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).

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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.

Critique of the Western Genre in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

 Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man critiques the myth of the western, principally the westerns’ conceptualization of white American protagonist as a competent, fearless and free thinking individual. Jarmusch does this by exploring the generic conventions of the western and ultmiately by altering and subverting its traditions. The cinematic genre of the western is typically defined by it’s strong protagonist and setting. The environment or setting of the western is traditionally a spacious post-civil war frontier in the south-west of America. This setting is a mirror image of the central protagonist; the vast open isolated desert reflects the individualistic pioneering character of the western figure. The shot selection also further augments the feeling of isolation and rugged individualism. A convention is the use of the extreme long shots to portray panoramic, expansive open spaces – even when the film is exclusively from the perspective of the protagonist, this open space, which overshadows the individual, is prevalent. The fact the protagonist survives in this space is what makes him admirable; that the protagonist sits on the border between civilisation and the wild and survives (whilst others shrivle up and die) proves his rugged pioneering independence.1


If a traditional western protagonist is a tough pioneer, then Dead Man’s William Blake [Johnny Depp] is the antithesis. A symbol of virginal inexperience Blake jumps in fear at the government sanctioned shooting of buffalo, and is surprised at Thel’s ownership of a pistol. The short lived relationship between Thel and Blake highlights the feminine aspects of the protagonist. While in her bedroom she controls the dialogue, and it is her sexuality that commands the screen space and camera’s focus. Thel’s ownership of a pistol, symbolically phallic, is metaphor of her strength and dominance over the more feminine Blake; it may even be representative of his lack masculinity, a traditional aspect of the central protagonist in westerns is the ownership and ability with firearms. Blake doesn’t sit on the barrier of civilisation and the wild, but the barriers of masculinity and femininity.

As well as character, the setting no longer reflects that rugged isolated individual thought of as so admirable, the landscape is seemingly a representation of paranoia and neurosis. The form of Dead Man creates a close, claustrophobic vision of the American with close-ups, point-of-view shots and landscapes with vertical lines that splinter and fragment the screen. This reversal of generic convention foregrounds the error of the traditional perceptions of the west and conceptualized heritage of America. The west wasn’t a large expanse with a sparse handful of Native Americans littering the horizon but an area with colonists, nature and Native Americans in direct competition with each other for breathing room, Dead Man represents the colonists as the trespasser rather than as the trespassed. Most westerns, as in John Ford’s The Searchers, the Native Americans are represented as trespassers encroaching on in the homesteads of the European settlers. Jim Jarmusch highlights the cultural conception of the west as a rugged place of individualistic through manipulation of generic conventions, by exploring convention film becomes a space in-which a director can explore and expand on ideas of critical and theoretical principle.

1M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007), pp. 397.