The law manifests itself in film noir not just as the legally defined framework of actual law enforcement, but also as the law of patriarchy, which depicts the cultural environment. In a traditional world (the world before the WWII) patriarchy – the masculine law – defined the culturally acceptable position (and so the determination) of male identity and desires inside a world that was perfectly recognisable by men.
The postwar years posed many questions about the patriarchal law. When women conquered spaces that never used to be theirs, the male position inside society got questioned. Film noir, in fact, tends to be structured around the testing of the hero’s prowess, both in terms of ‘professional’ ability and in how he measures up to more extended standards of masculine competency.
Depending on how this tasting happens, film noir can be divided into three categories:#FilmNoir explores the testing of the hero’s prowess, both in terms of ‘professional’ ability and in how he measures up to more extended standards of masculine competency. Click To Tweet
The hero, often an investigative detective, seeks to restore order by exposing and countermanding a criminal conspiracy.
A type of early noir, in these films there is still a sense that the hero can bring that kind of control over society. He needs to fight for it, but eventually, he reaffirms himself as keeper of the law (The Maltese Falcon)
Male suspense thriller
The hero is in a position of inferiority as opposed to both the criminal conspirator and the police. Sometimes, he is blackmailed, sometimes he’s accused of a crime. Always he seeks to restore himself to a position of security by eradicating the enigma.
This is a more problematic form of noir, where the position of the hero is constantly at risk, and it’s never sure whether he will succeed in restoring the law and his own identity.
In fact, he often doesn’t. (Out of the Past)
Criminal adventure thriller
The hero, usually with the aid of a woman, becomes engaged in either a wilful or an accidental transgression of the law and has to face the consequences of stepping out of line.
This is probably the more dramatic form of noir, where the sense of desperation is higher. Here the hero finds himself fighting off greater powers, which come from within and without himself, and there’s very little light at the end of the tunnel. (Double Indemnity)
The narrational structure transfigures the hero’s position inside the law system to the hero’s position inside the patriarchal law. The definition of the hero as a unified subject – as a man with a purpose and attainable desires – becomes increasingly more problematic as the potentialities of the hero to use the law for his own purposes become more evanescent.
In the 1940s, many thrillers were marked by a more traumatic struggle to find a place – with regard to the masculine myth-making role –against both women’s new power and an ‘alternative’ definition of male identity.
The Dark Corner (1946) by Henry Hathaway
When Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), a tough private investigator, realizes that he’s being followed, he confronts his assailant, a shifty fellow named Fred Foss (William Bendix). Galt’s encounter with Foss leads to a web of intrigue involving prosperous art collector Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) and his young wife, Mari (Cathy Downs). Soon Galt is in over his head — but luckily for him, his tenacious secretary, Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball), is on hand to help him out. (Google synopsis)
He Walked by Night (1948) by Anthony Mann and Alfred L. Werker
Roy Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar who listens in to radio police calls, allowing him to stay one step ahead of the cops. After Morgan kills a police officer, Sergeants Brennan (Scott Brady) and Jones (James Cardwell) have little success in putting the clues of the case together. But when Jones is wounded in a shoot-out with Morgan, Brennan employs all facets of detective work, including forensics and informants, to find the elusive and clever criminal. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC