With the exclusion of the Western, perhaps no other genre of Hollywood film making is more a product of its time than Film Noir. As Marc Vernet (1993) details, Noir has its socio-political roots in post-War Europe and its aesthetic roots in German Expressionism, both examples of milieus that depend and arise out of the polarisation and the exploration of binaries (political in the former, aesthetic and thematic in the latter). It is little wonder, then, that Noir’s popularity coincided with the social paranoia that was gradually making itself felt in America (and most notably in Hollywood) in the late 1940s and 50s and that would find ultimate expression in McCarthyism; a point made by Robert Aldrich, director of Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and cited by Jon Tuska (1984) .
Despite a constant reliance on polarity and binary, both in terms of narrative and mise en scene (man/woman, life/death, light/shadow, law/crime), Noir, as we shall see, is as concerned with their transgression, as long as this is followed by a subsequent reaffirmation. This paper aims to look at this process within the context of both psychoanalysis and historicism, linking the two together to offer not only conclusions about the dramaturgy and semiotics of Film Noir but also its place in the male orientated gaze of post-War Hollywood.
Nowhere is the concept of the binary more apparent than in the figure of the femme fatale who, as Janey Place (1998) suggests is “a male fantasy (like) most of our art” (Place, 1998: 47). The femme fatale, in films such as The Big Sleep (1946), Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946; 1981) exists not only as the “icon of desire” (Porfirio, 1999: 97) but, as the fulcrum upon which the narrative hinges. It is the male hero’s desire for the femme fatale that provides the basis for not only his own criminality (in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity) but also the deception that usually results in his downfall.
The construction of the femme fatale as Janey Place suggests is “expressed visually both in the iconography of the image and in the visual style” (Place, 1999: 54). Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity, for instance, encapsulates the semiotic over-coding of the typical Noir femme fatale: her hair is an almost white peroxide blond, her clothes are monochrome and she is lit, throughout the film, in stark contrast to the shadows that are behind her and that cut the features of the male figures in half. This not only adds to the concretisation of the subtext of good and evil but also highlights her place in the narrative as desirable yet, ultimately, out of reach a point made by Place and Peterson (1976) in their study of Noir’s visual motifs:
“Far removed from the feeling of softness and vulnerability created by (the) diffused techniques (of Hollywood features), the Noir heroines were shot in tough, unromantic close-ups of direct, undiffused light, which create a hard, statuesque surface beauty that seems more seductive but less attainable, at once alluring and impenetrable.” (Place and Peterson, 1976: 328)
As this suggests, a major aspect of the Noir femme fatale can be seen to reside in her status as impossible object; her wardrobe, the lighting, the make-up and the camera focus all combine to produce an image that is iconic rather than realistic, that is a signifier rather than a portrait of real humanity.
As James Naremore (1998: 101) suggests, this sense of the iconic, of the sacred, is underlined by the constant reference to visual fetishes in connection with the female figure: a lipstick in The Postman Always Rings Twice, an ankle bracelet in Double Indemnity or a glove in Gilda (1946). These articles are synecdochic not only with the female herself but with the desire that she represents, in other words they are fetishes for a fetish.
Of course, the creation of a desirable object in the femme fatale is not only for the sake of the hero but for the audience and as such provides much of the focus for the male orientated gaze. As feminist critics of the genre have argued (Gledhill, 1996; Humm, 1997 etc), Film Noir is largely, if not exclusively, centred around the male spectator offering only either a masochistic identification with a duplicitous female protagonist or a kind of transgendered empathy with the male lead for the female audience. It is the femme fatal that characterises the male gaze of Film Noir, as she is filtered through the festishistic fantasies of the hero that are, themselves, condensed versions of the scriptwriter’s and the director’s.
The male gaze of the camera, that desires the female along with the hero, is instrumental in creating the classic Noir experience. The hero, and thus the male spectator, is not only opposed to the female’s gender but also her sense of legality as, very often, it is the woman’s criminality that prompts the man’s transgression, a notion postulated also by Foster Hirsch in his study Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen (1981: 13). The female criminal, then of Noir is one founded upon duplicity and coercion. As in Double Indemnity, the femme fatal not only exists as a signifier for desire but also for the transgression of boundaries of legality, both constituents of what Lacan termed jouissance .
The concept of jouissance is most closely associated with Lacan’s Seminar XX: Encore (Lacan, 2000) and relates not only to the concept of pleasure (plaisir) or enjoyment but to its potential to be unlimited and destructive, as Jean Michel Rebate (2003) details:
“Jouissance (can be seen as) a notion that translates Bataille's concepts of waste, expenditure, erotic excess, and trangression.” (Rebate, 2003: 18)
Jouissance in Lacan is both orgasmic and terrifying; it functions not only as a sexual attractant but as the field beyond the symbolic, beyond the laws of both the personal and the social. The Noir femme fatal, as Zizek suggests in The Plague of Fantasies (1997: 48) is a signifier for just such transgression and for the enjoyment that arises out of sexual and legal freedom, the licence to do as one pleases.
However, this identification is not merely a product of the relationship between the male hero and the female protagonist as much Noir criticism might suggest, instead it is formed out of the psychoanalytic inference that arises from the triangular relationship between the hero, the femme fatale and the symbolic father figure. It is the last of these that concretises the Oedipal structures of Noir and, as we shall see, offers us most in terms of interpreting the link between female criminality and destructive sexuality.
For Lacan, it is the intervention of the Father, and castration, that mediates the destructive power of jouissance through the imposition of rules (again, both personal and social), as Dany Nobus (1998) details:
“It can be pointed out that castration, the operation by which jouissance is drained away from the body, is primarily a symbolic operation of language. It is the imposition of rules and prohibitions that drains the initial quota of jouissance from the child's body in the castration complex.” (Nobus, 1998: 13)
In Lacan, it is the ‘No’ (or Name) of the Father that frustrates the desire for the Oedipal Mother and that inscribes the Symbolic law onto the subject. In Noir, it is this same symbolic Father (Sackett (Lean Ames; William Traylor) in The Postman Always Rings Twice; Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Double Indemnity etc) that intervenes between the hero and the femme fatal, representing both the law of the land and the psycho-social prohibition of incest. It is important to note that it is this character, the symbolic Father, that fixes and sets the psychological position of the other two sides of the triangle.
This same Oedipal triangle occurs time and time again in Film Noir and its many off shoots: Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Criss Cross (1949), Gilda, as well as Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Vertigo (1958). It is, we could assert, the figure of the Father as law that ultimately links the notions of female criminality and destructive sexuality by transforming the relationship between the two lead protagonists from one of heterosexual lust to one of Oedipal incest.
In Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis, however, as David Stafford Clark (1965) details, this Oedipus inspired castration centres the child within the sexual realm and prepares him (for generally Freud deals with the male child) for adulthood:
“the secret passions of the child for the mother cannot remain either innocent in the child’s own mind or capable of fulfilment with any degree of completeness. It cannot be fulfilled because the child cannot have the mother entirely to himself.” (Stafford Clark, 1965: 93)
Both Freud (2001) and Lacan (1997) saw the inability to be inducted into this scenario as a major aetiological reason for the onset of psychosis, making the No of the Father integral to a healthy psychosexual development. What does this say about Noir and, more importantly our hypothesis regarding its linkage of female criminality and destructive sexuality? As Zizek hints at in The Plague of Fantasies, the sexuality of the Noir can be seen as not only destructive (in that desire for the femme fatal leads, very often, to the downfall of the hero) but also constructive in that it, ultimately, upholds the laws of the society and punishes those that transgress them. It is the castration of the hero by the symbolic Father that concretises the boundaries of the laws and the social conventions as well as underlining the position of the male libido in relation to female jouissance . This point is related to Double Indemnity by Claire Johnson (1997):
“The split between the Symbolic and Imaginary which structures the text insists in Keyes’ overlapping function as symbolic and idealised father, driving the film towards resolution and closure (and) as symbolic father Keyes must represent the Law and hand Neff over to the police.” (Johnson, 1997: 97)
As we hinted at earlier, this situation can only come about through the male gaze of the camera and an assumption of a male spectator. However, this is turn, as Jon Tuska (1984) constantly reiterates, is a reflection of the genre’s socio-political roots. As we stated in the introduction, Film Noir can be seen to reflect the socio-political ideology of its time, as Paul Schrader (1986) details in his essay Notes on Film Noir:
“As soon as the war was over…American films became markedly more sardonic – and there was a boom in the crime film. For fifteen years the pressures against America’s amelioristic cinema had been building up and, given, the freedom, audiences and artists were now eager to take a less optimistic view of things.” (Schrader, 1986: 171)
Noir morality is built on transgression and the crossing of legal boundaries, in many Noir films it is the hero that is made criminal, usually through the wiles of the femme fatale. The audience is made complicit with this because, as we have discovered, through the mise en scene we are made to share in the idolisation of her iconic beauty, we understand why the hero does what he does and we are made to believe we would do the same.
Ultimately, then, the Noir film is largely conservative; order is generally restored at the end of the film and the characters punished, either killed or sent to prison. The No of the Father, just like in Lacanian or Freudian psychoanalysis, restores order and allows male Reason and the law to impose themselves on female criminality and destructive sexuality.
It is easy to see why this motif would be so attractive to the Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s: there is a recognition of complexity, of the presence of both good and evil but there is also the comforting presence of all seeing symbolic Father who restores the status quo and allows life to continue as it did before.
There is an obvious linkage between female criminality and destructive sexuality in Film Noir, in many ways it is one of the genre’s most enduring central leitmotifs. The femme fatale is constantly held in opposition to the maleness of both the hero and the symbolic father figure and she stands as not so much as a possessor but an object of destructive desire. As we seen, however, in the grand structure of the Noir universe, this desire is only destructive to the hero, in terms of the framework of the law and the symbolic order, it is a constructive, healthy desire because it ultimately leads to castration and the restoration of legality. The transgression of the hero, then, becomes what Zizek, in On Belief (2001) calls “the obscene supplement” (Zizek, 2001: 119) that upholds the law.
The question then becomes not is there a link between female criminality and destructive desire, but is the desire destructive or constructive. One the one hand, it provides the roots for the hero’s downfall on the other it creates the environment for the restoration and concretisation of the social order and, like many things in American Film Noir, the answer to this depends on whose perspective you are viewing from.
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