Feminism And The Film Noir

As Anne Kaplan sombrely points out in her book Women In Film Noir:

‘One of the depressing aspects of the study of women in art works is the repetition of the same structures, showing the strong hold of patriarchy’.

In the cinema world leading up to the 40‘s this was indeed no exception. Women’s roles were often overshadowed by their male protagonist counterparts on screen, and subsequently their paycheques reflected this. With the emergence of the film noir however, a clear shift was being witnessed involving the role of women in society.


Gaby Rodgers
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

In the 40’s, the striking significance of noir lay in it’s distinguished and at times powerful roles of it’s female characters. Standing in stark juxtaposition, for example, is the Western. John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) or Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949) both outstanding examples of the genre, sees women in their fixed roles as wives, mothers, daughters, lovers, mistresses. In short, playing the background to the ideological work of the film which is carried out mostly by men.

Such noir gems as The Phantom Lady (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Detour (1945), Out Of The Past (1947) and The Big Heat (1953) challenge the world view at the time and throw the conventional patriarchal system on it’s head. With women central to the pulp of the framework of the film noir, they were no longer safely placed in the submissive roles of their subsidiary predecessors. Moreover, through the prowess and sexuality of the femme fatale, noir also successfully exposed the vulnerability of the men in it’s world.

One of the baddest femme fatales, Ann Savage with Tom Neal in Detour (1945)

It’s worth taking into account the climate of a Hollywood in the 40’s that birthed the fatalism and bleakness synonymous with the noir era. Amidst the volatile period leading up to, during, and following the 2nd World War, the industry was undergoing rapid change.

With the threat of Fascism in Europe, the backlots of Tinseltown soon found themselves burgeoning with talented filmmakers… the likes of Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz and Fritz Lang among those emigrating in large numbers.

The great Billy Wilder.

With them came their cinematic touches they had acquired in their homelands; namely the stylised contrasts and shadows of German Expressionism– akin to the unbalanced compositions and low-key lighting seen in noir. During wartime, there was also a sudden influx of women entering the workforce.

Consequently, upon the return of the male populace after the war, the vet was accompanied by new negative attitudes towards family, dispirited hopes of the American dream, and an eroded ideology of national unity. The post-war outlook was as disillusioned as ever.

Jane Greer in Out Of The Past (1947)

Thus, the alienated protagonist, the dispirited war vet, the private detective fighting his own demons, these became the new heroes of noir

From the calculating seductress possessing a fatal beauty that manages to ensnare all that come in contact with her web in The Killing (1956), to the woman who spits back with malevolent intent at the devoted housewife role institutionalised society prescribes to her in Double Indemnity (1944), to the fiercely independent and headstrong protagonist who refuses to allow men to pay her way in Mildred Pierce (1945), the woman of noir certainly possess strong characteristics.

Mildred Pierce
Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945)

In an essay on women in noir, Christine Gledhill illustrates how this shift reflects a continuing:

‘ideological struggle within patriarchy to maintain control over female sexuality and to assimilate it’s new, would-be liberating manifestations…’

Because the rules of noir are often blurred and convoluted at best, and, rather than constituting a genre; which is rarely defined in terms of a recognisable visual style, and whose conventions very much bend with societal changes, it can be argued that instead it would be more correct in saying that film noir represents a movement.

Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964)

More importantly, the social relevance and poignance of it’s nature has seen it’s longevity.

In more recent years a handful of notable filmmakers from cinema’s next generation have used the characteristics of the noir to theme their work. Such films as Le Doulos (1962), The Naked Kiss (1964), Point Blank (1967), The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), Blood Simple (1984) and 2046 (1997) are all worthwhile mentions.

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