The erosion of the confidence in legitimising the framework of masculine authority (represented in film noir by the cultural system of law, business and family) is at the very core of all film noirs. Noir heroes experience a downfall, some sort of deep crises, from which oftentimes they never recover. This happens because, to some extend, they are willingly accepting that downfall. They willingly fall to the desires of the femme fatale, or willingly accept that the whirlwind of events they find themselves involved with is hopelessly out of their control.
In the second half of the 1940s, ‘tough’ thrillers moved away from the more classic whodunit to become more characteristically ‘paranoid man’ films. ‘Tough’, controlled masculinity increasingly becomes an ideal, more than an achievable goal, something that may never be taken for granted and for which a man has to fight.
The way to achieve some form on unity is lived by the hero as an obsession. Disconnected from reality, immerse in his own world and acceptable value codes, the hero identifies something that might be able to give him a sense of wholeness – very often this is a woman – but this is just in his mind. He convinces himself that a particular achievement can unify his broken identity and he pursues that goal obsessively, regardless of the proven reality.
In Shockproof, for example, parole officer Griff convinces himself that he can give a new life to Jenny, his parolee, so he goes to a great length, even beyond what would be admissible to him, to get her in his house and make her his wife. Jenny not only is not taken to him, but she’s not at all the person she thinks she is. She even tries to be the one he wants, but that’s just not her. But Griff wouldn’t see it and keeps pursuing his unattainable dream.
Quite clearly, the obsession once again speaks of the hero’s vulnerability, his maladjustment, even his desperation. Once again it speaks of the male desire to control the female role, though that is ostensibly out of his hands.
This becomes even more apparent if on the other side there’s a woman – the object of the hero’s obsession – who knows exactly what she wants and wields her power so to achieve that goal. A woman who has all the characteristics the hero lacks (a phallic woman, she has sometimes be termed), to the point that she usurps the hero’s social position of mover of events.
Subjecting himself to her and to his obsessive desire of her is the way the hero seeks to find his lost self… and the reason why he’s destined to fail.
Shockproof (1949) by Douglas Sirk
Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight) is a hard-luck dame who’s just finished five years in the slammer for killing a man. Jenny’s not exactly the murdering type — she did the deed while defending her jailbird lover, Harry (John Baragrey), which is probably one reason she’s attracted the attention of her parole officer, Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde). In fact, Griff is so taken with Jenny that he gets her a job caring for his ailing mother, but although Jenny tries to fly right, she’s not yet over Harry. (Google synopsis)
Crossfire (1947) by Edward Dmytryk
Stark, claustrophobic thriller about an anti-Semitic soldier who kills a Jewish war veteran, evading detection because of his loyal friends’ protection. However, a detective is determined that the crime will not go unsolved and sets about laying a trap for the murderer. (Google synopsis)
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Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Schrader, Paul. Note on Film Noir. Filmex (First Los Angeles International Film Exposition), Los Angeles, 1971