The Paradox of Suspense VIII – Suspense as Arising From Uncertainty Regarding…

(My apologies for the delay in this sections publication. The Journal is undergoing some restructuring and once the changes have been established we can devote more energy to the actual publishing of great writing on film, art and aesthetics!)

In the previous articles I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. Carroll’s solution was that rather than actual uncertainty all that we require to experience suspense is entertained uncertainty. I also explored several reasons for rejecting Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. In this section I will put forward my account of suspense.  I will assert that suspense[1] is a (i) negative emotion (ii) arising from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening[2] (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as.

 

An important element in my account is that uncertainty is the engine behind suspense. Holding uncertainty to be integral to suspense sits with intuitions concerning everyday encounters with suspense. When we are watching a penalty shoot-out our uncertainty regarding the possible outcome causes us to experience suspense. Once the penalty kick is saved or successful our suspense disappears and transforms into joy or sorrow. Obviously if we are a particularly pessimistic or fatalistic fan we do not experience any suspense because we are almost certain that when high pressure situations arise our team will fail. Similarly if we a particularly wildly optimistic fan we can convince ourselves that the outcome will always been positive, and if we are deluded, experience no suspense about the result of the penalty shoot-out. In regard to fiction, in Die Hard we feel suspense when we see the oblivious cop Sgt. Al Powell walk towards the lift where an armed terrorist is waiting to shoot him. As he walks slowly closer and closer the tension and feelings of suspense rise. In regard to this scene not knowing whether Sgt. Powell will survive or be shot creates suspense. Once we see that Sgt. Powell is no longer in peril we stop experiencing suspense and experience relief[3]. Therefore, suspense appears to (ii) arise from uncertainty.

 

Suspense is not however, just uncertainty. Suspense arises from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening. In our consumption of fiction we are led, through certain narrative techniques, to form particular desires concerning how characters should act, what should happen to them and whether or not they deserve their treatment. Films often get us to form these desires by showing us some humanizing details. In Commando, John’s relationship with his daughter, full of laughter and care, signals that he is genuinely good man. Conversely, when we are introduced to the antagonist Arius we see him to be callous, violent and sadistic. These details help us to form desires that John be successful in his endeavours to the extent that we do not mind him committing some rather violent and sadistic acts of his own. The desires that we form in response to narratives shape how we react to potential and actual plot developments. Our desire that the antagonists receive punishment in Commando causes us to feel joy and excitement when John finally vanquishes them. Similarly our desires that Annie and Sam get together in Sleepless in Seattle cause us to first feel frustration at their inability to meet and ultimately joy and relief when they do. In regard to suspense our desire that, at the very least, Sgt. Powell is unhurt conflicts with the threat of his possible impending demise. That is, as this scene progresses we are uncertain whether an undesired outcome (Sgt. Powell’s demise) will materialize with the consequence that we experience suspense. Obviously, the undesired outcome must have a good chance of happening. That is, in terms of suspense caused by potential jeopardy to a protagonist[4], the danger they encounter must be credible. Dolf Zillmann explains:

 

The successful creation of the gripping experience of suspense… depends on the display of credible endangerments. The audience must think it likely, for example, that the motor will catch on fire, or that the driver will fly out of the curve and tumble down the mountain.[5]

 

In order for a narrative to engender suspense it must appear credible that the protagonist be in a situation in which harm or injury is likely or a “live” option. If, in the scene in which Sgt. Powell walks towards oblivious towards an awaiting terrorist, the terrorist is a six year old child armed with a water pistol we would fail to experience any suspense. This is because the potential threat fails to be perceived as credible. The importance of credible endangerments to suspense also helps explain why so many formulaic dramas fail to engender any feelings of suspense. In Murder, She Wrote the last few minutes always concludes with Jessica Fletcher trapping the murderer into confessing how and why they committed the particular crime. At the moment the murderer decides they have to fulfil their promise to silence the meddling amateur detective a sheriff or policeman storms through the doors and neutralises the threat. The sheer repetitiveness and obviousness of this trap renders the threat posed by the murderer almost laughable and therefore unable to engender suspense. However, this is not to say that episodic dramas cannot engender suspense. Though it is clear that central protagonists will remain unharmed in any serious degree (due to their featuring in future episodes) there may still be credible threats to their well-being as well as to guest characters. As Zillmann notes:

 

In the microstructure of drama, specific plots can show the liked protagonist credibly endangered. Scores of secondary protagonists can suffer fatal blows. Similar loss of life may not be viable threat to primary protagonists, but loss of limb may have considerable credibility for these characters.[6]

 

Even if death or destruction is seen as improbable, there is often the considerable possibility of beatings, torture, and other painful and humiliating treatment befalling the primary and secondary protagonists. Therefore, suspense appears to arise from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening.


[1] This is an account of suspense as engendered by fictional narratives.

[2] This can also be written another way: (III)b that desired things have a slim chance of happening

[3] Our relief in this scene is solely for the Sergeant’s personal well-being. In the larger context of the story however, once we are reminded of McClain’s situation, we also experience some frustration in regard to the Sergeant failing to notice that the Plaza has been take over by terrorists.

[4] Obviously suspense caused by the apparent low likelihood that two star-crossed lovers will finally meet is not always caused by credible endangerment to their personal well-being. There is, however, a dimension whereby we must take that their plight is a credible one. That is, we take it that (fictionally speaking) there is a real danger that they will not live happily ever after together.

[5]Dolf Zillmann, ‘The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 199-232,  p. 203.

[6]Ibid, p. 207.

The Paradox of Suspense VII – Further Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In response to these two criticisms Carroll highlights a difference between our everyday moral assessment and fictional morality. Carroll starts by explaining that we often alter our notions of right and wrong in regard to the imagined or presented fictional world. Carroll illustrates this point by arguing:

For example, caper films represent persons involved in perpetrating crimes that we do not customarily consider to be upstanding ethically. However, the characters in such fictions are standardly possessed of certain striking virtues such that… we are encouraged to ally ourselves morally with the caper.[1]

To Carroll, we alter our notions of moral and immoral to match the central protagonists’ world-view. We do this because the central protagonists are shown to be virtuous. The virtues Carroll has in mind are ‘strength, fortitude, ingenuity, bravery, competence, beauty, generosity, and so on’.[2] In certain cases then, in which the central protagonist’s commit immoral acts, it is their overriding virtues in contrast to the fiction’s antagonists that make us ‘cast our moral allegiance with them’.[3] To illustrate this point Carroll highlights Zulu (Dir., Cy Endfield, 1964) as a prime example of a film in which ‘we are drawn into the film’s system of moral evaluation by its portrayal – or lack thereof – of characters with respect to virtues’.[4] According to Carroll, we align ourselves towards the British soldiers because, even if we are staunchly anti-imperialist, they are shown to be courageous, brave and ingenious[5]. In regard to Goodfellas, Carroll would argue that though Henry Hill is a criminal he displays more virtues, or less vice, than the other characters which motivates us to support his actions. Carroll would also argue, in relation to the particular scene I brought attention to, that within the fictional world and in regard to Henry’s character hitting the neighbour is the moral action (with hitting the wife and neighbour being the logically opposed outcome). Carroll would also use a similar explanation for The Godfather. That is, within the context of the film, and the context of the film’s moral context, Michael assassinating the two rival gangsters is the moral option. However, though Carroll’s replies appear to answer the first two criticisms there are significant problems with his response. The first is that Henry does not display any virtuous characteristics. Henry steals, lies, murders in cold blood and for little reason, he abuses his wife emotionally, cheats on her, is jealous, self-centred, deals and takes drugs, back stabs his friends and betrays those who help him and the Mafia honour code he swears to live by and is, for the want of a better phrase, a viscous scum-bag. We do not side morally with Henry because he shows some virtues that other character’s do not, we feel suspense and care about Henry because we witness and become seduced by his glamorous lifestyle and uninhibited attitude[6]. In regard to The Godfather, even if we accept that within the film’s moral context killing the two gangsters is a permissible course of action; this does not mean that not killing the two gangsters is also seen as immoral. That is, if killing is morally acceptable in the context of the film and calling for a truce is also morally acceptable (though may be disappointing) then there is still a problem for Carroll in that there isn’t two logically opposed possible outcomes[7].  The problem with Carroll’s characterisation is that suspense derives from two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) is that it seems more than possible to experience suspense without there being just two possible logically opposed moral outcomes. There is also a further issue with Carroll’s position in that it also seems possible to experience suspense in response to fictions that do not feature any moral dimension. A striking example of this can be found in L’Avventura. In the scene where Sandro thinks he has seen Anna again we experience some suspense. However, nothing about this scene has a moral dimension. That is, this scene is not suspenseful because it is morally correct that Sandro find Anna. We do not even know if Anna wants to be found. Our suspense in this scene is also nothing to do with Sandro’s virtuous nature as he is not shown to be likeable and after a few days he starts a sexual relationship with Anna’s best friend Claudia (and up until this scene Claudia and Sandro have all but forgotten about Anna and their “search” for her). Another example of a film that creates suspense without a moral dimension could be one that depicts a divorce in a realistic and objective manner. The film follows both sides in the preceding court case showing that the mother and father both have legitimate grievances and claims for the sole custody of the children. As the final verdict draws close we experience suspense regarding which outcome will materialise. In the case of this hypothetical film it would not be immoral for the mother to win; neither would it be immoral if the father won. Our feelings of suspense in response to this film would not be based on there being two possible logically opposed moral possibilities but rather on subjective personal opinion and past experience.[8] That is, our desire that the mother or father win would be based on if we could identity with them, understand their position or like them. Therefore, Carroll’s argument that suspense is created by a conflict between two logically opposed moral outcomes is flawed because it is possible to experience suspense in response to non-moral situations and instances where there is no conflict between two moral outcomes.

Central to Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense is the ability of “mere thoughts” to motivate emotional responses. However, there seems to be many instances where merely entertaining in thought a proposition does not cause us to respond emotionally. A common instance of this, at least to philosophy students and tutors, is the philosophical thought experiment. Many philosophical thought experiments often include horrific, bizarre and disturbing premises that, if we believed them, we would react in distinct ways. Thankfully however, we do not respond to thought experiments as if we believe them because we are able, in Carroll’s terms, entertain them nonassertedly (that is, without having to hold that x is true). Shaun Nichols highlights one particular thought experiment as a paradigm example of a thought experiment that would be disturbing if we responded emotionally to: ‘Imagine that you’re red-green colour blind and that all sentient life in the universe except for you is destroyed. In that case, does the colour red still exist?’.[9] This thought experiment asks us to entertain the possibility that all sentient life in the universe is destroyed bar us. However, when imagining this possibility within the framework of the thought experiment we don’t respond to it how we would if we believed all sentient life in the universe was destroyed nor do we respond to it with any emotional response. There appears then to be mere thoughts have the power to motivate us to respond emotionally and those that do not. This is an issue for Carroll insofar as it appears that there is more to explain behind the ability of thoughts to motivate emotional responses – especially if Carroll wants to avoid falling back on beliefs to explain the difference. I do however, believe that there is a possible explanation and solution and that is to introduce desire as the difference between instances where thoughts do provoke an emotional response and instances where thoughts do not provoke an emotional response. That is, in the case of entertaining the thought that my footing is loose on a high building I have an active desire (because I’m on an observation deck on a tall building) not to see that outcome realised. If I was in an office building behind a desk and imagined that my footing or the floor wasn’t secure it is unlikely that I would experience any pang of vertigo. This is because I do not have an active desire to avoid falling as I am in a secure building. Likewise, in the case of the thought experiment I do not have an active desire to avoid see the whole universe being destroyed. In regard to fiction then, we are drawn (through several techniques) into desiring that McClain survive and thrive in Die Hard with the consequence that when we are confronted with a scene in which we entertain the thought that he may be in mortal danger we respond emotionally. Therefore, whether a fiction is successful in engendering an emotional response is contingent on us experiencing a corresponding desire and, as Nichols explains, whether we have the right desire to respond emotionally depends on ‘the context, the intent of the author, the tone of the work, the point of the thought experiment, and so on’.[10] To conclude then it is not enough just to entertain the thought that McClain is in danger, we must also have the relevant desire to see him come to no harm.

A second and more significant criticism of Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense concerns his accounts inability to convincingly explain “diminishing returns”. As I noted in section 1.2 diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction) to fiction.  According to Carroll when we watch Die Hard for the third or fourth time and entertain the possibility that John McClain will be discovered eaves-dropping on the terrorists and killed we will still experience suspense. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain that an outcome is uncertain then it seems strange that our suspense diminishes at all. Carroll cannot reply that it is due to the audience not entertaining the possibility because they still experience some suspense in response to Die Hard’s narrative. This is a serious issue for Carroll because diminishing returns is a common feature of our interaction with narrative fiction and his account’s failure to provide a possible explanation provides us with good reason to be sceptical about his account.

A further criticism of Carroll’s account also concerns his solution to the paradox of suspense. Carroll account holds that all that is required to engender suspense is entertained uncertainty. However, if we accept this then it raises the question why any viewers fail to feel suspense on repeated viewings. That is, Carroll’s account struggles to explain “absent suspense”. In many repeat viewings of action genre films we may still be gripped by a sense of thrill and excitement. On our seventh or eighth viewing of Commando (Dir., Mark L Lester, 1985) we still enjoy the scene in which the protagonist John Matrix dangles the antagonist Sully off a cliff while interrogating him about the location of his kidnapped daughter. One particular element of this scene we routinely enjoy concerns when Sully reminds John that John had promised to kill him last to which John relies “I lied” before dropping him to his death. We enjoy this scene repeatedly because we can, in Carroll’s terminology, entertain nonassertedly that Sully is an evil man embroiled in a plot to install an evil dictator in a peaceful South American country and that he deserves (in the fiction’s moral system) his gruesome death served with a pun. However, we do not experience suspense in response to any scene in Commando on repeat viewings. Though we still entertain that John’s daughter is in mortal danger and unlikely to survive any rescue attempt we do not experience suspense in response to this film. Carroll’s reply to this would obviously be that we have just failed to entertain that the outcome is uncertain and this is why we do not experience any suspense. However, this reply appears disingenuous in that it seems odd that we have successfully entertained every other element essential to re-experience the joy, thrill, excitement of viewing Commando but failed to entertain that the outcome of the narrative is uncertain (which would seemingly diminish our enjoyment?). Though this criticism is far from conclusive in defeating Carroll’s account of suspense it gives us further reason to be dissatisfied about its ability to explain even the most common features of our engagement with narrative fiction.

Another related issue for Carroll’s account concerns its inability to explain why we do not experience suspense in repeat viewings of sports matches. On an original viewing of a Manchester United-City derby match both sets of supports will experience immense suspense in response to pressured, tense situations such as the last ten minutes or a penalty kick. However, on subsequent viewings of this match supports will not experience suspense. The supporters will experience the same joy, delight or sorrow at a refused penalty, missed goal or booking but they will not, however hard they try, re-experience suspense. This inability to re-experience suspense appears to be a natural feature of sports spectatorship. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain the possibility that we are uncertain how a corner, penalty turns out then we should be able to experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events like football matches. The problem cannot be that we do not have the sufficient desire that our favourite team not concede or score a goal. There is obviously an answer to why we do not experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events however; Carroll’s account appears unqualified in offering us a clear and comprehensive answer.


[1] Noel Carroll, ‘Paradox of Suspense’, p. 79.

[2] Ibid, p. 79.

[3]Ibid, p. 79.

[4]Ibid,  p. 79.

[5]  This characterisation appears to be unfair in regard to the representation of the AnZulu warriors. Though they are not given much of a role in the film’s narrative other than as antagonists they are shown to be resourceful, brave and fierce warriors. If they were not shown to have these warrior virtues their song at the end of the film would have little meaning. That is, if they weren’t shown to have every virtue required of a great warrior nation or people (including honour and respect) then their singing tribute towards the Welsh regiment wouldn’t be such a touching and striking symbol of respect. It could also be argued that the Welsh regiment – essentially a lazy, incompetent, argumentative rabble with a few good men chucked in – are shown to have many more vices than the AnZulu warriors.

[6]Our seduction towards accepting (at least provincially) the Goodfellas’ lifestyle and attitude is mirrored simultaneously in the film through the scenes featuring Henry’s wife.

[7] On moral grounds at least. The difference between the two options appears to be that one is desired (the killings) and the other undesired (the truce).

[8] Another example may be a film a young aspiring West Indian cricketer. In this film we are given a glimpse of a likeable character who dreams of playing one day for the West Indies. The film features young lad, from a rough background, shows significant determination and as reward is given a chance of impressing in a T20 game for his home side the Leeward Islands. In a dramatic scene, with the national selectors watching, he is given the task of bowling the last over with only seven runs to spare. Though there is no moral dimension to this scene – he is a likeable lad but he doesn’t deserve to succeed any more than the other players in contention for a spot in the team – we would still feel suspense in response to every ball, every moment, not because it is morally right that he succeed, but because we want him to succeed and there is a significant possibility that he won’t. That is, there is no conflict between a moral or immoral outcome, but rather a conflict between desired and undesired outcomes.

[9] Shaun Nichols, ‘Just the Imagination’, Mind & Language, Vol. 21, No. 4, September 2006, pp. 459–474,  p. 465.

[10] Ibid, p. 472.

Women in Film Noir IX – Conclusion

This article is the conclusion and re-cap of our Women in Film Noir series. This series included articles called:

Women in Film Noir I – The Central Archetypal Roles

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

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

Women in Film Noir IV – Containment and Conformity

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

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

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

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

In this series of articles I explored the use of archetype in the film noir genre. Characterisation is an integral element in the construction of any genre or cycle of films. This is because character type informs both the “problematic” that the genre deals with and how that problematic is dealt with. Therefore the ambitious, strong and active woman informs both the problematic that film noir deals with and how that problematic is dealt with. In film noir women primarily conform to two distinct archetypes; the redeemer and the destroyer. The redeemer and the destroyer both serve a vastly different but similar narrative role. The redeemer offers the male protagonist the potential at domesticity or normality. The destroyer places the male protagonist in a deadly situation, often leading to his violent death. These two archetypes serve a similar narrative role in that they both communicate permissible and impermissible behaviour. The destroyer transgresses social norms and the redeemer acts within them. Therefore in film noir 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. In this paper I specifically noted that this dichotomy can be located in The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity. Characterisation in film noir therefore produces a problematic on the grounds that egoism (excessive individualism) is a dangerous and damaging behavioural tendency which threatens stable society. I located a tradition in Hollywood in which ambitious and head-strong women, who displayed this egoism, where made to submit to marriage. This tradition is typified in the melodrama and screwball comedy genres. I cited Double Indemnity as an explicit example that film noir is a continuance of this tradition. Film noir’s specific variation of dealing with the problem of the excessive individual is informed by its cultural context. I highlighted the de- and re-territorialization of the domestic and work sphere during and after WWII as an important determining factor. Therefore film noir’s articulation of excessively individual women reflected and engaged with this process. I noted that even though film noirs like The Big Sleep attempt not to acknowledge the issue of de- and re-territorialization directly they do so through the film’s characterisation and narrative resolution. All film noirs reflect directly or obliquely the concerns of capitalist society regarding the increased independence of women – financial or otherwise.

            In the last four articles I explored these findings by raising two accounts that disagree with my conclusion that film noir reflects the concerns of capitalist society. The first account argued that film noir represented an attack on the institution of the family. I called this reading into question by highlighting that Mildred Pierce does not, as Havery asserted, open up discussion on alternative systems of social organization to marriage. I illustrated that Mildred Pierce reaffirms the traditional institution of marriage. The second account argued that the visual style surpassed the narrative resolutions and therefore brought into question the validity of film noir’s repressive conclusions. I noted that this assertion is invalid because it ignores that the stylized production of desire just serves to reaffirm the archetypes the Hollywood desiring-machine constructs. Both of these accounts are also flawed because they attempt to isolate a singular factor, mise-en-scene or the representation of the domestic sphere, and imbue it with a subversive or progressive reading. Film noir is a combination of characterisation, setting, mise-en-scene, social context, filmic context and tradition which work altogether to construct, create and control representations of desire. The two accounts also fail to understand the star-system which works by individualising social problems. Therefore, in film noir women are represented as conforming to two central roles based on a moral dichotomy between appropriate and inappropriate desire. This representation is a continuance of the “strong woman” found in the melodrama and screwball comedy genres. Film noir’s representation is a highly structured and thematically consistent response to tensions rising from the period of de- and re-territorialization during WWII. This response is an attempt to reassert the prevailing logic of marriage and decency. Film noir does this by illustrating the consequences of, and problems involved with, excessive individualism (egoism).

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 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.