The Paradox of Suspense VII – Further Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In response to these two criticisms Carroll highlights a difference between our everyday moral assessment and fictional morality. Carroll starts by explaining that we often alter our notions of right and wrong in regard to the imagined or presented fictional world. Carroll illustrates this point by arguing:

For example, caper films represent persons involved in perpetrating crimes that we do not customarily consider to be upstanding ethically. However, the characters in such fictions are standardly possessed of certain striking virtues such that… we are encouraged to ally ourselves morally with the caper.[1]

To Carroll, we alter our notions of moral and immoral to match the central protagonists’ world-view. We do this because the central protagonists are shown to be virtuous. The virtues Carroll has in mind are ‘strength, fortitude, ingenuity, bravery, competence, beauty, generosity, and so on’.[2] In certain cases then, in which the central protagonist’s commit immoral acts, it is their overriding virtues in contrast to the fiction’s antagonists that make us ‘cast our moral allegiance with them’.[3] To illustrate this point Carroll highlights Zulu (Dir., Cy Endfield, 1964) as a prime example of a film in which ‘we are drawn into the film’s system of moral evaluation by its portrayal – or lack thereof – of characters with respect to virtues’.[4] According to Carroll, we align ourselves towards the British soldiers because, even if we are staunchly anti-imperialist, they are shown to be courageous, brave and ingenious[5]. In regard to Goodfellas, Carroll would argue that though Henry Hill is a criminal he displays more virtues, or less vice, than the other characters which motivates us to support his actions. Carroll would also argue, in relation to the particular scene I brought attention to, that within the fictional world and in regard to Henry’s character hitting the neighbour is the moral action (with hitting the wife and neighbour being the logically opposed outcome). Carroll would also use a similar explanation for The Godfather. That is, within the context of the film, and the context of the film’s moral context, Michael assassinating the two rival gangsters is the moral option. However, though Carroll’s replies appear to answer the first two criticisms there are significant problems with his response. The first is that Henry does not display any virtuous characteristics. Henry steals, lies, murders in cold blood and for little reason, he abuses his wife emotionally, cheats on her, is jealous, self-centred, deals and takes drugs, back stabs his friends and betrays those who help him and the Mafia honour code he swears to live by and is, for the want of a better phrase, a viscous scum-bag. We do not side morally with Henry because he shows some virtues that other character’s do not, we feel suspense and care about Henry because we witness and become seduced by his glamorous lifestyle and uninhibited attitude[6]. In regard to The Godfather, even if we accept that within the film’s moral context killing the two gangsters is a permissible course of action; this does not mean that not killing the two gangsters is also seen as immoral. That is, if killing is morally acceptable in the context of the film and calling for a truce is also morally acceptable (though may be disappointing) then there is still a problem for Carroll in that there isn’t two logically opposed possible outcomes[7].  The problem with Carroll’s characterisation is that suspense derives from two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) is that it seems more than possible to experience suspense without there being just two possible logically opposed moral outcomes. There is also a further issue with Carroll’s position in that it also seems possible to experience suspense in response to fictions that do not feature any moral dimension. A striking example of this can be found in L’Avventura. In the scene where Sandro thinks he has seen Anna again we experience some suspense. However, nothing about this scene has a moral dimension. That is, this scene is not suspenseful because it is morally correct that Sandro find Anna. We do not even know if Anna wants to be found. Our suspense in this scene is also nothing to do with Sandro’s virtuous nature as he is not shown to be likeable and after a few days he starts a sexual relationship with Anna’s best friend Claudia (and up until this scene Claudia and Sandro have all but forgotten about Anna and their “search” for her). Another example of a film that creates suspense without a moral dimension could be one that depicts a divorce in a realistic and objective manner. The film follows both sides in the preceding court case showing that the mother and father both have legitimate grievances and claims for the sole custody of the children. As the final verdict draws close we experience suspense regarding which outcome will materialise. In the case of this hypothetical film it would not be immoral for the mother to win; neither would it be immoral if the father won. Our feelings of suspense in response to this film would not be based on there being two possible logically opposed moral possibilities but rather on subjective personal opinion and past experience.[8] That is, our desire that the mother or father win would be based on if we could identity with them, understand their position or like them. Therefore, Carroll’s argument that suspense is created by a conflict between two logically opposed moral outcomes is flawed because it is possible to experience suspense in response to non-moral situations and instances where there is no conflict between two moral outcomes.

Central to Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense is the ability of “mere thoughts” to motivate emotional responses. However, there seems to be many instances where merely entertaining in thought a proposition does not cause us to respond emotionally. A common instance of this, at least to philosophy students and tutors, is the philosophical thought experiment. Many philosophical thought experiments often include horrific, bizarre and disturbing premises that, if we believed them, we would react in distinct ways. Thankfully however, we do not respond to thought experiments as if we believe them because we are able, in Carroll’s terms, entertain them nonassertedly (that is, without having to hold that x is true). Shaun Nichols highlights one particular thought experiment as a paradigm example of a thought experiment that would be disturbing if we responded emotionally to: ‘Imagine that you’re red-green colour blind and that all sentient life in the universe except for you is destroyed. In that case, does the colour red still exist?’.[9] This thought experiment asks us to entertain the possibility that all sentient life in the universe is destroyed bar us. However, when imagining this possibility within the framework of the thought experiment we don’t respond to it how we would if we believed all sentient life in the universe was destroyed nor do we respond to it with any emotional response. There appears then to be mere thoughts have the power to motivate us to respond emotionally and those that do not. This is an issue for Carroll insofar as it appears that there is more to explain behind the ability of thoughts to motivate emotional responses – especially if Carroll wants to avoid falling back on beliefs to explain the difference. I do however, believe that there is a possible explanation and solution and that is to introduce desire as the difference between instances where thoughts do provoke an emotional response and instances where thoughts do not provoke an emotional response. That is, in the case of entertaining the thought that my footing is loose on a high building I have an active desire (because I’m on an observation deck on a tall building) not to see that outcome realised. If I was in an office building behind a desk and imagined that my footing or the floor wasn’t secure it is unlikely that I would experience any pang of vertigo. This is because I do not have an active desire to avoid falling as I am in a secure building. Likewise, in the case of the thought experiment I do not have an active desire to avoid see the whole universe being destroyed. In regard to fiction then, we are drawn (through several techniques) into desiring that McClain survive and thrive in Die Hard with the consequence that when we are confronted with a scene in which we entertain the thought that he may be in mortal danger we respond emotionally. Therefore, whether a fiction is successful in engendering an emotional response is contingent on us experiencing a corresponding desire and, as Nichols explains, whether we have the right desire to respond emotionally depends on ‘the context, the intent of the author, the tone of the work, the point of the thought experiment, and so on’.[10] To conclude then it is not enough just to entertain the thought that McClain is in danger, we must also have the relevant desire to see him come to no harm.

A second and more significant criticism of Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense concerns his accounts inability to convincingly explain “diminishing returns”. As I noted in section 1.2 diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction) to fiction.  According to Carroll when we watch Die Hard for the third or fourth time and entertain the possibility that John McClain will be discovered eaves-dropping on the terrorists and killed we will still experience suspense. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain that an outcome is uncertain then it seems strange that our suspense diminishes at all. Carroll cannot reply that it is due to the audience not entertaining the possibility because they still experience some suspense in response to Die Hard’s narrative. This is a serious issue for Carroll because diminishing returns is a common feature of our interaction with narrative fiction and his account’s failure to provide a possible explanation provides us with good reason to be sceptical about his account.

A further criticism of Carroll’s account also concerns his solution to the paradox of suspense. Carroll account holds that all that is required to engender suspense is entertained uncertainty. However, if we accept this then it raises the question why any viewers fail to feel suspense on repeated viewings. That is, Carroll’s account struggles to explain “absent suspense”. In many repeat viewings of action genre films we may still be gripped by a sense of thrill and excitement. On our seventh or eighth viewing of Commando (Dir., Mark L Lester, 1985) we still enjoy the scene in which the protagonist John Matrix dangles the antagonist Sully off a cliff while interrogating him about the location of his kidnapped daughter. One particular element of this scene we routinely enjoy concerns when Sully reminds John that John had promised to kill him last to which John relies “I lied” before dropping him to his death. We enjoy this scene repeatedly because we can, in Carroll’s terminology, entertain nonassertedly that Sully is an evil man embroiled in a plot to install an evil dictator in a peaceful South American country and that he deserves (in the fiction’s moral system) his gruesome death served with a pun. However, we do not experience suspense in response to any scene in Commando on repeat viewings. Though we still entertain that John’s daughter is in mortal danger and unlikely to survive any rescue attempt we do not experience suspense in response to this film. Carroll’s reply to this would obviously be that we have just failed to entertain that the outcome is uncertain and this is why we do not experience any suspense. However, this reply appears disingenuous in that it seems odd that we have successfully entertained every other element essential to re-experience the joy, thrill, excitement of viewing Commando but failed to entertain that the outcome of the narrative is uncertain (which would seemingly diminish our enjoyment?). Though this criticism is far from conclusive in defeating Carroll’s account of suspense it gives us further reason to be dissatisfied about its ability to explain even the most common features of our engagement with narrative fiction.

Another related issue for Carroll’s account concerns its inability to explain why we do not experience suspense in repeat viewings of sports matches. On an original viewing of a Manchester United-City derby match both sets of supports will experience immense suspense in response to pressured, tense situations such as the last ten minutes or a penalty kick. However, on subsequent viewings of this match supports will not experience suspense. The supporters will experience the same joy, delight or sorrow at a refused penalty, missed goal or booking but they will not, however hard they try, re-experience suspense. This inability to re-experience suspense appears to be a natural feature of sports spectatorship. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain the possibility that we are uncertain how a corner, penalty turns out then we should be able to experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events like football matches. The problem cannot be that we do not have the sufficient desire that our favourite team not concede or score a goal. There is obviously an answer to why we do not experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events however; Carroll’s account appears unqualified in offering us a clear and comprehensive answer.


[1] Noel Carroll, ‘Paradox of Suspense’, p. 79.

[2] Ibid, p. 79.

[3]Ibid, p. 79.

[4]Ibid,  p. 79.

[5]  This characterisation appears to be unfair in regard to the representation of the AnZulu warriors. Though they are not given much of a role in the film’s narrative other than as antagonists they are shown to be resourceful, brave and fierce warriors. If they were not shown to have these warrior virtues their song at the end of the film would have little meaning. That is, if they weren’t shown to have every virtue required of a great warrior nation or people (including honour and respect) then their singing tribute towards the Welsh regiment wouldn’t be such a touching and striking symbol of respect. It could also be argued that the Welsh regiment – essentially a lazy, incompetent, argumentative rabble with a few good men chucked in – are shown to have many more vices than the AnZulu warriors.

[6]Our seduction towards accepting (at least provincially) the Goodfellas’ lifestyle and attitude is mirrored simultaneously in the film through the scenes featuring Henry’s wife.

[7] On moral grounds at least. The difference between the two options appears to be that one is desired (the killings) and the other undesired (the truce).

[8] Another example may be a film a young aspiring West Indian cricketer. In this film we are given a glimpse of a likeable character who dreams of playing one day for the West Indies. The film features young lad, from a rough background, shows significant determination and as reward is given a chance of impressing in a T20 game for his home side the Leeward Islands. In a dramatic scene, with the national selectors watching, he is given the task of bowling the last over with only seven runs to spare. Though there is no moral dimension to this scene – he is a likeable lad but he doesn’t deserve to succeed any more than the other players in contention for a spot in the team – we would still feel suspense in response to every ball, every moment, not because it is morally right that he succeed, but because we want him to succeed and there is a significant possibility that he won’t. That is, there is no conflict between a moral or immoral outcome, but rather a conflict between desired and undesired outcomes.

[9] Shaun Nichols, ‘Just the Imagination’, Mind & Language, Vol. 21, No. 4, September 2006, pp. 459–474,  p. 465.

[10] Ibid, p. 472.

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The Paradox of Suspense VI – Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. In this section I will start by evaluating and analysing his account of suspense. I will then consider whether his solution to the paradox of suspense is successful. I will conclude that neither his account of suspense or solution to the paradox of suspense are acceptable and should therefore be rejected.

The first criticism of Carroll’s account concerns whether we are able to experience suspense in response to immoral characters and situations. Carroll argued that fictions engender suspense by creating a situation where only two logically opposed outcomes, one moral and the immoral, appear possible. However, many fictions include immoral, or at least morally dubious, characters and situations of which we support, sympathise and root for and whose actions do not appear to offer a simple dialectic between moral and immoral action. One vivid example of this is Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990). Goodfellas is primarily about the protagonist Henry Hill’s career as a gangster in the Italian Mafia. Throughout the film we witness Henry’s rise from street-kid to violent gangster. Rather than see his acts (beatings, robberies and hold-ups) as horrific we identify with him, his glamorous lifestyle and his desire to become a “made man”. In one scene Henry comes home to find his wife distressed. This is because her neighbour has made a pass at her and when Henry’s wife refused the neighbour’s advances he hit her. When Henry comes home we are unsure how he is going to react (will he hit/kill his neighbour or his wife or both!) and we experience some suspense in response to this scene. When, in front of his wife, Henry pistol whips the neighbour we are relieved and enjoy the rough treatment the neighbour receives. In regard to this scene it appears that there is no choice between two logically opposed outcomes. That is, the suspense we experience in response to this scene springs from two possible options both which appear to range from the immoral (hitting the neighbour) to the extremely immoral (dispatching his wife and the neighbour).

Another similar issue for Carroll regarding his notion of two logically opposed moral outcomes is that he holds that we pull for the moral outcome over the immoral outcome. However, this doesn’t appear to be correct. An instance of this can be found in The Godfather (Dir., Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). In one scene the central protagonist Michael attends a meeting with two rival gangsters who have previously attempted to kill his father. On the surface Michael’s reason for attending the meeting is to discuss a truce but he actually intends to kill both gangsters. The two rival gangsters set up the meeting in a neutral restaurant and frisk Michael as he enters to ensure he hasn’t brought a weapon. Because of this Michael has an accomplice hide a pistol in the bathroom before he arrives. Later in the scene when Michael leaves the bathroom with the pistol he stands in front of the two gangsters and hesitates. This moment is immensely suspenseful and we are led to wonder whether Michael will kill the two gangsters. Once Michael kills both of the gangsters we stop feeling any suspense and are relieved that they both get their just deserves. In regard to this scene then, we pull for the immoral outcome (murder) over the moral outcome (the truce or reporting them to the police). That is, we experience suspense because we are unsure whether Michael will go through with the immoral act (the murder of which we want him to do).

In the next section I will include some possible replies to these criticisms and add some further issues with Carroll’s account.

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 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 II – The Importance of the Hays Code

Continuing from my previous article concerning the representation of women in film noir in this article i will set out an analysis of that depiction utilizing Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of capitalism and the desiring machine. As i noted in the previous article Hollywood inscribes the two central female figures as examples of appropriate and inappropriate desire. The destroyer is an example of desire without limits. The redeemer is conversely an example of desire within the (acceptable) limits. The articulation of the limits of desire can be seen as a prime function of the Hollywood desiring-machine. A desiring-machine is a social body which produces, codes and articulates desire. Desiring-machines also install identities by articulating how, why, when and what those subjects will desire. Deleuze and Guattari explain ‘The prime function incumbent upon the socius1, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated’.2 Therefore the production of archetypes is integral to the process of the desiring-machine because it allows a social body to articulate the acceptable limits of desire. This need to regulate the construction and representation of desire is further facilitated by Hollywood’s use of repressive structures such as the Hays Code. The Hays Code, named after its principle author Will H Hays, written in 1930 and adopted in 1934, stipulated what Hollywood films could and couldn’t show. The main intention behind the code was the reaffirmation of traditional moral ‘standards of life’.3 Molly Haskell explains:

In its support of the holy institution of matrimony, the [Hays] code was trying to keep the family together and (theoretically) protect the American female from the footloose American males who would obviously flee at the first opportunity, unless he was bound by the chains of the sacrament, which Hollywood took upon itself to keep polished and shining.4

As Haskell notes, one of the central aspects of the Hays Code was the attempt to ensure that institutions such as marriage weren’t disparaged or insulted. The code achieved this by explicitly requiring films not to ‘infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing’.5 Any character who transgresses these traditional sexual and social norms is structurally required by the Hays Code to be punished and repressed in the film’s resolution. Carmen, in The Big Sleep, is an example of this censorship. The consequence of Carmen’s inappropriate sexuality and promiscuity is her institutionalization. As well as being placed in a mental institution, Carmen is removed from the film’s denouement completely. Carmen is not permitted by the Hays Code to have a positive resolution; Carmen’s ending is complete censorship. The Hays Code is therefore an integral element in the construction of film noir narratives because it informs how transgressive behaviour has to be dealt with.

1 The socius is a social body or organism.

2 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (London: Continuum, 2008), p. 37.

3 Will H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, in Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Second Edition, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 593-597, p. 593.

4 Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 21.

5 W H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, p. 595.