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).

Advertisements

Exploring Noir – The Representation of Family and Gender in Film Noir

In this article I will explore Sylvia Harvey’s ‘Women’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’. Harvey believes that film noir is an ‘echo chamber’ which ‘captures and magnifies’ the shift in the foundations of the West. (1.) Harvey asserts:

film noir offers us again and again examples of abnormal or monstrous behaviour, 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 known world. (2.)

Harvey is arguing that film noir mirrors the gender issues suppressed by western society. Film noir reproduces sites of tension in exaggerated terms. The faultline cracks, that started to appear along gender issues post-WWI and WWII and were covered deep within normal social interactions, are exposed and examined in film noir. Harvey concedes that the narrative and story structure of film noir is explicitly repressive – they often end with rule-breakers dead or imprisoned – but argues that the visual style of film noir indicates an irrepressible element of contradiction and in relation to the family, the representation of the domestic sphere, film noir’s ‘portrayal of the family… suggest[s] the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed’ through film and literature. (3.)

To Harvey, film noir’s portrayal of the domestic sphere mirrors an underlying sense of decay and complication in the validity of traditional gender roles. Harvey explains:

It is the representation of theinstitution of the family, which in so many films serves as the mechanism whereby desire is fulfilled, or at least ideological equilibrium established, that in film noir serves as the vehicle for the expression of frustration. (4.)

In many classic Hollywood films the domestic sphere is a realm of desire fulfilment – where the hero gets the girl, marriage etc. – or a place within which stability is found – as in The FBI Story (1959) where John Michael Hardesty’s domestic sphere becomes a bedrock of support – however in film noir this traditional sphere of desire fulfilment and stability is often the site of tension, lust and murder. Harvey asserts that this alternative representation of the family sphere is ‘an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family’. (5.)

Harvey continues that, in classic Hollywood films, the family commonly entails a ‘metamorphosis’, a transference of a man to a father and a woman to wife. (6.) To Harvey ‘this magic circle of transformation is broken in film noir’. (7.) In film noir, family relations are represented as ‘broken, perverted, peripheral or impossible’ rather than as life-affirming, uniting and spiritually enriching. (8.) Harvey identities the film Mildred Pierce (1945) as a good example of the ‘disruption and displacement of the values of family life’. (9.) Mildred Pierce is a woman of the world and business and lastly a mother. Harvey argues that Mildred Pierce coincided with:

the rise and fall of nationalistic ideologies generated by the period of total war. It may be argued that the ideology of national unity which was characteristic of the war period, and which tended to gloss over and conceal class divisions, began to falter and decay, to lose its credibility, once the war was over. (10.)

Harvey is explaining that the feeling of unity over having a common goal and common enemy had dissipated and old class and gender issues reappeared and found expression in film noirs such as Mildred Pierce.

To Harvey the domestic sphere, often a site of emotional support and unity, is represented as corrupted in film noir. Harvey cites a recurring theme of film noir: the concern ‘with the loss of those satisfactions normally obtained through the possession of wife and presence of a family’. (11.) In Double Indemnity (1944) the Dietrichson home is poisoned, all three family members are at each others throats. The husband, named only Mr. Dietrichson, ignores his second-wife physically [symbolically on crutches to indicate his inability to engage physically with his wife], the daughter, Lola, fights with her father over the choice of her lover and the second-wife, the femme fatal Phyllis Dietrichson, invites insurance salesman Walter Neff into her home in order to kill Mr. Dietrichson for money. Double Indemnity seems indicative of the loss of satisfaction that the possession of a wife family affords the husband in film noir.

Harvey also asserts that the traditional desire fulfilment function of women is inverted in film noir. Although women are still desired, the satisfaction is either short-lived or non-existent. In Double Indemnity Walter Neff kills for Phyllis but neither gets her or survives unpunished for his efforts. In Murder, My Sweet (1944) when Moose finally tracks down, with the help of Marlowe, the woman he remembers is not the idol of love and compassion but a femme fatal who Moose dies rather cheaply for. Moose’s journey for his past-love, his symbol of desire fulfilment, is met with death as is Neff’s journey in Double Indemnity. Harvey asserts ‘the ideological safety value device that operates in the offering of women as sexual commodities, breaks down in probably most of these films, because the woman are not, finally, possessed’. (12.)

Harvey concludes the essay by arguing that:

The absence or disfigurement of the family [in film noir] both calls attention to its own lack and of its own deformity, and may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life. (13.)

Harvey believes that the treatment of the family in film noir highlights the issues and contradictions inherent in the domestic sphere. Harvey sees film noirs’ treatment of family as encouraging and enabling contemplation of alternative approaches to the issue of family and the domestic sphere. Harvey goes on to assert ‘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’. (14.) Although many film noir narratives end with the destruction of the femme fatal, and often the man who sought her company, Harvey believes that the acts of transgression cannot be suppressed totally and that film noir remains subversive in its portrayal of family and the domestic sphere.

Harvey’s short essay argues that film noirs’ representation of the family and domestic sphere is converse to traditional representations of family – which posit the domestic sphere as a stabilising force and family as a mechanism where desires are satisfied. Harvey asserts that this representation highlights the issues and contradictions inherent in the domestic sphere as currently imagined. According to Harvey, the repressive conclusion to many film noir narratives doesn’t inhibit this subversive portrayal of the domestic sphere. Harvey’s essay does accurately describe certain traits of film noir however, the essay is far from conclusive. There are two major roles of women in film noir, the first being the striking femme fatal. The second being the redeemer, the woman who offers a chance at domesticity, love, union and a happy[ier] resolution (for more on these two major roles of women in film noir see Women in Film Noir I – The Central Archetypal Roles). This secondary trait is much less overt but still important and a classic example of the redeemer role can be found in Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950). Harvey’s scant exploration of the mise-en-scene of film noir is also a strong critique because film noir is a visually striking genre (and I assert strongly that it is a genre) and cinema as a whole is an art form that confers meaning as much through its composition of light and shape than narrative event or dialogue. Harvey also seems to over-estimate the subversive nature of film noir as the representation appears to be that trespassing against traditional gender roles and expectations should and will be met with a violent and destructive end for all parties involved. In fact film noir is certainly interesting as a genre because it follows the French-European narrative structure – and not the Classic Hollywood structure – whereby people are determined by, and stuck within, their boundaries and limitations [I will explore this issue further at a later date].

1. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’, in E Ann Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir, London: BFI, (1980), pp. 22-33, p. 22.

2. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 22.

3. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 23.

4. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 23.

5. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’  p. 23.

6. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 25.

7. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 25.

8. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 25.

9. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 25.

10. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 25.

11. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 27.

12. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 27.

13. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 33.

14. Sylvia Harvey, ‘Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir’ p. 33.