The preferred source of film noir, the hard boiled novel, manifests an obsession with the possibility of ‘disconnected subjectivity’. Because it’s a suspense story, there are delays and complications in the solution of the enigma, but in addition to this, the determination of the hero’s identity as a unified subject is also delayed. There are insecurities and flaws that crack the hero’s personality as a solid creator of reality, so that his place in society, his power as history-changer and his centrality as power-wilder becomes questioned.
Post-1944 (and so post WWII) film noir also tend to focus his attention on this issue.
These stories are most often concerned with the aims, ambitions and activities of a male protagonist who proves and defines himself by his ability to overcome the challenges to his life and to his integrity which the story throws at him. This hero seeks to prove his competence by outwitting the criminals and by triumphing over the dangers represented by the feminine – not just women in themselves, but any ‘non-tough’ potentialities of his own identity as a man.
In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gilles tries to use silent film star Norma Desmond’s influence to make a life and a career on his own. But Norma’s ‘gifts’ come at a price: he is forced to accept her blaickmails in terms of lust and economical security, and in so doing he gives up his integrity and his ability to determine his own life. These non-tough characteristics (leaning on the welth and desires of a woman and the willingness to give in to ther) is what ultimately doom him.
The noir hero often fails. He has shrunken world aspirations. He let basic impulses guide him. Very often, for a reason or another, he is not in control of his life. In short, he doesn’t look at all what traditionally heroes are supposed to look like. He is a traumatised heroe, incapable or unwilling to use his traditional position of prominence to mould his life and identity. And still, in this films, he is glamorised to the point that, in spite of all the heroic features he lacks, he is undeniably the centre of events. The hero becomes an anti-hero, but still engages the viewer as the center of identification.He often fails. He has shrunken world aspirations. He let basic impulses guide himself #FilmNoir Click To Tweet
The character’s arc still seems to have a traditional trajectory of ‘power, omnipotence, mastery and control’, where the hero sets out to prove his worth by overcoming any test the story presents to him, but the outcome is very different. All of the hero’s efforts result in failure, or succeed only narrowly or at a great cost.
In this way, the narration creates a disjunction between the image the male protagonist has of himself and his actual possibility to make that image real.
Within the context of a fictional mode which has the glorification of masculine achievements as its apparent aim, film noir was able to open up a problematic discourse that was otherwise avoided in contemporary 1940s society. That there was such a market for these dissonant and schismatic representation of masculinity is evidence of some kind of crises of confidence within the contemporary regimentations of male-dominated culture.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder
An aging silent film queen refuses to accept that her stardom has ended. She hires a young screenwriter to help set up her movie comeback. The screenwriter believes he can manipulate her, but he soon finds out he is wrong. The screenwriters ambivalence about their relationship and her unwillingness to let go leads to a situation of violence, madness, and death.(Google synopsis)
Gun Crazy (1950) by Joseph H. Lewis
When gun-obsessed pacifist Bart Tare (John Dall) witnesses expert shooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) demonstrate her firearm prowess at a carnival one night, it’s love at first sight. Aimless Bart joins the traveling show and begins a romance with Annie, but her dangerously rebellious spirit soon gets them both fired. After eloping, the young lovers embark on an armed robbery spree, managing to elude the authorities until Annie insists on pulling one last job. (Google synopsis)
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Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC