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 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.

Glenn Ford (Dave Bannion) and Gloria Grahame (Debby Marsh) in The Big Heat (1953)
The femme fatale is a nurturing redeemer, without threatening marriage, in 1950s film noir. The Big Heat (1953)

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 andžat 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.

The Marrying Type
Film Noir's Epitaph

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).