"In the dark melodramas of the Forties, woman came down from her pedestal and she didn't stop when she reached ground. She kept going -- down, down, like Eurydice, to the depths of the criminal world, the enfer (Hell) of film noir -- and then compelled her lover to glance back and betray himself." - Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape
Film noir "was a movement that washed over Hollywood like a black tide" in the post-World War II years (Muller). The term film noir, coined by French film critics during 1940's, is used to describe a specific type of American crime or detective fiction. The literal meaning of film noir is "black film," and this appellation works on two levels. First, it reflects the genre's murky and often formulaic plot structure, with its pessimistic view of human nature, e.g., the intervention of fickle Fate. Also, the storyline is usually convoluted (more on this below). In addition, there is a pronounced use of shadowy lighting effects in noir films.
Noir movies can be identified by a structure involving certain visual and thematic conventions. They generally have convoluted plots, often with a displaced sense of time. The labyrinthine narrative accentuates the feeling of anxiety and contributes to noir's overall mood of trepidation and hopelessness (Borde and Chaumeton, 12-15). Noir also features the theme of greed, coupled with the cynical view of the human condition and the circuitous plot mentioned earlier. Noir characterizations also tend to the generic: usually there is a male protagonist, from whose subjective viewpoint the tale is told -- often in flashback -- and there may be a so-called good woman, who wants to protect the hero from her opposite, the conniving femme fatale. The femme fatale, unlike the good woman, rejects the constraining female roles of devoted wife and loving mother established by the patriarchy. Instead, the sexually attractive spider woman -- manipulates the hero, luring him away from the good woman and into her web of intrigue. Thus she embodies a "direct attack on womanhood and the nuclear family" (Blazer, "No Place for a Woman").
In regard to visual
techniques, noir films have overt Expressionistic stylistics (including the
aforementioned strong shadows, sharp angles, and an emphasis on reflective surfaces),
which are evinced in the setting (mainly dark city streets, nighttime scenes, in seedy bars, run-down
rooming houses and dank alleyways). The mise en scène is often dominated by oblique and
vertical lines, which tend to splinter the screen and cut characters off from one another
visually, as well as spiritually (Stankowski). There is a marked
attraction to water, which appears on rain-drenched streets or scenes shot at a
dock or pier (Schrader, 176). In addition, there are aural effects:
loud noise, such as guns being fired, wailing police sirens and blaring jazz music.
Before delving into the specifics of noir's femme fatale, it is important to look at sociological reasons why noir surfaced when it did. First, some film theorists feel noir is specific to a certain historical period, the aforementioned World War II years and its aftermath. Second, societal views held during this era are documented in noir pictures, especially the characterization of the conniving femme fatale.
There has long been a debate as to whether film noir is a genre, and there are cogent arguments on both sides. Stuart Kaminsky calls it "a genre that really began around 1940" (Kaminsky, 84). Noir has also been called "a genre deeply rooted in the nineteenth century's vein of grim romanticism ...The visual mood was intensely romantic, and its precise matching to the stories of fatal women and desperate men gave forties film noir its completeness as a genre" (Higham and Greenberg, 19, 21). However, arguably the most authoritative voice on the argument belongs to filmmaker and theorist, Paul Schrader:
Film noir is not a genre ... It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood ... A film of urban nightlife is not necessarily a film noir, and a film noir need not necessarily concern crime and corruption. Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic's definition against another's. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir? (Schrader, 170-171).
It seems reasonable to agree that American noir is indeed a movement rather than a genre. When taken as a whole, noir contains none of those easily identifiable elements that make up a genre, i.e., there is no standard group of characters, settings, or iconography that appear in all, or even very many, films noirs, including the spider woman. (For example, the noir section of It's a Wonderful Life has no femme fatale.) One writer critic spells this out for us:
While Westerns have their Dodge City cowboys and horror films have their subterranean monsters, film noir is defined by the more elusive qualities of mood, style, and tone. And it is just that elusiveness that allows each critic to form his own personal definition of film noir and to include or exclude various films at whim (Stankowski).
Why was the World War II era ripe for the flowering of noir? Many American servicemen returned from the World devastated by the horrors they had seen and/or experienced, especially GI's who had been to concentration camps. When they came home, they were no longer drawn to movies featuring light-hearted fare. (This is one reason why Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, released in 1946, did not attract wide audiences when it was first released. Despite its dark "if George had never been born" sequence, the concept of an angel helping a man on Christmas Eve seemed too whimsical to audiences of that era.) According to film theorist Thomas Schatz:
Hollywood's noir films documented the growing disillusionment with certain traditional American values in the face of complex and often contradictory social, political, scientific, and economic developments. On the one hand, big business and widespread urban growth offered Americans increased socioeconomic opportunity but on the other, it left them with a feeling of deepening alienation. Changing views of sexuality and marriage were generated by the millions of men who had served overseas and by millions of women pressed into the work force. The post-war "return to normalcy" never really materialized B the GIs' triumphant homecoming only seemed to complicate matters and to bring out issues of urban anonymity and sexual confusion ... These concerns tinged Hollywood's traditional macho-redeemer hero and domesticating heroine with a certain ambiguity and brought two other character types into the midst of the Hollywood constellation: the brutally violent, sexually confused psychopath and the patly named femme noire, that sultry seductress who preys upon the hero and whose motives and allegiance generally are in doubt until the film's closing moment (Schatz, 113-4).
During World War II, Russia was America's ally, but this, of course, changed when the war ended and the Red Scare surfaced. The deployment of the atomic bomb and the emergence of the Cold War led to the threat of nuclear destruction. Essayist Michael Wood explains:
The symbolism is enough to frighten off any but the most intrepid Freudians: the bomb dropped on Bikini was called Gilda (after Rita Hayworth's character in the eponymously named film) and had a picture of ... Hayworth painted on it. The phallic agent of destruction underwent a sex change, and the delight and terror of our new power were channeled into an old and familiar story: our fear and love of women (Wood, 51).
In other words, despite the overtly phallic shape of the atom bomb (beautifully rendered cinematically at the denouement of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, both in terms of the bomb itself and the mushroom shaped cloud it creates) and the fact that it was created and deployed by men almost exclusively, World War II bombers transferred the gender of the bomb from male to female. Since the cinema is both a mirror and a repository of societal myths, it is not problematic to see how this association of women with explosive power was transferred to the noir woman, someone whom, as we shall see, possesses a great deal of power, if only for a while. No wonder we refer to them as bombshells!
THE NOIR WOMAN
According to feminist film theorist Janey Place, most of art, including films noirs, is "a male fantasy...(which) gives voice to... unacceptable archetypes...The mouth of the sexually aggressive woman (or criminal man)...allows sensuous expression of that idea and then destroys it. And by its limited expression, ending in defeat, that unacceptable element is controlled" (Place, 35-6)
The classical period of film noir gives us with one of the few periods in cinema in which "women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality" (Place, 37-8). Indeed, in film noir, the spider woman's appeal is highly sexual. She uses her sexual power to get the (male) protagonist to do her bidding, whether it's robbing a bank or killing her husband. Her strong allure is, of course, seen as a threat to the ruling patriarchy. In fact, her allure is so strong, she has been compared to "a spreading cancer" (Oliver and Trigo, 27).
Unlike the dominant view of women in the 30's which presented them as weak and needing male protection, and in the early-to-mid 40's, when they had be strong and independent while men -- husbands/boyfriends/fathers/brothers -- were fighting overseas, the noir woman is strong and men need to fear her. "(I)t is clear that men need to control women's sexuality in order not to be destroyed by it. The dark woman of film noir ha(s) something her innocent sister lack(s): access to her own sexuality (and thus to men's) and the power that this access unlocked" (Place, 36). In classic noir, the power of the femme fatale is set forth, and she almost always ends up punished -- often with death -- in order to contain her sexuality and the threat it poses to the patriarchy.
However, despite punishment meted out to the femme fatale in classic noir, she still ends up a triumphant figure. This is because noir films showcase defiant women waging personal battles against the narrow societal positions assigned to them. It is obvious that the femme fatale is struggling for independence -- usually looking to get out of a suffocating relationship -- because she feels she's being treated as a "piece of property or a pet," a mere possession. Indeed, men objectifying women is a motif of noir films. Consider a scene from the early noir thriller I Wake Up Screaming (1941): Three men sit in a taproom, bemoaning their failure to entice a femme fatale who clearly resents their come-ons. When one of them complains, "Women are all alike," his buddy quips, "Well, you've got to have them around; they're standard equipment."
The image of intrepid spider women resonates with us, long after noir movies have ended, maybe because she remains steadfast to her "destructive nature" and resists being converted into docility, despite punishment -- perhaps even death -- for her transgressions. Instead of the usual happily-ever-after myth of wedded bliss propagated by Hollywood, with the family manse posited as a haven of "safety, fulfillment, and love," marriage for the femme fatale is replete with misery and ennui, devoid of romance and sexual longing. It is notable that in lieu of the typical nuclear family, the spider woman is usually in a childless union, and sometimes (as in The Lady from Shanghai), there is a strong hint that the controlling husband from whom the femme fatale is trying to escape is impotent. (See more on this above.) So it can be construed that noir films present a radical departure from Hollywood's nirvana-like view of marriage; instead, they depict it as a stifling institution (Blaser, "Progressive Portrayal"). Thus, films noirs in general and the femme fatale in particular effectively undermine the supremacy of the traditional family and its values: "Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained. Narrative resolutions cannot recuperate their subversive significance." In other words, it is not the spider woman's "inevitable demise we remember ...The final lesson of the myth often fades into the background and we retain ... their ... dangerous, and above all exciting sexuality ... the (potent) image of the erotic, strong, unrepressed woman" (Harvey, 33).
ICONOGRAPHIC TRAITS OF THE
Desire for freedom, money and/or a man's position, e.g., to own a nightclub, not be merely the nightclub owner's wife. This obviously transgresses acceptable female roles established by the patriarchy.
Often has long hair and painted fingers (sometimes claw-like); she wears make-up, jewelry and clothing, including fitted suits and high heels, which underscore her sexuality.
May be dark-haired and/or dressed in black to indicate her wily nature, or can be blonde and/or dressed in white to seduce the audience into thinking she's innocent and naive
Associated with phallic images, which allude to her desire to subvert the gender roles established by the patriarchy
cigarettes, providing not only phallic imagery, but also trails of smoke which allude to the way the spider woman masks her true intentions
possession and/or the wielding of a gun, another phallus substitute, in a nod to the inherent violence of noir's world
Being at the center of
compositional focus, usually either in the middle of the film frame or in the foreground, the
object of "the gaze" of the camera, men within the narrative and expected to
appeal to men in the viewing audience, as well
Tangentially, when the film's hero is in the same film frame, he is often in a submissive position.
Having the camera shots linger on her body, particularly her legs, showcasing her as sexually alluring
Shots of her from the point of view of the protagonist who is captivated by her beauty and sexual allure
Often stationary and sometimes symbolically imprisoned by the composition, as in the horizontal lines of a window blind, or the vertical lines of a fence or staircase
Surrounded by mirrors, suggesting her "duplicitous nature," as well
as a "self-absorbed narcissism" (Place, 47)
Similarly, she may have a double, expressed in painted portrait (Place, 50)
Wearing veils which, like trails of smoke, hint at the fact she's trying to hide something
Using her voice as well as her physical beauty to seduce men
Her youth and beauty contrasted with images of old and/or disabled men, e.g., being paralyzed, on crutches, walking with a cane or wheelchair-bound, as a symbolic representation of impotence; it's "somehow a normal component of the married state" (Blazer, "Progressive Portrayal")
"YOU KNOW IT'S NOIR IF..."
The noir elements listed below are from a
New York Times article written in the mid-1990's.
They should help you recognize common noir traits.
Someone is drinking black coffee in a
A neon sign blinks on and off, maybe with a letter or two missing.
Everyone is wearing hats.
A hero spills his
guts in voice-over narration.
A ceiling fan slowly
revolves, even in the dead of winter.
unfiltered cigarettes; ashtrays overflow.
Theres a hard-bitten dame named Velma.
A guy drinks whisky
straight in a barroom during the daytime.
A woman smokes,
drinks and sings all at the same time.
Streets are wet and
glistening, even with no trace of rain.
A muted trumpet
moans plaintively in the night.
trench coats, and men have pocket handkerchiefs.
A body lies face
down in a pool of blood.
scream about a crime wave.
Shadows stretch the
length of an alley.
Venetian blinds etch
striped shadows across people and onto walls.
Faces are seen in
Scenes dissolve in
Street lamps cast pockets of light.
A character emotes
in front of a mirror.
Light shines through a winding wooden staircase.
angles make the world appear to be tilted.
The movie seems to be in black and white, even if it's in color.
For a long time, many film critics argued that the "noir" appellation could
only apply to a specific group of groups made between 1941 (with the release
of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon) till 1958 (with Orson Welles'
Touch of Evil). In the past few years, however, there has been a
more flexible use of the term, allowing films of the same ilk but made
either before or later, to fall into the noir classification.
The broadening of the term, naturally, complicates a major issue involving noir; that is, what kinf of classification does it stand for? "Is it a visual style, a tone, a genre, a generic field, a movement, a cycle, a series - or just a helpful category?" Perhaps, as one critic claimed, even if noir is not strictly a genre, it can be seen as "a label that at the very least invokes 'a network of ideas' that is valuable as an organizing principle." Such is the 'flexibility, range, and mythic force' of the concept of noir that it belongs 'to the history of ideas as much as to the history of cinema' ( Crime Culture).
Below is a list of noir films, and following, a roster of neo noir films:
Asphalt Jungle, The
Big Clock, The
Big Sleep, The
Blue Dahlia, The
Blue Gardenia, The
Body and Soul
Born to Kill
D.O.A. (original only)
Dark Corner, The
Farewell, My Lovely
File on Thelma Jordan, The
Glass Key, The
Gun Crazy (a.k.a. Deadly Is the Female)
In a Lonely Place
Kiss Me Deadly
Lady in the Lake
Long Goodbye, The (either version)
Maltese Falcon, The
Murder, My Sweet
Night of the Hunter, The
Out of the Past
Postman Always Rings Twice, The
Shadow of a Doubt
Shanghai Gesture, The
Sleep, My Love
Stranger on the Third Floor
Third Man, The
This Gun For Hire
Touch of Evil
Woman in the Window, The
Devil in a Blue Dress
Farewell, My Lovely (1975 remake)
House of Games
Last Seduction, The
Man Who Wasn't There, The
Manchurian Candidate, The
Red Rock West
Usual Suspects, The
Big Lebowski, The - "bowling noir"
Memento - "neurological noir"
Blazer, John. "Film Noir's Progressive
Portrayal of Women."
Blazer, John. "No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir - The Femme Fatale." <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/noir/>
Borde, Raymond and Etienne Chaumeton. Panorama du Film Noir Americain (1941-1953). Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1955.
Harvey, Sylvia. "Woman's place: The
Absent Family," in Women in Film Noir. E. Ann Kaplan (Ed.), 1978.
Higham, Charles and Joel Greenberg, Hollywood in the Forties. London: Zemmer, 1968.
Introduction to Neo Noir." Crime Culture. <http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/NeoNoir.html>
Kaminsky, Stuart M. American Film Genres. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1985.
Muller, Eddie. The Art of Noir. New York: Overlook Press, 2002.
Oliver, Kelly and Benigno Trigo. Noir Anxiety. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Place, Janey. "Women in Film Noir," in Women in Film Noir, E. Ann Kaplan (Ed.). London: British Film Institute, 1978.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas,
Filmmaking and the Studio System. New York: McGraw Hill, 1981.
Schrader, Paul. "Notes on Film Noir." Film Genre Reader, Barry K. Grant (Ed.). Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986.
Stankowski, Rebecca House.
"Night of the Soul: American Film Noir. Studies in Popular Culture, V.
9, No. 1, 1986.
Wood, Michael. America in the Movies, or Santa Maria, It Had Slipped My Mind. New York: Dell, 1975.
"Film Noir's Progressive Treatment of Women."
Blazer, John. "No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir and Other Essays."
"The Shadows of Film Noir."
A multi-part look at Noir.
"Film Noir and Neo Noir." Bright Lights Film Journal's look at Noir and Neo Noir, scattered over several issues.
"Does Film Noir Mirror the Culture of Contemporary
America?" - An enlightening multi-part
essay, including a section on women in film noir
Means, Loren. "Some Notes on Noir and Hard-Boiled."
Mills, Michael. "High Heels on Wet Pavement."
Sharrett, Christopher. "The Endurance of Film Noir." USA Today. July, 1998.
"Night of the Soul: American Film Noir"
Studies in Popular Culture, V. 9, No. 1, 1986. pp. 61-83.