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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Women in Film Noir IV – Containment and Conformity

As i noted in the previous section the representation and then containment of the strong and/or desiring women is  an integral element in film noir (and Hollywood cinema’s) narratives. This representation and containment is determined by, and engages with, the cultural context of America in the late 1930s to the late 1950s. In regard to the representation of women, the vast de- and re-territorialization of the domestic and work sphere during and after WWII is an important determining factor. D&G’s concept of de- and re-territorialization illustrates the process whereby a labour-power is freed from a specific mode of production or territory and then returned. The series of “Inclosure Acts” passed in the United Kingdom during the period of 1750-1860 is a prime example of this process of de- and re-territorialization. The Inclosure Acts forcibly removed any access to common land and animal pasture. The consequence of this act was that many workers were left without the ability to continue working on the land they relied upon. Therefore the Inclosure Act forced thousands of workers to move from self-sustained, rural cottage industries into urban-centred industries. The Inclosure Act de-territorialized workers by freeing their labour from the land (the territory) they traditionally worked on. De-territorialization is therefore the process whereby labour-power is freed from a specific territory or mode of production. The opposite of de-territorialization, re-territorialization is the re-establishment of labour power into a specific geographical location or labour situation. The establishment of mill towns after the Inclosure Acts is an instance of the re-territorialization of “freed” labour force into new jobs (labourer) and geographical location (urban centres). Re-territorialization is therefore the capturing, labelling and enclosing of space (geographical location) or identity (from agricultural worker to labourer).

This process of de- and re-territorialization can be located in film noir’s representation of women and the historical context it both reflects and engages with. During WWII American women were actively encouraged to enter the work force. Krutrik explains ‘one of the consequences of the wartime expansion of the national economy was that women were overtly encouraged, as part of their ‘patriotic’ duty, to enter the workforce’.1 This was engendered by the de-territorialization of women from their traditional role as home-maker. Women were effectively freed from the traditional location they were expected to reside (the home) and allowed freedom to choose which sphere – domestic or work – in which to use their labour. Due to the war the domestic sphere was briefly de-territorialized as the natural sphere in which women resided. However, this freedom did not last because within a capitalist society de-territorialization is always met with a subsequent re-territorialization.2 Once an Allied victory was seen as a likely prospect female labour began to be seen as problematic.3 Michael Renov notes that:

by 1944, the internal memoranda of government agencies show that female work force was being termed ‘excess labour’ and efforts were being made to induce voluntary withdrawal, an attitude even then being transmitted from the editorials of major newspapers, magazines and through other public opinion forums.4

This inducement of “voluntary” withdrawal from the labour market was facilitated through pressure from factory managers and the culture industry (newspapers, magazines, films). By the end of the war these passive inducements gave way to aggressive discrimination and wholesale redundancy.5 In 1946 Frederick C Crawford, chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, asserted ‘From a humanitarian point of view, too many women should not stay in the labour force. The home is the basic American unit’.6 Crawford’s assertion illustrates the change in attitude to women’s labour. During WWII a woman was doing her patriotic duty by joining the labour force. After WWII it was her patriotic duty to return to motherhood and domesticity. During the conclusion of WWII women were therefore re-territorialized, re-rooted as being “naturally” located in the domestic space.

Film noir reflects and engages in this re-territorializing process in its repressive narratives and character archetypes. This reflection is both direct and oblique. A direct reflection of re-territorialization is a film which attempts to deal with the issue or problem clearly in the film’s narrative. Mildred Pierce is one such example of a film which directly reflects the re-territorization of women. Pam Cook notes that Mildred Pierce articulates ‘the historical need to re-construct an economy based on a division of labour by which men command the means of production and women remain within the family’.7 In Mildred Pierce the central female figure Mildred Pierce divorces her husband, builds a successful career and business. However, this success comes at the price of her two daughters (one dies naturally and the other is imprisoned). The film’s resolution then features Mildred returning to her first husband and ultimately being re-installed into her “natural” space; the domestic sphere. Mildred Pierce is therefore a simple reflection of the re-territorialization process of naturalizing and re-installing women as belonging to the domestic sphere. Though some films are direct reflections of this process of re-territorialization most film noirs are oblique reflections. An oblique reflection is a disavowal or a dislocated reflection of a determining social context. In psychoanalysis, a disavowal is a denial accompanied with a simultaneous acknowledgement. This conception of disavowal can be used to illustrate how texts can both acknowledge a problem and attempt to deny its existence. The science fiction genre can be cited as a prime example of this process of simultaneous acknowledgement and denial. Rollerball’s (Dir. Norman Jewison, 1975) narrative reflects contemporary concerns about increased violence in television and sports. It does this however, by situating the narrative in a futuristic, fascistic society. Rollerball therefore reflects contemporary concerns regarding violence while simultaneously denying the problem a place in contemporary America. This process of disavowal can also be located in film noir’s representation of women. The Big Sleep is an example of a film which does not directly reflect the process of de- and re-territorialization that women encountered during and after WWII. The Big Sleep features two financially secure female characters (Carmen and Vivian) that require containment by the male protagonist. Carmen and Vivian are daughters of General Sternwood. The figure of General Sternwood stands for paternalistic capitalist society which requires financially and sexually independent women to be contained within appropriate institutions. Therefore The Big Sleep attempts not to acknowledge the issue of de- and re-territorialization but, through the film’s characterisation and narrative resolution, it obliquely reflects and is determined by the concerns of capitalist society regarding the increased independence of women – financial or otherwise.

1 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 57.

2 As D&G assert ‘The more the capitalist machine deterritorializes, decoding and axiomatizing flows in order to extract surplus value from them, the more its ancillary apparatuses, such as government bureaucracies and the forces of law and order, do their utmost to reterritorialize’. After capitalism de-territorializes it always simultaneously utilizes its institutions to re-territorialize that which was freed. D&G, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p. 37.

3 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 59.

4 Michael Renov quoted from Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 59.

5 Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, (New York: Avon Books, 1974), p. 223.

6Fredick C Crawford quoted from Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream, p. 216.

7Pam Cook, ‘Duplicity in Mildred Pierce‘, in E Ann Kaplan (ed), Women in Film Noir, (London: BFI Publishing, 1980), pp 68-82, p. 68.

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).

Women in Film Noir II – The Importance of the Hays Code

Continuing from my previous article concerning the representation of women in film noir in this article i will set out an analysis of that depiction utilizing Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of capitalism and the desiring machine. As i noted in the previous article Hollywood inscribes the two central female figures as examples of appropriate and inappropriate desire. The destroyer is an example of desire without limits. The redeemer is conversely an example of desire within the (acceptable) limits. The articulation of the limits of desire can be seen as a prime function of the Hollywood desiring-machine. A desiring-machine is a social body which produces, codes and articulates desire. Desiring-machines also install identities by articulating how, why, when and what those subjects will desire. Deleuze and Guattari explain ‘The prime function incumbent upon the socius1, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated’.2 Therefore the production of archetypes is integral to the process of the desiring-machine because it allows a social body to articulate the acceptable limits of desire. This need to regulate the construction and representation of desire is further facilitated by Hollywood’s use of repressive structures such as the Hays Code. The Hays Code, named after its principle author Will H Hays, written in 1930 and adopted in 1934, stipulated what Hollywood films could and couldn’t show. The main intention behind the code was the reaffirmation of traditional moral ‘standards of life’.3 Molly Haskell explains:

In its support of the holy institution of matrimony, the [Hays] code was trying to keep the family together and (theoretically) protect the American female from the footloose American males who would obviously flee at the first opportunity, unless he was bound by the chains of the sacrament, which Hollywood took upon itself to keep polished and shining.4

As Haskell notes, one of the central aspects of the Hays Code was the attempt to ensure that institutions such as marriage weren’t disparaged or insulted. The code achieved this by explicitly requiring films not to ‘infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing’.5 Any character who transgresses these traditional sexual and social norms is structurally required by the Hays Code to be punished and repressed in the film’s resolution. Carmen, in The Big Sleep, is an example of this censorship. The consequence of Carmen’s inappropriate sexuality and promiscuity is her institutionalization. As well as being placed in a mental institution, Carmen is removed from the film’s denouement completely. Carmen is not permitted by the Hays Code to have a positive resolution; Carmen’s ending is complete censorship. The Hays Code is therefore an integral element in the construction of film noir narratives because it informs how transgressive behaviour has to be dealt with.

1 The socius is a social body or organism.

2 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (London: Continuum, 2008), p. 37.

3 Will H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, in Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Second Edition, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 593-597, p. 593.

4 Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 21.

5 W H Hays, ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, p. 595.