No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir
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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 unavailable.)

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 (1940).

18. This pattern is most notable in films such as The Philadelphia Story (1940), Woman of the Year (1942), and Adam's Rib (1949).

19. Johnston, Claire. (1978). Double Indemnity. In E. Ann Kaplan (Ed.). Women in film noir (pp. 100-111). London: British Film Institute. p. 100.

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. 45.

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. p. 130.

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 marrying type.

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.

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).