Xenos (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

The though thriller is a particularly heightened form of hero-centred fiction, but with a non-traditional outcome engendered by the problematisation of the hero figure.
In place of the conventional affirmation of heroic masculinity, the 1940s thrillers offer a range of alternative or ‘transgressive’ representations of male destiny and identity, which questions the network of male cultural authority. The noir hero does act as the controlled, unified traditional hero, but many elements in the film suggest that appearance is just… well, appearance.

The relation with the femme fatale becomes particularly tricky, since she’s often the mover of the story, but she’s a distant ‘other’, outside of the story’s perspective and motives. The male perspective is structured as the norm and the touchstone of authority, the feminine is seen as a disturbant, sometimes deadly alternative.

The Big Combo

Here resides the most interesting part of the fascination we still have with film noir.
By all accounts, film noir should be an old form of narration that doesn’t have anything to do with us today. Structure around the problematic relation between men and women that was characteristic of a very specific time (the 1940s), it seem to have little in common with man/women relationships today. Film noir centred on a very specific experience bound to a very specific time (post WWII era), addressing, if in a filtered way, problematics that belonged to that specific time (the maladjustment of returning veterans, the resentment of women forcefully expelled from the workforce, the confusion of wartime sexual roles).
But we still enjoy film noir, it still makes sense to us. Born nearly by chance, it has become a language we know and use.

Why is that?

The distant and unknowable 'other', the true source of #FilmNoir anxiety Click To Tweet

The power of storytelling, when it is meaningful, is that it never speaks of the here and now, but rather of the everywhere and always.
In good storytelling, we have characters that look like real people because they act like real people. They face situations that are familiar to the reader/viewer because those situation resonates with the audince’s everyday experience, and thus it feels real. The kind of storytelling film noir enacts is grounded in the moment these films were produced, they speak of the people the viewers could encounter everyday in they real life and the experience were likewise expereincing (the war, the agressively ‘mprenditorial’ women, the difficult return to normalcy) Viewers lived and heard about in their everyday life.
But if film noir had only addressed these realities, it would be old and done by now. Thing is, film noir is good storytelling.
In good storytelling, characters not only look, feel, speak and act like real people, they are also symbols. And the plot not only rings of true experience, but it also illustrates ideas. This is how good storytelling breaks away from the story contingencies and become universal. In good storytelling, the plot and the characters are grounded in reality (often the author’s reality) but speaks of emotions that reside deep in everyone of us. The actual story and charactes are just figurations of more abstranc ideas.
And because these ideas and emotions belong to all of us regadless of the time and place we live, we can reach into that deeper meaning beyond the contingency of the story and grasp at the universal message underneath.
This is why good storytelling is forever.

Phantom Lady

I believe that by depicting a very specific reality, but in a stylised way, film noir went beyond its limits of time and circumstances. Just like the cinematographers who broke the many limits imposed on them, film noir broke the apparent limits of its contingency and went into a universal space.
Male authority is considered the norm in film noir, and the female action is considered the disturbance. But if we consider that the norm is ‘us’ and the disturbance is the ‘other’, and that the clashing of these forces produces an anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of the outcome, then we can read (and speak) film noir in very different ways.
The confrontation between the hero and the femme fatal can then be seen as a narrational tool to express a very deep anxiety concerning change and the way we as humans cope with it. It speaks of new encounters we don’t know how to handle (the unscrutable ‘other’, the femme fatal), of shifting situations we don’t know how to cope with (the shifting roles of men and women in 1940s American society), of the sense of powerlessness we expereince while the change is happening (the hero’s lack of control on the story). But because these figurations stand in place of a more universal meaning, they can be rearrenged by viewers so to become meaningful to them.
In today’s society for exapmple the unscrutable ‘other’ may be someone belonging to a different culture. The shifting roles may apply to influx of different people into an established society. The lack of control may refer to the axiety and fear this forced clash of cultures engenders.
Fear of change was at the very core of film noir, and that’s a universal feeling. In the 1940s, that reflected the new role of women and its social meaning and the difficulties returning veterans had to readjust to peacetime society. In our times, that may reflect the change of a society that is mixing at a very fast pace and pushes together cultures that are unprepared to effectively deal with each other.

The confrontation between the opposites that never meet and never fully understand each other that film noir enacts is very much close to our experience today.

That’s why film noir is forever.



The Big Combo (1955) by Joseph H. Lewis
Police Lt. Diamond is told to close his surveillance of suspected mob boss Mr. Brown because it’s costing the department too much money with no results. Diamond makes one last attempt to uncover evidence against Brown by going to Brown’s girlfriend, Susan Lowell. (MUBI synopsis)

Phantom Lady (1946) by Robert Siodmak
Scott Henderson’s (Alan Curtis) innocuous evening with a strange woman becomes crucial when he is later accused of murdering his wife on the same evening. When Scott’s story is disbelieved and a trial fails to bring forth the “phantom lady,” Scott’s devoted girl Friday, secretary Carol Richman (Ella Raines), begins her own investigation with the aid of police inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez). A high point is Carol’s unexpected kinky moment with an obsessed jazz drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.). (Google synopsis)



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

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1940s Film Noir - XENOS (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - The distant, unknowable 'other' is the true source of film noir axiety

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

40 Comments on "Xenos (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)"

  1. Fear of “the other” continues in our time, but we don’t seem to have a film genre that reflects this now, unless you count action films. 😉

    X is for eXtras

  2. Fear of others is the reason there will never be peace on this planet. Maybe that’s why Film Noir seems so eternal…

    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter W

    • I definitelly think so. It’s an ancestral fear, and I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of it. But being aware of it is already helpful.

  3. For me it still speaks today simply because the people are flawed, as we all are. The imperfection of the leads is what resonates. Like James Dean in Giant, two decades later. I think another reason it is still popular is because women really did move out of the house and into the workforce in mass in the seventies. One of my sisters had a bumper sticker on her van that read “A women’s place is in the home…and she should go there right after work.” Plus it is grainy, dark and seems to borderline on something evil. But it is not totally evil, so we can watch and root for the underdog and still feel our sensibilities are in tact. This is the most I’ve ever said about the subject. Kuddos, to you for drawing it out!
    Perspectives at Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    Barbara In Caneyhead recently posted…#AtoZChallenge – Perspectives: WasteMy Profile

    • I think you touched on a few very good points, Barbara.
      It’s true, these are not characteristics that are specific to film noir (as it can be said for so many aìother noir characteristics, which is one of the reasons why noir is difficult to place as a genre) but the way noir presents and handles these elements is definitelly quite involving.

  4. Good storytelling is indeed forever. And I agree that change will always be a scary thing. What’s interesting is watching how the fears evolve and, well, change. Stories let us watch that evolution. 🙂
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…Hazel and Holly — An Unadorned EndMy Profile

    • It’s true. As it’s true that, if there are aspects to fears that change, there are others (usually very deep inside us) that remain the same. This is why some stories are forever. Thsi is even why we still recount stories that comes from Prohistory.
      It’s mindblowing.

  5. This is, again, an interesting analysis.

    (By the way… I received yesterday a postcard from Verona!).
    EvaMail Adventures
    Eva recently posted…#AtoZChallenge | X is for XangôMy Profile

  6. Hi Jazz – definitely a few X times reasons to remember why we enjoy Film Noir – lovely expositions on the genre and on the two films … I am now committed to film noir when one of the films comes up for viewing … cheers Hilary

    Hilary Melton-Butcher recently posted…X is for X War facts …My Profile

    • The same for me. I’m sure I watched many of these films with my granny when I was a kid, but it was a long time ago…
      I’m going to watch them too. They are so intersting 🙂

  7. Have you writtten a book about this genre?? Excellent review of what ” motivates” the film noir. This feeling is even in many people today but not expressed as well in films of today.
    Birgit recently posted…A to Z Challenge-The Dreaded Letter XMy Profile

    • This was actually my first serious foray into film noir, but I’m sure I’ll look deeper into it, because I’ve really enjoyed this challenge. Didn’t expect to find so many interesting aspects to it.

      Yeah, it has beeen pointed out repeatedly by a few commenters (and I agree) that films today aren’t as interesting as these B movies were. It may be – as someone suggested – that making films today, with GCI and all the rest, it’s become too easy and so part of the creativity has gone. But here may rest the challenge: maybe this will turn into the new difficulty to overcome. Discovering the story and its heart again beyond the dazzlying visual offects we can use today.

  8. again, a very smart and interesting analysis. Your series has been truly brilliant.
    Roshan Radhakrishnan recently posted…‘Love, XYZ’ : Compassion from Strangers #AtoZChallenge #WATWBMy Profile

  9. I couldn’t agree with you more. The ‘other’ has been used brilliantly in film noir to capture human frailty, fear, and so on. And it’s an interesting way to make us look at ourselves, if I can put it that way.

    • I agree. The ‘other’ is at the core of a lot of storytelling (of course. this is one of our ancestral fears 😉 ) but I think film noir has a way to tackle the subject that really gets to us without scarying us away.

  10. Interesting analysis. Hollywood used to do a good job of discussing these topics.
    Jacqui recently posted…Today’s #AtoZChallenge : XenofictionMy Profile

    • True. It has been pointed out more than once in the comments that today’s special effects seems to have taken over filmmaking more than they should. The story becomes just an excuse, and that’s when a film becomes lame.

      Basically, where film noir had to overcome a scaseness of means, today’s Hollywood seems to have too easy a way to duzzle the spectator without even needing a story.

  11. Yup, good storytelling, mixed with purpose, is the goal and ideal. The stories that survive, survive for a reason. You need both art and craft, entertainment and purpose, to make something really good.
    CD Gallant-King recently posted…X – Crazy Canadian Cultist Brother XIIMy Profile

    • That is absolutely true. Sadly, it’s not always the case, but then good storytelling as well as bad stroytelling have always exist, right? 😉

  12. This made for an insightful and interesting read, Sarah! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Good stories are relatable and relevant across all eras and cultures. Even if they started out as speaking to the fears and values of a specific time and place, the heart of these stories speaks to something greater in the human condition.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Xaver Suppe and Xoriatiki SalataMy Profile

    • I agree. And that requires a great sense of understanding of both the subject matter and the storytelling technique, which might be the reason why this kind of stories aren’t as common as it should be.

  14. Truly, noir is a product of its times, exploring its specific anxieties. I think the genre that comes closest to exploring the anxieties of our time is probably the zombie apocalypse film. The earliest films in the genre addressed consumerism and racial anxiety, more recent ones fundamentalism, globalization, and the corruption within existing power structures.

  15. Hollywood has gotten away from telling good stories in favor of CGI and lowbrow humor.
    John Holton recently posted…The Friday more-or-less Five: Your Traveling SongsMy Profile

  16. I agree with Birgit above. If you haven’t written a book on the Film Noir, you need to take your blog posts on the subject and start. Fear of other definitely drives noir (along with other genres), but I also don’t think a lot has changed as well. In the US we’ve been at war since 2002 (yes, we are still at war in Afghanistan no matter how much our media ignores it), and still have the problem of returning veterans not knowing their place in civilian society. And conservative groups–political and religious–are doing everything they can to drive women back into house through various policies. I think Noir also stays relevant because the more things change the more they stay the same as well as the universal themes dealt with in the genre.
    Shawna Atteberry recently posted…A to Z Challenge: X is for XenosMy Profile

    • Unfortunately, history has a habit to repeat itself, isn’t it? That’s quite sad and I wonder what it tells about us humans and our cleverness…

  17. An excellent X post – and not a cheat in sight (unlike myself).

    Bunny and the Bloke

  18. A good story is always interesting and entertaining, even if you can’t put your finger on what fear has a hold on you. For me, it’s the people in charge that are scary.

    Finding Eliza
    Kristin recently posted…Joseph Sharp Yowell – Anatomy of an InvestigationMy Profile

    • I always look at stories as therapy. though stories, we face fears we wouldn’t otherwise, for fear or shame or a bunch of other feelings. And by facing those fears, even in a vicarious way, we start to understand them and control them.
      There’s a reason why storytellers were such important people in the ancient societies 😉

  19. Very in depth and so true even today. I have placed these. 2 films on the list
    Birgit recently posted…A to Z Challenge-The Letter YMy Profile

    • I’m happy you guys are taking notes on the films. To think that was a second thought on my part. The list of films wasn’t originally in my project.

  20. Those are some excellent observations. So Westerns had “cowboy vs Indians” and Noir had “men vs women” and so on and so forth. A “person vs ‘whatever group society is dealing with most'” kind of conflict basis. That’s a neat way to think about it. I love your take!

    J — Co-host of the #AtoZchallenge, Debut Author Interviewer, Reference and Speculative Fiction Writer
    J Lenni Dorner recently posted…Z #AtoZChallenge Zeal of Zebras #Fiction #SFFMy Profile

    • Fear of the ‘other’ is probably one of the most ancestral, most universal fear any human being has. There are very ancient stories talling about it, and I’m sure there will always be stotries about it in the future.

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