World War II produced a fracture in American society. While men created their own social order at the front, women revolutionised their role at home.
The war put soldiers in an environment that forced them to redefine the characteristics that were useful in a man: courage and bravery, physical prowess, strategic thinking and, not least, the ability to successfully use violence to achieve a particular goal.
The men who survived the war and went back home had become very skilful in these fields, but once home, they discovered what were chief skills in the fight of survival at the front, were utterly useless, when not even considered dangerous and undesirable in a peaceful society.
At the same time, the war effort had pushed many women out of the house and into the workforce. Since men were at the front, women were not only allowed, but outright encouraged to replace men in positions that had never before been available to them. The ardent response of the American women to the war effort to some degree reflected a pervasive frustration with their traditional genre assignments. When given the possibility, women searched for even limited amount of autonomy and self reliance. Their place in American society was transformed forever.
All through the war years, the social role of men and women evolved in very different directions, and when veterans went home and those two worlds found themselves together once more, they didn’t match anymore.
This created uncertainty, anxiety and a very strong sense of confusion, on the part of both men and women. The arts and entertainment caught on this feelings (because this was what people cared about) and transformed them into new forms of entertainment.
Film noir was one of these new forms, one that spontaneously arose from the cultural and social environment.
In film noir, men tried to use the skills they learned at the front (tried to be cool and professional) but found themselves in very uncomfortable positions in the world they lived, often unable to effectively handle the situation, sometimes caught in plots they had no control over.
Because film noir mostly took up the male perspective, women were often portrayed in a disparaging way. They became duplicitous vixen, sexually powerful and poisonous to the men. And this is of course a transfiguration of the anxiety the shifting role of women were projecting on a changing society.
Although in a completely transformed look, film noir truly speaks of the anxiety of a generation, of the confusion and the uncertainty to which it could offer very little solutions.
Mildred Pierce (1945) by Michael Curtiz
When Mildred Pierce’s (Joan Crawford) wealthy husband leaves her for another woman, Mildred decides to raise her two daughters on her own. Despite Mildred’s financial successes in the restaurant business, her oldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), resents her mother for degrading their social status. In the midst of a police investigation after the death of her second husband (Zachary Scott), Mildred must evaluate her own freedom and her complicated relationship with her daughter. (Google synopsis)
The Glass Key (1947) by Stuart Heisler
Political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) falls for reform politician Ralph Henry’s attractive daughter Janet (Veronica Lake), despite the caution of his best friend, Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd). Paul’s efforts to disassociate himself from the criminal underworld backfire, however, when he is accused of murdering Janet’s disreputable brother, and a casino owner Paul had offended sends his sadistic thugs after Ed in revenge. (Google synopsis)
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Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Scott Snyder, Personality Disorder and the Film Noir Femme Fatale, University of Georgia, 2001