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

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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

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

The Transformation of Film Noir Women
Chronological Listing of Films Cited

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).