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.

Advertisements

Excerpt from Janey Place’s Women In Film Noir

big_combo

As well as exploring some central – and no so central – film noirs I will also run a side-by-side series of articles exploring the representation of gender and sexuality in film noirs. Here is an interesting introduction of Janey Place’s evocative essay ‘Women In Film Noir’. I will explore this essay in the future however I thought this excerpt was interesting in it self.

The  dark lady, the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion n Western culture. She is as old  as Eve, and as current as today’s movies, comic books and dime novels. She and her sister (or alter ego), the virgin, the mother, the innocent, the redeemer, form the two poles of female archetypes.

Film noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art. Thus woman here as elsewhere is defined by her sexuality: the dark lady has access to it and the virgin does not. That men are not so deterministically delineated in their cultural and artistic portrayal is indicative of the phallocentric cultural viewpoint: women are defined in relation to men, and the centrality of sexuality in this definition is a key to understanding the position of women in our culture. The primary crime the ‘liberated’ women is guilty of is refusing to be defined in such a way, and this refusal can be perversely seen (in art, or in life) as an attack on men’s very existence. Film noir is hardly ‘progessive’ in these terms – it does not present us with role models who defy their fate and triumph over it. But it does give us one of the few periods of film in which women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality. (1.)

Janey Place, ‘Women in Film Noir’, in Women in Film Noir, (ed) E Ann Kaplan, London: BFI, (1989), pp. 35-68, p. 35.

Exploring Noir: Where The Sidewalk Ends

In the coming weeks and months I will be exploring some “film noirs”, sometimes focusing on just the film and others on how it fits within the noir catalogue. Some will be classics, others relatively unknown and even some thought not to be noirs.

Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Otto Preminger is often cited as an important director in film noir’s high period. This reputation was established in the “masterpiece” Laura (1944). This film is often regarded as Preminger’s best early period film and one of the greatest film noirs. Although I will explore Laura at another time this article is concerned with a lesser known – or praised – film which Preminger made using many of the same actors that starred in Laura. Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) is often seen critically as less impressive – although it was praised at it release for its entertainment value – however, even if it isn’t as important as Laura in the film noir catalogue it isn’tdeserving of being overlooked critically. In this article I will explore the interesting formal features of the film and the striking psychological exploration of guilt, redemption, determination and being “hard-boiled” through the anti-hero protagonist Det. Sgt. Mark Dixon.

The film revolves around the cynical Dixon’s attempt to solve an out-of-towners’ death at the hands of an illegal gambling den’s owners. Dixon is warned, due to regular complaints concerning his violent temper, that if he utilizes “rough tactics” once more then he will be “back in uniform” walking a beat. However, while questioning an uncooperative witness Dixon’s character flaw re-emerges and the consequence is that Dixon kills the war-hero Paine. The subsequent narrative is Dixon’s attempt to deflect guilt away from him onto the gambling den’s owners.

An interesting formal element of Where The Sidewalk Ends is the establishment of a shady, unsavoury mood by the initial inhibition and refusal of an establishing shot which would locate and identifying the gambling den characters. A large collection of men surround a table yet the direction ensures they remain initially an incomprehensible crowd, adding to a mood of suspicion and unease.

sidewalk2sidewalk1

The direction then slowly reveals that the game is rigged. Every gambler, other than the out-of-towner seems in on the scam. Although the out-of-towner attempts to leave with $19K winnings, he is found later dead, stabbed in the heart: the house always wins. Another technique in establishing a dark atmosphere is the use of interplay between dark and light. Shadow is used in one scene to produce a silhouette around every face, almost communicating a dark aura that exudes from the pours of every individual trapped in this tense atmosphere of hate and despair.  

sidewalk11sidewalk101

Where The Sidewalk Ends is also shot primarily at night, adding to the atmosphere and feeling of claustrophobia – because everything is enveloped, choked by darkness. The city scenes are also left without much lighting, only a few sparse streetlights and windows are lit. The darkness is claustrophobic and the desperate isolation soul destroying. Where The Sidewalk Ends drips with a dark atmosphere. Janey Place and Lowell Peterson explain that film noir’s:

moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair, and nihilism constitute a world view that is expressed not through the films terse, elliptical dialogue, nor through their confusing, often insoluble plots, but ultimately through their remarkable style. (1.)

This film’s shady, dark atmosphere is represented in its cinematography.

The anti-hero protagonist Dixon is a compelling character. His father was an infamous criminal, something the mobsters refer to, and this fact, Dixon’s questionable heritage, haunts him. Dixon seems to overcompensate his disappointment and shame by engaging in rough tactics, hoping at every turn to be able to punish any criminal. He also desires to be punished; if the mobsters despise him and fight him it names him as a cop, an enemy – the polar opposite of his father. This fracture in Dixon’s character leads him, in the pressure of the filthy dark world of New York City’s underbelly, to develop distinctly sadomasochistic tendencies. Every punch dealt-out is the assault and destruction of his father’s legacy. Paradoxically, every blow received is like an emotional connection to, a surrogate replacement of, the loving attention due to Dixon from his father.

sidewalk3sidewalk4

In a fight with Paine – an interesting name – Dixon smiles a sadomasochistic smile after receiving a hard punch or two: the smile is seemingly a response to the pain and the anticipation in dishing out some punishment.  The consequence of his action, and his character flaw, soon pulls Dixon towards a his potential destruction. As Paine lays on the floor Dixon notices Paine doesn’t get up. Dixon kneels down, simultaneously the camera draws towards his panic-stricken face. This close-up allows us to examine and identify with Dixon’s horror and fear as he realises he had just killed Paine.

The character of Paine is also interesting as he was formerly a war hero who fell into crime and grifting, an indication of the loss of self suffered after world war II – a motif often recurring in film noirs. Down-and-out former heroes are just as often encountered where the sidewalk ends as professional criminals and hoodlums.

Understanding that he is staring into his own destruction Dixon attempts to steer the investigation, and suspicion, away from himself and onto the Scalise gang. His attempts in fact place pressure on the innocent cabdriver, and father of Paines’ wife Morgan, Jiggs Taylor.

sidewalk6sidewalk82

In a scene where Dixon and his partner question Morgan the direction is interesting. Dixon turns his back away from Morgan and towards the camera. Lighting a cigarette his mood intensifies as he struggles to deal with the guilt. The direction is important as it continues to allow us to identify and examine Dixon’s guilt. A guilt intensified by placing an innocent face in the whole case and the pain is noticeable – though only to the audience.

In another scene the direction illustrates how Dixon attempts, at a distance, to inhibit, “get in the way”, of the investigation. Physically he is in the middle of it all as well: not only because he is the murderer, but also because of his attempts to steer the investigation away from himself, Jiggs and onto Scalise’s hated gang. Interestingly the central antagonist, and head of the mob, Scalise was set up in business by Dixon’s father, and is therefore the heir and adopted son of Dixon’s father. This fact aggravates Dixon and explains his desire to destroy Scalise: the rival and symbol of Dixon’s dislocation and alienation from his father.

The role of Morgan is very important symbolically in Where The Sidewalk Ends. The character of Morgan offers potential salvation and redemption to Dixon; an escape from the edge of the sidewalk and the gutter than runs by it. Morgan is an escape from the cynical world of gambling dens and isolated alienation – even though that is where he encounters her.

sidewalk72sidewalk9

The restaurant scenes and Morgan’s company offers a safe port away from the dark storm brewing outside in the city and inside Dixon’s mind – although the city still intrudes through phone calls. Morgan also offers an introduction, an invitation, into the domestic sphere. Dazed and confused after a fight, Dixon heads for Morgan’s house – a safe port of domesticity to set his head straight. The love, care and warmth of Morgan offers Dixon something better than chasing two-bit criminals. Morgan is an offer of salvation but it is also an offer Dixon knows he cannot accept with the guilt of Paines’ murder hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles.

Just before Dixon has his final confrontation with Scalise Dixon writes out a confession – to be opened in the event of his death. In this scene he draws a blind down to block out the malevolent glow of the city. Dixon’s act protects Morgan from the place that he feels is corrupting. This paternalistic, loving heterosexual relationship offers a way out and a reawakening of Dixon’s humanity. Dixon has something more to protect other than his reputation. Something more to drive him to truth and justice other than a complex relationship with his father’s legacy and the sadomasochistic pleasure he derives punishing symbols of his father.

sidewalk12

The conclusion of the film allows Dixon his escape into domesticity. Although it is slightly disappointing that Morgan forgives Dixon, the murderer of her husband, it establishes that it is truth which sets Dixon free to engage in a loving relationship with Morgan. The truth sets Dixon spiritually and emotionally free. In the closing scenes we can see the film form illustrating the important symbolic nature of Morgan. As Dixon stares into Morgan’s eyes the camera cuts to a close-up of her face. As she replies that she will give him “every chance” in the world she is shot with high-key lighting and soft focus. The high-key lighting sets her apart from the rest of the film, which is shot in low-key lighting. The soft focus is more interesting: it gives Morgan a bright white aura: the direct opposite of the dark aura which exuded from every individual in the beginning of the film. Where The Sidewalk Ends is an interesting film through its adept cinematography and its striking exploration of issues such as the psychological pressure of guilt, determination, redemption and being hard-boiled.

 

1. Janey Place & Lowell Peterson ‘Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir’ in Alain Silver & James Ursini, Film Noir Reader, New York: First Limelight Edition, 1996, pp. 65-76 p.