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No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir
  Introduction
  World War II
  Pro-Family
  Anti-Family
  Femme Fatale
  Good Woman
  Marrying Type
  Transformation
  Film Noir's Epitaph
  Films Cited
  Endnotes

Other Essays
Film Noir's Progressive Portrayal of Women

Film Noir & the Hard-Boiled Detective Hero

The Outer Limits of Film Noir

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E-mail: blaserj@ada.org




No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir

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Introduction

In a disturbing scene from Dark Passage (1947), a back alley plastic surgeon tells Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), "There's no such thing as courage. There's only fear, the fear of getting hurt and the fear of dying. That's why human beings live so long." He is looking straight at Parry and — through the use of the subjective camera — straight at the audience. His statement is especially striking because it dismisses courage as a myth soon after World War II, rejecting a basic cultural belief that all of America and all of Hollywood had just spent four years trying to build up. Such an attack on society's (and Hollywood's) most cherished values is characteristic of film noir, and perhaps its favorite target is the most fundamental value of all — the family.

In classical Hollywood cinema, as in American culture generally, the family and home life are celebrated as a safe haven from the world outside and a common aspiration of each generation. When we say that a film has a "happy ending," we often mean that the male hero and his female love interest are united in marriage — or seem to be headed in that direction — before the closing credits. Indeed, many of the most popular films of the 1930s and '40s depict the family almost as a cure-all that will save the hero from any trouble, if he or she can only learn to appreciate it. Thus, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939) runs away from home, but discovers in the end that "There's no place like home"; George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life (1946) nearly attempts suicide, only to find that friends and family make any crisis worth living through; and even Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) comes to value Tara, the family home, above all other things.

World War II only intensified American culture's endorsement of society's dominant ideology and the importance of shared values — values that may be said to begin with the "traditional" nuclear family. The urge to affirm marriage and the family, already a popular and therefore profitable formula for filmmakers before the War, became an absolute political and cultural imperative during the war years. As the War came to an end, however, films began to experiment with alternative formulas and introduced a radically different visual and narrative style. This body of films, which is generally thought to begin with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and end with Touch of Evil (1958), became known as film noir for its dark, disturbing visual style and thematic content.

Of course, film noir confronts a range of status quo values and institutions and does not focus exclusively on the family. In many of these films, the criminal justice system is incompetent, 1 the white-collar office is dull and dehumanizing, 2 the police force is corrupt, 3 and even the federal government is threatening and oppressive. 4 Yet, like classical Hollywood cinema, film noir often expresses its view of American society through the image of the family generally and specifically woman's place in the family. Dana Polan suggests that in mainstream Hollywood films, "realizing one's place can only mean realizing one's place in the family. . . . Family and public ideology are indeed one." 5 Sylvia Harvey elaborates on this viewpoint, tracing the complex connections between the depiction of women, family, and society in film:

All movies express social values, or the erosion of these values, through the ways in which they depict both institutions and relations between people. Certain institutions are more revealing of social values and beliefs than others, and the family is perhaps one of the most significant of these institutions. For it is through the particular representations of the family in various movies that we are able to study the process whereby existing social relations are rendered acceptable and valid. 6

Harvey emphasizes the special function that women perform in communicating American culture's view of the family: "[T]he representation of women has always been linked to this value- generating nexus of the family. . . . Woman's place in the home determines her position in society, but also serves as a reflection of oppressive social relationships generally." 7

In film noir, women serve to express these films' skepticism toward the family and the values that it supports. With few variations, noir films divide women into three categories: the femme fatale, an independent, ambitious woman who feels confined within a marriage or a close male-female relationship and attempts to break free, usually with violent results; the nurturing woman, who is often depicted as dull, featureless, and, in the end, unattainable — a chance at conventional marriage that is denied to the hero; and the "marrying type," a woman who threatens the hero by insisting that he marry her and accept his conventional role as husband and father. Each type of film noir woman functions in a way that undermines society's image of the traditional family.

Still, noir films usually stop short of rejecting the family altogether. While criticizing the family and marriage in a fairly overt way, film noir cannot resist the urge to restore or reinforce the family, even if it is only at the last minute. This restoration involves punishing or destroying women (and men) who transgress the boundaries of "normal" family relations or providing a tacked-on "happy ending" in which the hero marries the nurturing woman or even a converted femme fatale who has learned to accept her proper role. In either case, the ending contradicts the content and style of the film itself.

Thus, film noir inverts the classical Hollywood formula of wish fulfillment through the family and marriage — where marriage is the "happy ending" that resolves all conflicts — by denying such an ending or by providing a conventional happy ending that draws attention to itself as unrealistic or inappropriate in the context of a particular film. Indeed, either type of noir ending — the denial of marriage or the unrealistic happy ending — can be seen as a critique of classical Hollywood cinema and the traditional values that it reinforces.


World War II, the Traditional Family,
and Classical Hollywood Cinema

Film noir began to take shape just before the United States entered World War II with films such as Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming (1941), and The Maltese Falcon (1941), but it did not develop fully until the late stages of the War and flourished in the immediate post-War years. Since noir films generally question social and governmental institutions, it seems likely that wartime pressure to represent the United States and American society in a positive light and to keep up the people's spirits prevented Hollywood from exploring the darker aspects of noir while the outcome of the War was still in doubt.

Dana Polan argues that the cultural imperative of wartime America was to promote a sense of community and shared commitment to a single cause — one nation and one people working together to win the War. The family was inextricably linked to this sense of community and commitment. It was celebrated as the foundation on which community is built as well as the motivation behind the war effort itself. The family was seen as "what 'we' are fighting for: the woman in the home, builder of healthy families, prime consumer of products." 8 It was not until after the War that Hollywood felt free — perhaps even obligated — to reassert its independence by revealing the negative side of American society: "[R]ecent work on film noir (especially postwar noir) has read it as a moment of re- relativization of the cinematic institution, its distancing from any simple confirmation of dominant ideological practice." 9

Still, even after the War had ended, American culture — including most Hollywood films - continued to work overtime to support the status quo values of community and family, and to prescribe strict gender roles for men and women. Nina Leibman places post-War film noir in the context of a society obsessed with returning women to their "proper place" in the home and converting men from adventurous soldiers to reliable breadwinners. Leibman points to

the dominant social imperative of post-war America with its emphasis on the importance of nuclear family life, the proper role of the sexes, the superiority of suburbia. . . . McCall's magazine launched an issue on family "togetherness" as the crucial factor in the family enclave. Housewifery became professionalized with a plethora of books and articles extolling the virtues of domesticity and urging women to leave their "Rosie-the-Riveter" jobs for the less tangible rewards of child-rearing and housekeeping. In addition, these articles cautioned both men and women to assume their proper roles lest their aberrant behavior result in untold psychological trauma. 10

Describing a later noir film, The Big Heat (1953), Leibman defines the family as "very much constructed along traditional lines: the working father, the helpmate mother, the child who is both nuisance and source of comfort." 11 It is this image of the "traditional" nuclear family that prescriptive sources such as McCall's and non-noir Hollywood films held up as an ideal to which all "normal" American men and women must aspire. And it is this image of the ideal family and the mass production of that image in American culture (especially classical Hollywood cinema) that film noir calls into question.

Film noir's view of the family contrasted not only with the dictates of society at large, but also with the images or myths of family life propagated by other films coming out of Hollywood. These more mainstream films, dating back to the beginnings of large-scale filmmaking in the early 1920s, belonged to the body of films loosely termed classical Hollywood cinema, or CHC. CHC films depicted a very narrow range of acceptable family relationships and rigid gender roles within the family. They also reinforced the dominant culture's endorsement of the traditional nuclear family as a necessity for successful, "normal" life and the foundation of community and society in general.

The depiction of women in classical Hollywood cinema is especially significant to an understanding of the contrasting images presented in film noir, since both bodies of films express their attitudes toward the family largely through the female characters. Women in CHC films of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s seldom ventured outside of their socially prescribed roles as sweethearts, wives, or mothers to the male hero. By providing a romantic interest for the hero, the woman served the function traditionally assigned to her gender (particularly in film) while allowing the male character to play out his own pre-ordained role. 12 Women in CHC films were allowed to be heroic only within the boundaries of their proper sphere. 13

Meanwhile, by far the most common image of women in classical Hollywood cinema was the wife or mother who was not the heroine, but merely a supporting character for the film's star. 14 Although they may temporarily resist the hero's advances or oppose his wishes, traditional women seldom are depicted as threatening to or incompatible with the hero, the nuclear family, or the status quo. Instead, they promote the ideal of the traditional family by giving up all resistance to the hero, submitting to male authority, and embracing their proper place in the nuclear family.

Still, classical Hollywood cinema does contain many examples of nontraditional women - women who do not readily accept their place in the nuclear family. These characters generally fall into two categories: the dangerous seductress and the abnormally independent woman. Among the women of CHC films, they come closest to achieving the power and independence of the femmes fatales of film noir, but they are not allowed to keep their independence. Invariably, these women are destroyed, punished, or converted to more traditional roles after learning that their independence was a mistake. Thus, rather than challenging the supremacy of the nuclear family, the nontraditional woman in non-noir films ultimately reinforces the family and traditional womanhood as the only acceptable choice for women.

Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich created many of the earliest examples of deadly independent women. Both actresses specialized in playing women who used their sexual attractiveness to ensnare unsuspecting men or otherwise controlled their own sexuality outside of marriage and the nuclear family. 15 But in all of her movies, Garbo's character renounced her independence through her love for the hero or made a noble gesture to preserve the family that she had threatened — often just before her death. Similarly, Dietrich's fallen women are converted to "normal" womanhood or reveal themselves to be soft-hearted, traditional women beneath their heavy makeup. 16

Other examples of strong, independent, but non-film noir women include heroines such as Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh) in Gone with the Wind (1939), the self-reliant career women of 1930s and '40s comedies, and the overtly "feminist" characters often portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. Yet, these women also stop short of the femme fatale's total rebellion against the status quo and the social disruption that she creates. Despite her talent for manipulating men, Scarlett O'Hara is no femme fatale; she dedicates her life to one man, and her greatest triumph is restoring and protecting the family home. The cynical, city-wise career women played so often by Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, and Rosalind Russell usually end up happily married to the hero and cured of their cynicism by the final reel. 17 Even Katharine Hepburn's liberated heroines are chastened for their refusal to embrace traditional womanhood and are forced to "reform" and reassess their values because of their love for the hero. 18

Thus, the majority of Hollywood films produced before and during the appearance of film noir use women to communicate an unqualified pro-family message. They reward women who play traditional roles in the nuclear family, punish women who refuse to stay in their proper place, and convert or castigate women who openly question the validity of the nuclear family and female gender roles. Above all, these films consistently portray traditional family relationships and women's place in those relationships as "natural" or "normal" — so much so that even the most independent women cannot resist the family beyond the end of the film.


Pro-Family Messages in Film Noir

Many critics have argued convincingly that film noir follows much the same pattern of rewarding "good" women and punishing "bad" women as conventional Hollywood films. The rewards and punishments for women (and men) in film noir are especially serious — characters who willingly play their proper roles tend to survive beyond the end of the film, while characters who resist playing these roles often die violently or, less commonly, go to jail. On rare occasions, these films even deliver a Hollywood happy ending, when a family or a relationship that was threatened or torn apart during the course of the film actually is restored in the final scene. Meanwhile, critics who find a conservative message in film noir point out that these films endorse the family not only in their narrative content, but even in their visual style, which creates a negative contrast between the noir world and the world of traditional family life.

Claire Johnston argues that film noir reinforces the male-dominated status quo family by destroying characters who threaten the established order — particularly women. She points out that noir films like Double Indemnity (1944) often depict transgressions against the family that involve a discontented wife who murders her husband. But rather than casting doubt on the traditional nuclear family, these female transgressors exist only to be beaten down and destroyed. This pattern is repeated in classics of film noir such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1945), Out of the Past (1947), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), and Dead Reckoning (1948). The wife who achieves independence through murder inevitably dies violently - sentenced to death by a film that supports the status quo as represented by the law against murder. Film noir therefore provides an affirmation of the dominant social order and a warning against disturbing it:

"Far from opening up social contradictions, the [detective] genre as a whole . . . performs a profoundly confirmatory function for the reader, both revealing and simultaneously eliminating the problematic aspects of social reality by the assertion of the unproblematic nature of the Law." 19

Janey Place agrees that film noir tends to destroy the independent woman as a moral lesson to the audience and to the male characters who fall under her spell:

"The ideological operation of the myth (the absolute necessity of controlling the strong, sexual woman) is thus achieved by first demonstrating her dangerous power and its frightening results, then destroying it." 20

This view of film noir emphasizes the danger that independent women represent for men by tempting them to venture beyond the safety of the family, if only temporarily. Women in film noir tend to express their independence in sexual terms — they use their sexuality to manipulate men, rather than submitting it to the moral code of a traditional family and the control of a husband. Their sexual independence threatens the men and the family relationships around them by providing a dangerous alternative to the traditional family unit. The sexually independent woman serves to reinforce the status quo family because it is through her that the hero learns his "proper place." Thus, in a film such as Pitfall (1948), according to Nina Leibman, the errant husband learns that the only appropriate and indeed safe place for a man or a woman is the nuclear family:

John is bored and cynical about his family life and is looking for excitement. It is John's search for adventure outside the socially approved realm of his family that leads to his relationship with Mona and ultimate danger. . . . Because John dares to criticize the socially approved family unit, because he transgresses the boundaries of such an ideal enclave, he is punished. 21

The same lesson can be found in D.O.A. (1950), a film in which the hero's attempt to escape from a family relationship leads to even graver consequences. Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) takes an out-of-town vacation in order to break free of his fiancée's grasp and to have one last sexual fling, but soon learns that he has been "murdered" with a dose of incurable poison. Deborah Thomas notes that the film makes a clear connection between Bigelow's infidelity and his "murder" — his rejection of marriage leads directly to his death: "Significantly, it is while Frank was trying to pick up another woman in a bar that the poisoned drink . . . has been substituted for his own." 22

Although the characters of film noir often are doomed to suffer severe punishment for their nontraditional behavior, a significant number of noir films might appear to take a different approach to reinforcing the status quo. These films borrow their endings from conventional Hollywood melodrama and romance by allowing the hero and his love interest to overcome obstacles to their relationship and emerge from the noir world into the world of successful marriage and family life. This type of conventional "happy ending" occurs in such noir classics as Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1945), Gilda (1946), The Big Sleep (1946), The Lady in the Lake (1947), and Dark Passage (1947).

Noir films' visual representation of these characters and their surroundings also can be interpreted to show support for the nuclear family and disapproval of independent women and unsatisfied husbands. Traditional women typically appear in daylight or high-key lighting, exist outside of the city's corruption and danger, and live contentedly in the family home. In contrast, the anti-traditional femme fatale, according to Janey Place, "is comfortable in the world of cheap dives, shadowy doorways and mysterious settings." 23

Nina Leibman writes that noir films such as Pitfall and The Big Heat endorse the traditional family by creating a visual distinction between the world of the family home and the noir world outside:

The mise-en-scène displays open doorways, neatly stacked dishes in glass cabinets, kitchens with talkover counters, a charming child's room. The characters interact with the domestic items in a familiar, contented manner.

. . . The nuclear family is reinforced as ideal by the films' visual preference of the suburban home as well as the negative repercussions that befall those who express unhappiness with or neglect of the nuclear unit. 24


Women's Anti-Family Function in Film Noir

The explicit messages of film noir seem to be clear regarding women and the family: Women who transgress the boundaries of conventional family life meet with and deserve the most extreme punishment, and the men who fall victim to their sexual charms meet a similar fate. Characters who resist or threaten the nuclear family become trapped in the noir world, which is abnormal, dark, dangerous, and incompatible with traditional family values. The family home and the women who choose to live there in their proper place appear as ideals or models of correct behavior.

But beyond the more explicit lessons and images lies a much different interpretation of film noir and the function of women in these films. Women in film noir do not merely provide a variation on the pro-family theme of contemporary Hollywood films - rather, they reveal a distinctly anti-family current running just beneath the surface of noir films. This barely hidden message, according to Sylvia Harvey, never amounts to an all-out attack on the status quo family, but it exists nonetheless: "[T]he kinds of tension characteristic of the portrayal of the family in these films suggests the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family." 25

Critics tend to classify the women of film noir into two categories identified by Janey Place: the "rejuvenating redeemer" or "good" woman and the "spider woman" or femme fatale. But noir films also feature a third type of female character, the "marrying type" — a woman who poses a threat to the hero by pressuring him to marry her and "settle down" into his traditional role as breadwinner, husband, and father. These women are qualitatively different from the women of classical Hollywood cinema. Perhaps more than any other single element of film noir, the women function as an expression of the films' underlying skepticism toward the traditional family. Indeed, the three types of female characters are so essential to the meaning of these films and so peculiar to this body of films that they can be seen as part of the iconography of film noir.


1. The Femme Fatale

Of the three types of noir women, the femme fatale represents the most direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family. She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence. As Janey Place points out, "She is not often won over and pacified by love for the hero, as is the strong heroine of the forties who is significantly less sexual than the film noir woman." 26 She remains fiercely independent even when faced with her own destruction. And in spite of her inevitable death, she leaves behind the image of a strong, exciting, and unrepentant woman who defies the control of men and rejects the institution of the family.

The classic femme fatale resorts to murder to free herself from an unbearable relationship with a man who would try to possess and control her, as if she were a piece of property or a pet. According to Sylvia Harvey, the women of film noir are "[p]resented as prizes, desirable objects" 27 for the men of these films, and men's treatment of women as mere possessions is a recurring theme in film noir. In a telling scene from an early noir thriller, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), three men sit in a bar lamenting their unsuccessful attempts to seduce the femme fatale, clearly resenting her inexplicable refusal to be possessed. When one man complains that "Women are all alike," another responds simply, "Well, you've got to have them around — they're standard equipment."

In Out of the Past (1947), Kathie Moffett shoots her way out of a confining relationship with gambler Whit Sterling, but Whit hires detective Jeff Markham to retrieve her. When Jeff asks Whit for some assurance that he will not harm Kathie if he gets her back, Whit answers by comparing her to a racehorse that he once owned. Whit obviously thinks of Kathie as his prize possession. Similarly, Rip Murdoch (Humphrey Bogart) in Dead Reckoning (1947) wishes aloud that women could be reduced to pocket size, to be put away when not desired and returned to normal size when needed.

This attitude is not lost on the women themselves. They feel trapped by husbands or lovers who treat them as "standard equipment" and by an institution — marriage - that makes such treatment possible. Marriage for the femme fatale is associated with unhappiness, boredom, and the absence of romantic love and sexual desire. In Double Indemnity (1944), Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) feels like a caged animal in her husband's home and is driven to murder him largely because he shows no affection for her, only indifference: "I feel as if he was watching me. Not that he cares, not anymore. But he keeps me on a leash so tight I can't breathe." As Sylvia Harvey suggests, film noir attributes the femme fatale's violent behavior at least partially to women's lack of status and fulfillment in conventional marriage:

Other imagery in these films suggests that a routinised boredom and a sense of stifling entrapment are characteristic of marriage. . . . The family home in Double Indemnity is the place where three people who hate each other spend endlessly boring evenings together. The husband does not merely not notice his wife, he ignores her sexually . . . . 28

In some films, the husband's lack of interest in his wife seems almost sadistic. The elderly husband of young and beautiful Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) encourages his wife to spend time with Frank Chambers (John Garfield), as if he enjoys tempting Frank and frustrating Cora. Rita Hayworth receives similar treatment in both Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948). In the latter film, Hayworth is married to a much older man who compensates for his physical paralysis and spiritual ugliness by arranging and then frustrating her relationship with Michael (Orson Welles). Even his insistence on calling her "Lover" has ironic and sadistic overtones, considering her obvious aversion to him.

The image of disabled, paralysed, or elderly men married to much younger women is a further indication that marriage and family life restrict sexual desire and romantic love. Sylvia Harvey sees this recurring image as a critique of traditional family relationships, which appear dull and lifeless, particularly from the point of view of the young, sexually exciting femme fatale:

It is perhaps most clear in this movie [Double Indemnity] that the expression of sexuality and the institution of marriage are at odds with one another, and that both pleasure and death lie outside the safe circle of family relations.

Moreover, there is clearly an impetus in film noir to transgress the boundaries of this circle; for the presence of husbands on crutches or in wheelchairs (Double Indemnity, Lady from Shanghai) suggests that impotence is somehow a normal component of the married state. 29

Another sign of the sterility of film noir marriages is the absence of children produced by these marriages. Childless couples are far more common in film noir than the traditional father-mother-children nuclear family. The husband of the femme fatale may have a full-grown child from a previous marriage (Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet), but the child's age implies that the father's sexual activity is long past and that his current marriage is empty of sexual desire.

The family home only intensifies this atmosphere of coldness and entrapment for the married femme fatale. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis paces the living room as she describes the routine of her life to Walter, crossing and recrossing bars of shadow cast by a window blind — like a prisoner in her own home. When Walter first enters the house, he notices a pair of framed photographs of the father and his daughter — no pictures of Phyllis are displayed, as if she has been frozen out of the family unit. The family home in Murder, My Sweet (1945) is a vast, marble-floored mansion, where echoes drown out people's voices and statues outnumber human beings. Detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) remarks sarcastically that the house is somewhat smaller than Buckingham Palace, and he later describes it as a "mausoleum" and a "fun house."

The lighting and mise-en-scène of the family home contribute further to its image as a trap or "mausoleum," particularly for the femme fatale. Nina Leibman writes that the living space inhabited by the married femme fatale and her husband creates an atmosphere of alienation between the characters:

In Double Indemnity and The Lady from Shanghai, the family home is a huge gloomy mansion. Stairways, room dividers, and davenports split the rooms and the characters. The lack of light gives a haunted feeling to these homes, which are invariably filled with too many knick-knacks, oversized portraits, and fishbowls. 30

These visual cues contradict the myth of the family home as the center of safety, fulfillment, and love. The benefits normally associated with marriage and the family - especially in conventional Hollywood films — are conspicuously absent from the film noir family.

In stark contrast to the visual and narrative representation of the family home is that of the femme fatale herself. She exudes a unique sexuality, which she uses to define herself and manipulate men in order to gain independence from an oppressive family life or relationship. Her body, her clothing, her words, her actions, and her ability to hold the camera's gaze create a highly charged sexual image that defies attempts by the men in her life and by the film itself to control her or return her to her "proper sphere" as a woman. Although she often is destroyed in the final reel, she lingers in the audience's imagination as a sexually exciting, living character who never accepted the role that society had chosen for her. Even in the few films in which she is actually converted to a more traditional role, the violence and power of her rebellion against that role earlier in the film overcomes the contrived ending, so that the dominant image of the femme fatale is one of defiance against the traditional family and woman's place in society.

Noir films create this image of the strong, unrepressed woman, then attempt to contain it by destroying the femme fatale or converting her to traditional womanhood. But the femme fatale cannot be made to serve the status quo so easily — even if that is the film's intention. Both Sylvia Harvey and Janey Place suggest that the femme fatale effectively undermines the supremacy of the traditional family and its values in spite of her final punishment or conversion. Harvey argues that the femme fatale's transgressions against the traditional family constitute a far more enduring image than her final punishment:

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. Narrative resolutions cannot recuperate their subversive significance. 31

Place agrees, asserting that the audience remembers the nontraditional female as free and powerful, not punished and neutralized:

It is not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all exciting sexuality. . . . [T]he final "lesson" of the myth often fades into the background and we retain the image of the erotic, strong, unrepressed (if destructive) woman. The style of these films thus overwhelms their conventional narrative content, or interacts with it to produce a remarkably potent image of woman. 32

Place attributes the femme fatale's unique power to her willingness and ability to express herself in sexual terms. 33 The femme fatale threatens the status quo and the hero precisely because she controls her own sexuality outside of marriage. She uses sex for pleasure and as a weapon or a tool to control men, not merely in the culturally acceptable capacity of procreation within marriage. Her sexual emancipation commands the gaze of the hero, the audience, and the camera in a way that cannot be erased by her final punishment. Place writes that "the visual style gives her such freedom of movement and dominance that it is her strength and sensual visual texture that is inevitably printed in our memory, not her ultimate destruction." 34

Noir films immediately convey the intense sexual presence of the femme fatale by introducing her as a fully established object of the hero's obsession. Since the camera often represents the hero's subjective memory — revealed via flashback — it projects his privileged knowledge about her dangerous sexuality even before he actually acquires that knowledge. Thus, according to Janey Place, the femme fatale's visual and sexual dominance — and the threat that she poses to the hero — are felt from her very first scene:

The femme fatale is characterised by her long lovely legs: our first view of the elusive Velma in Murder My Sweet (Farewell My Lovely) and of Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice is a significant, appreciative shot of their bare legs, a directed glance (so directed in the latter film that the shot begins on her calves, cuts to a shot of her whole body, cuts back to the man looking, then finally back to Lana Turner's turban-wrapped, angelic face) from the viewpoint of the male character who is to be seduced. 35

Her ability to hold both the hero and the audience spellbound continues throughout the film to the point of her death and beyond. In The Lady from Shanghai, director Orson Welles uses the camera to roam over the tanned, swimsuit-clad body of his real-life wife, Rita Hayworth, engaging the audience in the hero's growing obsession. Later in the film, when Elsa (Hayworth) and Michael (Welles) confront each other in an amusement park hall of mirrors, the gun-wielding femme fatale fills the screen via multiple reflected images — at once supremely powerful, cold, and vulnerable.

Even after her death, the strong female character has the power to intrude visually on the narrative, often continuing to "live" through her portrait. In Laura (1944), certainly the most famous illustration of this point, a striking portrait of the dead woman commands the center of every scene in her apartment. The detective assigned to solve her murder actually falls in love with her portrait without ever having seen her alive. Thus, Laura actually re-asserts her independence and power from beyond the grave.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941) features a less celebrated but more extreme example of the femme fatale whose portrait commands the gaze of the camera and the other characters even after her murder. In many key scenes, Vicki's photograph appears at the center of the camera's field of vision. She seems to be watching each character as the investigation of her murder places that character in danger. In the final scene of the film, the camera reveals the full visual power of the murdered femme fatale — the detective's entire apartment is filled with her photographs in a shrine to his obsession.

Attempts to neutralize the power of the femme fatale by destroying her at the end are usually unsuccessful, because her power extends beyond death. But film noir does not always deal with women's transgressions against the family in this way. A handful of noir films add conventional happy endings, in which a converted femme fatale or a "good" woman marries the hero and restores the status quo. In The Lady in the Lake (1947), the supposed femme fatale — an independent, gold-digging career woman during most of the film — suddenly abandons her dream of money and a high-ranking position to become the wife of seedy private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery), who has spent the entire film demonstrating his misogyny at her expense. In Dark Passage (1947), Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) escapes from prison to clear his name of a murder charge, but decides in the end to flee the country for a romantic rendezvous with Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall). Yet, such resolutions seem tacked-on and contrived, and they cannot compensate for the disturbing images created earlier in these films. Rather than reinforcing the status quo, these last-minute reversals merely emphasize the more subversive elements of film noir's visual style, characterization, and narration. 36

In the majority of noir films, however, the femme fatale remains committed to her independence, seldom allowing herself to be converted by the hero or captured by the police. She refuses to be defined by the male hero or submit her sexuality to the male-dominated institution of the family; instead, she defines herself and resists all efforts by the hero to "put her in her place." 37 As Kathie Moffett explains to Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past, "I never told you I was anything but what I am — you just wanted to imagine I was."

It is not surprising that Kathie — alive, independent, and defiant — exerts a much more powerful hold on our imagination and our memory than her ultimate destruction. Even when we acknowledge that the femme fatale is killed at the end of the film, we are more moved by how she is killed. Kathie controls even her death. She chooses to die rather than be captured. Her death is essentially a murder/suicide, because she shoots Jeff while he is driving the car and while she is caught in a police crossfire. Thus, unlike the independent women of non-noir films, the femme fatale remains true to her nature, refusing to be converted or to accept capture, even when the alternative is death.


2. The Good Woman

Film noir's subversive view of family life and women's accepted role in society extends to its portrayal of the "good" or "normal" woman. The good woman embraces her traditional "place" in the family, but she is out of place in film noir. Although she offers the hero a chance to escape from the sexy, destructive femme fatale and the dangerous noir world, the good woman often proves to be a mirage that the hero cannot reach. She functions as a foil for the femme fatale, not as a realistic alternative or a prescription for female behavior. Indeed, Janey Place argues that "the lack of excitement offered by the safe woman is so clearly contrasted with the sensual, passionate appeal of the other that the detective's destruction is inevitable." 38 Ultimately, the good woman suggests that society's prescription for happiness, the traditional family, is uninteresting and unattainable.

The world of the good woman and "normal" family values contrasts sharply with the dominant world of film noir in both visual style and narrative content, as if the cultural ideal of family life — the dominant image of most Hollywood films at the time - is a mere fantasy for the noir characters. In film noir, the American dream is indeed a dream. The good woman often lives in an idealized country setting or in a well- kept apartment, outside of the dark, rain-soaked urban streets associated with the noir world. She is filmed using the visual techniques of classical Hollywood cinema: high-key lighting, eye-level camera angles, and open spaces — free of the disturbing mise-en-scène that surrounds the femme fatale. 39 And she remains passive, nurturing, and nonthreatening — a redeeming angel for a hero hopelessly tempted by the active, independent, and dangerous femme fatale. 40

Within the context of film noir, the good woman and nuclear family life may seem "too good to last" — and they usually are. Ann, the idyllic but featureless good woman in Out of the Past, remains loyal to Jeff even when he tells her that he is mixed up with murder and another woman. The final scene of the film implies that Ann is not strong enough to know the truth about Jeff's death and his continuing love for her; the Kid lies to her in order to make the rest of her life easier — perhaps suggesting that conventional family life is built on such lies. In The Big Heat, police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) first realizes that his family is vulnerable to the noir world when his wife receives a threatening phone call at home — she is later killed by a bomb planted in the family car. Thus, according to Janey Place, film noir depicts the good woman as an unlikely choice for the hero and sees the traditional family as an unsafe and undesirable refuge from the world outside:

On the rare occasions that the normal world of families, children, homes and domesticity appears in film noir it is either so fragile and ideal that we anxiously anticipate its destruction (The Big Heat), or, like the "good" but boring women who contrast with the exciting, sexy femmes fatales, it is so dull and constricting that it offers no compelling alternative to the dangerous but exciting life on the fringe. 41

As Place suggests, film noir exhibits a noticeable lack of balancing or prescriptive images of traditional women and families. Out of the Past contains no marriages at all, with the exception of a brief scene featuring Ann's parents. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity, Laura, and most other noir films, even the "good guys" are unmarried, have bad marriages, or express contempt for marriage. Sam Spade remarks that his murdered partner, Miles Archer, "had a wife who didn't like him" — and Spade should know, because he is having an affair with her. Barton Keyes, the insurance investigator and father figure in Double Indemnity, tells Walter that he once came close to marriage, but canceled the wedding after having his fiancée investigated. Laura's detective Mark McPherson says simply that he has never been married, although a "dame" did get a fur coat out of him once.

Marriage and a stable family life usually are denied to the hero of film noir, reversing the Hollywood formula of romance and melodrama that inevitably ends in marriage for the main characters. The femme fatale is too dangerous and must be destroyed, while the good woman is too far removed from the noir world of the hero. Thus, as Sylvia Harvey points out, film noir admits the possibility of marriage for the hero, only to deny its existence: "It is at the end of the movie [The Lady from Shanghai] a condition of the lonely and frustrating freedom of Michael (as well as for the crusading private eye in The Maltese Falcon, 1941) that he is not married, that marriage is an impossible state for him." 42


3. The Marrying Type

By the late 1940s, a third distinct type of female character began to appear in film noir — the marrying woman. Unlike the femme fatale or the good woman, the marrying woman seriously threatens to domesticate the hero. She pressures him to fulfill his socially approved role of husband and breadwinner — a role that he finds confining, dull, and even dehumanizing. The hero, like the femme fatale, resists his "proper" role within the status quo family and suffers for his transgressions. He also seeks comfort and understanding from male friends or, in a significant shifting of roles, from a nurturing femme fatale. Indeed, in films such as Pitfall (1948), D.O.A. (1950), The Big Heat (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and especially Touch of Evil (1958), the good woman disappears or is split into two personalities: the domesticating marrying type and the nurturing femme fatale. Thus, in the last decade of the film noir cycle, it is the marrying woman who seems threatening and must be neutralized or destroyed, while other men and femmes fatales are seen as nurturing and nonthreatening — perhaps because they can never marry the hero.

The appearance of the marrying woman coincides roughly with a change in the hero himself. In later noir films, the solitary private eye is gradually replaced by the engaged or married white-collar worker or police detective. The hero in Pitfall works for a large, faceless insurance company, and complains to his wife that a person could set a clock by his daily routine; D.O.A.'s Frank Bigelow is a CPA engaged to his secretary; in The Big Heat, Dave Bannion is a homicide detective for the police department; and the ostensible hero in Touch of Evil (1958) is a United Nations narcotics agent. For these more stable heroes, marriage and domesticity are no longer an impossible dream, but an all-too-possible reality.

The opening scene of Pitfall establishes the "perfect" family as the center of a dull, unsatisfying routine for the married hero. The first image of the film shows a woman frying eggs and calling to her husband to hurry up or he'll be late for work. As he sits down to breakfast, insurance man Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell) muses aloud about quitting his job and sailing to South America. His wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt), merely reminds him that he is running late. His son, Tommy, asks him for the $5 that he needs for camp, and his wife says that Tommy also needs new shoes. After complaining about the rising cost of supporting a family, Johnny wonders why his dreams for an exciting and meaningful life have faded, but he receives no sympathy from his wife, only sarcasm:

Johnny: "You were voted the prettiest girl in the class. I was voted the boy most likely to succeed. Something should happen to people like that."

Sue: "Something did — we got married."

Johnny: "Whatever happened to those two people who were going to build a boat and sail around the world?"

Sue: "Well, I had a baby — I never did hear what happened to you. (pause) Oh, come on, Wanderlust. You've got a family to support."

Johnny: "No South America?"

Sue: "Not today."

The marrying women in these films are not "bad" women like the murderous femmes fatales of earlier noir films — they often represent society's ideal of the perfect wife or sweetheart. But it is precisely this status quo perfection that marks them as dangerous to the hero. Indeed, Deborah Thomas argues that the marrying woman can be just as threatening as the femme fatale: "[T]hough the femme fatale is indeed a threat, she is no more so than the so- called 'redemptive' woman intent on the hero's domestication and the restoration of the status quo." 43 Thomas also points out that the hero's anxiety regarding marriage and family responsibilities often runs so deep that he is not consciously aware of it, while the marrying woman knows that she is the cause of his anxiety:

Most striking, given the fact that critical attention has tended to focus on the centrality to the genre of the femme fatale, is the prominence of the "marrying woman" who sets her sights on the hero, to his obvious but unavowed discomfiture, an unease of which such a woman is fully aware, even if the hero is not. 44

Although she recognizes the anxiety that the hero feels toward marriage, the marrying woman cannot understand it. She seems to accept without question the rules that society has laid down for marriage and family life, willingly playing her prescribed role and expecting the hero to do the same. In Pitfall, when Johnny complains, "Sometimes I feel like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel," his wife replies drily, "You and 50 million others." In Kiss Me Deadly (1955), detective Mike Hammer unravels the mystery behind an escaped mental patient's death, only to be criticized by his fiancée (who is also his secretary) for needlessly pursuing "the great whatsit" — implying, perhaps with good reason, that he is using the mystery as an excuse to avoid her. And in D.O.A., Frank Bigelow's fiancée, Paula (Pamela Britton), reluctantly accepts his decision to take a vacation alone, while expressing his fear of their upcoming marriage:

Paula: "Frank, you'll take me with you, won't you? You will, won't you? Or am I crowding you?"

Frank: "What do you mean, crowding me?"

Paula: "Maybe you do need this week away alone. Maybe we both do. I know what's going on inside of you, Frank. You're just like any other man, only a little more so. You have a feeling of being trapped, hemmed in, and you don't know whether or not you like it."

It soon becomes clear that Frank does know whether or not he likes feeling "hemmed in" — he flees from Paula and imminent domesticity for a hotel in San Francisco filled with convention goers and available women. Upon arrival, he cuts short a phone call with Paula to join a party in the hallway, and when he follows the party to a jazz club, Frank immediately attempts to pick up an attractive woman at the bar. It is at this point, as he tries to initiate one more sexual encounter before marriage, that Frank's drink is poisoned. The next day, Frank learns that he has been "murdered," and as he sets out to track down his killer, he also begins to see Paula and his now impossible marriage in a new light. Frank slowly realizes that he never loved Paula more than when he learned he would not live long enough to marry her.

The timing of Frank's murder suggests two opposite interpretations: It is obvious that he is being punished for betraying his engagement to Paula, but it is equally clear that his engagement is directly linked to his death — that Frank would not have been susceptible to murder if he had not first been threatened with marriage. But more important is Frank's reaction to the completely unexpected news that he is going to die. Even as he gives in to panic and runs from the doctor's office, he begins to reassess his relationship with Paula — a relationship that he has lost forever. Deborah Thomas describes a brief scene at this point in the film that indicates the noir hero's inability to appreciate marriage or the marrying woman until the threat of marriage and domesticity has been removed:

[T]he men . . . seem both to resist marriage and to deny that they are doing so, unable to resolve their ambivalence until the dangerous alternatives to a conventional marriage have proved to be dead ends. This happens literally in D.O.A., Frank Bigelow/Edmond O'Brien incurably poisoned and doomed to death before he can — "safely" — feel sentimental about marriage and family (it is after his condition is confirmed at the hospital . . . that a lingering shot is provided of his looking at a little girl, and then at a young romantic couple). Frank's included in the shot. Marriage and family can be idealized only when they are doomed (The Big Heat [1953]) or out of reach. 45

The hero in Dead Reckoning also resists marriage and suppresses his feelings for the marrying woman until the possibility of marriage has been eliminated. Rip Murdoch meets Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) while investigating the murder of his wartime buddy, Johnny. Coral soon senses Rip's anxiety about their relationship and gives him a playful yet serious warning: "Be careful what you say to me — I'm the marrying type." Rip tries to follow her advice, but finds himself falling in love with her. He is saved by the discovery that Coral was part of the conspiracy that led to Johnny's death. As he drives her to the police station, Coral shoots him, causing an accident that leaves her mortally injured. In the film's final scene, Rip holds Coral's hand as she slips into unconsciousness. Although he has been the cause of her destruction, Rip comforts her while she lies dying on a hospital bed; his love for the marrying woman can be expressed safely only at the point of her death.

The noir hero's fear of marriage and conventional family life leads him to seek comfort not from the nurturing woman — who has become the duplicitous marrying type — but from other men and, particularly in '50s noir, from nurturing femme fatale-type women. It is Rip's love for Johnny that saves him from a potentially fatal relationship with Coral. Rip and Johnny seem to have enjoyed unconditional friendship. They parachuted into enemy territory together during the War; they spent their furloughs together; they even had their own private cipher for writing messages that only the two of them could understand. When Rip realizes that Coral played a part in Johnny's murder, he tells Coral (whom Johnny had nicknamed Dusty) that his love for Johnny is stronger than his love for her, and that this love makes it easier for him to send her to the electric chair:

Rip: "You're going to fry, Dusty."

Coral: "Rip, can't we put this behind us. Can't you forget?"

Rip: "The trouble is I can't forget that I might die tomorrow. Suppose you got sore at me some morning for leaving the top off the toothpaste tube? Then there's Johnny. When a guy's pal's killed he ought to do something about it."

Coral: "Don't you love me?"

Rip: "That's the tough part of it. But it'll pass. Those things do in time. Then there's one other thing: I loved him more." 46

Another indication that Rip Murdoch feels more comfortable with male friends than with femme fatale/"marrying type" Coral Chandler — even when he is in love with her - is his choice of nicknames for her. (She is seldom addressed as Coral.) In the beginning of the film, when he suspects her involvement in Johnny's murder, Rip uses the nickname that Johnny had given her, Dusty. As their relationship grows closer and they decide to make a fresh start at life, she asks him for a new name — which she also would do if they were to be married. Rip signals his newfound trust in her by choosing a male nickname, Mike. But when he later finds proof that she was involved in the murder, Rip again calls her Dusty. He returns to using his affectionate name for her — the name that he gave her, suggesting marriage — only when she is dying. His deliberate decision to use her male nickname only when he trusts her and when marriage has become impossible implies his mistrust of women and the threat of marriage that they represent. 47


The Transformation of Film Noir Women

The three types of film noir women appear throughout the noir cycle, but as the immediate post-War years give way to the 1950s, a shift begins to take place in the treatment and function of these female types. The good woman, who offered an idealized but unattainable vision of domesticity for the hero of 1940s noir, becomes even more elusive in later noir films, often proving to be too vulnerable to survive through the end of the film. The more threatening marrying type becomes far more common and tends to replace the femme fatale as the source of the hero's anxiety and danger. And the femme fatale, whose unchecked sexuality was indeed "fatal" to herself and the hero in 1940s noir, is transformed into a "nurturing redeemer" who does not threaten the hero because she does not expect to marry or domesticate him.

While the hero in later noir films often gains friendship, aid, and sympathy from the other male characters, he also finds a nurturing femme fatale-type woman who offers him even more. This new type of femme fatale gives the hero something that his male friends cannot: a safe romantic alternative to the threatening marrying type (because she is not a potential wife) or even an idealized vision of the past (a function previously served by the "good woman"). As the "good woman" is replaced by the far less angelic marrying woman — who takes on many of the characteristics of the femme fatale — the "nurturing" femme fatale becomes a source of comfort, understanding, and redemption.

This shifting of noir conventions can be found in Pitfall in the contrast between Johnny's wife, who makes little effort to understand his discontentment within the "perfect" family, and Mona Stevens, who offers Johnny comfort and refuge even when she learns that he is married. In earlier noir films, Mona — the "other woman" — would have been cast as a femme fatale, while Sue, content to be a wife and mother, would have been an idealized nurturing woman. Instead, Mona ends her relationship with Johnny because she does not wish to break up his marriage and ultimately sacrifices herself — by killing Mac — to protect Johnny and his family. Johnny's wife, on the other hand, refuses to forgive his infidelity and demonstrates throughout the film that the family is rigid and insensitive to the needs of the husband. Although Johnny's family is restored, Pitfall cannot be said to have a "happy ending" — the only heroic character, Mona, is led off to jail, while Johnny's unhappy family life is made worse by the sin of his infidelity.

In The Big Heat, marriage and the family prove to be sources of both vulnerability and danger. When police sergeant Dave Bannion attempts to bring down the city's most powerful gangster, Lagana, his wife is killed by a car bomb in the family's driveway. Nonetheless, Bannion refuses to drop the investigation and soon discovers that Lagana is being blackmailed by Bertha Duncan — a traditional woman on the surface who turns out to be a femme fatale. Mrs. Duncan's husband had committed suicide in the film's opening scene, leaving his wife a detailed record of Lagana's illegal activities. But rather than make the record public, Mrs. Duncan uses it to extort a lifetime income from Lagana, while playing the part of a grieving widow. Thus, marriage in The Big Heat offers only a fleeting period of happiness that is too easily cut short, or a loveless relationship that the married woman uses to satisfy her greed.

A more significant reversal of roles takes place when the film's ostensible femme fatale, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), acts as a redemptive woman for Bannion following his wife's murder. At first glance, Debby, the girlfriend of Lagana's psychotic henchman, Vince (Lee Marvin), appears to be a typical femme fatale. But when Vince deliberately scars her face with boiling coffee, she decides to join Bannion in seeking revenge on Vince and Lagana. Debby not only helps Bannion destroy Lagana's organization, she also saves him from the self- destructive depression he experiences after his wife's death. It is Debby who first persuades Bannion to talk about his wife, in a scene suggesting that his recovery could not have begun without her. Debby therefore offers redemption to the hero without threatening to domesticate him.

Perhaps the most extreme variation on the redemptive femme fatale, however, occurs at the end of the film noir cycle in Touch of Evil. When corrupt police chief Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) is pursued by UN narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Charleton Heston), he finds temporary refuge in a brothel that he used to visit regularly. There, Marlene Dietrich's madame — like the good woman of earlier noir films — represents for Quinlan an idealized and unattainable past. Tanya has all of the surface characteristics of a mysterious spider woman: long, dark hair, earrings, a foreign accent, heavy makeup, and an ever-present cigarette trailing smoke that obscures the jaded expression on her face. 48 Yet, as each of Quinlan's friends abandons him, Tanya alone remains true to Quinlan andþat least for a moment - helps him escape both from Vargas and from his own self-created demons. The film implies that she loved him, and indeed she is the only person who appreciates the tragedy of his fall and seems moved by his death.

In contrast to Dietrich's redemptive prostitute, Suzy Vargas (Janet Leigh) embraces her traditional role within the status quo family. But in this film, as in Pitfall, D.O.A., The Big Heat, and Kiss Me Deadly, the traditional woman has become a source of danger, vulnerability, and restraint rather than redemption. Although Suzy is in almost every way the opposite of Tanya — blond, married, American, and remarkably innocent, considering her husband's profession — she exhibits some of the characteristics of the classic femme fatale. Indeed, the severity of her punishment in this film suggests that as the film noir cycle came to an end the traditional married woman represented a threat to men at least equal to that of the femme fatale of earlier noir films.

Unlike earlier traditional women, Suzy exudes an exaggerated sexuality that commands the gaze of the male characters and of the camera. Like the femme fatale of classic film noir, Suzy is fully aware of her sexual attractiveness and even takes steps to accentuate or advertise it. She often is seen dressing or undressing in front of the open window of her hotel room, and she tends to wear tight-fitting clothing that sets off her figure. This aspect of Suzy's behavior marks her less as a classic "good" woman than as a sexually threatening femme fatale, particularly within the context of this film. Reflecting as it does the dangerous image of the femme fatale, Suzy's extreme sexuality inevitably leads to the containment and punishment that film noir usually inflicted on such women.

Suzy also shows "abnormal" independence in her choice of a husband. In a film that associates guilt with crossing boundaries — the murder takes place at a border checkpoint; Quinlan changes from a good cop to a bad one; Vargas's concern for civil rights becomes a quest for revenge — Suzy's decision to marry a Mexican man incurs a heavy penalty. Meanwhile, Suzy's threat increases as she tries to persuade her husband to put aside his duty as a narcotics agent and continue their honeymoon. She does not understand his need to expose Quinlan and urges Vargas to leave before his investigation is complete. Vargas feels constrained by her presence and sends her to a motel outside of town. It is here that she is terrorized and drugged by a gang sent by one of her husband's enemies — a sign of the vulnerability that Suzy causes for her husband.

The sadistic violence and the duration of this attack, which demoralizes Suzy and renders her helpless for the rest of the film, suggests torture or even rape. Suzy's punishment is therefore more extreme and perhaps more disturbing than the punishment suffered by even the most dangerous femme fatale. Significantly, Suzy is a traditional woman who is punished severely, not for transgressing the boundaries of the traditional family, but for attempting to hold her husband within those boundaries. Thus, in the final film of the noir cycle, the film that Paul Schrader calls "film noir's epitaph," 49 it is the traditional married woman whose very existence is a threat and who must be reduced to powerlessness, while a prostitute — the ultimate unmarried woman who demands no commitment from men — is portrayed as nonthreatening and nurturing.


Film Noir's Epitaph

The reworking of the classic femme fatale/nurturing woman dichotomy evident in Touch of Evil and even in earlier films like 1948's Pitfall indicates that, in the last decade of the film noir cycle, filmmakers consciously altered noir conventions developed for the 1940s to reflect the American psyche of the 1950s. As early as 1948, the "threat" of the independent female represented by working women during World War II had been effectively contained by the post-War marriage and baby boom. But this feminine threat was rapidly being replaced by a new, equally threatening image of woman — the demanding housewife. Particularly during the 1950s, women often were viewed either as shameless gold-diggers out to capture wealthy husbands or as selfish housewives relentlessly pressuring their husbands to play the traditional role of breadwinner. 50 Indeed, as Barbara Ehrenreich observes in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, which chronicles a male revolt against domesticity beginning in the 1950s, men increasingly saw marriage and family life as a self-serving scheme devised by women:

The popular masculine wisdom of the fifties was that women had already won, not just the ballot, but the budget and most of the gross national product. Homemaking was a leisure activity reserved for the more powerful sex, while a proletariat of husbands labored thanklessly to pay the bills. 51

In this context, it is not surprising that film noir — always suspicious of women — reconfigured its conventions to question the latest perceived threat to masculinity. In Touch of Evil, Kiss Me Deadly, D.O.A., Pitfall, and even The Big Heat, men and women are more alienated from one another than they ever were in the classic period of film noir, and the basis for that alienation is marriage and the family — or its possibility.

This skillful reshaping of noir conventions reminds us that film noir is by definition a reshaping or rejection of Hollywood formulas and, by extension, Hollywood's endorsement of the status quo family. And no convention is more strongly associated with classical Hollywood cinema than the happy ending in which the hero marries the woman he loves. Yet in film noir, no convention is more often reworked or rejected. Although film noir typically offers the hero a chance to marry the femme fatale, the good woman, or the marrying type, the hero (and the film) consciously or unconsciously makes such a resolution impossible. Moreover, marriage cannot serve as the resolution of a noir film or the goal of its characters without disrupting the continuity of the film, particularly when the body of the film attacks or questions the norms of conventional family life.

In rejecting the formula of Hollywood romance, film noir exposes the myths by which we fulfill our desires — e.g., the happy ending in marriage — as well as the myth of the family itself. That is, noir films question not only marriage and the traditional family, but also the cultural supports (e.g., popular films) that reinforce these institutions. Sylvia Harvey concludes that, by replacing the formula of romance - the fulfillment of desire through marriage — with the frustration of desire and the denial of marriage, film noir questions the validity of both the classical Hollywood formula and the values that it endorses:

[R]omantic love and the institution of the family are logically and inevitably linked. The logical conclusion to that romantic love which seeks always the passionate and enduring love of a lifetime is the family, which must serve as the point of termination and fulfillment of romance. And if successful romantic love leads inevitably in the direction of the stable institution of marriage, the point about film noir, by contrast, is that it is structured around the destruction or absence of romantic love and the family. 52


First posted: January 1996
Last updated: April 1999

All text is copyright (c) 1994-1999 John Blaser. E-mail: blaserj@ada.org. Permission is granted to link to this material from other World Wide Web or Internet sites with notification to the author, but please do not reprint or redistribute any of these pages without prior written permission from the author.

Photos and audio files provided courtesy of Terri's Film Noir Home Page (no longer online).