Women in Film Noir VI – Containment of the Subversive Representation of the Domestic Sphere

Harvey’s position (explored here: V) regarding the subversive representation of the domestic sphere is flawed. Though Harvey is correct to note that the domestic sphere is often represented as poisoned or tense, as in Mildred Pierce when the unemployed Albert Pierce gets constantly undermined and nagged, the representation of the domestic sphere is far from subversive. In film noir the poisoned atmosphere is always qualified by some represented or implied transgressive act. In Double Indemnity the poisoned, stale domestic sphere is attributed to the evil of the destroyer Phyllis Dietrichson. The Dietrichson household is loveless primarily because they married, not for love, but money. Phyllis admits she married Mr. Dietrichson after his first wife died because she wanted a roof over her head. She also bitterly remarked that divorce was out of the question because all of his money is tied up in the business. Phyllis’s poisoning of the domestic sphere also extends to Mr. Dietrichson’s first marriage. Phyllis was a nurse for Mr. Dietrichson’s first wife who died of pneumonia. Lola Dietrichson (the daughter of Mr. Dietrichson) witnessed Phyllis attempt to murder the first wife by opening up all the windows and stealing all of the covers (thereby increasing the chance the first Mrs. Diestrichson would die from pneumonia). Therefore the domestic sphere’s poisonous atmosphere is attributed to the excessive lust and social ambition of Phyllis. Rather than communicate that it is the institution of marriage that is corrupt, Double Indemnity and film noir articulates that it is the individual who is responsible for the poisoned domestic sphere. The individualization of social problems is a recurring motif in Hollywood. As Theodore Adorno asserts:

Even a radical film director who wished to portray crucially important special developments like the merger of two industrial concerns could only do so by showing us the dominant figure in the office, at the conference table or in their mansions. Even if they were thereby revealed as monstrous characters, their monstrousness would still be sanctioned as a quality of individual human beings in a way that would tend to obscure the monstrousness of the system whose servile functionaries they are.[1]

That is, even if a director wishes to portray a social institution as corrupt that portrayal would locate the corruption in the heart of an individual. This individualization of institutional corruption or contradictions inherently obscures the system behind the corruption. Double Indemnity, like Adorno’s hypothetical film, represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being (Phyllis) rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage.

            Harvey’s second assertion that film noir facilitates the consideration of alternative “non-repressive” social institutions is also incorrect. In Mildred Pierce an alternative to the traditional patriarchal marriage is shown but the viewers are left without doubt that it is not viable or desirable. Mildred Pierce’s marriage to Monte Beragon – motivated by a desire to climb the social ladder – is non-conventional because Mildred is the “bread winner”. This reversal of traditional gender roles is presented visually through Mildred’s structured hairstyle and masculine dress-suits. The consequence of Mildred assuming the masculine role is that Monte feels emasculated. Consequently Monte conspires to undermine Mildred and does so by bringing about the downfall of her business. Therefore the “alternative” system of marriage, in which the woman controls the relationship, is shown in Mildred Pierce as being corrupt and doomed to failure. Harvey could argue that this is not the alternative to marriage implied in her article however, even if we accept this, Mildred Pierce still presents an alternative to marriage as being worse than traditional marriage. Furthermore there seems to be no ground to assume that any further alteration or alternative to the institution of marriage is going to be argued for positively in Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce’s resolution reaffirms my reading that film noir supports the traditional institution of marriage over the increased independence of women in the domestic and work spheres. When Mildred leaves the police interrogation room she is met by her first husband Albert who takes her arm and leads her through a massive archway into the sunrise. The message being that, although traditional marriage has its negatives, it is by far the best system available to society for the production of well-rounded individuals. Rather than criticising the traditional institute of marriage, Mildred Pierce reaffirms its place as the most natural and beneficial framework of society. Therefore, Harvey’s assertion that film noir promotes alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life is wrong.


[1]               Theodore Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’ in Theodore Adorno, The Culture Industry, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 61-97, p. 66.

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The Debt to, and Divergences From, Hollywood Cinema in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo

Yojimbo (1961)

In this article I will concentrate on the traditional Japanese style that the film retains amd the stylistic influence the western genre had on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. However it should be noted like Stray Dog the Film Noir genre influenced Yojimbo and the film directly alludes to The Glass Key (1942) – particularly the capture and torture scene. A close-analysis of the links between Yojimbo, The Glass Key, and Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest would require a large study in itself.

 

The introduction to the protagonist contains a homage to the wide-open vistas of director John Ford’s westerns. Kurosawa was reputed to be an avid fan of Ford’s use of open spaces as well as his framing device of filming through windows and door frames in a town or domestic scene. Kurosawa uses the panoramic to highlight how lost the protagonist is in the wilderness, and how isolated he is from domesticity and home. As the protagonist is drinking water we see a domestic scene filmed in the style of Ford. Like Ethan in The Searchers our nameless protagonist can only peer into domesticity, symbolised by us seeing him through a door frame.

 

Another aspect of the western that Yojimbo alludes to is the shoot-out or face-off. The formal style of the western influences Kurosawa as the shoot-out is a way of communicating the crucible of emotions that come before violent action. The style of the shoot-out communicates both the spatial environment but also the intense emotional drama that is about to unfold. The shoot-out is also a romantic way of capturing combat. Recent historical evidence shows that most fighting in the American west were ambushes or ‘bushwhacks’. To be shot in the back was more common than being shot facing one’s enemy. With the medicine available at the time it is understandable, however in light of these facts it is evident that the romantic vision of the gunfight was used both as a tool in which he creates suspense and spectacle but also to imbue violent, cruel individuals with a sense of honour and respectability.

 

Yojimbo is a film that both refers to the Japanese genre of ‘Jidai-geki’ a historical genre which ‘primarily refers to films set in the latter part of the Tokugawa era, from the early 1600’s to 1867’ and to the similar western genre.1 Jidai-geki films tend to ‘centre on swordsmen of fictional, legendary, or actual historical origin’ much like the western genre centres around a gunfighter and just like the westerns’ centrepiece of the violent ‘shoot-out and saloon fight’ the Jidai-geki has a comparative centrepiece of ‘violent, realistic sword fighting scenes’.2 In Yojimbo‘s narrative Kurosawa continuously alludes to the archetype Jidai-geki characters. Yojimbo‘s protagonist is the classical masterless samurai or Ronin. A. J. Anderson explains that the Ronin having ‘lost the lords to whom they owed hereditary allegiance… wander from place to place, seeking refuge, employment, or revenge’.3 The central conflict of Yojimbo‘s protagonist is also traditionally Jidai-geki in style. Rather than the central conflict springing from the more traditional external moral conflict between good and bad forces, such as found in many westerns, Yojimbo‘s protagonist’s central conflict is internal rather than external. A conflict between what he wants and what he feels he must do; a conflict between duty or honour and personal gain or desires. When we first meet the central protagonist he wonders aimlessly and throws a stick in the air in order to gain direction. His stay in the town is dictated by satisfying personal desires like hunger and gaining personal wealth. However the longer he stays the more he feels a personal honour and duty in cleaning up the town by forcing the two ‘gambler’ gangs to destroy each other. He stays to help the towns people who aren’t involved in the two gang’s conflict. The narrative moves along first as he attempts to settle an internal battle between his desires and duty, and then to the consequences of his decision. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo follows the Jidai-geki genre narrative structure precisely. Kurosawa uses this traditional Japanese genre because he wishes to analyse contemporary Japan and its changing position concerning personal gain and social duty. This social analysis through genre is exactly like the dialogue America has with its past and present through the western. As Douglas Pye explained, the western is a ‘ confluence of romantic narrative and archetypal imagery modified and localized by recent… experience ‘.4 Essentially the western, and Jidai-geki, is a mixture of a romanticised past, generic characters and imagery which is constantly being re-evaluated with each passing generation of films and film-makers. The construction of character and central conflicts in the western and Jidai-geki are both national in character and hold significant divergences from each other, however they both serve the same function, one of social critique and historical romanticising.

 

1 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), pp. 1-21 p. 1.

2 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, p. 2.

3 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, p. 3.

4 Douglas Pye, ‘The Western (Genre And Movies)’ in Barry Keith Grant (ed), Film Genre Reader II, Austin: University of Texas Press, (1999), pp. 187-202 p. 192.

The Debt to, and Divergences From, Hollywood Cinema in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog

This article continues on from my earlier post: The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. I have decided to produce a full range of reviews and analysis’s of non-Hollywood film. As the title indicates I will start with the brilliant Stray Dog.

 

Stray Dog (1949)

 

Akira Kurosawa’s film contains both allusions to and major differences from Hollywood cinema. One major divergence is the disturbance of graphical clarity. A common aspect of the continuity editing system graphical clarity ensures that the mediating nature of film and the camera are allowed to remain hidden and unacknowledged. Kurosawa’s Stray Dog disrupts clear graphical construction in a scene by filming through a beaded doorway, therefore creating a disrupted and blocked view of the film’s two main protagonists. In the continuity editing system ‘the camera remains relatively unobtrusive, seldom drawing attention to its mediating presence.’ (1) to facilitate this unobtrusive camera style directors’ choose clear and unobstructed views of action which won’t draw attention to the fact that we are watching a film. Even if a director chooses an obstructed view we tend to be given a subjective position, one that does not bring attention to the fact that the screens’ images are mediated through a cameraman. If we are given an obstructed view we are given a reason behind the blocked view. The collection of conventions concerning graphical clarity are contradicted in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. Because we are viewing the action through a beaded doorway we notice our disadvantaged position; we notice how hindered and disrupted our view is and we are offered no reason why we should view from this particular angle. We become conscious of the mediating force that is cinematography. Kurosawa uses this to remind us of the conventions of cinema. Kurosawa uses the technique to disturb our position of knowledge by inferring that all we can perceive is that which the camera, and director, wishes to. Our experience is defined by the mediating force in the same way the characters are defined by what they see. Kurosawa seems to be highlighting this because experience and subjective perception is important in the narrative of Det. Murakawi, both as he learns from the sage Det. Sato and in the revelation of his own similar experiences to the antagonist Shinjiro Yusa; the man with Murakawi’s gun committing the crimes that rack Murakawi with guilt.

 

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog alludes to the Hollywood cinematic forms of Film Noir and the Gangster Film. In one scene a villain, Honda, is called to a front gate of a Baseball stadium by a tannoy system. As he walks down a flight of stairs the screen composition changes and the lighting produces a dark Noir-like affect. Honda, dressed similar to many an archetypal gangster, enters the scene in a normal naturalistic light, however the further he descends down the stairs the further Akira Kurosawa intensifies the sharp contrasting tones producing a chiaroscuro-style scene. Honda wears a white linen pin-stripe suit, as he becomes aware he may be walking into a trap the Camera reverses position and shows only a black silhouette of Honda enveloped by the darkness; his fate is sealed, his relationship with the gun-girl leads to the police locating him, just like many gangster films and film Noirs Honda’s cool command and apparent invincibility is breached through a contaminated relationship with a woman. Honda is a small homage to the doomed antagonist/protagonist of the Noir and gangster films of Hollywood.

 

The skilful use of lighting in this scene is also an allusion to German Expressionism and the stark contrast between subject and surroundings symbolised by Honda’s change from white linen suit to dark silhouette is a typical chiaroscuro technique found in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920). Paul Schrader notes that a common trait of Film Noir is the use of ‘Shadow effects [which are] unlike the famous Warner Brother’s lighting of the thirties in which the central character was accentuated by a heavy shadow; in Film Noir the central character is likely to be standing in the shadow.’ (2) Kurosawa is using this exact technique in the scene with Honda, he is defining Honda’s character and fate as one in the shadows.

 

Another allusion to Film Noir stylistics is the use of water. Film Noir is noted for an ‘attachment to water. The empty Noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain… and the rainfall always seems to increase in proportion to the drama.’ (3) As the film moves to a conclusion rain starts to pelt down relentlessly, The rain increases as the potential confrontation between Murakami and the desperate thief Shinjuro Yusa becomes more and more likely and it is in fact the rain, and the mud that sprays onto Yusa’s trousers as he flees after shooting Sato, that allows the confrontation and eventual capture of Yusa.

 

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog both alludes to Hollywood cinematic genres and contains major divergences from the Continuity System. In this aspect Akira creates a film that contains both national elements of note and internationally recognizable symbols and allusions and therefore Akira has created a brilliant film.

 

1. Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, (2003), p. 312.

 

2. Paul Schrader,’Notes On Film Noir’ in Barry Keith Grant, Film Genre Reader II, Austin: University of Texas Press, (1999) pp. 213-226 p. 219.

 

3. Paul Schrader, ‘Notes On Film Noir’, p. 220.

The Function of Chiaroscuro Lighting and Analepsis in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir. The film noir is a hard genre to define, but it is commonly said to be a collection of Aesthetical Principles and a more cynical outlook during and after WWII.1. Double Indemnity starts with non-diagetic music which installs a sense of urgency and action that mirrors a speeding car. The editing is smooth, as each cut dissolves into another, ensuring a clear understanding that time and space has moved in a linear fashion. The establishing shot of Walter Neff’s workplace stunts this fluid action, the camera then pans right, slowly following Neff into an office; which, conversely to building drama and frenetic action, constructs a sense of suspense. The editing, although linear, manipulates clock time, as the frame speed and scene change slows down as he enters the insurance building, this technique is the editing of a frames’ rhythm between shots. What this editing technique does is change the rhythm and pace of our perception, ensuring we gain a sense of drama and suspense.

 

In film noir lighting is an important aesthetical principle as this give clues to the characters’ function. As Neff enters the office we only see thin bars of white light, projected across his chest, as if he was in a jail. As he switches the light on, the room is flooded with white and all shadows are removed. This technique is called Chiaroscuro2, the artful use of shades in black and white photography. This technique gives the viewer clues about the nature of Neff’s actions; that he is seeking redemption, bringing himself out of the shadows metaphorically, in the form of a confession, into the light. This functions as an instantly identifiable trope which helps the viewer to understand Neff’s character and narrative function as the Male Protagonist – a key component of the film noir. The understanding of characterisation is essential in Classic Hollywood cinema; the opening scene unmistakably uses generic conventions of the film noir to construct Walter Neff, from the lighting of the set, his bare and uninspiring office, the mise-en-scene, and the continuous motif of lighting a match between his finger and thumb.

 

In film noir the narrative is always centred on partial redemption and rationalisation of the male protagonist’s actions. In Double Indemnity this is done through the narrative technique of analepsis, or the flashback. The narrative device of analepsis is a classic film noir device which critic Schrader tells us creates a sense of ‘an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness’3 this outlook is culmination of the pre-war depression and WWII. As Walter Neff starts his confession the camera focuses on his face with a medium close-up. The camera position is mimicking the relationship between police and suspect, and although he’s talking into a voice-recorder, we can assume that we are meant to be placed in that moralising position. The combination of chiaroscuro and analepsis gives Double Indemnity a dark, unsentimental vision of America and in this way Billy Wilder’s Film is a classic film noir.

 

1. Michael Walker ‘Film Noir: Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista) 1994 PP 8-38

2. Billy Wilder was earlier in his career a German Expressionist, and the expert use of Chiaroscuro is most likely due in part to this fact.

3. P, Schrader. ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in B.K, Grant. (Ed) Film Genre Reader II ( Austin: University of Texas Press) 1999 PP 119-221 P220

Ford’s use of John Wayne’s Star Persona in The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne’s star persona, in John Ford’s The Searchers, instructs the viewer insofar as much as it builds expectations about the character he portrays; Ethan Edwards. The importance of John Wayne as a star is captured in the title sequence at the beginning of the film; John Wayne’s name is much larger than his characters, although normal and expected in most Hollywood films, this seems to be indicative of the Hollywood star system that invests more heavily in the actor rather than the actual character.1. Viewers come to a Hollywood text expecting the same tough, charismatic, paternal John Wayne they see in his countless Western and War films; though in the guise of a different character he continuously embodies the attributes of American Culture seen as positive and inspirational.2.

In The Searchers the director Ford subverts this expectation as he manipulates our trust and identification with John Wayne. Wayne’s character Ethan is an overtly racist character, this is a continuous motif of the film, and his actions after finding an Native American grave support this. The scene starts with the traditional continuity editing technique of Match-on-Action; this ensures the movement of the riders between two cuts to different scene locations seem smooth. Ethan shoots the eyes of the uncovered dead Native American, indicating the bitter hatred and anger he has; this act dams the dead warrior to an afterlife, according to his beliefs, wondering the wind and never reaching his Heaven. This violent act, signposts the nature of the journey Ethan is wishing to undertake; he wishes to take revenge on Native Americans beyond death and into the afterlife. This eternal vendetta indicates the mistrust Ethan has in the Western vision of the afterlife and judgement – Eternal Judgement is meant to be Gods.

The play on Wayne’s star persona also helps to create a tension when Debbie comes over the hill to see him: the normal expectation is that he will save her, though he pulls out his gun to shoot her. This is the reverse that you expect from a John Wayne character, and in many ways Ford’s use of Wayne helps the critical vision of the film. Due to the popularity of Wayne we automatically associate with the central protagonist Ethan, but are constantly challenged, through his racist outbursts and violent action, to question our association with him.3. We are also, due to the foregrounding of his racist ideology asked questions about the inherently racist genre of the Western.4. The conflict which arises due to his overt racism can only be effective if it was at first an institutional part of the genre itself. Fords use of generic characterisation and the star system indicates his understanding of Hollywood film as a genre itself, which is more prominent in the Post-Classical Hollywood films such as Deadman.5. Furthermore this understanding ensures Ford can, within generic restrictions of Hollywood and the Western, make political and social observations on the way America conceptualises its present and past.6.

 

1. M, Pramaggiore. & T, Wallis. (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 355-372

2. D, Thomas. ‘John Wayne’s Body’, in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996), PP75-87

3. P, Cobley. Narrative, (London: Routledge, 2006) P69

4.  R, Maltby. ‘A Better Sense of History: John Ford and the Indians’ in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996) PP34-49

5. Deadman. Dir Jim Jarmusch. Miramax Films, (USA) 1996.

6.  S, Hall. ‘How the West was Won; History, Spectacle and the American Mountains’ in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996) PP 225-261

Focalization, Narration and Perspective in Cinema

 

Focalization is the perspective through which a narrative is presented. The style of focalization produces different styles of narrative and different conceptions of character. Hitchcock’s use of focalization ensured a sense of suspense and drama was produced. Hitchcock explained that a ‘Superior range of knowledge creates suspense [the essence of drama] because we can anticipate effects that the character cannot.’1 Essentially this is dramatic irony. Suspense and drama is produced when the audience knows the outcome or some alternative knowledge concerning the action on the screen. The perspective through which narrative is presented is important in the production of this superior range of knowledge. In the film Psycho (1960) when Lila is upstairs searching we are allowed the knowledge that Bates is downstairs. Lila doesn’t know this but we do. We hold our breath hoping that Lila gets out in time and every slow movement that Lila makes intensifies this panic. Hitchcock uses a objective, distant perspective to produce suspense and drama.

The range of knowledge and information we receive concerning that which affects the characters of a film is controlled by the type of narration and the style of focalization. In The Big Sleep (1946) we are given a fixed viewing position. An objective and closed-off focus on the protagonist Marlowe. We don’t get the same form of suspense as in Hitchcock’s Psycho because we never see more than Marlowe. We also rarely let into his thoughts or rationalizations. This can be explained by the attempt to make the film and Marlowe ‘more mysterious …[and interesting because] we do not know his inferences and deductions before he reveals them at the end.’2 However I personally believe this is the incorrect style for the film. I would assert that the The Big Sleep‘s style is incorrect because Chandler’s book and his Marlowe is interesting because of his continuously rationalizing and editorializing narrative.

Another similar film but one with a different style to The Big Sleep is Double Indemnity (1944). In this film we are given both the objective distance of The Big Sleep and a subjective style of focalization. We are also allowed the position of knowledge that Hitchcock utilized in Psycho. The beginning of the film we see a stumbling shot Walter Neff, we are given important information concerning his fate. The film proceeds by telling us how Neff comes to be shot through the technique of analepsis (flashback). What this does is create a marked reading of the events that follow. Our understanding of the chain of events that led to Neff’s destruction are coloured by our privileged position of knowledge. Although I dislike the production of The Big Sleep and its style of focalization it is not because the technique is flawed but rather because the style of the original text, Chandler’s novel, would lead itself to be more subjective and to contain the same style of rationalizing focalizer or voice of the novel.

 

1David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 66.

2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 67.

Eastwood’s Position Concerning the Western and the Western Protagonist

In my post about Coogan’s Bluff i mentioned briefly the motivation for choosing the western protagonist. To back up my position that the Western is popular with both movie-makers and movie-watchers here is a short quote from Clint Eastwood concerning what he believes makes the Western so resilient.

I guess because of the simplicity of the times. Now everything’s so complicated, so mired down in bureaucracy that people can’t fathom a way of sorting it out. In the West, even though you could get killed, it seems more manageable, like a lone individual might be able to works things out some way. In our society today, the idea of one person making a difference one way or the other is remote.1

Essentially it is the dream of sorting things out and having a strong individual do it. Although in the mythic world of the West the western protagonist could exist without too much friction, in the world of today, like in Coogan’s Bluff, the existence of a loner clearing up problems is problematic.

1. Kenneth Turan ‘A Fistful of Memories: Interview with Clint Eastwood’ in Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (ed), The Western Reader, New York: Limelight Editions (1998), pp. 245-249. p.249.