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.The position of the hero in #FilmNoir is always very precarius. That's what create the suspense Click To Tweet
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.
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
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC