Law (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

The law manifests itself in film noir not just as the legally defined framework of the actual law, but also as the law of patriarchy, which defines the cultural environment. In a traditional world (the world before the WWII) patriarchy – the masculine law – defined the culturally acceptable position (and so the determination) of masculine identity and desires inside a world that was perfectly recognisable by men.

The postwar years posed many questions about the patriarchal law. When women conquered spaces that never used to be theirs, the male position inside society got questioned. Film noir  in fact tends to be structured around the testing of the hero’s prowess, both in terms of ‘professional’ ability and in how he measure up to more extended standards of masculine competency.

Law and a rapresentation of the patriarchal law #FilmNoir anti-hero #AtoZChallenge Click To Tweet

Depending on how this tasting happens, film noir can be divided into three categories:

He Walked by Night

Investigative thriller

The hero, often an investigative detective, seeks to restore order by exposing and counterminding a criminal conspiracy.

A type of early noir, in these films there is still a sense that the hero can bring that kind of control over society. He needs to fight for it, but eventually he reaffirms himself as keeper of the law (The Maltese Falcon)

Male suspense thriller

The hero is in a position of inferiority, with regard to both the criminal conspirator and the police (he is blackmailed or accused of a crime) and seeks to restore himself to a position of security by eradicating the enigma.
This is a more problematic form of noir, where the position of the hero is always at risk and it’s never sure whether he will succeed in restoring the law and his own identity.
In fact, he often doesn’t. (Out of the Past)

Criminal adventure thriller

The hero, usually with the aid of a woman, becomes engaged in either a wilful or an accidental transgression of the law and has to face the consequences of stepping out of line.
This is probably the more dramatic form of noir, where the sense of desperation is higher. Here the hero finds himself fighting off greater powers, which come from within and without himself, and there’s very little light at the end of the tunnel. (Double Indemnity)

The Dark Corner

The narrational structure transfigures the hero’s position in regards to the law to the hero’s position in regard to the patriarchal law. The definition of the hero as unified subject – as a man with a purpose and attainable desires – becomes increasingly more  problematic as the potentialities of the hero to use the law for his own purposes becomes more evanescent.

In the 1940s, many thrillers were marked by a more traumatic struggle to find a place – with regard to masculine myth-making role –against both women’s new power and an ‘alternative’ definition of male identity.



The Dark Corner (1946) by Henry Hathaway 
When Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), a tough private investigator, realizes that he’s being followed, he confronts his assailant, a shifty fellow named Fred Foss (William Bendix). Galt’s encounter with Foss leads to a web of intrigue involving prosperous art collector Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) and his young wife, Mari (Cathy Downs). Soon Galt is in over his head — but luckily for him, his tenacious secretary, Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball), is on hand to help him out. (Google synopsis)

He Walked by Night (1948) by Anthony Mann and Alfred L. Werker
Roy Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar who listens in to radio police calls, allowing him to stay one step ahead of the cops. After Morgan kills a police officer, Sergeants Brennan (Scott Brady) and Jones (James Cardwell) have little success in putting the clues of the case together. But when Jones is wounded in a shoot-out with Morgan, Brennan employs all facets of detective work, including forensics and informants, to find the elusive and clever criminal. (Google synopsis)



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


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1940s Film Noir - LAW (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - The law manifests itself in film noir not just as the legally defined framework of the actual law, but also as the law of patriarchy, which defines the cultural environment.

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

20 Comments on "Law (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)"

  1. I feel enlightened! I found this post interesting in part because I was drawing parallels in my mind to what you said and the community where we live. It is an old community. Many values and ideas of 100 years ago still prevail. Yet, there is influence from the outside mellowing and tempering these ideas as the older generation dies off.
    Perspectives at Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    Barbara In Caneyhead recently posted…#AtoZChallenge – Perspectives: KindnessMy Profile

    • I think this happenes in all societies. Some come to it earlier, some later, but all societies are face with change at a certain point. That’s was the case of American society at large in the 1940s and that’s were the film noir anxiety came from

  2. The struggle to find one’s identity is a theme that recurs in my own writing, so I find this very intriguing. I also like how these films might not always have a “happy ending” in regards to the hero’s identity and social standing. It’s refreshing in a way, even if it is kind of bleak.
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…A to Z Herbarium: KnotweedMy Profile

    • I love stories about personal and cultural ideantity too. But I think that’s true for many readers. Besides, we all try to understand who we are, don’t we?
      Film noir clearly didnt’ ahve the answer, but it sure understood the question very well 😉

  3. I’m always amazed at how much insight your posts have. Brilliant once again.
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Shapeshifters and Werewolves
    P.S. Sorry I have been AWOL, it’s been a really busy week.

  4. “In the 1940s, many thrillers were marked by a more traumatic struggle to find a place – with regard to masculine myth-making role –against both women’s new power and an ‘alternative’ definition of male identity.”

    I wonder if that struggle has been resolved? Where I come from (India) that is on-going, not just in films, but also off-screen in society.

    Nilanjana Bose recently posted…L is for Latifa…and…Language…and.. LoanwordsMy Profile

    • That’s a good question. The reason why we still enjoy these classic noir is that we still see ourseves reflected in them. So that anxiety is still familiar to us. Maybe the cause is different, but we definitely haven’t solve the issue.

  5. This is absolutely fascinating! And it brings up all sorts of interesting questions about the nature and purpose of the law. As we see so many characters, as you say, using the law for their own purposes, we have to ask about the connection between the law and justice, whatever that really is. I find this especially interesting.

    • That’s absolutely true, Margot. Hard boiled characters not only used the law for their own purposes, but very often they had their own code of conduct, which didn’t necessarily adher to the law sistem. But we still see them as heros.
      This rises all kinds of interesting questions.

  6. I find this very informative because you dealt with all the male protagonists and that they really are not black and white. Actually I find they could swing either way and even the true blue cops go a bit to the dark side to get their man
    Birgit recently posted…A To Z Challenge-The Letter LMy Profile

  7. Interesting. I was surprised to see Lucille Ball in one of these films. I wonder if the director had to tone down her comedic instinct. These were great roles for women though.
    Sharon Himsl recently posted…L for Lais: Female Scientists Before Our TimeMy Profile

  8. This one makes me want to run out a rent one of these kinds of movies to watch and see which category I think it fits in. Very interesting.

    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter L

  9. Male Suspense Thrillers where the hero is in a position of inferiority are not usually seen seems like an interesting category and I would love to watch one such film.
    Shilpa Garg recently posted…Finding AnyaMy Profile

    • Well, i think that occasionally some of them comes out. Think at the trilogy of the Bourne Identity, for example. True, with the trend of superhero in Hollywood today, this is somethin less apparent, but I think there is still room for this kind of hero in cinema today.

  10. I haven’t watched a movie in this genre, I need to watch now, i guess
    Tina Basu recently posted…Microwave Carrot Mug Cake – 2 minute mug cake recipe | #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

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