Damaged Hero (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

In many respects, film noir is a male narrative. In spite of a strong female presence (the Femme Fatale), the hero of the noir is always a man and the film always articulates his character arc.
He’s a character who, on the outside, manifests coolness and competence, as heros do, but the structure of the story allowed a new face of insecuritites and fears to transpire.

In 1943 film critics noted the emergence of this new kind of hero possessing characteristics that didn’t match what Hollywood had until then proposed as heroic. These characters were anti-intellectual, anti-emotional, pro-action men, almost always singles, very often detectives who were once cops. They tended to be psychologically flawed or wounded, and moved freely between the world of law and the underworld but belonged to neither. Even if they might look morally ambiguous or compromised, they normally adhered to their own code of right and wrong.

Kiss Me Deadly

It can be argued that this hero, though completely different from what audiences were accustome to consider heroic, reflected the uncertainties of the American postwar society.
Film noir spoke of men who, after proving themselves on the war fields, return to a world that not only considers those skills useless, but which is also barely recognisible. They find themselves stuck between two worlds that no longer exist: the war and a new peacetime society. Trying to fit into this new world proved a challenge for these men for many different reasons:

  1. The entry of women in the workforce during the war had changed the social asset of American society irrevocably. Even when women were forced to give up their jobs so that these could be given back to men, it was impossible to erase the empowerment women had experienced and the way this had changed their expectations
  2. The removal of men from the family sphere and the sense of lost time and opportunity this had engendered turned into an uneasy feeling of inadequacy. Men felt threatened by women who stayed home and may have not been faithful to them. Family, which used to be the safest of places, now turned into a ground of renegotiations that men weren’t always ready to face
  3. The exposure to violent testing in the armed services had made many men unfit to peacetime life. Accustomed to a male environment where everyone had to prove their value with their strength, many men found themselves fall short in a contest where violence wasn’t the norm, particularly when they were forced to face the new social position of women.

The old cultural regiment (the one men who left for the war knew) no lenger excisted, and the new one was bewhildering. With the focus on the relationship between the hero and the femme fatale, film noir often displays a marked degree of sexual uncertainty, which stands for a dislocation of men from their former sense to be the movers of culture.
Many of the noir hero’s characteristic echo this displacement. He used to be a cop (that is, a paladin of law and order, a bringer of certainties), but now, in his new liminal position as private eye, he expresses the capability to move between the world of law and the underworld with great ease, and still this never allows him to find his own place. His social position is uncertain and ambiguous.
He’s often in a more or less open opposition to society. The world he lives in isn’t the world he used to know and he refuses to abide to its rules. He prefers to make his own rules and uphold them with whatever strength he possesses.

Dead Reckoning

This can be seen in Death Reckoning, where the main character, Rip, assigns many different names to the famme fatale, depending on the role he tries to assign to her. She’s alternatively Coral, Dusty or Mike, not in a progression of morphings, but in a random way.
This shifting of identity (the shifting of names) certainly speaks of the shifting nature of the women’s role, but it also tells the incapability on the hero’s part (on men’s part) to encase her in a determinated role. The same act with which the hero tries to impose his vision of her manifests his inadequacy at doing so.

The noir hero’s position in terms of his centrality (to the story as well as to society) is continuously challenged. He finds himself in the middle of a redefinition of life he feels he can barely control.
What makes these films particularly interesting in terms of the social life they were depicting is the difficulty in this redefinition, which is expressed in the battle of will with the  femme fatale. In the end, film noir often fails to convincingly demonstrate a return to male security and supremacy is even possible.

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FILMS CITED

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) by Robert Aldrich
One evening, private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a strange woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman), who’s standing on the highway wearing only a trench coat. They’re stopped farther on by strangers who knock out Mike and murder Christina. Although warned not to investigate by the police, Mike and his girlfriend and assistant, Velda (Maxine Cooper), become ensnared in a dark plot involving scientist Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) and Christina’s terrified roommate, Lily (Gaby Rodgers).(Google synopsis)

Dead Reckoning (1947) by John Cromwell
In Dead Reckoning, Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) recites the film’s plotline to a priest in the confessional. Murdock and Johnny Drake (William Prince) are Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, en route to Washington by train. Drake hops off and disappears, leading Murdock on a hectic manhunt. Upon meeting Drake’s former girlfriend Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), Murdock is thrown into a maelstrom of intrigue involving a crooked gambler (Morris Carnovsky) and a complex blackmailing scheme. The upshot of this is that Murdock finds himself the prime suspect in a murder. (Rotten Tomatoes)

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READ MORE ABOUT IT

Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC

Cindy Tsutsumi – 1940s America: film Noir

 

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1940s Film Noir - DAMAGED HERO (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - Noir heroes are often flawed, wounded men who feel a strong displacement from reality

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  1. Dear me, I never realised there was so much cultural stuff behind film noir! But imagine what it must have been like for the women who had shown what they could do during wartime, even been encouraged to step up, and then been shoved back into the kitchen. Not, mind you, the professional kitchen, which was for men! It might have been interesting to see a film or television in that theme! 😉

    I’m visiting from the Challenge.

  2. Thinking about your words: “The world he lives in isn’t the world he used to know and he refuses to abide to its rules. He prefers to make his own rules and uphold them with whatever strength he possesses.” Hmm…Reading this, I started thinking about what’s happening in America to the white man. Oddly similar.

    #AtoZChallenge
    “Female Scientists Before Our Time”
    http://shells-tales-sails.blogspot.com/
    Sharon Himsl recently posted…C for Cleopatra the Alchemist: Female Scientists Before Our TimeMy Profile

  3. Wow, this was a fantastic, in-depth analysis tying up women’s empowerment, the resulting ego bruises, and its manifestation in film. Wonderfully done.
    This technique is still used in a lot of books (like Harry Hole, and a lot of similar ones) but I think it has run its course now and doesn’t quite fit in anymore. I may be wrong. Thoughts?
    Sreesha recently posted…Demons | #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

    • If you only think to the tension between men and women, it may have ran its course, at least in the form film noir depicted.
      But if you look at it in a more universal way – not as men and women, but as ‘us’ and the ‘other’ – it is still relevant today (maybe even particularly today), and this is why film noir still makes sense to us. I’m going to cover this in a later post 😉

  4. What a superb analysis – America wasn’t used to uncertainty and perhaps out of this grew the next wave of Fifties sci-fi/Cold War paranoia films. Hollywood at its best holds up a mirror to US society. Loved reading this – thanks!

    • I’m not familiar with the decades that came after the 1940s, but I’d think these axieties definitely had to do with the Cold War too. In fact, the last film noirs (which were filmed in the early 1950s) already hinted at the Cold War.

  5. I find the link between film noir and the book equivalents to be intriguing. Would noir have caught on quite as well without the books to adapt?

    Philip Marlowe is of course a species type for the dark hero ( down these mean streets etc) but actually I’d rather different, a chess playing, literature reading tough guy.

    • Besides, would film noir be the same we know if German cinematographers hadn’t fled Germany because of the Nazi threat?
      The birth of film noir was an extraordinary event that gathered many pre-existing elements, one of which was the popularity of hard boiled fiction in the preceding decades. It’s actually quite incredible 🙂

  6. Fascinating the changeover from ‘heroic’ to ‘damaged hero.’ Enjoyed the analysis – engaging and entertaining both. Bogart had the kind of haunting face that suited the role of the flawed hero down to a t. Though to be honest I feel the narratives are still predominantly male, from then to now. Majority of films from a male perspective, women still few and far between. Maybe a bit better than 1940’s, but marginally.
    Nilanjana Bose recently posted…D is for… Diab…Dimashq…and…Dice…My Profile

    • Wouldn’t know. Seems to me there are quite a few female storytellers whose stories are as powerful and as appreciated as men’s. But I’m thinking literature. In filmmaking, you might be right.

  7. A fascinating piece of social science – and made so much more interesting, by the tie-in with the cultural detail of film. We need more of this. The whole subject of social history is fascinating, but academia tends to the dry, dusty way, whereas this way engages and would educate more widely.

    • I love social history. I’m not an academian by any stretch, I’m just trying to share what I know and what I like. And hope that people will find it interesting 🙂

  8. I’m drawn to film noir – but not very knowledgeable about it. What better way to get to know than reading your blog. Such fun. Hope I can unearth these films somewhere, somehow.
    Kalpanaa recently posted…DespairMy Profile

    • It’s a recent knowledge for me, I’ve becoma interested in film noir as a social phenomenon just recently, and I was hooked. Never thought there was so much in these stories.
      Happy you’re finding my posts of interest 🙂

  9. My posts were going up without me checking in on my AtoZ buddies. So glad to visit you, find you’re in the thick of it again, and, I have to say, you’ve got a great theme. Tuning in.

  10. Fascinating. I almost feel sorry for the Damaged Hero character, except he sounds a lot more interesting than his predecessor. Of course, it couldn’t have been fun for the men of the time, living through reality and difficulties of it all. Thank you for the insight of this interesting time. Great stuff! 🙂
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…A to Z Herbarium: DandelionMy Profile

    • I find the imbalance between the role of men and women, occasioned by the war, particularly interesting. And of course, you know you’re going to hear the other bell soon, right? 😉

  11. I found you again! You have written a great post about film Noir and the men who have been damaged and no longer believe in the prettiness that one thought life would be. It is hard hitting, moody and I feel, take from the German Expressionism of the 20’s to help bring this out. The men and women are damaged but the women almost seem more in control than then men

    • YOu know? I started off thinking film is interting, especially because it has great visuals and cool characters. I ended up thinking film noir is extremely fascinating and can offer a sharp look on an entire society… as well as offer new food for thoughts to us 😉

  12. This is really fascinating! And you’ve cited such great examples, too. I think, too, that from those examples came the seed of more modern detectives who have their own demons to face.

  13. Those are some great insights. I’d never thought about anti-heroes in that way before, but it makes a lot of sense. Watching, writing, or reading about characters like that is often more fun and fulfilling than dealing with unrealistically perfect people.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Dohány Utca SynagogueMy Profile

    • Exactly. Even if they may be bound in a particular reality (like film noir were bound to 1940s America), when they are done well, they become universal. They they’ll speak to readers and viewers regardless of time.

  14. Never really occurred to me that it is always a male lead in noir (probably because I’m a male). Kiss Me Deadly is a great film 🙂

  15. Absolutely fascinating! I had studied how the war had changed the culture for young people, especially young girls who now had the whole world opened to them. But I’d never thought about it in relation to the men coming home. Really enjoyed this. 🙂

    Calen~
    Impromptu Promptlings
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  16. Wow…what a great overview of the social impact of film noir. Very concise and informative. I have just jumped aboard the A to Z challenge…you’ve set the bar high with the quality of your content. Well done!

  17. Noir antiheroes also play out some of the anxieties of men who came home from the war wounded physically or psychologically, which felt emasculating. Very much they are an exploration of what heroism can be in a post-war new reality.
    Laurel Garver recently posted…F = FearMy Profile

  18. This type of hero is one of my most favorite. And your film example of Kiss Me Deadly is one of my all-time favorite films. I bought a DVD copy so I could rewatch it whenever I wanted. I have watched that film many time. Meeker’s character depiction makes for one of the best in film noir in my opinion.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out