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 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.