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 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.