|No Place for
a Woman: The Family in Film Noir
1. For example, in the
following films, an innocent man is found guilty of murder by the courts: Stranger on
the Third Floor (1940); The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); Dark Passage
(1947); The Lady from Shanghai (1948).
2. Double Indemnity (1944); The Killers (1946); Pitfall
(1948); D.O.A. (1950).
3. I Wake Up Screaming (1941); The Lady in the Lake
(1947); The Big Heat (1953); Touch of Evil (1958).
4. Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
5. Polan, Dana B. Blind Insights and Dark Passages: The
Problem of Placement in Forties Film. p. 29. (Course materials; complete citation
6. Harvey, Sylvia (1978). Woman's place: The absent family. In
E. Ann Kaplan (Ed.), Women in film noir (pp. 22-34). London: British Film
Institute. p. 24.
7. Harvey, p. 23.
8. Polan, p. 27.
9. Polan, p. 27.
10. Leibman, Nina C. (1989, Winter). The Family Spree of Film
Noir. Journal of Popular Film and Television, p. 173.
See also Thomas, Deborah (1986, Summer). Film Noir: How Hollywood Deals
with the Deviant Male. CineAction! pp. 21, 22.
Deborah Thomas suggests that the dominant society at the end of World War II put
pressure on both men and women to abandon roles that they had been playing during
the War in favor of the much more restricting (and mutually exclusive) roles of
husband/father and wife/mother in the suburban, consumer-oriented nuclear family. Film
noir may reflect the tensions caused by a dominant ideology that first encouraged men
and women to take on new roles (soldier and worker, respectively) during the War, then
insisted that they return to their previous roles (or society's version of their previous
roles) immediately after the War:
What I would like to maintain is that an exclusive emphasis on shifts in female roles
as a result of the war and its aftermath obscures equally significant shifts in male
roles during the same period of time.
. . .
. . . In the post-war period in particular, the return to normality may well have
produced ambivalent feelings in men and women alike, giving rise to both noir and
melodramatic explorations of such themes, from male and female perspectives respectively.
Women are not the only ones whom family life and gender norms may constrain, of course,
and many cinematic examples can be given of the oppressiveness to men of family and
small-town life . . . .
11. Leibman, p. 170.
12. For example, Ginger Rogers was pursued by Fred Astaire
through ten musicals from 1933 to 1948; Katharine Hepburn fell in love with Cary Grant in
romantic comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Holiday (1938); Irene
Dunne was the faithful wife in screwball comedies and tearjerkers like The Awful Truth
(1937), My Favorite Wife (1940), and Penny Serenade (1941); Gene Tierney
gallantly put up with husband Don Ameche's affairs in Heaven Can Wait (1943); and
Betsy Drake captured real-life husband Cary Grant in a film whose very title attests to
the national preoccupation with marriage and family following the War, Every Girl
Should Be Married (1948).
13. Some of the most prominent strong but traditional women
include Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940); Sara Allgood as the
indomitable wife and mother in How Green Was My Valley (1941); Greer Garson as the
title character (identified only by her married name) in Mrs. Miniver (1942); and
Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright as loyal, nurturing wife and daughter to Fredric March in The
Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
14. Examples include the mother/wife characters played by
Spring Byington (Little Women (1933), Meet John Doe (1941), The Devil and
Miss Jones (1942)); Beulah Bondi (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It's
a Wonderful Life (1946)); and even Myrna Loy (The Thin Man series (1934-46)).
15. In films like Flesh and the Devil (1927), Anna
Christie (1930), Mata Hari (1931), and Camille (1936), Garbo played a
seductress or a prostitute; in Anna Karenina (1935) and Ninotchka (1939),
she portrayed a woman who refused to submit to a traditional marriage and a woman who
denied the existence of romantic love.
16. For example, in Morocco (1930), Blonde Venus
(1932), Shanghai Express (1932), and Destry Rides Again (1939).
17. Jean Arthur: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1938), Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington (1939); Barbara Stanwyck: Meet John Doe (1941), Ball
of Fire (1941), The Lady Eve (1941); Rosalind Russell: His Girl Friday
18. This pattern is most notable in films such as The
Philadelphia Story (1940), Woman of the Year (1942), and Adam's Rib
19. Johnston, Claire. (1978). Double Indemnity. In E. Ann
Kaplan (Ed.). Women in film noir (pp. 100-111). London: British Film Institute. p.
20. Place, Janey (1978). Women in Film Noir In E. Ann
Kaplan (Ed.), Women in film noir (pp. 35- 67). London: British Film Institute. p.
21. Leibman, p. 170.
22. Thomas, Deborah (1986, Summer). Film Noir: How
Hollywood Deals with the Deviant Male. CineAction! p. 23.
23. Place, p. 41.
24. Leibman, p. 173.
25. Harvey, p. 23.
26. Place, pp. 52, 54.
27. Harvey, p. 27.
28. Harvey, p. 29
29. Harvey, p. 29.
30. Leibman, p. 174.
31. Harvey, p. 33.
32. Place, p. 36.
33. Place, p. 35.
34. Place, p. 54.
35. Place, p. 45.
36. See Harvey, p. 34, n.4.
In a few of the films noirs, for example Pick Up On South Street (1953), the
ending suggests that the lovers are to live happily ever after. However, it can be argued
that the mood created and the knowledge produced by the visual style of the film negates
or undercuts the apparent happiness of the ending.
See also Thomas, p. 25.
A mood of pervasive anxiety produced by these conflicts and the struggle to resolve
them, both by the protagonist and the film, overdetermination (protesting too much) on
either of their parts often signalling particularly sensitive areas of conflict.
37. See Place, p. 35.
Film noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art. Thus woman here as elsewhere
is defined by her sexuality: the dark lady has access to it and the virgin does not. . . .
[W]omen are defined in relation to men, and the centrality of sexuality in this
definition is a key to understanding the position of women in our culture. The primary
crime the "liberated" woman is guilty of is refusing to be defined in such a
way, and this refusal can be perversely seen (in art, or in life) as an attack on men's
very existence. [emphasis in final sentence added]
38. Place, p. 50.
39. See Butler, Jeremy G. (1985, Fall). Miami Vice: The
Legacy of Film Noir. Journal of Popular Film and Television. (13)3.
40. See Place, p. 50.
She [the nurturing woman] gives love, understanding (or at least forgiveness), asks
very little in return (just that he come back to her) and is generally visually passive
and static. Often, in order to offer this alternative to the nightmare landscape of film
noir, she herself must not be a part of it. She is then linked to the pastoral environment
of open spaces, light, and safety characterised by even, flat, high-key lighting.
41. Place, p. 50.
42. Harvey, p. 31.
43. Thomas, p. 18.
44. Thomas, p. 22.
45. Thomas, p. 23.
46. The dialogue in this scene resonates uncannily with that of
the final scene of an earlier Bogart film noir, The Maltese Falcon. In that
film, Bogart's Sam Spade tells the woman he loves that he must send her to jail for
murdering his partner, that his love for her will make his decision difficult (but it will
pass), and that if he let her go free she might someday decide to murder him. The only
significant difference in Bogart's two speeches is the love that Rip Murdoch expresses for
Johnny. In the earlier film, Bogart/Spade had sent the femme fatale to jail out of
a sense of honor and loyalty to his profession, not out of love for his dead partner■whom
he despised. The revision of this scene in Dead Reckoning suggests that the noir
hero had grown more comfortable with male-male friendships than with male- female romantic
relationships, perhaps due to the disappearance of the nurturing woman as a safe (though
temporary) alternative to the femme fatale and the emergence of the dangerous
47. Other examples of film noir in which the male hero
receives unusually sympathetic reactions from other men even his adversaries
include Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and Dark Passage. In Double
Indemnity, Keyes, Walter Neff's boss and the man who investigates his crime, suggests
that Walter is like a son to him. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), the hero in Out of the
Past, relies on the Kid (Dickie Moore), who saves his life at one point, and on a San
Francisco cab driver; in the end, he seems to accept his own death as punishment for
betraying Whit, who had trusted him to find Kathie. And in Dark Passage, Vincent
Parry accepts help and advice from his friend George, a cab driver, the plastic surgeon,
and even the man who attempts to blackmail him, yet he tries to refuse the help of Irene
Jansen, who is essentially the "good woman" of the film.
See also a comment in Harvey, p. 31:
Destructive passion characterises the central male- female relationship [in Gun
Crazy], while the more protective gestures of loving are exchanged, as in Double
Indemnity, between men.
Double Indemnity (audio file, 170K)
48. See Place, pp. 43-44.
The source and the operation of the sexual woman's power and its danger to the male
character is expressed visually both in the iconography of the image and in the visual
style. The iconography is explicitly sexual, and often explicitly violent as well: long
hair (blond or dark), makeup, and jewellery. Cigarettes with their wispy trails of smoke
can become cues of dark and immoral sensuality, . . . .
49. Schrader, Paul (1972). Notes on Film Noir. p. 287.
(Course materials; complete citation unavailable.)
50. See, for example, '50s Hollywood films and film
titles playing on the adversarial nature of marriage: How to Marry a Millionaire
(1953); Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953); Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955); The
Seven-Year Itch (1955); The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956).
51. Ehrenreich, Barbara (1984). The Hearts of Men: American
Dreams and the Flight from Commitment. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. p. 100.
52. Harvey, p. 25.