The Paradox of Suspense IX – Further Conditions of Suspense

As well as arising from uncertainty regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening, suspense is engendered by those undesired things happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as. I have used feeling for and feeling as/with so as to cover both sympathetic and empathetic emotional responses to characters. In the scene in Die Hard where Sgt. Powell is slowly walking towards his potential death we feel for him because he is oblivious to his fate. In a later scene when McClain is hiding in an air duct and we just hear footsteps slowly coming closer we feel with McClain because we are responding to his facial and bodily expressions regarding the close proximity of the terrorist (and his potential capture or death). Both of these characters inspire the desire not to see them get hurt (with the consequence that suspense arises) but through different techniques: Sgt. Powell through feeling for him and McClain by feeling as/with him[1].

So by feel for/with/as I mean that we feel suspense when a character we empathise or sympathise with is the target of an undesired event. One way to further illustrate the importance of the audience feeling for/with/as characters is to highlight our inability to experience suspense in response to characters we do not empathise or sympathise with. In Die Hard with a Vengeance (Dir., John McTiernan, 1995) the main antagonist Simon Gruber is an intelligent, sophisticated but evil man who destroys part of the New York subway system in order to steal a vast quantity of gold from the Federal Reserve. Though at times we may find him witty, we are ultimately unable to sympathise or empathise with him[2]. Because of this when he is attempting to escape capture by helicopter and we are shown some perilously close power lines we do not experience suspense[3]. That is, as we find him an unsympathetic character we do not form any desire to see him survive or escape punishment. In fact, our inability to feel for/with/as him in conjunction with his evil deeds motivates us to desire his destruction by McClain. Obviously a criticism could be raised that our inability to experience suspense in response to Simon’s fate is that we do not like him (with the reason that we experience suspense in response to McClain’s fate is that we do like him). However, we are able to experience suspense in response to characters we do not like[4] (but are able to feel for/with/as). An example of this can be found in L’Avventura, in this film we may not particularly like Sandro at all – he is a disaffected, cheating, pompous man – but I can still experience suspense in response to his plight because I am able to sympathise with his efforts to find his lost girlfriend Anna[5]. Therefore, suspense (ii) arises from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as.

            The final element in my characterisation of suspense is that suspense can only be a negative emotional or affective response. I hold that suspense can only be (i) a negative emotion because uncertainty regarding possible undesired outcomes cannot produce positive feelings. Zillmann explains regarding desired outcomes that ‘the experience of uncertainty about a desired outcome should prove noxious because of the relatively high perceived likelihood that the outcome will not materialize’.[6] Likewise, uncertainty regarding the possible chance that a character we sympathise will suffer a horrific fate can only be negative. Obviously once we are certain that the character will or will not suffer a horrific fate we experience joy or sorrow. Therefore, suspense is a (i) negative emotion (ii) arising from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as.


[1] This is not to say that in much of the film we aren’t feeling for McClain. The important element is that these are characters we are capable of feeling for and do so engendering the desires to see them thrive and not get hurt.

[2] Partly this is due to his and his team’s callous indifference to the lives that stand in the way towards his end goal. This is not to say that he is a total villain as the bomb he plants in a school to distract the police is a fake. However, in the terms of the narrative he is quite successfully painted as unsympathetic.

[3] Another vivid example of this can be found in the original series of Star Trek. In the away missions a security officer in a red jersey would routinely get killed or seriously injured. These characters were never given any back-story or sympathetic treatment (they were basically walking props) with the consequence being that the viewers never felt any suspense when they faced danger. In contrast to these characters, when Spock, or some other character we routinely felt for, was placed in jeopardy we could easily feel pangs of suspense. Another reason why I have chosen character’s we feel for/with/as is that it ensures my account can explain why we sometimes feel suspense to response to morally dubious characters as well as why we don’t always feel suspense in response to morally correct, but unsympathetic characters.

[4] There is no doubt that liking a character helps us to form the sympathetic or empathetic relationship required to experience suspense in response to a character’s plight. It is not, however, essential to experience suspense.

[5] For a whole catalogue of ways we feel suspense in response to the works of Michelangelo Antonioni (which features many unlikeable characters) see Peter Wuss, ‘Narrative Tension in Antonioni’ in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 51-70.

[6] Zillmann, ‘The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition’ p. 200.

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).

Dislocation and (Mis)communication in Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective (1985)

In the attempt to solve funding problems during the filming of ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ (1985) – a modern account of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception – Jean-Luc Godard agreed to produce something popular or mainstream. The subsequent film produced was Detective (Dir., Jean-Luc Godard, 1985), a dense, difficult but beautifully shot contemplation on language, dislocation and (mis)communication. The film can hardly be argued to be “mainstream” – Godard interpreted the instruction “a popular film” as one which included famous people (or as he calls them in the credits “stars”) rather than a film which is immediately accessible. Detective’s plot centres around the actions of two hotel detectives who attempt to solve an apparently unmotivated murder of a man called “The Prince”. The film also contains other narratives concerning an ageing Mafioso, a boxing promoter and a couple whose marriage is falling apart.i

One of the central explorations in Godard’s film is the issue of space in a modern, fast-paced world. One of the characters, Emile Chenal, owns a failing air-taxi business flying customers to disparate places in Europe. His wife, who is coming to the realization that their relationship is over, notes that “yesterday Frankfurt, today London”. The hotel that the film is exclusively set in could be of any place anywhere, the rooms are especially without character, and their lives are being spent travelling to different countries has eroded any sense of geographical or spatial grounding or boundary. This lack of discernible geographical location, an eroding or dislocated sense of place, is further evidenced in the film’s shot selection and mise-en-scene. In one of the first shots of the film we are given an obstructed view of the city of Paris. This obstructed view is where we would traditionally be given an exposition shot, a type of shot locating the action within the city or specific area. Instead of this we are shown a stationary camera recording people enter a hotel and a young woman’s legs in front of an iron grill with a teasing hint of location in the far right of the screen. This refusal to disclose the location at the beginning of the narrative immediately places the viewer into a state of unease and confusion paralleling the uncertainty the hotel detectives’ experience over the death of “The Prince”.

This sense of confusion concerning the location is further added to by the failure of the film is provide any clear feeling of the hotel layout and structure. We see that the hotel has corridors, stairs, a bar, a restaurant, a cellar and several bedrooms but we get no sense how they all connect or even if they are indeed all located in the same hotel. Though we assume that it is all one hotel, and the film’s ending appears to confirm this, Detective refuses to give us any hint of its location and general layout further adding to the viewer’s state of unease and confusion.

A second significant theme of Detective is (mis)communication. The film’s narrative is centred around several couples, groups and family members talking to each other and attempting to solve their problems by talking them through however, no one appears to hear what each other is saying. This feeling of communication being broken is seen in the film’s mise-en-scene. In one particular scene Françoise Chenal talks to Jim Fox Warner about her husbands failing business with the implication that she would be willing to have (or possibly re-start) an affair with Warner. Françoise and Warner’s inability to understand each other is communicated in the routine blocking of either of their faces by props and their moving just out of shot.

This inability to communicate clearly between Françoise and Warner is replicated throughout the film and a striking instance of this is when the film cuts to show Françoise and Warner talking at the table Françoise’s face is totally obscured by a post. That is, through the film’s mise-en-scene and camera positioning we are given a visual representation of Warner and Françoise being physically (and emotionally) blocked from understanding (and falling in love with)ii each other.

 

These two central motifs – of a dislocated connection to space and (mis)communication – are continued in the film techniques that Godard’s Detective refuses to use and the traditional conventions of cinema (or film-making) and story-telling that the film violates. Throughout the whole film Godard rejects traditional camera movement techniques meaning that the camera-work in Detective is completely static. Though Detective features no pans, no zooms or tilts we do not get a feeling of a stable, fixed sense of place is being represented. Rather the lack of camera movement makes the film’s action appear stilted, dislocated and awkward. The refusal to pan and follow actors when they move out of shot means that not only is communication between the characters difficult but it also means that it is difficult for the audience to track, to comprehend, what’s going on clearly. It also, naturally, makes our perception of space limited and ensures that we are unable to really grasp where exactly the action it taking place other than in the hotel.

Another convention of cinema and story-telling which Detective violates is having the actors’ faces visible to the audience. Throughout the film the actors face away from the camera. In one particular scene all three actors face away from the camera whilst continuing their conversation. As this particular technique ensures that any possible subtleties of facial movement (etc) are lost it engenders further miscommunications and misunderstandings of those characters’ motivations and intentions. Therefore, through several techniques – such as no camera movement, ensuring the actors face away from the camera routinely, awkard screen composition and no exposition shots – Godard successfully explores language, (mis)communication and feelings of dislocation from the spatial and geographical environment.

iThe plot and subplots are in truth intertwined and contain several others. Also, the film does not really follow a traditional narrative however I felt that it was best to include a general plot summary.

ii Nathalie Baye who played Françoise Chenal was well-known in France for her roles in romantic leads and in support roles. She was also something of a pin-up having featured on the front page of French Playboy several times. Similar to Nathalie Baye was Johnny Hallyday who played Jim Fox Warner. Johnny Hallyday is known as the French Elvis and was something of a heart-throb. Godard’s casting of these two well-known “sexy stars” was obviously intended to create this reading.

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 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 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.