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Suspense (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

S AtoZ Challenge 2017

Suspense is a very different mode of narration than the detective story. Whereas the detective traditionally represents a stabilising element in the narrative (he brings stability and truth where the criminal act had brought instability and fear), in the suspense thriller the position of the hero is very uncertain.
Far from being the bearer of truth, the suspense hero is often in a position of inferiority both from the police and the criminals, and often, even from the spectator. He becomes a very unreliable narrator both because he doesn’t know facts and because his obsession distorts the facts that he does know.
At its core, the suspense thriller is a story of instability and divided identities, where we are uncertain about who the hero is (as a man and as a character) often until the very end.

Suspense is not, of course, specific to the 1940s’ tough’ thrillers, but in these films, it tends to occupy a specific place, serving to mark the protagonist’s lack of control.

Scarlet Street
Scarlet Street
The position of the hero in #FilmNoir is always very precarius. That's what create the suspense Click To Tweet
Woman in the Window 1944
The Woman in the Window

Noir heroes are often swayed by a femme fatale who imposes her own truth (and so her own stability). Because the hero doesn’t know or doesn’t fully understand the reasons of the femme fatale, he finds himself in a precarious position, where he possesses few answers and need to pose a lot of questions, the more pressing of which is: should he trust the femme fatale?
This woman becomes an alternative source of authority, which endangers the hero’s position inside the law/patriarchal system, therefore his true identity.
The story oscillates between these two poles (the femme fatale’s alternative reality and the hero’s lawful position) so much that it becomes complicated to establish a unified view of truth.
It’s precisely the delay in the revelation of the truth that makes up the suspense in the story.

This problematising of the hero as the centre of narrational truth mirrors a series of cultural schisms regarding the role of men and women in 1940s society. What is relevant in all films noir isn’t simply the postponement of the eventual triumph of the hero, both as hero and as man, but also a more traumatic uncertainty as to whether such resolution is even possible.


FILMS CITED

Woman in the Window (1944) by Fritz Lang
Edward G. Robinsonis a happily married psychology professor whose wife and child are away on summer vacation. After discussing with his friends the likelihood that any man can be driven to murder, Robinson strolls by a shop window, where stands a full-length portrait of a beautiful woman. He turns to find the selfsame woman (Joan Bennett) standing beside him…and before the night is over, he has killed the woman’s lover in self-defense. Thus begins weaving an increasing tangled web involving Robinson, the woman, and a seedy blackmailer (Dan Duryea). (Rotten Tomatos synopsis)

Scarlet Street (1945) by Fritz Lang
Edward G. Robinson plays an unhappily married bank teller and painter (Chris) in Scarlet Street, falls in love with a much-younger woman (Kitty), and becomes more and more obsessed with her even after learning she doesn’t love him. Kitty and her jerk boyfriend think Chris is a famous painter and rich, and begin using him in an ever more complicated web of intrigue and crime


RESOURCES

Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC


1940s Film Noir - SUSPENSE (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - Suspense is not, of course, specific to the 1940s noir, but in these films it tends to occupy a specific place, marking the protagonist lack of control

20 Comments

  • Lillian Csernica
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 03:20

    I’m enjoying your analysis and commentary on these aspects of film noir. I hope you turn these posts into a chapbook or something similar.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 14:44

      I have considered that, but I’m not sure. I’m relying heavily on other people’s studies. Maybe when I’m a more skillful and educated film noir connoisseur I may try that 😉

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:45

    Hi Sarah – Edward G Robinson had such an amazing face – brilliant for an actor – especially one in Film Noir movies … these all look amazing and I hope we get to see some of them down here – I’m sure we will – at least I can be a little more intelligent now … cheers Hilary

    http://positiveletters.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/s-for-sheep.html

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 16:30

    Good use of lighting in the stalk scene (of course). Very enjoyable. 🙂

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:29

      I really like that sequence. It really achieved a lot, using very little. Quintessential film nor.

  • Roshan Radhakrishnan
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 17:11

    When you think about it, Suspense had to be S for film noir 🙂
    But yes, you’re right about the position of the hero and how it causes the sense of suspense… didn’t think of it that way. Will help while writing the next fiction 😀

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:31

      I think there’s a lot we can learn from film noir, even if we use a different medium. True, a lot of film noir is visual-based, but the mood it ensues and the techniques it implies may be translated into writing… with a bit of resourcefulness 😉

  • Cheryl
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 18:05

    “Cat People!” OMW! I haven’t thought about that movie in years! Brings back some fond memories of old reruns!

    Calen~
    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter S

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:32

      I watched to mvie a looooooong time ago. But I remember I really enjoyed it. More this version than the ‘new’ 1980s one

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 19:30

    You make an excellent point about the difference between the protagonist in a suspense film, and the protagonist in a detective film. They really do play different roles. And the tension comes from different sources. In my opinion, it’s similar to what happens in, say, thrillers as opposed to more traditional detective stories.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:33

      Yes, I agree. And I think that, as writers, we should be aware where the tension is, so we can explot suspense at its best 🙂

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 01:33

    Suspense is such a powerful motif. I love being left guessing until the pivotal moment. Too many modern films make everything obvious within the first 15 minutes.

    I think you got the synopses at the end confused. Edward G. Robinson plays an unhappily married bank teller and painter (Chris) in Scarlet Street, falls in love with a much-younger woman (Kitty), and becomes more and more obsessed with her even after learning she doesn’t love him. Kitty and her jerk boyfriend think Chris is a famous painter and rich, and begin using him in an ever more complicated web of intrigue and crime.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:35

      Oh! i wouldn’t know, I haven’t watched the film yet. I’ll replace the google synopsis wit yours 😉
      Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 20:18

    I’m glad the woman made it to the bus. That kind of scene has me yelling at the scene “Let him walk you home!” “Look out, there’s a killer cat woman following you!”

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:36

      It made me think, wow, streets were so safe back then that a women would prefer going home on a lonely street alone rather than have a man accompany her? 😉

  • Arlee Bird
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 02:54

    Films with suspense are favorites of my wife’s and mine. I’ve got Cat People on my “recorded” line up but my wife hasn’t been interested in watching it yet. I saw it some time ago and liked it a great deal. Also liked the remake.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:37

      I watched both verison too, a long time ago. But I remember liking the 1940s version a lot more than the 1980s. More suspense and more innuendo, in my opinion.

  • Sharon M Himsl
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 02:04

    Excellent choice on the movie clip showing suspense. I admit I had to cover my eyes. LOL. Thought for sure she was dead!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 08:44

      Isn’t it fantastic how you can create such strong feeling with just the tapping of heals and a well places source of light? 😉

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