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Transgression (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

Uncertainty is one of the constant characteristics of noir stories. Goals and characters find themselves in a situation of unbalance, therefore the possibility of transgression – both willing and accidental – becomes very likely.
Transgression can go many ways – against social rules, against family roles, against the patriarchal law, against the law itself – but the trigger tends to be the same: the femme fatale.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Because the femme fatale is trying to advance her social position, she is naturally more ruthless than any man, because socially, she has s lot less to lose and a lot more to gain.

Marriage is one of the more readily available ways to gain that advancement. Far from subjugating their desire and their identity to their men, these women marry to achieve financial and social advancement, often by manipulating men’s desires for them. The husband might not be suitable, but he’s convenient. This inversion or perversion of the marital relation is often highlighted by the fact that the husband is much older than the wife, or is physically impaired.

When the hero steps on stage, it is immediately apparent that this is a better-suited mate for the femme fatale. The problem doesn’t arise from her failure to recognise this, but from her refusal to accept the sacrifice a relation with the hero would involve. The femme fatale isn’t willing to renounce the advancement marriage had given her, nor the fulfilment a relation with the hero would give her and so a transgression is necessary. This usually involves a marital transgression (the woman starts an illicit sexual relationship with the hero) and a law transgression (the lovers devise a plan to get rid of the husband, often involving murder).

When in The Postman Always Rings Twice Cora sees Frank, she immediately understands Frank is the best mate for her, and therefore her husband has to be done with. Simply leaving her husband won’t do, because she would lose her status and his money, and renouncing to Frank won’t do either, because that’s the life she wants. It’s as simple as this.

"The many situations of unbalance in #FilmNoir make transgression very likely Share on X
Murder , My Sweet

Film noir seldom offers any deeper motivation than this for the woman’s action. Her devious desires are what motivates her and what put in danger the male-defined cultural norm. As inherently ‘devious’, the woman doesn’t have as much to lose as the hero by transgressing against her acceptable social place. She moves the action. Yet, film noir is never her story. The story is always about how the hero copes with her machinations.

In the denouement of The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy has a breakdown. She cries, pleading Spade to help her in spite of her crime. She is moving the dramatic action… and still, she is not on stage. We hear her voice off-screen, but the camera is on the hero, on his reaction to her action, because that’s what the story is concerned with.

The woman’s ‘otherness’ – highlighted by her becoming an erotic object – simultaneously attracts and disturbs the hero. She plays different games and with different rules from what’s accepted by the male regime. This fascinates the hero in spite of the danger she represents. Her very sexual difference embodies the possibility of transgression, but it is not until the hero makes a pact with her that the transgressive trajectory of the criminal adventure is inaugurated. The hero is precisely attracted to the woman who sets herself against conventions. It is the very danger attached to the femme fatale that makes her desirable. And the hero does have a choice to resist… but often doesn’t. He accepts the transgression and the pact with the woman.

And this is what’s at the very core of every film noir. By setting in place scenarios of male alienation, victimisation, fatalistic despair and obsession, the tough thrillers offered and engagement with and – although in a disguised manner – an acknowledgement of a contemporary destabilisation of masculinity. This disjunction within and between masculine identity and social authority, often uniting in the form of sexual transgression.


The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) by Tay Garnett
Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), a middle-aged roadside diner owner, hires a drifter, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), to work at his restaurant. Frank quickly begins an affair with Nick’s beautiful young wife, Cora (Lana Turner), and the two conspire to kill Nick and seize his assets. When they succeed, local prosecutor Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames) becomes suspicious, but is unable to build a solid case. However, the couple soon realizes that no misdeed ever goes truly unpunished. (Google synopsis)

Murder, My Sweet (1944) by Edward Dmytrik
Hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) hired by ex-con Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his missing girlfriend Velma. Shortly thereafter, Marlowe is hired by socialite Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor) to find a valuable jade necklace that has been stolen from her. Marlowe finds the necklace and also finds blackmail, double crosses, corruption, and murder on both sides of the tracks. (Rotten Tomatoes synopsis)


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

1940s Film Noir - TRANSGRESSION (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - The sense of unbalance in film noir makes transgression very likely


  • Cheryl
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 02:07

    Oh phooey! We women have been getting a bad wrap since the Garden of Eden myth!!! (rolls eyes…just teasing! 😀 )

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    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:41

      LOL! I suppose you’re right, Cheryl. But that has made things a lot mor einteresting for us thorughout several centuries 😉

  • Gail M Baugniet
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 05:55

    Having a bit of trouble feeling sorry for the poor downtrodden males, Sarah. They make their choices based on varying options, and always choose the excitement, the danger, the femme fatale.

    I never thought of the hard-boiled detectives as men experiencing a threat to their masculinity. Is that why they smoked so much and drank so hard?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:44

      Ah, Gail! But that can be said for any good character, don’t you think? 😉

      It was quite a discovery for me too. I had never thought about film noir as a ‘male’ film, becuase the femme fatale is also such powerful character. In fact, I think the meaning of this kind of film went far beyond their particual circumtances.

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 07:13

    I had two thoughts while reading: One – In reality women are portrayed very badly in this light. Although most were still grounded and moral, they are seen as immoral temptress’. Two – I wondered if women growing lonely during the war and being untrue to beaus and spouses contributed to this portrayal.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:49

      I think it sure did, Barbara. Besides, that was part of the war and people had to face what war did even in places where it didn’t bring ‘traditional’ distruction. I mean, it’s easy to see how war brought havoc on places where entire cities were rased to the ground. We sometimes don’t see as clearly that wars brings havoc on much more aspect of everydaylife, even where no bomb ever blows off.

      Personally, I tend to see the characterisation of the man and woman’s role in a much more narrative way. To me, they become a symbol of evolution more than a true portrayal of actual people.

  • Nilanjana Bose
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 07:53

    Hmmm…not sure I have any sympathy for the males here…always easier to blame everything on the woman…time we cherchez-ed l’homme for a bit…

    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:52

      I think the psychology here is deeper than it looks like. Sure, on the outside the male hero is ‘allured’ by the woman. But he falls for her because of some very deep unbalance he has inside himself. That’s where the true story happens for me.

      Besides, even if the film doesn’t linger on it, the female characters is also going through a trial, she is not as all-powerful and assured as the hero makes her. And here lays more story.

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:47

    Hi Sarah – there’s always two sides … but the men have the upper hand or should do – unless they get subverted by the woman … I hope I get to see these films sometime -as I never wanted to be terrified in the decades past! Cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 08:54

      Uhm… I think film noir actually brings down quite a balance between the postion of the hero and the femme fatale. They’re both going through tourble times, even if one seems to fare better than the other.
      Here lies the fascination we still have for these film, in my opinion.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 13:00

    There are still movies and TV shows that uses this (the whole femme fatale, burdened hero and the soon-to-be dead husband thing) and it always makes me laugh when no-one else sees what’s happening – especially when the femme fatale only uses the men to get what she really wants: freedom. Happy A-to-Z-ing.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2017 at 08:30

      Ture, eh? But then, we’re supposed to use a certain degree of suspention of disbelieve in order to enjoy stories 😉

  • CD Gallant-King
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 14:06

    Hmmm… maybe that’s the trick. The woman drives the story without being the main character, but is she truly viewed as a “character?” Is she more of a plot device than a fully-fleshed “character?” Or is she the antagonist, whether set up as the villain or not?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2017 at 08:34

      I honestly don’t think she’s merely a plot devise. I’d say she’s definitely the antagonist, sometimes the villain, butnot often.

      You have to consider that all characters and all situations, in any kind of storytelling, are realistic depictions of what we know (life, right?) but also figuration of abstract ideas. Storytelling is a very subtle and delicate balance between these two elements.
      So, while the damaged hero and the femme fatale do depict a a real situation people (and artists) of the 1940s were living everyday, they also speak a more universal language of human emotions.

      Well, this is my take at it anyway 😉

  • Ramya
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 18:05

    Oh, I love the post. I can’t believe I’m stumbling across your blog so late in the challenge.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2017 at 08:35

      Hi Ramya and thanks for stopping by.
      The AtoZChallenge is a challenge in so many ways. So many people taking part and so little time to visit everyone. But we’ll hav etime to catch up 😉

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 18:27

    Fascinating read.

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 20:31

    It is so interesting to see how the femme fatale is treated in films as opposed to her male counterpart. To me, it reflects the different rules there are for men and women. So, it raises the question (at least for me): is the femme fatale’s transgression really that? Or is it simply refusal to conform to what society expects? If the latter, is that really a transgression in its narrow sense? We might say that it is a transgression in the broader sense of going against social codes of the time. But I’m not sure of the rest.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2017 at 08:39

      You raise an intersting question, Margot.
      I think film noir has many levels of reading (this is why we still enjoy it decades later) and the you you propose is one of them.
      The ‘historical’ read is the most obvious (women were treated badly, men were unjustly feeling threatened) but there are more subtle, more universal meanings to be read in film noir, like the one you propose about transgression.
      Just my idea 😉

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 23:42

    I never really thought about film noir as being all about men’s stories and reactions, though it’s hardly a surprise to read about women having to live up to impossible expectations or risk ruin and pariah status. In that era, even more so than today, most women had little choice but to advance themselves and take their identity through men.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2017 at 08:42

      I’ve come to think that, while film noir depicted an actual situation, happening in 1940s American sociaty, it also tapped into a much more universal realm of feeling.
      So, even if it’s easy to read the shifting role of women in the 1940s and the anxious reaction of men, we can also read this as a figuration of how humans realct to change and how they handle the anxiety that comes for it.

      I’m starting to see: film noir is really a very complex kind of storytelling.

  • Sharon M Himsl
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 02:17

    This doesn’t say much about the heroes who were so easily (or willingly) manipulated! Feeling a bit sorry for their lack of intelligence. I wonder if anyone has found out if women liked these films more than men. Thanks, Sarah!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 08:46

      Well, I do like them 😉
      Besides, I don’t think they really speak about men/women relationships all that much. I think there’s more there.

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 16:35

    Well, men/women being attracted to “forbidden” or “dangerous” partners is a pretty old theme (like Lancelot and Guenevere, for example) and that continues on to present day. These days, though, it seems like we see more women falling for the “bad boy” sort (man fatale? 😉 ). I’m not sure if there’s any deeper meaning in the present-day portrayals, though, so film noir wins out on that point. 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 18:12

      Well, the ‘forbidden love’ might be an old theme, but maybe that’s why it still works 😉

      I’d say there is probably something in the inversion of the trope, even if we only sense it in a subliminal way. When trends are established in any form of entertainment, usually it’s because they are indeed reflecting something happening in the society producing them.

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