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).

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Future Worlds: Globalisation and Intertextuality in Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)

The future world, 2019 LA, of Blade Runner is a cosmopolitan “global village”. This is communicated by the use of bi-lingual advertising signs: Coca-cola sits amongst neon Japanese symbols. Although Coca-cola is an American symbol that is saturated world wide the use of it sat against the Japanese iconography communicates the sense of lost identity. While Deckard sits eating his Japanese food two “Blade Runner” cops stand behind him, and although we are in LA they speak in a foreign language to Deckard who only understands English. He must get the noodle stand owner to translate for him. The fact that an agent of the central authority, the Police, speaks in Japanese rather than English in LA signifies the state of globalisation. The identity that is lost is the local provincial aspects of countries. Instead of an American or Japanese culture we see a cross-breed intertextual mix that produces it own new identity. As I mentioned in my previous post concerning the Postmodern nature of Blade Runner this concept of intertextuality and pastiche culture is important in communicating a distinct future world. Blade Runner asks questions about individuality and authenticity [I will write a post about Blade Runner with the aim to explore the postmodern concept of cyborg ] and the intertextual nature of Blade Runner creates a future world where people have become replicants of imagery and images that “used” to signify something individual but now have become tired. Instead of Deckard being an individual he has become a “replicant” of the film noir detective in his trench coat and hard-boiled character. Similarly Rachel has become the prototypical Femme Fatal, dressed in dark, commanding screen presence and continuously smoking.

 

The future world social structures are communicated in Blade Runner by the opposition of setting, as in Total Recall and Running Man. The internal shots of the headquarters of the Tyrell corp. are luscious and extraordinary while the city streets are dark and rain is continuously falling. As in Total Recall the opposition of two colours can communicate an atmosphere that coincides with the location. In Total Recall the use of red and whites opposed each other and communicated a mood and sense of place. In Blade Runner the use of dark-blues communicate a sense of run-down dirty atmosphere while golds and yellows create a warm glow that surrounded the upper echelons of the Tyrell corp.

Excerpt on Lighting and An Exposition of Godard’s Use of Lighting in The Opening Scene of Alphaville

Here is a short introductory excerpt on Lighting:

The manipulation of an image’s lighting controls much of its impact. In cinema, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us to see the action. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create the overall composition of each shot and hence guide our eyes to certain objects and actions. A brightly illuminated patch may draw our attention and reveal a key gesture, [similar to the function of a close-up] while a shadow may conceal a detail and build up suspense about what [or who] may be present there. Lighting can also articulate textures: the soft curve of a face , the rough grain of a piece of wood… the sparkle of a faceted gem. (1.)

 

Alphaville (1965)

In the first few introductory scenes of Godard’s Alphaville we are not allowed to see the face of Lemmon until he lights a cigarette, and when he closes his lighter his face again disappears; Godard is using the brief glimpse of light that uncovers Lemmon’s face to make a point concerning intertextuality. The voice-over croaks that “reality is too complex for oral communication. But Legend embodies it in a form” this could be taken to refer back to the casting of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution. Lemmy Caution was a popular character from what has been called ‘French pop thrillers’ and Eddie Constantine played the role in several of those pop thrillers. (2.) Robin Wood explains that you could ‘compare him [Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution] to a cut-out photograph inserted in a painting… no one [of the original French audience] would mistake this for a detailed portrait of a human being: rather, it is a reference’ essentially Wood is saying that Godard’s use of Eddie Constantine is a reference to pop-culture and a well-known, nearly worn-out character of cheap French detective Noir. (3.) Godard uses the brief glimpse of light because he knows too well that all the exposition the character needs is a few seconds on screen before the audience knows everything it needs to know about the character and the characters’ screen personality. The use of lighting further extenuates, and foregrounds Godard’s belief that Constatine is a “Legend” that embodies everything one could say about French Detective Noir just in his “Form”. This intertextual reference to the “Legend” of Eddie Constantine and Lemmy Caution is an ironic act as Lemmy Caution is, in this film, the only character who threatens the robotic, logical Alpha-60 [the machine who runs Alphaville] with his understanding of emotion and humanity. What Godard may therefore be implying is that the logical formalism of high art may be worse, or at the very least just as bad, than the flat but emotional pop-art of the Pulp-like Lemmy Caution.

1.  David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 133.

2. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ in Ian Cameron, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista, (1969), pp. 83-93 p. 85.

3. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ p. 85.

Genre A Short Definition and Contemplation

Genre is a group of symbols, theories, perceptions, characters, locations and concepts which collectively provide a recognizable framework which helps understanding on the part of the audience and provides a framework of reference for the director so as to ensure the creation of a film in relation to cinematic history and production standards. Genre, and all it entails, also allows the director to deal with social issues in a concentrated form. A genre like Science fiction has always been a tool in-which the anxieties of society concerning technology and science are played out and the common symbols, characters and locations all relate back to this. Genre is not a fixed construct but rather a loose connection of images, ideas and articulations. Not all westerns contain the same images, concepts or perceptions about issues but they will share common elements; essentially genre is a family-resemblance concept. Essentially the western genre isn’t connected by one essential common feature but it is in-fact connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is truly common to all.

Convention Confusion In Psycho

Psycho (1960)

Psycho contains a confusing hybrid of differing genre conventions and traditions, these are all exhibited within the scenes that lead towards the famous/infamous shower scene. At first you are shown conventions of melodrama. The trapped lovers, who by fate, are obstructed by society from legitimating their relationship. This creates the expectation in the audience that the narrative will unfold around how these two star-crossed lovers will be united in their love. The narrative however switches to the moralistic Thriller genre. This happens when Marion Crane (Janet Heigh) attempts to escape the law, and may be even the rules of film convention, which she has broken by stealing $40,000. This switch creates an anti-climax, this is because it leaves loose ends; the audience is left with questions unanswered. The romantic partnership between Marion and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) has been co-opted by the new moralistic Thriller narrative: emotional and romantic engagement is now an impossibility for Marion and Sam. The audience is brought towards the seemingly conclusive nature of her being caught as a police officer trails her. But once again the audience is left with an anti-climax in relation to the Thriller narrative as Marion enters the exaggerated Horror realm of the Bates’ motel. Hitchcock exaggerates every convention of Horror: the house is darker, the rain heavier and a city motel is left entirely empty of contemporary society as if located in Death Valley and not within the space of regular civilization. The climax, anti-climax – sped up with the use of exaggerated generic characterisations and conventions – imbues the audience and the film with a sense of doubt. A doubt which infects how the audience sees the narrative’s direction. As the Thriller elements transmogrify into Horror the audience again gets a sense of anti-climax. This raises questions about the nature of appearance and characterization in films. It questions the accepted dramatic conventions of cinema. Hitchcock’s Psycho is overtly inter-textual: this builds up a sense that the audience has seen elements before, a sense that “We should know what’s going to happen”. However because of the continued use of anti-climax we do not. Psycho’s narrative plays with the history and conventions of cinema and story telling; the combination and hybrid of genres creates a parody, or critique of the conventional form of Horror, Thriller and Melodrama. This affect is important when seen in relationship with the shower scene…