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.

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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.

Future Worlds: Globalisation and Intertextuality in Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)

The future world, 2019 LA, of Blade Runner is a cosmopolitan “global village”. This is communicated by the use of bi-lingual advertising signs: Coca-cola sits amongst neon Japanese symbols. Although Coca-cola is an American symbol that is saturated world wide the use of it sat against the Japanese iconography communicates the sense of lost identity. While Deckard sits eating his Japanese food two “Blade Runner” cops stand behind him, and although we are in LA they speak in a foreign language to Deckard who only understands English. He must get the noodle stand owner to translate for him. The fact that an agent of the central authority, the Police, speaks in Japanese rather than English in LA signifies the state of globalisation. The identity that is lost is the local provincial aspects of countries. Instead of an American or Japanese culture we see a cross-breed intertextual mix that produces it own new identity. As I mentioned in my previous post concerning the Postmodern nature of Blade Runner this concept of intertextuality and pastiche culture is important in communicating a distinct future world. Blade Runner asks questions about individuality and authenticity [I will write a post about Blade Runner with the aim to explore the postmodern concept of cyborg ] and the intertextual nature of Blade Runner creates a future world where people have become replicants of imagery and images that “used” to signify something individual but now have become tired. Instead of Deckard being an individual he has become a “replicant” of the film noir detective in his trench coat and hard-boiled character. Similarly Rachel has become the prototypical Femme Fatal, dressed in dark, commanding screen presence and continuously smoking.

 

The future world social structures are communicated in Blade Runner by the opposition of setting, as in Total Recall and Running Man. The internal shots of the headquarters of the Tyrell corp. are luscious and extraordinary while the city streets are dark and rain is continuously falling. As in Total Recall the opposition of two colours can communicate an atmosphere that coincides with the location. In Total Recall the use of red and whites opposed each other and communicated a mood and sense of place. In Blade Runner the use of dark-blues communicate a sense of run-down dirty atmosphere while golds and yellows create a warm glow that surrounded the upper echelons of the Tyrell corp.

Criticising the Critics: Misogyny and the Postmodernism in Fatal Attraction

Along with other styles of articles I will be running a series which looks at important readings of a film from a film critic. I will analyse and explain their position concerning a text and explore where they hit and miss. My first film will be:

 

Fatal Attraction (1987)

 

Leighton Grist’s article ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ looks at several films and examines the allusions to film noir. Grist examines the stylistic and thematic allusion to film noir in Fatal Attraction. Grist notices that Fatal Attraction contains ‘self-conscious references to film noir’ and that it is ‘overtly structured upon an opposition of day and night, ‘normal’ and noir worlds.’.1These opposing worlds are indicated by the radically different mise-en-scene. The day is linked to the domestic Beth and the noir is linked to the femme fatal Alex. The domestic scenes use a slight yellow hue to produce a warm, homely affect. The scenes tend to be cluttered with activity and life. Beth mirrors her surroundings; she is warm, homely and active. She is also passive and dependant on Dan. The noir-styled night scenes that belong to the femme fatal Alex include rather less life. Important are the ‘dark corridors of [Alex’s] reconditioned apartment building… the cage-like lift… [and the] barren, sterile white of Alex’s apartment’.2The industrial motif attempts to communicate the rather basic mechanical and physical elements of a relationship between a man and a woman. As Dan stares out of a window we are shown a meat packing factory. The structure of Alex’s environment, and her character, is built from this cheap, dark and a mechanical atmosphere; Alex is borne out of the shadows. Alex and Beth are both stereotypical characters that are surrounded by stereotypical settings. The femme fatal Alex comes from a noir-like atmosphere and the homely Beth comes from a warm family setting. Grist argues that this is an attempt ‘to naturalise a misogynistic denial of ‘transgressive’ female (sexual) independence before a championing of woman’s ‘traditional’ subordinate domesticity.’3 Grist is explaining that Fatal Attraction’s adoption of two opposing female ‘types’ not only naturalises the belief that a woman may be one or the other but it also reaffirms the reactionary position that an independent and sexual woman is the catalyst for man, and societies, destruction. Independent or sexual woman have lead men to destruction in films such as Double Indemnity (1944), Body Heat (1981) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Grist is arguing that Fatal Attraction is misogynistic. Grist explains that although what Alex says is ‘broadly feminist, such as her demand that Dan face up to his responsibilities when she finds she’s pregnant’ her actions undermine this ‘as she moves from sexual aggression through self-mutilation and harassment to acts of violence and open criminality’.4 Grist is arguing that Fatal Attraction explicitly links Alex’s feminism to her crazed behaviour. Another important point is that in one scene Alex stares through the window and is made to look longingly at Beth domesticity as if there ‘is no other satisfying female role’ and therefore, in Grist’s opinion, affirming the misogynistic opinion that ‘it is what every woman ought to do’ .5

Grist offers an insightful and comprehensive reading of misogyny in Fatal Instinct however I believe, due to the postmodern nature of the film, that Grist underestimates the self-criticising self-aware nature of Adrian Lyne’s film. Concerning Alex living near the meat-packing factory. As Alex is a successful businesswoman, who should be able to afford a good view, her rather industrial and symbolic view is evidently used for its affect; a ironic affect. Her character is produced in a environment where it would be impossible, structurally, to be anything other than a femme fatal. Hollywood’s heritage of thrillers, film noirs and action-movies almost demands her to be mad. Fatal Instinct is postmodern in its dealing with film noir because it takes the femme fatal and noir imagery to the extreme where it can only exist as clique. Because she has to exist in this clique all she can ever be is clique. Hollywood has made her who she is and trapped her into being just a femme fatal. Rather tellingly Alex screams at Dan “This is what you reduced me to”, Alex understands that she is locked into being a femme fatal and she could be as easily understood as screaming at Hollywood and the audience as much as Dan. The excessive foregrounding of misogyny and Alex’s structurally inevitable femme fatal character indicates that Hollywood cinema and film noir are being criticised, explored and taken to the extreme. Taking an element of film to an extreme becomes a device to highlight the regularly accepted aspects of that particular film element. In Fatal Attraction the structural devices used to define and create character are criticised and taken to the extreme and in this way the film produces a postmodern critique of Hollywood and the femme fatal.

 

A side note should be made that Fatal Attraction, and all postmodern critiques, do tend to get away with having their cake and eating it; criticising the treatment of women and characterization as brutal while brutalizing them.

 

1Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ in Ian Cameron (ed), The Movie Book of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista, (1994), pp. 267-285 p. 275.

2Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

3Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

4Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

5Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

Proto-Noir and Incomplete Character in the Maltese Falcon?

Maltese Falcon (1941)

Sam Spade isn’t the archetypal noir detective but he is close, he shows the cool command, the detective skills and the hard-boiled cynical nature found in the noir detective however his character lacks a certain trait. This trait is found in his partner but not himself. This trait is the doomed relationship with the femme fatal or the dark-ego female. Frank Krutnik explains ‘Spade is emphatically controlled in his relations with women: he is the master of his feeling and thereby can resist any danger of contamination and debasement through love’.1The ‘contamination and debasement’ though connection with the femme fatal is one of the central aspects of the true noir fiction detective’s personality. As I mentioned in my post about Coogan’s Bluff the interesting aspect of any character is the contradictions apparent in their character. The noir detective is interesting because he is both cool and in-command at the same time in-lust and hypnotised by the femme fatal. Again like the protagonist in Coogan’s Bluff he is both the rule-maker and rule-breaker. Sam Spade is too cool and too in control to be entirely interesting and entirely complete as a noir detective. This isn’t to say that his character doesn’t contain a dark side, he sleeps with his partner’s wife and doesn’t bat an eyelid when given the news concerning the same partner’s death. In combination Sam Spade and his partner create the archetypal noir detective. Stephen Cooper explains that ‘it can be no coincidence that the lascivious Mile Archer [Spade’s partner] is shot to death in the [scene] following’ the attraction and lust of Archer for Brigid O’ Shaughnessy.2Essentially and in concentration Archer suffers the fate that several other detectives will suffer when they become emotionally connected with the femme fatal or dark-ego female. Archer’s story is condensed compared to Walter Neff’s narrative of destruction in Double Indemnity (1944) however it is essentially the same. In many films the attempt to win a heterosexual prize comes along with the conclusion of a narrative, however: in film noir this always leads to death, either one’s own or hers.

Another interesting aspect concerning Archer’s death is that it is so brief, it hardly appears on the screen. We are not given time to build up an emotional state in either the killer or the victim. We are also not allowed to glimpse at the sad sight of Archer’s corpse as Spade refuses to witness it as he believes the police would’ve noticed everything he could have. The refusal to expose the emotional state of the crime in both the murderer and murdered is in fact a structural affect of the Hollywood system. Sam Spade is the focus point, the focalizer, and it is his emotions, his narrative that the camera follows and because he is indifferent to Archer’s death we aren’t given access to the emotional states connected to the murder. Structurally Archer is damned to suffer death and an obscure and unemotional one.

 

1Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, London: Routledge, (1994), p. 123.

2Stephen Cooper ‘Sex/Knowledge/Power in the Detective Genre’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, (Spring, 1989), pp. 22-31 p. 24.