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.
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 Click To Tweet
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