Obsession (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

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.

Obsessively pursuing a fantasy. The #FilmNoir hero's maladjustment to the world #AtoZChallenge Click To Tweet

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)



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


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1940s Film Noir - OBSESSION (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - Disconnected from reality, immerse in his own world, the noir hero convinces himself that a particular achievement can unify his broken identity and he pursues that goal obsessively, regardless of the proven reality.

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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.

28 Comments on "Obsession (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)"

  1. Does “Above Suspicion” with Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford fit in any of these categories? I LOVED that movie.

    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter N

    • I don’t know that movie. Now I have to watch it.

    • I actually read the book before I saw the movie…

      Above Suspicion is a 1943 American spy film distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer starring Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray, and directed by Richard Thorpe. The screenplay was adapted from the novel Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes, which is loosely based on the life experiences of MacInnes and her husband, Gilbert Highet.

      The plot follows two newlyweds who spy on the Nazis for the British Secret Service during their honeymoon in Europe.

  2. Yes! Obsession is quite a bit in Film Noir whether it is for a woman, money or a black bird. It seems that money is the obsession for the femme fatale and the woman is the hero’s issue.
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    • And it make sense, don’t youthink? Since the femme fatale is the personification of the women’s desire of social advancement, and the hero obsession for the femme fatale is the enactment of men’s anxiety about women’s wishes.

  3. Obsession in fact plays larger than life role in Film Noir, yes I did wonder about the connection they always bring between women and money
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  4. Hi Jazz – I love these reviews and thoughts into various aspects of Film Noire – Obsession certainly doesn’t let anyone go and as you say brings more characters in … and this is a great reference source … cheers Hilary

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  5. The obsessed man who slowly drives himself mad with the need for the unattainable female. My favourites are when the poor man ends up committing crimes (usually murder) in his attempt to win the girl – so dark and great to watch.

    Pamela @ Highlands Days of Fun

  6. At lot of ‘love’ in film noir is actually obsession, the need the master and control. It is really gripping when the hero knows the difference, but can’t stop himself. The motif is used in a lot of murder mysteries too, it can be seen in real life as well when a man kills himself and his whole family, because, of course, they can’t possibly survive without him.
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  7. Yeah, obsession seems to be a defining characteristic of Noir. Always have to solve the crime, fascinated by the mysterious woman, etc.

    Yet something you mention makes me wonder – if the woman usurps the man as the move of events and controller of the story, does that make her the protagonist as well? Does she actually become the main character of the story?

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    • I’d say she is a main character, but not the protagonist.
      The difference is the focus of the story: film noir is never concenred with her reasons, her arc, or indeed her feelings. The focus of the story is always the hero’s journey. He may just react to her actions, but still that’s what we know better than anything: why he reacts that way, why he can’t act instead, what’s the consequence of his reactions. There isn’t the same level of interest for the femme fatale’s actions.
      Just my opinion 😉

  8. What a great topic!! Obsession is such an important part of what motivates characters, isn’t it? I’m thinking of Double Indemnity, Laura, and others, too. There are also more recent (i.e. not 1940’s-era) films, too, that have that theme. It makes sense, chiefly because it’s not hard to understand how someone could be obsessed with an idea, a person, etc.. It’s not too far removed from our experience.

    • True. Even when it goes far over the top, there is still a core of reality in a character’s obsession that we can relate and be immersed in the story.

  9. Once again, fascinating insight! I never really thought about the damaged noir heroes like this…

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  10. Obsession is such a volatile, intense emotion. Makes for good movie watching, that’s for sure.
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  11. It’s amazing to note that the heroes during the Film Noir era have stayed away from the stereotyped role, the one that’s portrayed now-a-days!
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    • My personal idea of stereotypes is that they aren’t harmful… if you know how to handle them and is you’re able to infuse them with feeling s and reasons 😉

  12. I think Scarlet Street (1945) might fit into that category. I saw it this summer at the local indie theatre, at one of their 35-cent matinées. Edward G. Robinson’s character was certainly obsessed with Kitty throughout the entire film, in increasingly creepy ways, even after learning she didn’t have feelings for him.
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  13. An interesting read on the interpretation of a film noir and nuances of characters who are often complex.

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