blemish is called Immoralism. One argument for Immoralism holds that the imaginative experience afforded by immoral artworks can be more rewarding because of their immoral nature. This is called the “cognitive argument” for Immoralism. The cognitive argument for Immoralism starts by highlighting the difference between how differently we seem to judge actions in fictions (compared to those same actions in normal life). Daniel Jacobson asserts that ‘we routinely feel things in response to works of art that would be appalling, were they responses to real-life people and events. Yet we typically don’t notice’.[1] In our everyday interaction with artworks, especially narrative fiction, we do seem to respond to fictional situations in ways that we wouldn’t if those situations were real. In Commando (Dir., Mark L. Lester, 1985), after a hard fought hand to hand battle, the protagonist John Matrix finishes his nemesis off by throwing a pipe through his stomach. As he does this the pipe goes through the antagonist’s stomach and into a steam pipe causing steam to fill the room. In response Matrix quips “time to let off some steam”. In the context of the film we find this remark funny and even strangely appropriate. However, if we witnessed that very scene in real life we would be horrified by the act and by Matrix’s callous nature – as well as the fact he did it in front of his young daughter. Therefore, in our interaction with fiction we are able to imagine, engage with and approve of many counter-factual, bizarre and immoral characters and situations that we wouldn’t in normal life. The cognitive argument for Immoralism holds that this is common feature of our engagement with art. A further claim the Immoralist makes is that a benefit of much art is that we are able to, monetarily, suspend many of our real beliefs and desires and explore, in imagination, the beliefs of other people.[2] Immoral art’s ability to allow us to explore other beliefs, often radically different to ours, is both liberating and cognitively beneficial. This is because Immoral art lets us entertain different perspectives and approaches to life. Kieran asserts:

Works which commend or fail to condemn characters and states of affairs that we would judge to be morally bad can, through getting us to take up a perspective we would not otherwise entertain, enhance the value of the imaginative experience afforded.[3]

Artworks such as Goodfellas, which glamorises the gangster lifestyle and the Omerta[4] moral code, allows us to glimpse briefly into the Mafioso world. We see the attraction of living by a strict honour code such as the Omerta and by allowing us to experience the desire to be one of the “goodfellas” we emerge with a fuller understanding of the reasons behind their actions. Obviously a counter criticism that could be levelled against this argument is that any lessons that we learn from art would be at best trivial. However, even if the lessons we learn from immoral art are short lived or superficial, immoral art is able to get us to see the world anew from another perspective. Allowing us to see the world with fresh eyes or from another perspective, radically different to our own, is what great art can do and some morally questionable art can allow us to do that in ways morally appropriate artworks cannot. As Kieran notes, one way we value an artwork’s ‘value as art is the intelligibility and reward of the imaginative experience proffered by the work’.[5] The experience offered by certain immoral artworks is emotionally powerful precisely because the experience offered is one that we wouldn’t even consider in the real world. We do not enjoy films such as Goodfellas despite their immorality; we enjoy their aesthetic experience precisely because of their immorality. Therefore, the immorality of some artworks contributes directly to its ability to offer a distinct imaginative experience unavailable to morally correct artworks. Some artwork’s moral blemishes may contribute positively to their value as art. Therefore, the cognitive argument for Immoralism gives us good reason to reject Moralism because it appears that sometimes a moral blemish in an artwork can contribute positively to an artworks value qua art.


[1]Daniel Jacobson, ‘Ethical Criticism and the Vice of Moderation’, in Matthew Kieran (ed), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006), pp. 342-357, p. 354.

[2]For an account of how our cognitive architecture allows for this see Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich, ‘A Cognitive Theory of Pretense’, Cognition 74 (2000): 115-147

[3]Matthew Kieran, ‘Forbidden Knowledge: The Challenge of Immoralism’, in Jose Luis Bermudez and Sebastian Gardner, Art and Morality, (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 56-73, p. 63.

[4]Omerta is the code that any member of a Mafia clan cannot talk to the police or agent of the state on the pain of death.

[5]Kieran, ‘Forbidden Knowledge’, p. 63.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part V – Moralism Cont.

3.2 Criticisms of Moralism

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s claim that moral virtues and flaws are sometimes aesthetic virtues and flaws. In this section I will explore some criticisms of Moralism. One of Carroll’s central claims was that his account allowed there to be artworks with moral flaws to remain artistically unblemished. In support of this claim I noted that we seem able to enjoy artworks such as Rebecca and Red Heat regardless of their morally questionable nature (sexism, racist stereotypes). As Schellekens notes, Carroll’s claim is therefore that ‘moral character only takes on importance in relation to our overall assessment when it somehow impedes our capacity to engage with the artwork or to respond to it appropriately’.(1.) According to Carroll if a moral flaw doesn’t impede the audiences’ capacity to engage with the artwork then it isn’t an artistic one too. However, if as I noted in section 2.3 the theoretical Milošević film is shown to the right audience – one which does admire Milošević – they will have the intended emotional responses. If all that is required for a moral blemish to escape being an aesthetic one is that an audience experience the intended emotional and moral responses then the Autonomist could easily conjure up a potential intended audience for every immoral artwork.(2.) In reply to this Carroll holds that even if an actual audience (the pro-Milošević lobby) is not impeded from engaging with an immoral artwork the artwork may still be aesthetically flawed. Carroll asserts that a moral blemish:

will also count as an [aesthetic] blemish even if it is not detected – so long as it is there to be detected by morally sensitive audiences whose response to the work’s agenda will be spoilt by it. A blemish is still a blemish even if it goes unnoticed for the longest time.(3.)

Carroll attempts to sidestep the criticism by holding that it is not whether a particular audience is impeded (or not) from engaging with the Milošević film. The film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one if an ideal morally sensitive audience is unable to respond with the intended emotional and moral responses. Responding with sympathy and admiration to the Milošević film is not something a morally sensitive audience would do – as it entails advocating genocide. Therefore the Milošević film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one.

            Carroll’s use of an idealized morally sensitive audience allows Moralism to sidestep issues arising from morally insensitive or unaware audiences. However, if Moralism relies on an idealized audience then there needs to be further clarification on how idealized and morally sensitive that audience should be. Many films feature minor defects in a film’s representation of race, gender or sexuality. Therefore if Carroll’s notion of a morally sensitive audience is too idealized them it appears unlikely that they would forgive the sexism of Rebecca, the racist stereotypes in Red Heat or the explicit rape scenes in the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir., Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) or Deliverance (Dir., John Boorman, 1972). The consequence being that many good and great artworks would be found to be aesthetically flawed. If the notion of a morally sensitive audience is hardly idealized at all then it remains to be seen why the audience could not be conceived of easily enjoying many immoral films without issue. If the idealized audience is an average one then artworks like the hypothetical Milošević film will fail to produce the intended emotional and moral responses but morally questionable films such as Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990) will be successful in their intention to produce sympathy and admiration for gangsters who commit murder and other hideous crimes. The issue for Carroll is that any account which calls itself Moralism and doesn’t find artworks like Goodfellas morally and aesthetically defective is in serious danger of losing its Moralist credentials.


(1.) Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 69

(2.) This criticism doesn’t come close to saving the Autonomist position – as moral elements may still positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork – but it is an important query that the Autonomist can raise in regard to the success of Moralism as an account.

(3.) Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, p. 234.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part IV – Moralism

3.1 Moralism

In the previous two sections I explored some criticisms of Autonomism. I highlighted that with certain art forms (such as representative art) it appears that the moral stance directly influences the quality of an artwork’s representation. In this section I will explore an account advanced by Carroll called (Moderate) Moralism (1.). Moralists hold that moral character is central to our appreciation and assessment of artwork. (2.) They also hold that a moral flaw (or virtue) can be an aesthetic flaw (or virtue). An immediate criticism that is levelled against Moralism is that there are many artworks that are morally questionable that we seem able to appreciate without issue. If moral defects are always aesthetic defects then why is it that we can appreciate sexist films such as Rebecca (Dir., Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). However, Carroll asserts that his form of Moralism escapes this criticism because he does not hold that every moral flaw is an aesthetic one. Carroll asserts that:

Moderate Moralism does not claim that every moral defect in an artwork is an aesthetic defect. Artworks can be immensely subtle in terms of their moral commitments. Morally defective portrayals may elude even morally sensitive audiences and may require careful interpretation in order to be unearthed. (3.)

There are many artworks that feature unflattering stereotypes. Artworks that portray morally insensitive stereotypes are often also aesthetically flawed (such as Tintin au Congo) but there are many Hollywood films which contain stereotypes which are not diminished aesthetically. One such film is Red Heat (Dir., Walter Hill, 1988) which features a stereotypical Soviet character Capt. Ivan Danko who joins up with smart-ass American cop Det. Sgt. Art Ridžić to thwart a drug smuggling enterprise. The film achieves a good level of drama, action and comedy despite Danko being a classic cold-war Soviet stereotype. Therefore, there are certain artworks that feature morally questionable elements which do not influence artistic value. According to Carroll this is because the audiences’ intended emotional and moral responses are not inhibited by the depiction of stereotypes in these cases. So in cases such as Rebecca and Red Heat the Moralist can argue that the audience is able to have the intended emotion and moral responses despite the morally questionable elements of these artworks.

            As I noted in section 2.3 Carroll asserted that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. If a thriller doesn’t thrill its audience then it would be seen as aesthetically defective or inferior.  If the reason for the thrillers lack of success is because of some moral feature of the work – the audience just can’t engage with such a racist depiction – then that moral feature (defect) can be said to be an aesthetic defect. Similarly, if an artwork is more vividly dramatic due to the artwork’s moral elements then that moral element (virtue) can be said to be an aesthetic virtue. One particular instance of this is Casablanca (Dir., Michael Curtiz, 1942) which explores the issue of self-sacrifice over personal profit. In Vichy-controlled French Morocco Casablanca’s central protagonist Rick Blaine struggles to choose between staying neutral and reigniting a past relationship or getting involved on the side of the Allies and sacrificing both his successful nightclub and any chance of a relationship with his former love. Through the film’s development of this issue the audience responds by desiring that Blaine reignite his relationship with his former love whilst also accepting that he must sacrifice that relationship for the greater good. Therefore, the film’s central moral element not only provides impetus to the film’s narrative but it also produces complex contradictory desires in its audience enabling a more powerful aesthetic experience. That is, the moral element of Casablanca contributes considerably to how much tension and drama the audience experiences. Therefore, moral virtues and flaws can sometimes be aesthetic virtues and flaws.


(1.) Although Carroll calls his position Moderate Moralism I will only call it Moralism. The forms of Moralism that assert that artwork’s moral defects are always aesthetic defects are so strong that they are better known as Extreme Moralism or Severe Moralism.

(2.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 68.

(3.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, p. 378

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part III – Autonomism Cont.

2.3 Further Criticisms of Autonomism: How Moral Value can affect Artistic Value

A second approach to criticising Autonomism is to show how moral value can effect an artworks value as an artwork. This approach is advocated by Carroll who argues that many fictions explicitly derive their value from producing emotional responses based on moral assessments.(1.) Carroll starts by asserting that ‘Artworks are incomplete structures – at least in the special sense that they need to be filled in by audiences’. (2.) By this Carroll means that fictions often require readers to assume that the characters have the normal biological make-up of a human and infer that they travel between two points by car or walking rather than just transporting through time and space. As well as these physiological inferences, Carroll asserts that ‘Audiences must also fill in the novel with the appropriate emotional responses, if they are to follow it correctly’.(3.) To Carroll, for a romantic comedy to be artistically successful the readers must desire the two protagonists to fall in love and “live happily ever after”. If those protagonists are uninteresting, immoral or dull then the audience will not invest emotionally and the romantic comedy will fail to be a successful artwork. Carroll calls this the intended “emotive uptake” and asserts that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce it in its audience. Carroll asserts that one of the central ways that the audience can fail to have the correct emotional uptake is if the artwork invites its audience to share in an immoral perspective. To understand what Carroll means here imagine a film which intends the audience to sympathize with and admire the former President of Yugoslavia and war criminal Slobodan Milošević. Through interviews with former comrades and dramatic reconstructions the film portrays Milošević as a humanitarian, brilliant tactician and worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. By supporting Milošević this hypothetical film advocates a whole plethora of immoral positions (such as genocide). It is clear that most audiences would fail to adopt the film’s intended emotional uptake (admiration for Milošević). Therefore, as well as being morally defective, Carroll would argue that the film is artistically defective. (4.) This is because it fails in its aim to produce sympathy and admiration for Milošević.

Carroll attempts to establish that to be successful art (1) needs its audience to have certain moral and emotional responses and (2) that it is an artistic defect if the audience does not experience the intended moral and emotional responses. In response to Carroll’s argument the Autonomist could reassert that there is no connection between the moral disgust and the film’s failure as art. The Autonomist could concede that the Milošević film is morally flawed and this moral flaw stops its audience from engaging with the film. However, the Autonomist will bring into question whether Carroll conclusively illustrates why that moral flaw is an artistic one. The Milošević film may be beautifully filmed with masterful control of editing, colour, sound and mise en scene which, when shown to the right audience (one which does admire Milošević), will have the intended emotional responses. That everyday audiences would not have the correct emotional or moral response does not indicate that the film is artistically flawed.  However, if our emotional and moral engagement is central to our ability to appreciate certain artworks (such as narrative fiction) then there does seem to be an issue for Autonomism. If the moral stance of a film influences the form of representation and that form of representation fails to convey the right experience (admiration, suspense) then the moral aspect of a film appears to be aesthetically relevant. As Berys Gaut notes, evaluating George Eliot’s Middlemarch is practically impossible if one attempts to evaluate it aesthetically without taking in to account its moral elements.(5.) Gaut continues ‘One cannot set aside Elliot’s ethical stance while keeping anything remotely resembling her novel before one’s view’.(6.)  If some forms of art explicitly derive their aesthetic qualities from their moral stance then moral value appears to be important to some forms of art. If that moral value adds to, or detracts from, that artwork’s coherence or aesthetic qualities then moral criticism can be said to be artistically relevant. A vivid example of this is Tintin au Congo. Tintin au Congo features a morally reprehensible representation of Congolese “natives” whose characterization and depiction was inspired by an immoral, racist, colonial understanding of Africans. This (naïvely) racist depiction of the Congolese informed the aesthetic nature of the Congolese characters (how they looked) and their blundering actions (how they acted). Every element of Tintin au Congo is informed by the awful depiction of the Congolese and this insensitive representation makes the plot less vivid (Tintin’s victory over a large band of nitwits is hardly awe-inspiring), less interesting (it is harder to engage with the story) and therefore aesthetically worse. In regards to some forms of art, moral flaws also appear to be aesthetic flaws. The single most important criticism of Autonomism regards whether moral criticisms can be shown to be artistic criticisms too. I have argued that the moral component of an artwork appears to enhance (or diminish) an artwork’s value (qua artwork) and therefore Autonomism is false. However, what remains to be seen is to what extent moral value effects artistic value.


(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism Versus Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 38, No. 4, October 1998, pp 419-424, p. 420.

(2.) Ibid, p. 419.

(3.) Ibid, p. 420.

(4.) Ibid, p. 421.

(5.) Berys Gaut, ‘Art and Ethics’, in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (ed), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 341-352, p. 345.

(6.) Ibid, p. 345.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part II – Autonomism Cont.

2.2 Criticising Autonomism

In the previous section I explored Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. In the previous section I highlighted two arguments for their account. The first related to Autonomism’s ability to explain how we evaluate immoral art. I highlighted Schellekens example of Manet’s Olympia as an example of art of which the moral and artistic value are unconnected. The second argument for Autonomism I explored related to whether moral criticism can be an appropriate criterion of aesthetic evaluation. Autonomists assert that moral criticism cannot be a part of the aesthetic evaluation of art because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism (such as orchestral art). Although it seems correct that some forms of art are inappropriate for moral criticism, this does indicate why some forms of art, such as narrative fiction, which explicitly elicit moral responses and readings, are not open for moral evaluation. As Carroll asserts:

it is appropriate to do so with respect to King Lear or Potemkin, since those works of art are expressly designed to elicit moral reactions, and it is part of the form of life to which they belong that audiences respond morally to them on the basis of their recognition that that is what they are intended to do(1.)

Some genres and forms of art explicitly rely on arousing emotional and moral responses for their success. This indicates that, at the very least, genres such as narrative fiction are viable for moral evaluation.

A significant criticism of Autonomism centres on whether we really value art just for its aesthetic qualities. This line of argument has been developed in several ways. One approach is to show that even in the everyday admiration of canonical works we value them for more than their aesthetic qualities.  Imagine that we are faced with two visually identical works, one by Francis Bacon and the other an art student. If we consider which one is artistically superior we will argue for Bacon’s original. One of the reasons why we value Bacon’s artwork over the student’s effort is that Bacon’s shows originality and is historically important in the continued evolution of modern and post-modern art. Beyond an artwork’s formal aesthetic features we value art for its originality and historical value. The early works of Alfred Hitchcock are decent, though often plodding and lumber-some. However, they are admired because they show the emerging style of Hitchcock and often contain innovative, though crude, uses of cinematic techniques. Murder! (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1931) features the first use of voice-over but by modern standards the technique is clumsy and strained. Murder! is valued as art as much for its historical significance as it is for its aesthetic qualities. In response to this criticism the Autonomist could attempt to defend a purely “formalist” approach and re-assert that art’s value is solely an aesthetic affair. However, rather than have to articulate and defend a formalist approach the Autonomist could concede that historical value is an important part of our evaluation of art but that, like moral evaluation, it is separate from how we evaluate art’s value as art.


(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 36, No. 3, July 1996, p. 223-238, p. 226.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part I – Autonomism

1.1 Introduction

In a series of articles I will explore whether a moral blemish(1.) (or virtue) in an artwork(2.) can also be said to be an aesthetic blemish (or virtue). I will start by exploring Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and aesthetic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. I will note that Autonomist’s believe that their account can explain our fascination with amoral and immoral artworks successfully and should therefore be accepted.

2.1 Autonomism

In this section I will explore the arguments for Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. Anderson and Dean explain ‘it is never the moral component of the criticism as such that diminishes or strengthens the value of an artwork qua artwork’.(3.) To the Autonomist only “aesthetic” flaws can be correctly called artistic flaws. The Autonomist asserts that moral value and artistic value are therefore two distinct ways of evaluating an artwork. In support of this position the Autonomist can highlight cases in which there is an easily distinguishable difference between moral and artistic value. Elisabeth Schellekens notes:

it seems completely appropriate with regards to artworks such as the provocative and proud prostitute that Manet depicts in Olympia to pay no attention to the moral content and perspective imposed upon us by these works when we evaluate them.(4.)

Though it may be argued that to a modern audience Olympia is no longer shocking, it seems correct that we ignore the moral stance of Olympia and judge Manet’s painting on the quality of its formal features. Another reason cited for accepting Autonomism is its explanatory power.(5.) The Autonomist argues that holding artistic and moral value to be distinct also explains features of our interaction with and the evaluation of art. The Birth of a Nation (Dir. D W Griffith, 1915) is valued as art because of its innovative formal features and interesting narrative structure. However, The Birth of a Nation is racist in both its depiction of African-Americans and its advocacy of the Klu Klux Klan. Autonomism is able to explain these two different valuations of an artwork because artistic and moral value is independent of each other.

Autonomists also argue for their position by questioning whether ethical criticism is an acceptable criterion of art. There are many forms and genres of art. Some of these forms of art, such as abstract art and orchestral music, appear to have no connection to morality. This claim does seem plausible for there appears to be art-forms and artworks – such as Poltrona Cecilia II by Victor Monserrate – that have no real moral significance or standpoint. The Autonomist believes this indicates that there are some artworks not viable for moral criticism. Noel Carroll explains the Autonomist then moves to argue that ‘whatever we identify as the value of art should be such that every artwork can be assessed in accordance with it’.(6.)As artistic value is a standard of assessment that should be applicable to all artworks then moral criticism cannot be a part of that standard because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism. The Autonomist concludes that, as all artworks aim to produce an aesthetic experience, the sole criterion of an artwork’s value (qua artwork) is their aesthetic qualities.


(1.) In this paper I will use a liberal notion of a moral blemish. I will take an artwork to feature a moral blemish if it promotes a morally reprehensible position without censure or qualification. Whether this notion is acceptable will of course be up to debate and therefore suitible for another article in the future.

(2.) It should be noted that I will be using a non-evaluative notion of art in this paper. I will take it to be that an artwork is an object conferred upon it the title of art by an appropriate institution or cultural body.

(3.) James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1998, pp. 150-167, p. 152.

(4.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), p. 73.

(5.) Anderson and Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, p. 165.

(6.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2, Jan., 2000, pp. 350-387, p. 352.

Women in Film Noir IV – Containment and Conformity

As i noted in the previous section the representation and then containment of the strong and/or desiring women is  an integral element in film noir (and Hollywood cinema’s) narratives. This representation and containment is determined by, and engages with, the cultural context of America in the late 1930s to the late 1950s. In regard to the representation of women, the vast de- and re-territorialization of the domestic and work sphere during and after WWII is an important determining factor. D&G’s concept of de- and re-territorialization illustrates the process whereby a labour-power is freed from a specific mode of production or territory and then returned. The series of “Inclosure Acts” passed in the United Kingdom during the period of 1750-1860 is a prime example of this process of de- and re-territorialization. The Inclosure Acts forcibly removed any access to common land and animal pasture. The consequence of this act was that many workers were left without the ability to continue working on the land they relied upon. Therefore the Inclosure Act forced thousands of workers to move from self-sustained, rural cottage industries into urban-centred industries. The Inclosure Act de-territorialized workers by freeing their labour from the land (the territory) they traditionally worked on. De-territorialization is therefore the process whereby labour-power is freed from a specific territory or mode of production. The opposite of de-territorialization, re-territorialization is the re-establishment of labour power into a specific geographical location or labour situation. The establishment of mill towns after the Inclosure Acts is an instance of the re-territorialization of “freed” labour force into new jobs (labourer) and geographical location (urban centres). Re-territorialization is therefore the capturing, labelling and enclosing of space (geographical location) or identity (from agricultural worker to labourer).

This process of de- and re-territorialization can be located in film noir’s representation of women and the historical context it both reflects and engages with. During WWII American women were actively encouraged to enter the work force. Krutrik explains ‘one of the consequences of the wartime expansion of the national economy was that women were overtly encouraged, as part of their ‘patriotic’ duty, to enter the workforce’.1 This was engendered by the de-territorialization of women from their traditional role as home-maker. Women were effectively freed from the traditional location they were expected to reside (the home) and allowed freedom to choose which sphere – domestic or work – in which to use their labour. Due to the war the domestic sphere was briefly de-territorialized as the natural sphere in which women resided. However, this freedom did not last because within a capitalist society de-territorialization is always met with a subsequent re-territorialization.2 Once an Allied victory was seen as a likely prospect female labour began to be seen as problematic.3 Michael Renov notes that:

by 1944, the internal memoranda of government agencies show that female work force was being termed ‘excess labour’ and efforts were being made to induce voluntary withdrawal, an attitude even then being transmitted from the editorials of major newspapers, magazines and through other public opinion forums.4

This inducement of “voluntary” withdrawal from the labour market was facilitated through pressure from factory managers and the culture industry (newspapers, magazines, films). By the end of the war these passive inducements gave way to aggressive discrimination and wholesale redundancy.5 In 1946 Frederick C Crawford, chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, asserted ‘From a humanitarian point of view, too many women should not stay in the labour force. The home is the basic American unit’.6 Crawford’s assertion illustrates the change in attitude to women’s labour. During WWII a woman was doing her patriotic duty by joining the labour force. After WWII it was her patriotic duty to return to motherhood and domesticity. During the conclusion of WWII women were therefore re-territorialized, re-rooted as being “naturally” located in the domestic space.

Film noir reflects and engages in this re-territorializing process in its repressive narratives and character archetypes. This reflection is both direct and oblique. A direct reflection of re-territorialization is a film which attempts to deal with the issue or problem clearly in the film’s narrative. Mildred Pierce is one such example of a film which directly reflects the re-territorization of women. Pam Cook notes that Mildred Pierce articulates ‘the historical need to re-construct an economy based on a division of labour by which men command the means of production and women remain within the family’.7 In Mildred Pierce the central female figure Mildred Pierce divorces her husband, builds a successful career and business. However, this success comes at the price of her two daughters (one dies naturally and the other is imprisoned). The film’s resolution then features Mildred returning to her first husband and ultimately being re-installed into her “natural” space; the domestic sphere. Mildred Pierce is therefore a simple reflection of the re-territorialization process of naturalizing and re-installing women as belonging to the domestic sphere. Though some films are direct reflections of this process of re-territorialization most film noirs are oblique reflections. An oblique reflection is a disavowal or a dislocated reflection of a determining social context. In psychoanalysis, a disavowal is a denial accompanied with a simultaneous acknowledgement. This conception of disavowal can be used to illustrate how texts can both acknowledge a problem and attempt to deny its existence. The science fiction genre can be cited as a prime example of this process of simultaneous acknowledgement and denial. Rollerball’s (Dir. Norman Jewison, 1975) narrative reflects contemporary concerns about increased violence in television and sports. It does this however, by situating the narrative in a futuristic, fascistic society. Rollerball therefore reflects contemporary concerns regarding violence while simultaneously denying the problem a place in contemporary America. This process of disavowal can also be located in film noir’s representation of women. The Big Sleep is an example of a film which does not directly reflect the process of de- and re-territorialization that women encountered during and after WWII. The Big Sleep features two financially secure female characters (Carmen and Vivian) that require containment by the male protagonist. Carmen and Vivian are daughters of General Sternwood. The figure of General Sternwood stands for paternalistic capitalist society which requires financially and sexually independent women to be contained within appropriate institutions. Therefore The Big Sleep attempts not to acknowledge the issue of de- and re-territorialization but, through the film’s characterisation and narrative resolution, it obliquely reflects and is determined by the concerns of capitalist society regarding the increased independence of women – financial or otherwise.

1 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 57.

2 As D&G assert ‘The more the capitalist machine deterritorializes, decoding and axiomatizing flows in order to extract surplus value from them, the more its ancillary apparatuses, such as government bureaucracies and the forces of law and order, do their utmost to reterritorialize’. After capitalism de-territorializes it always simultaneously utilizes its institutions to re-territorialize that which was freed. D&G, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p. 37.

3 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 59.

4 Michael Renov quoted from Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 59.

5 Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, (New York: Avon Books, 1974), p. 223.

6Fredick C Crawford quoted from Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, p. 216.

7Pam Cook, ‘Duplicity in Mildred Pierce‘, in E Ann Kaplan (ed), Women in Film Noir, (London: BFI Publishing, 1980), pp 68-82, p. 68.

Women in Film Noir III – The Hollywood Tradition of the “Strong” Woman

Film noirs use of two diametrically opposed archetypes to illustrate acceptable and unacceptable desires, ambitions and social behaviour in women conforms to a long tradition of representation in Hollywood of the “strong woman”. The strong woman is a figure whose desires, ambitions and behaviour runs contrary to acceptable social norms. The figure of the strong or active woman can be located in two other distinct Hollywood genres: the screwball comedy and the melodrama. These genres include characters and situations similar to film noir. As Wes D Gehring explains ‘In many ways – particularly female domination – screwball comedy of the 1930s and early 1940s anticipates the more sinister woman-as-predator film noir movies of the 1940s’.1 Screwball comedies feature a strong, active female who is ‘never merely an item of exchange between two men; she is also presented as a desiring subject’.2 Similar to film noir, these films articulate a tension between the active individualism of the female and the needs of the community. David R Shumway notes that screwball comedies ‘suggest that spunky, strong women are attractive but that their submission is required for the romance to be consummated, for marriage to take place’.3 Screwball comedies assert that the socially-legitimatized institution of marriage is the correct arena for romance and sexual relationships and that this perfect state of affairs can only be engendered by the submission of the female figure. Whereas screwball comedies find humour in this situation, film noir’s mood is much darker and more fatalistic. This change in attitude is most likely attributable to differences in American society after World War Two.4 Frank Krutnik notes ‘The cycle of ‘screwball’ films continued until… America’s entry into World War II promoted a new social and cultural agenda which made the ‘screwball’ emphasis upon frivolity and individual eccentricity problematic’.5 After WWII the zany, saccharin-sweet characters of screwball comedies were out of touch with the general Zeitgeist. This appears to be reaffirmed by the fact that the genre’s golden period (1934-1944) is said to finish the year that two archetypal film noirs, Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet (Dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1944), were released.6

Like film noir and screwball comedy, melodramas also feature ambitious, strong women who attempt to surpass their social and economic situation. The tension between the ambition and desires of strong women and patriarchy is also resolved in similar fashion to film noir in that a structure of society contains the threat by the film’s resolution. Jeaine Bassinger explains that after the strong woman gets on top in the melodrama they struggle ‘with themselves and their guilts. Finally, society [overcomes] them. They [go] down struggling, [find] “true love”, and [prepare] to resume life’s struggle in a state that [is] acceptable to society’.7 The narrative resolutions of film noir, melodrama and screwball comedy all share this repressive conclusion. In film noir the strong woman is often killed off (Jane Palmer in Too Late for Tears falls off a balcony), arrested (Veda in Mildred Pierce (Dir. Michael Curtiz, 1945)) and occasionally married or coupled off in a secure relationship (Vivien in The Big Sleep and Gilda in Gilda). In screwball comedies and melodramas the strong woman is contained within the institution of marriage – which sometimes takes the form of re-marriage as in The Awful Truth (Dir. Leo McCarey, 1937).

Film noir’s representation of women is therefore a continuance of the way Hollywood deals with the strong, desiring woman. In Double Indemnity this heritage is explicitly referenced in the film’s dialogue, its mise-en-scene and the casting of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the central roles.8 When Walter Neff first meets Phyllis Dietrichson he explains how to spell his name “Two Fs, just like The Philadelphia Story”. The Philadelphia Story (Dir. George Cukor, 1940) is a classic screwball comedy and, if it weren’t for the film already showing that Walter ends up being shot, it would be hard to discern which genre one was watching because both of the leads were synonymous with the screwball comedy genre. Walter’s reference to The Philadelphia Story could also be interpreted as a verbal acknowledgement that the romance between the two leads is an explicit souring of the screwball comedy narrative. The visual style of Double Indemnity also refers directly to The Lady Eve (Dir. Preston Sturges, 1941). In The Lady Eve Barbara Stanwyck plays the money grabbing Eugenia ‘Jean’ Harrington who seduces the shy snake-expert Charles ‘Charlie’ Poncefort-Pike for money and revenge (though she ultimately falls in love with him and they get married). In one scene, Jean seduces Charlie by asking him to hold her ankle for her. This scene is replicated stylistically in Double Indemnity when Phyllis (Stanwyck) flirts with Walter and shows him her ankle bracelet tactilely. Walter holds Phyllis’s leg in a pose identical to Charlie’s in The Lady Eve. This overt visual reference further illustrates that Double Indemnity, and film noir, is a continuance of Hollywood’s preoccupation with, and representation of, the strong woman.

1 Wes D Gehring, Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance, (London: Greenwood Press, 1986), p. 60.

2 David R Shumway ‘Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage’, in, Barry Kieth Grant, (ed), Film Genre Reader II, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), pp. 381-401, p. 386.

3 Ibid p. 391.

4 Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 58.

5 Ibid, p. 12.

6 Gehring, Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance, p. 73.

7 Jeaine Bassinger quoted from Robert C Allen, ‘Film History: Theory and Practice – The Role of the Star in Film History [Joan Crawford]’ in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.), pp. 547-561, p 557.

8 Stanwyck and MacMurray were Screwball Comedy regulars who had previously starred together in Remember the Night (Dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1940).

Women in Film Noir II – The Importance of the Hays Code

Continuing from my previous article concerning the representation of women in film noir in this article i will set out an analysis of that depiction utilizing Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of capitalism and the desiring machine. As i noted in the previous article Hollywood inscribes the two central female figures as examples of appropriate and inappropriate desire. The destroyer is an example of desire without limits. The redeemer is conversely an example of desire within the (acceptable) limits. The articulation of the limits of desire can be seen as a prime function of the Hollywood desiring-machine. A desiring-machine is a social body which produces, codes and articulates desire. Desiring-machines also install identities by articulating how, why, when and what those subjects will desire. Deleuze and Guattari explain ‘The prime function incumbent upon the socius1, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated’.2 Therefore the production of archetypes is integral to the process of the desiring-machine because it allows a social body to articulate the acceptable limits of desire. This need to regulate the construction and representation of desire is further facilitated by Hollywood’s use of repressive structures such as the Hays Code. The Hays Code, named after its principle author Will H Hays, written in 1930 and adopted in 1934, stipulated what Hollywood films could and couldn’t show. The main intention behind the code was the reaffirmation of traditional moral ‘standards of life’.3 Molly Haskell explains:

In its support of the holy institution of matrimony, the [Hays] code was trying to keep the family together and (theoretically) protect the American female from the footloose American males who would obviously flee at the first opportunity, unless he was bound by the chains of the sacrament, which Hollywood took upon itself to keep polished and shining.4

As Haskell notes, one of the central aspects of the Hays Code was the attempt to ensure that institutions such as marriage weren’t disparaged or insulted. The code achieved this by explicitly requiring films not to ‘infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing’.5 Any character who transgresses these traditional sexual and social norms is structurally required by the Hays Code to be punished and repressed in the film’s resolution. Carmen, in The Big Sleep, is an example of this censorship. The consequence of Carmen’s inappropriate sexuality and promiscuity is her institutionalization. As well as being placed in a mental institution, Carmen is removed from the film’s denouement completely. Carmen is not permitted by the Hays Code to have a positive resolution; Carmen’s ending is complete censorship. The Hays Code is therefore an integral element in the construction of film noir narratives because it informs how transgressive behaviour has to be dealt with.

1 The socius is a social body or organism.

2 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (London: Continuum, 2008), p. 37.

3 Will H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, in Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Second Edition, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 593-597, p. 593.

4 Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 21.

5 W H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, p. 595.

Women in Film Noir I – The Central Archetypal Roles

In this article I will explore the representation of women in film noir. I will note that two archetypes are routinely constructed; the redeemer and the destroyer. I will illustrate that a moral dichotomy is constructed between the redeemer and the destroyer on the account that one exhibits socially-legitimatized behaviour and the other excess displays of sexuality or ambition. I will do this by exploring three films: D.O.A (Dir. Rudolph Mate, 1950), The Big Sleep (Dir. Howard Hawks, 1946) and Double Indemnity (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1944). In a future article I will argue that the articulation of legitimate and illegitimate desires is informed by the repressive structures of Hollywood such as the Hays Code. I will also situate film noir within a long Hollywood tradition of representation of the “strong woman”. I will then conclude by asserting that the representation of women in film noir is determined by the de- and re-territorialization of the domestic sphere during and after WWII.

The Hollywood genre system works by utilizing recognizable settings, motifs, narrative resolutions and character types. Thomas Schatz notes ‘Each genre incorporates a sort of narrative shorthand whereby significant dramatic conflicts can intensify and then be resolved through established patterns of action and by familiar character types’.1 The traditional gangster’s moll is an instance of an archetypal character. The typically blonde, air-headed, ex-showgirl is featured in films such as The Public Enemy (Dir. William A. Wellman, 1931) and semi-documentary The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Dir. Roger Corman, 1967). The gangster’s moll is often both an illustration of the shallowness and lust of the gangster (he wants to own beautiful “objects”) and the site through which his internal frustrations are meted out – as in The Public Enemy when Tom Powers thrusts a grapefruit violently into the face of his girlfriend because he feels her lack of respect emasculates him. Although genres utilize stock or archetypal characters, this is not to say that archetypal characters are static constructions. The narrative significance of a stock character changes through every text’s reworking or reincarnation of an archetype.

In film noir women are primarily constructed in two roles; the redeemer and the destroyer.2 The destroyer figure, or femme fatale, is the dangerous woman who poses a threat to the male protagonist by her excessive ambition, sexuality or greed and ultimately causes his death or, at the very least, places him in a deadly situation. The Lady from Shanghai (Dir. Orson Wells, 1947) features one such character, Elsa Bannister, who draws the male protagonist Michael O’Hara, with false promises of love, into a complex plot of murder and betrayal. She does this in order to remove her physically and spiritually crippled husband and his business partner from blocking her lust for money. Elsa’s evil is represented stylistically in one scene by juxtaposing her silhouetted figure against a tank of sharks. Another scene shows her in a courthouse smoking underneath a no-smoking sign – indicating her disregard for the rules of society. The redeemer figure, the opposite of the destroyer, offers, as Janey Place notes, the ‘possibility of integration for the alienated, lost man into the stable world of secure values, roles and identifies’.3 The offer of redemption and happiness is offered to the male protagonist Lt. Cmdr. Johnny Morrison by Joyce Harwood in The Blue Dahlia (Dir. George Marhsall, 1946). Johnny returns from active service to find his wife cheating on him with Eddie Harwood. Johnny’s cheating wife is then murdered and he is wrongfully accused of the crime. He then meets Eddie Harwood’s wife Joyce, though he distrusts her intentions. However, Joyce’s honesty and straightforward manner (in contrast to his wife’s lies about the death of his son) soon wins Johnny over and, through a relationship with her, Johnny overcomes the wrongful accusation and simultaneously clears his friend Buzz. Joyce also offers Johnny the chance at a new start after the war – something his wife refused to. Most film noirs include both archetypes but some only feature a singular destroyer or redeemer. In Double Indemnity Phyllis Dietrichson is the destroyer and Lola Dietrichson the redeemer. In Where the Sidewalk Ends (Dir. Otto Preminger, 1950) there is no destroyer, but the main female character, Morgan Taylor, is an archetypal redeemer. In Scarlet Street (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1945) there is only a destroyer, Kitty March, who seduces meek bank clerk Christopher Cross into embezzling funds for her. In Gilda (Dir. Charles Vidor, 1946), Gilda Farrell first appears to be the destroyer but turns out, in the film’s denouement, to actually be the redeemer.

The ideological and cultural significance of these two roles is defined by Place as being based on a simple dichotomy between those with and without access to their sexual capabilities. Place asserts ‘Film Noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art. Thus women here as elsewhere is defined by her sexuality: the dark lady has access to it and the virgin does not’.4 Though the destroyer figure often derives power from her sexuality, Place is wrong to assert that the redeemer figure has no access to her sexuality. In film noir both the redeemer and the destroyer has access to, and use of, their sexuality. This can clearly be seen in Out of the Past (Dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1947) when Meta Carson, the redeemer figure, offers the male protagonist Jeff Bailey the potential of domestic union. Although Jeff Bailey is unable to accept the offer – because his past catches up with him – Meta is evidently offering her sexual capabilities in exchange for marriage. Place could attempt to cite Lola from Double Indemnity as an example of a redeemer without access to her sexuality. However, though Lola doesn’t offer Walter the potential of redemption through a romantic union, this does not indicate that she has no access to her sexuality. Lola’s relationship with Nino Zachetti is in fact so frowned upon by her father exactly because she has access to her emerging sexuality. Therefore it is not that the redeemer figure has no access to their sexuality; it is that they use it as part of a socially-legitimatized negotiation with the male protagonist (or a male figure as with Lola and Nino in Double Indemnity). Whereas the destroyer typically uses her sexual capabilities to entrap and manipulate the male protagonist for her own, individual economic freedom, the redeemer uses her sexual capabilities as a bargaining chip in exchange for social and economic security.

(the redeemer)

In film noir a moral dichotomy is therefore constructed between the redeemer and the destroyer on the account that one exhibits socially-legitimatized behaviour and the other excess displays of sexuality or ambition. A striking example of the difference between the legitimate and illegitimate displays of sexuality can be found in The Big Sleep. The Big Sleep features two sisters who are both flirtatious and head strong but Carmen, the destroyer, goes beyond the socially acceptable boundaries.It could be argued that Carmen does not fit the definition of the destroyer however, I would assert that, although Carmen does not entrap Marlowe by her sexuality directly, as Phyllis Dietrictson does to Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, her promiscuous attitude does ensure that Marlowe becomes embroiled in a confusing plot of murder and blackmail in an analogous fashion to other destroyer figures. Carmen’s “outrageous” sexuality is immediately signposted in The Big Sleep when she first meets the private detective Marlowe. While Marlowe is waiting in a grand hall Carmen walks down the stairs and instantly becomes the focus of Marlowe and the camera. Carmen’s legs and thighs are exposed and she is only wearing a very short skirt – which the camera both acknowledges and ignores simultaneously by not focusing in on her legs, but also repeatedly shooting from medium distance to ensure her full figure is shown. After Marlowe glances up and down her body Carmen replicates the gesture, instantly communicating that she both accepts that she is a sexual object, and that she perceives him to be a sexual object too. As well as adopting a “masculine”, sexually-objectifying gaze, Carmen makes a “move” on Marlowe – which she does by faking a swoon into his arms. This overt display of sexuality by Carmen is contrasted by the representation of Vivien. Unlike Carmen’s clothes, Vivien’s dress is both reserved and masculine in style. The verbal foreplay that marked Carmen’s meeting with Marlowe is also absent in Vivien’s interaction with Marlowe. Though both Vivien and Carmen are represented as sexual, desiring individuals, Carmen’s sexuality is dangerous because she doesn’t reserve her displays of affection to the appropriate individuals in the appropriate situations. This inappropriate sexuality leads to Carmen falling victim to a pornography ring. The inappropriate display of sexuality from the destroyer figure in film noir often leads to the death of the protagonist, or his entanglement in a deadly situation.5 This motif can be located in Double Indemnity when Walter Neff first meets Phyllis Dietrictson (the destroyer figure). When he meets her she is only wearing a bath towel and she remains in this barely dressed state for a while, well aware that she is seducing Walter in the process. This seduction, and his following visits to her house, is inappropriate because she is already married. This improper sexuality leads to murder and ultimately their deaths. In film noir the destroyer figure is therefore a character who displays socially inappropriate behaviour. This is either excessive sexuality, such as that which Carmen displays in The Big Sleep, or it can be excessive greed and ambition. In Too Late for Tears (Dir. Byron Haskin, 1949) Jane Palmer is not particularly sexually inappropriate (though she isn’t a saint with her sexuality either) but rather it is her excessive envy of her more successful friends that leads her to keep stolen money (against her husband’s wishes). Her greed and social ambition also leads to her killing her husband and another man who comes looking for the money.

Whereas the destroyer figure is represented as being excessively ambitions, greedy and/or sexually dangerous, the redeemer figure is typically represented as being socially appropriate and virtuous. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, the redeemer figure (Morgan Taylor) offers the hard-boiled detective (Det. Mark Dixon) a chance at redemption through confession. This is stylistically achieved by the juxtaposition of gritty night scenes, shot with low-key lighting and heavy shadow, against the high-key, soft-focus close-up of Morgan’s face. Whereas the city streets exude a dark aura, Morgan has a bright, white aura, signifying the almost religious quality of her offer of redemption through truth. Morgan offers Det. Dixon a route out of the gritty, corrupt streets through truth and romantic union. The offer of redemption in Gilda is more complicated but ultimately Johnny Farrell achieves it when he wholeheartedly accepts union with Gilda and comes to the realization that it was Ballin Mundson’s malevolent influence which clouded his mind and perception of Gilda.6 Though the male protagonist does not always accept the offer of stable domesticity the redeemer offers, the narrative role the redeemer serves still functions to highlight the correct path to take. This can be seen in D.O.A in which the protagonist Frank Bigelow feels that he is unsure if he wants to marry his fiancé. He takes a solo holiday to San Francisco to have some fun but unfortunately, while partying with some morally questionable characters in a seedy jazz club, he is poisoned. During his journey to find out his killer he comes to realize that he had been foolish not to marry his fiancé. The moral lesson is therefore that marriage is the only sustainable, safe and correct path for men, and women, to take.

1 Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genre: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System, (New York: McGraw-Hill Inc, 1981), p. 24.

2 Janey Place, ‘Women in Film Noir’, in E Ann Kaplan, (ed), Women in Film Noir, (London: BFI Publishing, 190), pp. 35-55, p. 35.

3 Ibid, p. 50.

4 Ibid, p. 35.

5Maria Pramaggione and Tom Wallis, Film: A Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2008), p. 382.

6 Spencer Selby, Dark City: The Film Noir, (London: St James Press, 1984), p. 39.