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.

Advertisements

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.

Basic Film Techniques: Match-Cut

A mach-cut is a cut between two shots which match graphically. This match establishes a sense of continuity and interconnectedness between two different spatial or temporal spheres (space and time). The matching between a shot Z and shot X tends to produce a sense of importance in the connection. The match cut is an editing technique which imbues the different spheres with a sense of metaphor or symbolic relationship. If shot Z has a violent connotation and is matched with X then the action of X will also be imbued with that violent connotation [Although a part of the continuity editing style the match cut is linked to and could be argued inspired by, the montage style and theory of parallelism].

In the beginning of the film Strangers On A Train (1951) we see two different pairs of shoes walk towards a train. The two characters’ footsteps are linked together by a match cut which indicates an inevitable meeting and connection between the two characters’ fate. Essentially the characters are walking the same “footsteps” towards a linked fate. The match cut is primarily a graphic or visual connection between two different spatial or temporal locations. The second function is metaphorical or symbolic and a tool in which to produce meaning by matching two ideas together producing a synthesis of major importance. 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968) matches the throwing of a bone to a space station. The throwing of a bone, after the use of it as a weapon, indicates a leap forward towards humanity [evolution] and a movement forward in scientific progress and the use of tools. These concepts are linked to the space station firstly as the station itself is a tool as such and an indicator of scientific progress but also in larger context of the film as the technology of the space station is a movement towards another leap in evolution: that of artificial life.

The Fog and the Return of the Repressed Other

 

The Fog (1980)

 

The free motif of shattering façades in The Fog is an interesting and important one as it communicates a central issue of the films digesis. Exploring the symbolic nature of a shattering façade we note that it seems to indicate the return – and a violent breaching – of the repressed. Glass keeps the cold and various other elements, such as rain, from entering a house. Glass is a barrier to the elements of the wild; when a glass ruptured those elements are felt. Glass, windows and other barriers symbolise the the things we put up to separate and to keep out those elements of our personality, past and character that we wish hidden and repressed. When a glass, window or other façade is broken it tends to symbolise a fracture or return of the repressed. In The Fog we see several ruptures such as glass windows shattering, shattering dials and crumbling stones. The crumbling stone is the most explicit of all the happenings as it overtly uncovers, or exposes, the filthy secrets that the small Californian coastal town was built on.

 

The repression is not individual in The Fog. The guilt is social, the repression social. In most basic terms the repression is of the “other”. The town was approached by a Danish leper colony whose leader offered a sum of money to be allowed to establish a settlement near by. The town leaders shuddered at the thought of the settlement near by. On a foggy night they drew the leper’s ship onto some rocks causing them to drown. The town built its church will stolen money from the Danish leper’s ship. The destruction of the “other” and the immoral act of enabling this has come back to haunt the present. All American towns can be said to have built themselves upon the destruction and exploitation of indigenous and imported “others”. The fog in the films’ digesis seems to represent a return of the repressed and dominated and the film symbolises the social-psyche’s collective guilt concerning the brutal repression and exploitation of the “other”. Collective guilt is played out in the small coastal town’s terrifying plight against seemingly immortal revenging ghosts [similar to the “Furies” of Ancient Greek Mythology]. The use of fog as a carrier of the returning “other” is also an interesting choice. The fog seems symbolic of the unconscious itself. An ungraspable, untouchable dense something which hides our deepest fears and concerns. As I have noted this sense of the unconscious and repressed resonates through the entire film.

 

Regarding the Kuleshov effect we can see how it relates to the production of meaning in The Fog. In the film we see how the ‘effect’ produces a shock in the audience. The film relates two images creating the connotation that a “ghost” uses a spike to ram into a fisherman’s eyes. We never see this gruesome act however the non-seen act is still communicated because the we link the two acts by their close proximity.

 

Domesticity and Mise-en-Scene in Juno

Juno (2007)

The language of cinema is composed of opposites. In Saussurian terms things are defined by negatives. The film Juno creates a sense of domesticity by positioning a house with a minimalist style as opposite. The domestic scenes of Juno’s family are opposed to the adopting parents’ more stylised and organised home. Conversely the adopting parents’ scenes are opposed by Juno’s family domestic space. The warm cluttered space is posited as not the colder organised space. The colder organised space is communicated as not the cluttered domestic space. These opposed spaces communicate the different lifestyles and characters of the two families. The two spaces seem to indicate the feeling of pre and post child rearing.

In this scene we see the composed organised nature. The fireplace creates a structure that is mirrored by the tables frame. The houses’ ordered and symmetrical nature is even mirrored in the body language of the central actors – the hands sit in a closed and defensive position. Every aspect of the mise-en-scene communicates the organised and ordered.

The domestic space of Juno’s house is shot with an orange tanned hint. This communicates warmth, as opposed to the cool bright light of the organised space of the adopting parents’ home. Even the shot position indicates a sense of disorganised – or at least something of a laissez-faire attitude – as we view over the shoulder with the head still popping in the scene occasionally. The sense of the domestic is further communicated by the collection of photographs sat in disorder, this is opposed to the ordered paintings and ornaments that fill the adoptive parents’ home.

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 Symbolic Ending of Mad Max

Mad Max (1979)

The final scene in Mad Max communicates the cost that society must levy on the individual if it is to function smoothly. Max stands over Johnny the Boy. Johnny is handcuffed by the ankle to a wrecked car. Max sets up a symbolic test for Johnny, which will gauge the sincerity of Johnny’s protest that the crimes committed weren’t his fault. Max sets up the car’s dripping fuel into a time bomb that will explode shortly.

As he hands over a saw Max explains to Johnny that it will take him ten minutes to saw through the handcuffs, but only five to saw through his ankle. This gruesome test is symbolic for Johnny’s inclusion into society; he must amputate himself – remove his ability to function as an individual – to survive. Max offers him death or mutilation. Lawful society requires the individual to sacrifice their ability to function in isolation and Max sets up the symbolic test to examine if Johnny is able to submit to domination.

 

Max himself doesn’t survive this symbolic test unfazed; as the film ends we are given a symbolic image. The camera speeds along the white line in the middle of a road, Max is symbolically on the edge between two opposite lanes; Max is situated between madness and sanity, law and criminality.