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Femmes Fatales and Film Noir’s ‘Zeitgeist’ in the 1940s

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© Photograph by Mark Prinz

Film noir has been one of the most debated, most discussed and most contested terms in studies of film history and film genre. Film noir has usually been talked about in terms of its historical resonances, its treatment of gender and its uses of style, and these three trends in noir criticism continue to inform criticism on and of noir, contributing to the long, unfinished, and arguably unfinishable, process of its discursive formation.

This article looks again at the discussions and debates about film noir, gender and its industrial and socio-cultural contexts. It draws upon both contemporaneous and critical discourses, in order to explore the heterogeneity of film noir’s styles and narratives.

It examines film noir’s historical coincidence with other forms, particularly the female gothic film cycle of the 1940s. It analyses noir’s relation to gender, revealing considerable variety in its characterisation of female figures and their agency by focusing upon the working-girl investigator figure. It suggests that noir’s “Ur” narrative (a male investigation of a fatal female enigma) is only one strand in noir’s quite varied array. Finally, it retraces noir’s relation to its sociocultural contexts by exploring the resonances of the working-girl investigator as a representation of female independence in the 1940s.

This figure offers a different picture of gender relations than the “gender crisis” or “gender conflict” that is so commonly ascribed as central to noir’s meaning.

Perceptions of film noir’s “special” role in expressing the cultural anxieties of its time arise very early in its critical history. In 1947, producer John Houseman noted the trend for the “tough” crime thriller in Hollywood, exemplified for him by ‘The Big Sleep’ (Howard Hawks, 1946): “It almost looks as if the American people, turning from the anxiety and shock of war, were afraid to face their personal problems and the painful situations of their national life.” He sees the hero, Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), and heroine, Vivian Sternwood (Lauren Bacall), as manifesting an amoral hopelessness paradigmatic of the national mood.

Similarly, French film critics Raymonde Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, who were among the first critics to use the term “film noir” to describe Hollywood’s “tough” crime thriller, focus upon “moral ambivalence […] criminality, [and] […] complex contradictions in motives and events”.

Borde and Chaumeton see viewers’ experiences of these elements as central to film noir’s creation of “a specific alienation”. The national mood that Houseman identifies, and the “specific alienation” that Borde and Chaumeton attribute to film noir, are key to noir’s relation to its socio-cultural context. The terms of noir’s purchase on its context have been a recurrent theme in film noir criticism, with questions of noir’s gender relations forming a central focus. However, to accurately identify this mood, and the specificity of noir’s alienation, is not a straightforward process. I will chart the discussion of these issues in noir criticism, and then illustrate some of the complexities that arise from noir’s heterogeneity and its socio-cultural and industrial contexts.

As Steve Neale notes, several socio-cultural themes are recurrent in criticism charting the ideological significance of film noir. These themes include the wartime mobilisation of women and men, with its subsequent disruption of gender roles, and post-war cultural readjustments.

Much critical discussion of film noir’s socio-cultural meanings finds parallels in these contexts in noir’s representation of gender and sexuality: “For many commentators, the principal hallmarks of noir include a distinctive treatment of sexual desire and sexual relationships, a distinctive array of male and female character types, and a distinctive repertoire of male and female traits, ideals, characteristics and forms of behaviour. For some these elements can be related directly to contemporary social and cultural trends and factors; they help not only to define noir, but also to account for its existence.”

Feminist work on film noir and gender, such as that by Christine Gledhill and Janey Place, typify this focus. Gledhill argues that noir presents “certain highly formalised inflections of plot, character and visual style”, which “offer[s] a world of action defined in male terms; the locales, situations, iconography, violence are conventions connoting the male sphere”. She continues: “Women in this world tend to split into two categories: there are those who work on the fringes of the underworld and are defined by the male criminal ambience of the thriller — bar-flies, nightclub singers, expensive mistresses, femmes fatales, and ruthless gold-diggers who marry and murder rich old men for their money; and then there are women on the outer margins of this world, wives, long-suffering girl-friends, would-be fiancées who are victims of male crime, sometimes the objects of the hero’s protection, and often points of vulnerability in his masculine armour.”

Janey Place’s work on female character types in film noir also focuses upon a division into “the two poles of female archetypes”, what we might understand as a “vice–virtue” polarity between “the dark lady […] and her sister (or alter ego) the virgin […] the redeemer”, in which sexuality is the terrain of both female agency and female threat: “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 […] women 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 […] as an attack on men’s very existence. Film noir is hardly ‘progressive’ in these terms […] but it does give us one of the few periods of film in which women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality.”

These approaches are predicated on a definition of film noir as a male genre, envisaging a male sphere of action and control, where the female agency is expressed in terms of transgressive desire. While the femme fatale figure has been an important one in initiating feminist debates about the politics of Hollywood representation, and interpretation in feminist criticism, the story of film noir’s women is not reducible to this vice–virtue polarity.

There is a much wider range of female characterisation in the noir crime thriller during the 1940s, and these characters undertake roles and display agency in ways that are not solely reducible to their sexuality. The relative lack of critical engagement with these characters in the 1940s is due to the fact that the femme fatale has cast an imaginative shadow over the period, occluding and obscuring female roles that fit neither within the “vice” or “virtue” polarity of sexuality. This is partly attributable to noir’s identity as a discursively constructed category within genre debates, leading to a “consequent haziness about the contours of the larger noir canon”, and partly attributable to the way that the femme fatale has stood as paradigmatic of socio-cultural changes in women’s roles in the World War II and post-war eras.

Bringing the range of female characters of the 1940s out from under this shadow means looking again at noir’s contemporary moment, acknowledging the heterogeneous array of films and character types that comprise it, and registering their coexistence and popularity at the time.

In 1947, replying to John Houseman, Lester Asheim disputed the “tough” movie as expressing an American “zeitgeist”, asking: “How popular is the tough movie? How overwhelming is the popular preference for this kind of entertainment?” Citing the trade journal Variety, and a Gallup poll of movie-goers’ favourite films for 1946 — the year marking the all-time peak of American cinema attendances — Asheim argues “at least half the films listed are pure entertainment, light and gay, preferably with music; yet no claim is made that postwar America is a lighthearted, song-in-its-heart haven of romance and the joys of youth”. Asheim’s discussion questions the representativeness of the “tough” film, marking a wider spread of popular genres at the time.

Other contemporary perspectives show that film noir’s femme fatale was only one manifestation of “tough” female characterisation during the 1940s. In October 1946, the editorial of Picturegoer magazine remarks on “ruthless women” in a range of genres, including the costume film, the epic, the western and the “woman’s picture”. Similarly, Steve Neale shows a range of labels for “tough” female characterisation in the 1940s, and gives instances of “tough” womanhood in “psychological women’s pictures”, such as ‘The Dark Mirror’ (Robert Siodmak, 1946), comedies and westerns, such as ‘Ball of Fire’ (Howard Hawks, 1941) and ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (William Wellman, 1943), and gothic thrillers, such as ‘Ivy’ (Sam Wood, 1947). He concludes that “femmes fatales were by no means restricted to noir”.

These perspectives show that the category of “the” femme fatale is heterogeneous and does not simply arise in one cycle (the crime film), nor serve a single function (object of male crime quest).

Noir’s distinctiveness, in terms of the specificity of its stylistic narrative form, is also open to question in ways that challenge its boundaries as a category. The visual style that has come to be synonymous with noir — camera framing, chiaroscuro lighting, editing patterns and so on — in discussions by critics such as Janey Place and Lowell Peterson and Foster Hirsch, were stylistic elements commonly used across a range of film cycles in the 1940s, most widely in the horror film and the female gothic cycle.

Discussions of style across these groups of films were occurring in the professional journals of the industry during the 1940s. I will trace the stylistic alliances between noir and the female gothic cycles in more detail in another article, but it should be noted that a definitive noir style is, as it were, less than black and white.

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