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.

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Women in Film Noir IV – Containment and Conformity

As i noted in the previous section the representation and then containment of the strong and/or desiring women is  an integral element in film noir (and Hollywood cinema’s) narratives. This representation and containment is determined by, and engages with, the cultural context of America in the late 1930s to the late 1950s. In regard to the representation of women, the vast de- and re-territorialization of the domestic and work sphere during and after WWII is an important determining factor. D&G’s concept of de- and re-territorialization illustrates the process whereby a labour-power is freed from a specific mode of production or territory and then returned. The series of “Inclosure Acts” passed in the United Kingdom during the period of 1750-1860 is a prime example of this process of de- and re-territorialization. The Inclosure Acts forcibly removed any access to common land and animal pasture. The consequence of this act was that many workers were left without the ability to continue working on the land they relied upon. Therefore the Inclosure Act forced thousands of workers to move from self-sustained, rural cottage industries into urban-centred industries. The Inclosure Act de-territorialized workers by freeing their labour from the land (the territory) they traditionally worked on. De-territorialization is therefore the process whereby labour-power is freed from a specific territory or mode of production. The opposite of de-territorialization, re-territorialization is the re-establishment of labour power into a specific geographical location or labour situation. The establishment of mill towns after the Inclosure Acts is an instance of the re-territorialization of “freed” labour force into new jobs (labourer) and geographical location (urban centres). Re-territorialization is therefore the capturing, labelling and enclosing of space (geographical location) or identity (from agricultural worker to labourer).

This process of de- and re-territorialization can be located in film noir’s representation of women and the historical context it both reflects and engages with. During WWII American women were actively encouraged to enter the work force. Krutrik explains ‘one of the consequences of the wartime expansion of the national economy was that women were overtly encouraged, as part of their ‘patriotic’ duty, to enter the workforce’.1 This was engendered by the de-territorialization of women from their traditional role as home-maker. Women were effectively freed from the traditional location they were expected to reside (the home) and allowed freedom to choose which sphere – domestic or work – in which to use their labour. Due to the war the domestic sphere was briefly de-territorialized as the natural sphere in which women resided. However, this freedom did not last because within a capitalist society de-territorialization is always met with a subsequent re-territorialization.2 Once an Allied victory was seen as a likely prospect female labour began to be seen as problematic.3 Michael Renov notes that:

by 1944, the internal memoranda of government agencies show that female work force was being termed ‘excess labour’ and efforts were being made to induce voluntary withdrawal, an attitude even then being transmitted from the editorials of major newspapers, magazines and through other public opinion forums.4

This inducement of “voluntary” withdrawal from the labour market was facilitated through pressure from factory managers and the culture industry (newspapers, magazines, films). By the end of the war these passive inducements gave way to aggressive discrimination and wholesale redundancy.5 In 1946 Frederick C Crawford, chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, asserted ‘From a humanitarian point of view, too many women should not stay in the labour force. The home is the basic American unit’.6 Crawford’s assertion illustrates the change in attitude to women’s labour. During WWII a woman was doing her patriotic duty by joining the labour force. After WWII it was her patriotic duty to return to motherhood and domesticity. During the conclusion of WWII women were therefore re-territorialized, re-rooted as being “naturally” located in the domestic space.

Film noir reflects and engages in this re-territorializing process in its repressive narratives and character archetypes. This reflection is both direct and oblique. A direct reflection of re-territorialization is a film which attempts to deal with the issue or problem clearly in the film’s narrative. Mildred Pierce is one such example of a film which directly reflects the re-territorization of women. Pam Cook notes that Mildred Pierce articulates ‘the historical need to re-construct an economy based on a division of labour by which men command the means of production and women remain within the family’.7 In Mildred Pierce the central female figure Mildred Pierce divorces her husband, builds a successful career and business. However, this success comes at the price of her two daughters (one dies naturally and the other is imprisoned). The film’s resolution then features Mildred returning to her first husband and ultimately being re-installed into her “natural” space; the domestic sphere. Mildred Pierce is therefore a simple reflection of the re-territorialization process of naturalizing and re-installing women as belonging to the domestic sphere. Though some films are direct reflections of this process of re-territorialization most film noirs are oblique reflections. An oblique reflection is a disavowal or a dislocated reflection of a determining social context. In psychoanalysis, a disavowal is a denial accompanied with a simultaneous acknowledgement. This conception of disavowal can be used to illustrate how texts can both acknowledge a problem and attempt to deny its existence. The science fiction genre can be cited as a prime example of this process of simultaneous acknowledgement and denial. Rollerball’s (Dir. Norman Jewison, 1975) narrative reflects contemporary concerns about increased violence in television and sports. It does this however, by situating the narrative in a futuristic, fascistic society. Rollerball therefore reflects contemporary concerns regarding violence while simultaneously denying the problem a place in contemporary America. This process of disavowal can also be located in film noir’s representation of women. The Big Sleep is an example of a film which does not directly reflect the process of de- and re-territorialization that women encountered during and after WWII. The Big Sleep features two financially secure female characters (Carmen and Vivian) that require containment by the male protagonist. Carmen and Vivian are daughters of General Sternwood. The figure of General Sternwood stands for paternalistic capitalist society which requires financially and sexually independent women to be contained within appropriate institutions. Therefore The Big Sleep attempts not to acknowledge the issue of de- and re-territorialization but, through the film’s characterisation and narrative resolution, it obliquely reflects and is determined by the concerns of capitalist society regarding the increased independence of women – financial or otherwise.

1 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 57.

2 As D&G assert ‘The more the capitalist machine deterritorializes, decoding and axiomatizing flows in order to extract surplus value from them, the more its ancillary apparatuses, such as government bureaucracies and the forces of law and order, do their utmost to reterritorialize’. After capitalism de-territorializes it always simultaneously utilizes its institutions to re-territorialize that which was freed. D&G, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p. 37.

3 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 59.

4 Michael Renov quoted from Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 59.

5 Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, (New York: Avon Books, 1974), p. 223.

6Fredick C Crawford quoted from Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, p. 216.

7Pam Cook, ‘Duplicity in Mildred Pierce‘, in E Ann Kaplan (ed), Women in Film Noir, (London: BFI Publishing, 1980), pp 68-82, p. 68.

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).