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.
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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.
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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Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Cindy Tsutsumi – 1940s America: film Noir