The though thriller is a particularly heightened form of hero-centred fiction, but with a non-traditional outcome engendered by the problematisation of the hero figure.
In place of the conventional affirmation of heroic masculinity, the 1940s thrillers offer a range of alternative or ‘transgressive’ representations of male destiny and identity, which questions the network of male cultural authority. The noir hero does act as the controlled, unified traditional hero, but many elements in the film suggest that appearance is just… well, appearance.
The relation with the femme fatale becomes particularly tricky, since she’s often the mover of the story, but she’s a distant ‘other’, outside of the story’s perspective and motives. The male perspective is structured as the norm and the touchstone of authority, the feminine is seen as a disturbant, sometimes deadly alternative.
Here resides the most interesting part of the fascination we still have with film noir.
By all accounts, film noir should be an old form of narration that doesn’t have anything to do with us today. Structure around the problematic relation between men and women that was characteristic of a very specific time (the 1940s), it seem to have little in common with man/women relationships today. Film noir centred on a very specific experience bound to a very specific time (post WWII era), addressing, if in a filtered way, problematics that belonged to that specific time (the maladjustment of returning veterans, the resentment of women forcefully expelled from the workforce, the confusion of wartime sexual roles).
But we still enjoy film noir, it still makes sense to us. Born nearly by chance, it has become a language we know and use.
Why is that?The distant and unknowable 'other', the true source of #FilmNoir anxiety Click To Tweet
The power of storytelling, when it is meaningful, is that it never speaks of the here and now, but rather of the everywhere and always.
In good storytelling, we have characters that look like real people because they act like real people. They face situations that are familiar to the reader/viewer because those situation resonates with the audince’s everyday experience, and thus it feels real. The kind of storytelling film noir enacts is grounded in the moment these films were produced, they speak of the people the viewers could encounter everyday in they real life and the experience were likewise expereincing (the war, the agressively ‘mprenditorial’ women, the difficult return to normalcy) Viewers lived and heard about in their everyday life.
But if film noir had only addressed these realities, it would be old and done by now. Thing is, film noir is good storytelling.
In good storytelling, characters not only look, feel, speak and act like real people, they are also symbols. And the plot not only rings of true experience, but it also illustrates ideas. This is how good storytelling breaks away from the story contingencies and become universal. In good storytelling, the plot and the characters are grounded in reality (often the author’s reality) but speaks of emotions that reside deep in everyone of us. The actual story and charactes are just figurations of more abstranc ideas.
And because these ideas and emotions belong to all of us regadless of the time and place we live, we can reach into that deeper meaning beyond the contingency of the story and grasp at the universal message underneath.
This is why good storytelling is forever.
I believe that by depicting a very specific reality, but in a stylised way, film noir went beyond its limits of time and circumstances. Just like the cinematographers who broke the many limits imposed on them, film noir broke the apparent limits of its contingency and went into a universal space.
Male authority is considered the norm in film noir, and the female action is considered the disturbance. But if we consider that the norm is ‘us’ and the disturbance is the ‘other’, and that the clashing of these forces produces an anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of the outcome, then we can read (and speak) film noir in very different ways.
The confrontation between the hero and the femme fatal can then be seen as a narrational tool to express a very deep anxiety concerning change and the way we as humans cope with it. It speaks of new encounters we don’t know how to handle (the unscrutable ‘other’, the femme fatal), of shifting situations we don’t know how to cope with (the shifting roles of men and women in 1940s American society), of the sense of powerlessness we expereince while the change is happening (the hero’s lack of control on the story). But because these figurations stand in place of a more universal meaning, they can be rearrenged by viewers so to become meaningful to them.
In today’s society for exapmple the unscrutable ‘other’ may be someone belonging to a different culture. The shifting roles may apply to influx of different people into an established society. The lack of control may refer to the axiety and fear this forced clash of cultures engenders.
Fear of change was at the very core of film noir, and that’s a universal feeling. In the 1940s, that reflected the new role of women and its social meaning and the difficulties returning veterans had to readjust to peacetime society. In our times, that may reflect the change of a society that is mixing at a very fast pace and pushes together cultures that are unprepared to effectively deal with each other.
The confrontation between the opposites that never meet and never fully understand each other that film noir enacts is very much close to our experience today.
That’s why film noir is forever.
The Big Combo (1955) by Joseph H. Lewis
Police Lt. Diamond is told to close his surveillance of suspected mob boss Mr. Brown because it’s costing the department too much money with no results. Diamond makes one last attempt to uncover evidence against Brown by going to Brown’s girlfriend, Susan Lowell. (MUBI synopsis)
Phantom Lady (1946) by Robert Siodmak
Scott Henderson’s (Alan Curtis) innocuous evening with a strange woman becomes crucial when he is later accused of murdering his wife on the same evening. When Scott’s story is disbelieved and a trial fails to bring forth the “phantom lady,” Scott’s devoted girl Friday, secretary Carol Richman (Ella Raines), begins her own investigation with the aid of police inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez). A high point is Carol’s unexpected kinky moment with an obsessed jazz drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.). (Google synopsis)
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Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC