Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Gender in Film Noir

An essay of the positive strides that Hollywood's most threatening ladies made for women 

“He keeps me on a leash so tight I can’t breath,” cries Phyllis in regards to her domineering husband.  The attentive insurance salesman is apparently the most viable replacement for Phyllis’s lavish lifestyle, renting a one-bedroom apartment with a dead end job’s low pay.  For her, it’s not just about the awarded insurance money, but also the desire to escape the subjugating nature of men, to embrace true independence and to gain sexual freedom.

            Gender within the film noir genre has developed into a subject of vast research and study.  For the first time in mainstream cinematic history, women were portrayed as adhering to pre-feminist ideologies by subtly demonstrating their capacity to escape patriarchal norms and to deviate from all gender constructions.  Yet even through a departure from classical Hollywood female representation, technological and chauvinistic ideals continued to conquer and manipulate the screen.  Women remained as objects of men, portraying and adopting characters within a male-viewer spectacle. 

            This paper is going to argue that the gender representations within the film noir movement made positive movements in pro-feminist ideals as reflected in the femme fatale personas.  I will specifically examine three pieces of media from this movement; Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Michael Curtis’s The Maltese Falcon, and Christopher Nolan’s Memento.  First I will give plot summaries for the three movies followed by the historical and philosophical developments that lead to the creation of this movement.  Thirdly, I will transition into the positive social attributes that femme fatales possess.  From there, the hegemonic ideologies will be discussed in relation to both the producers and the directorial styles.  Finally, I will lead into my concluding remarks.

            The femme fatale in Double Indemnity is considered the premiere archetype within the film noir genre.  Phyllis Dietrichson is the second wife of Mr. Dietrichson, and stepmother of his child Lola.  She recruits the assistance of insurance salesman Walter Neff in order to establish a double indemnity policy and proceed to kill her husband afterwards, allowing them to run off with the money.  Upon doing so she double-crosses Walter, and in a fit of passion they end up murdering each other.

            The Maltese Falcon involves a private eye named Sam Spade who is recruited by femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She fabricates a story of her missing sister, with her true intentions aiming towards the acquirement of a priceless Maltese Falcon Statue that her boss/lover wants.  Within minutes of looking for the sister, an unknown assailant kills Spade’s partner.  Through a roller coaster ride of plot twists, we discover that Brigid murdered Spade’s partner and double-crossed her boss and cohorts, all to obtain the stature for herself.  She pleads her love for Spade, but to no avail he turns her in.

            Memento is widely considered a modern day homage to the noir movement.  The femme fatale in this film is named Natalie who has befriended Leonard.  Leonard is suffering from a disorder that voids him of any retention of short-term memories due to a home-invader that caused his wife to be raped and murdered.  As a result he is intent on unlawfully exacting revenge on the unknown killer. The femme fatale Natalie who naturally gives the illusion of a potential love interest assists Leonard in this endeavor.  On account of the story being told backwards, with the last scene being told first and the first scene being told last, we discover that Natalie has ulterior motives, wanting Leonard to kill his friend/police officer, Teddy, that killed her drug dealer boyfriend a year prior.

            These plot summaries could easily be utilized in most of the other films of the genre.  The lone male having his current lifestyle disrupted upon encountering the beautiful femme fatale, leading him to a world void of morality and filled with deceit.  The format employs the frequent voice over that recalls the events with slick language through a monotonous tone. While not all of these films contain such tragic endings as Double Indemnity or Memento, the introduction of immoral women who are capable of suspending their ethics is commonplace, with many scholars pointing to the horrendous events taking place in the world at the time leading to this new philosophical development in film.

            It was particularly through the devastation of pre, present and post World War II events that many theorize film noir to have been created.  The post-anxiety ridden American/world culture lead to existential questions ranging from skeptical views regarding the existence of God to the meaning of life, all based upon the horrors experienced both at home and abroad.  Film noir was the genre that most clearly represented these fears as the above summary has indicated. Helen Hanson discusses this cultural reflection in her book Hollywood Heroines, in which she states:

For many commentators, the principle hallmarks of noir include a distinctive treatment of sexual desire and sexual relationships, a distinctive array of male and female character types, and a distinctive repertoire of male and female traits, ideals and characteristics and forms of behavior.
  For some these elements can be related directly to contemporary social and cultural trends and factors; they help not only to define noir, but also to account for its existence.


            Beyond the aforementioned immorality is the Hollywood rebellion of highly sexualized content.  Both Phyllis and Walter exhibit completely lascivious regards for the other, described in an epithetical fashion as love. Leonard is exploited and regarded by the audience as having a genuine connection with Natalie, yet we find out she had deeper plans, using sex as her main tool.  Finally, in The Maltese Falcon, the associate of Brigid, named Cairo, warns Spade of her use of sex as a manipulation device. 

            While sexual inclinations could be considered the norm of men within classical Hollywood schematics, for women it was revolutionary. Sheri Chenin Biesen discusses this in her book Blackout stating in regards to World War II, “Working women in America’s home front also affected how women were portrayed in film noir.  Sexualized female roles targeted, and were influenced by, working wartime women, capitalizing on strong gender models while appealing to combat-hardened military men via a touch psyche and realistic violence towards the opposite sex” (06). With women being the driving workforce of the war machine back in the States, it was clear that a major step towards egalitarianism had been cultivated.  Hence, this apparent nymphomania should rather be regarded as acquiring sexual autonomy. 

            Phyllis, Natalie, and Brigid do not only commit sexual acts as a means to an end, but do so with a shameless undertone.  This sexual deviation allows them to flip the gender norms into subjugation of the male counterparts.  It is clear in these films that the male feelings toward the femme fatale was developed instantaneously in response to both beauty and distraction from life’s monotony, rather than the result of any type of human connection.  The women exploit this pseudo-love through their seductive nature and further provide the ultimate sexual payoff upon completion of a “favor,” or in order to complete a “favor” – Phyllis needing her husband killed, Natalie needing Leonard to kill the police officer, and Brigid, in a pure film noir cliché, arriving at the detective’s office disguised as a damsel in distress with a soon-to-be-discovered fabricated story.

            To further elaborate on the underlying nature of their sexual/gender deviation, it could be theorized that, in regards to Memento, Natalie did not even have strong feelings towards her now-dead boyfriend.  After all, in conversation with Leonard she states how much she admires the amount of love he had towards his ex-wife.  It seems that a man who possesses so much passion, is attractive, and has a decent job (he drives a Jaguar) would be a viable alternative to a previously unlawful lifestyle that ended in tragedy. This irrationality towards having a cop killed, exploiting a cognitively disabled person and continuing her life as a delinquent rather than pursuing a positive lifestyle, is not just an indication of her social frustration, but more specifically illuminates her view of the horrors and power that men truly hold over women.   The same could be applied for any of the women from these films.  For along with being proto-feminist, they adopt their femme fatale ideologies to such an extent that it borders on hopes for a complete annexation of male-oriented domination. 

            While their acts could be considered immoral, the opening quote of this paper needs to be kept in mind.  In the times prior to World War II, the majority of women relied on men in order to provide them with a decent living, both financially and socially.  Considering that women could not enter the work force, the only way a woman could establish a sense of control and purpose is through motherly inclinations brought about by a marriage.  In an essay No Place for a Woman: Family in Film Noir John Braser discusses how contrary to this ideology, the femme fatale “…refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women.  She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless and dull, and she uses all her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence.” 

            Braser further elaborates on these themes within The Maltese Falcon, illuminating the fact that rarely in film noir does the femme fatale possess an emotionally gratifying lifestyle and/or children of her own as Brigid indirectly proclaims.  The stagnant life under a patriarchal veil has inconclusively led to other means of dissonance. Namely, he is referring to sexual promiscuity and subjugation of alpha males.  Through Brigid’s coercion of Spade, she is provided with a sense of empowerment previously denied, giving the illusion of control over her societal environments all while allowing for the possibility of high financial returns that provide for an escape towards true freedom.

            Feminist Laura Mulvey aims to dismiss this apparently affirmative stride for women within her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, approximately twenty years after the original film noir wave had dissipated.  It was in this article that she specifically alluded to the fact that women remained to be viewed by the spectator as objects-for-men.  “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly…their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-look-at-ness” (19). Mulvey further emphasizes this objectification of women saying, “…conventional close-ups of legs (Phyllis for example) or a face (Brigid) integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism” (20).  Jhally’s article on hegemony emphasizes this problem stating, “Given that our understanding of reality is always socially constructed, visual images are the central mode through which the modern world understands itself” (256).[1]  Hence, when Phyllis is first introduced in Double Indemnity, we see her in a series of three shots with each one closing in on her bikini-laden self.  Finally, when she ascends the stairs to greet Walter, the most prime example of the male gaze is established.  Her legs are in extreme close up revealing her to be wearing high heels that shape her calves in a seductive fashion. The camera then dollies/pans to reveal that it was acting as the point of view of Walter, that is, the point of view of a male spectator. 

            The question that must be asked is to what extent does the technological/stylistic structure of media, film noir specifically, hinder a women’s place in society?  There is no doubt that the movie studios of this time were dominated by males with women commonly holding behind-the-scene camera jobs of editor or script supervisor.  The directors, producers and cinematographers would be dominantly male and thus their visual decisions were based on two factors – male established social norms and previously constructed male-produced media. Strinati states in his article that, “…the prevailing culture in a society at any point in time is an outcome and embodiment of hegemony, of the ‘consensual’ acceptance by subordinate groups of the ideas, values and leadership of the dominant groups” (148).[2] Since men up until the feminist movement of the 1960’s dominated nearly all forms of media and had it revolve around their ideologies, the consumers and soon-to-be producers of the movie studios would develop a particular response by conforming to encoded messages within the media they experienced – a male protagonist, a women as an object, and of course Mulvey’s women to-be-looked-at-ness.  These hegemonic ideologies had come to be so embedded in culture that no one had even thought of making other stylistic choices.

             Overall, media-oriented identification for the majority of Americans does not seem to be with the technique of the story, but rather with the characters.  The subtle, negatively based ideologies of Mulvey may induce future filmmakers to capture their images of women in the same questionable manner, but style is not necessarily propagating any new ideologies – visually presenting women as objects can only be done so many ways. On the other hand, the femme fatale possesses extremely positive attributes toward advancing gender equality. In The Whites of Their Eyes Hall says, “We have to ‘speak through’ the ideologies which are active in our society and which provide us with the means of ‘making sense’ of social relations and our place in them” (90).[3]  Although femme fatales commonly adopt immoral standards of living, women must be credited with being able to see through the literal and into the symbolic – escaping male patriarchy and the pursuit of a more autonomous mode of life.  While these films did not establish the feminist movement, it can be easily ascertained that they strongly reflected its future development.  

            Film noir was a genre dominantly scattered with sub-par films playing in theaters as B-movies and double bill tickets. Yet the gems of the movement – The Maltese Falcon’s, the Mementos, and the Double Indemnity’s - are all indications of the vast range of quality this genre adopted.  Like the vast races and socio-economic strata comprising American society, it had its share of lower-class pictures and higher-class ones.  Such diversity reflected in a film movement is no longer as prevalent as it once was; B-movies have dissipated from the mainstream theaters of today in favor of direct-to-video sales.  This all begs the question as to what the appeal was?  Perhaps it was because women made up the other half of the world, something that superseded race or social status, and regardless of lower or upper-class status, patriarchy was present. While for men Brigid was a threat, for women she was a heroine: the physical manifestation of overcoming male-oppression burning within them all!  Whether it was to this extreme or not, this paper has established the dominantly affirmative attributes that femme fatales played in both mainstream cinema and culture alike.



[1] Image Based Culture: Advertising and Pop Culture Jhally, Sut

[2] Mass Culture Strinati

[3] The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media Hall, Stuart