No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir
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No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir

The Marrying Type
The hero is punished for trying to escape the marrying woman. Pitfall (1948)
The hero is punished for trying to escape from the "marrying type." Pitfall (1948)

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 Good Woman
The Transformation of Film Noir Women

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).