Women in Film Noir VIII – Film Noir’s Visual Style as Conforming to the Hollywood Tradition

Place is correct to assert that many film noirs do produce powerful visual representations of excess through the destroyer. However, film noir’s recurring image of the sexual woman is not subversive it is rather an extension of the Hollywood desiring-machine. As I noted in the first chapter a desiring-machine is a social body which produces, codes and articulates desire. Desiring-machines install identities by articulating how, why, when and what those subjects will desire. The use of archetype can be seen as an example of this installation of identity through the articulation of a subject’s desires.  Place asserts that the visual representation of those archetypes overwhelms and counteracts the repressive function they serve. However, this assertion is invalid because it ignores that the stylized production of desire just serves to reaffirm the archetypes the Hollywood desiring-machine constructs. This is because film noir’s visual style conforms to Hollywood’s standardized means of production. Krutnik explains:

the drug-induced hallucination sequence in Murder, My Sweet; the delirious atmosphere of sex, drugs and low-life at the ‘hot-jazz’ jam-session in Phantom Lady… such sequences represented a standardized means of simultaneously signifying and siphoning-off excess. Rather, then, than representing an alternative to or transgression of the classical Hollywood norms, the ‘noir stylistics’ were very much an integral part of the systematization of Hollywood’s narrational regulation.[1]

The “powerful” moments of expression that Place locates are another standardized means of expressing and containing excessive ambition, lust and greed. Film noir’s highly stylized system of articulating how, why, when and what the destroyer and redeemer archetypes’ desire still conforms to their original inscription. That is to say, the destroyer’s visual expression does not critique or bring into question their status as a symbol of excessive lust, ambition and greed. Place also neglects to locate the producers of the film noir style in their specific role as functionaries of the Hollywood system. Krutnik notes:

Furthermore, those responsible for generating such stylistics techniques – directors, cinematographers, lighting technicians, sound engineers, set designers, editors, etc. – were not in general attempting to make a critique of the system, but were in fact seeking to advance their own positions in it.[2]

The people making film noirs weren’t attempting to critique the system of Hollywood; they were attempting to advance in it. The film noir style also grew out of two financial determinates; the increased availability of cheap film stock and lightweight cameras in the early 1940s and the decreased budget and restrictions on set construction.[3] The cheaper film stock and lightweight cameras allowed for experiments in style and easy location shooting which David Cook asserts ‘helped to create for film noir a nearly homogeneous style’.[4] Film noir’s expressive style is not subversive but rather a period of experiment conforming to Hollywood’s standardized means of production.

In response to my argument Place could concede that the repressive labeling function of the archetype is not challenged but still assert that the arbitrary repressive conclusions do not fully contain the display of excessive desire by the redeemer. Place could cite the fact the viewer can, in contrast to what the Hays Code intended, be sympathetic towards and side with the destroyer.[5] Though it is true that the Hays Code cannot force where one’s sympathy lies it is equally true that some feelings of disappointment would be felt in the audience if the destroyer wasn’t routinely punished. That is, the success of film noir as a genre has as much to do with setting up and punishing transgression in the Hollywood “style” as it does the creation of memorable “femme fatales”. Place’s possible counter-argument also fails to take into account the importance of the “star-system”. The star-system, another component in the Hollywood desiring-machine, refers to the Hollywood practice of grafting certain character traits (such as grit, determination, honesty) onto an actor so as to make viewers identify with them. As well as producing “everyman” personas, Hollywood also constructs stars as models of masculinity and femininity. Therefore the star-system works as another layer or buffer in the articulation of legitimate and illegitimate desire. Place’s argument is that film noir’s potent image of the desiring woman cannot be contained by the repressive narrative resolution. However, even if this is so the star-system recoups or re-territorializes any excess desire and transfers it into “aura”. That is, any lingering appeal is attributed to the performance of the star. The star-system works like a pump siphoning off any excess emotion which it attributes to the star and, as the star persona is an ideologically determined construction, it becomes reconstituted as an illustration of the star’s ability to act. Place’s assertion that film noir’s repressive narratives are subverted by the film’s style is therefore wrong. This is because the stylized production of desire just serves to reaffirm the archetypes the Hollywood desiring-machine constructs. In addition to this the star-system (and the Hays Code) act as buffers or siphons ensuring everything is accounted for.

[1]     Krutnik, In A Lonely Street,, p. 20.

[2]               Ibid p. 20.

[3]              Krutnik explains: ‘From January 1943 the War Production Board also set a ceiling of $5,000 on the set-construction budget for each film; prewar costs for set construction averaged $50,000 for A-features and $17,500 for B-films. These restrictions exacerbated the already existing trend towards fewer releases, and they also forced the studios to compensate with alternative production values in order to maintain quality standards.’ These alternative production standards forced directors to convey meaning through different techniques.  Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 21.

[4]           David A Cook, A History of Narrative Film, Second Edition, (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), p. 469.

[5]     The Hays Code asserted that ‘No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin’. W H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, p. 594.

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.

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.

Ed Guerrero on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)

This is a brilliant excerpt from Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. If you are interesting in the representation of race, or Hollywood in general, I highly recommend this book. This excerpt surveys the representation of race in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967):


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?‘s narrative epitomizes the standard Hollywood “problem picture” formula, rendered in the production values of the slick 1940s, big-studio style associated with its principal white stars, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Problem pictures usually present the audience with a communal “problem” completely stripped of its social or political context, reduced to a conflict between individuals, sentimentalized and happily resolved at the picture’s end. Ultimately aimed at box-office profits by shaping films into standardized consumer products, this narrative formula was distilled from a long-established strategy of ideological containment that allowed Hollywood to stay current, keeping abreast of the contemporary social and political climate and simultaneously upholding the status quo and containing all insurgent political impulses. By introducing topical political issues into stable, easily recognized and consumed genres, narratives, and plot structures, Hollywood’s conservative ideology [remains un-] challenged.


…The specifics of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?‘s plot are those of a gifted and famous thirty-seven-year-old black doctor, head of the World Health Organization, who falls in love with the twenty-three-year-old daughter of millionaire white liberals… The integrated couple returns to San Francisco from a romantic interlude in Hawaii to confront the girl’s parents with an untimatum: either consent to the marriage by nightfall or the girl will be permanently alienated from her parents, and the doctor, the ebony saint that Poitier always portrays, out of personal dignity will break off the relationship and leave.


…By making the black man an eminently qualified and desirable suitor at the top of a professional class to which only the smallest minority of blacks could possibly belong, and by locating the narrative in the exclusive domain of the wealthiest stratum of white society, the film reduces the social dimensions of racial conflict to that of mere contrasts of skin colour while completely avoiding the historical, cultural, and economic legacy of what it means to be black in America. So, because Poitier portrays a black who diligently strives to be white, and because there is no representation whatsoever of the black world in the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? makes no connection with the contemporaneous struggle raging on a grand social and political scale outside the theatre. What conflict there is in the film is transposed from race into a conflict between black generations, reflective of the surrounding “generation gap”, as Poitier tells his father that he will not submit to the self-limiting boundaries of his father’s generation. In a reversed, contrasting gesture that frames the dominant white perspective as the solution to the race problem, Spencer Tracy works out his conflict with his daughter and lapses into platitudes about love conquering all, thus leading the film to a standard sentimental, romantic conclusion. By limiting the range of emotional experiences to simple expression of sentiment worked out by the use of predictable narrative conventions, Hollywood restricted its political vision and masked its conservative assumptions about race, passing them off as consensus. This narrative formula has served the studios well beyond this specific film, which amounted to Hollywood’s last attempt to explore integrationist theme within the frame of its status quo politics.(1.)


1. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, (1993), pp. 76-78.