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October 1999, Week 4


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Thu, 28 Oct 1999 10:48:19 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (74 lines)
Mike Frank wonders:

> are the changes cited by peter changes in narration or changes
> in diegesis? . . .   that is, are we to understand that these noir women
> did the same things in the films of the forties that they do in contemporary
> films, and that just the  *representation*  of those things has, for a
> variety or reasons including the demise of the code,  changed . . . or
> does this change in the system of representation speak of some
> broader [or deeper] change so that we are to understand the kathleen
> turner character in BODY HEAT to have behaved quite differently from
> phyllis dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY? . . .
> my own inclination is to see the change as largely in the representation,
> but to the extent that the medium is -or shapes- the message such changes
> can't be written off so easily . . .

There are changes in both, but it's hard to generalize on the basis of
a relative handful of well-known examples, in lieu of a more
comprehensive look at a range of films.

Still, with those generalizations and that small sample in mind, some
thoughts do occur:

1. Representation: The noir fatale (or "spider woman" as she is
sometimes referred to) tends to occur more often in noir of the 1940s
than the 1950s, only to have the type resurface in BODY HEAT and later
films. At least on the surface, I will risk generalizing, it is more
common in the 1950s to find the woman portrayed as victim than as
scheming seductress (Janet Leigh in TOUCH OF EVIL vs. Barbara Stanwyck
in DOUBLE INDEMNITY). (Even Gaby in KISS ME DEADLY strikes me as more
of a naive (almost literal) Pandora than as the woman who lures a man
to his doom.

2. Representation: Even in the 1940s, the Spider Woman is often, if not
usually, counterbalanced by a "good girl" who represents a safe
domestic alternative.  The daughter in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, the
screenwriter in SUNSET BOULEVARD, the daughter (again) in MURDER MY
SWEET, etc. are examples. Maybe the most telling change in
representation in neo-noir is the disappearance of this countertype.

3. Representation: Neo-noir often plays rather explicitly with themes
and motifs of past noir films and tends to hint at greater
psychological complexity.  Turner in BODY HEAT gets away with the
crime, while Stanwyck does not, but there is at least the suggestion of
some kind of regret (?) or emptiness (?) for Turner now that she is
free and clear.  I may be nearly alone in this view, but I also think
that there is greater complexity in Jessica Lange's character in the
remake of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE than in Lana Turner's original.

4. Narration: It's harder to find the combination of "hard-boiled"
voiceover and "spider woman" in neo-noir (with the exception of a few
explicit remakes, like FAREWELL MY LOVELY).  It's interesting that that
kind of narrative voiceover has recently resurfaced in films that deal
with male *angst* but lack a spider woman.  AMERICAN BEAUTY, BRINGING
OUT THE DEAD, and THE FIGHT CLUB are current examples--not quite noir
or neo-noir, although they may have noir elements in them, but without
a spider woman as such.

Just a few thoughts.

Don Larsson

Donald Larsson
Minnesota State U, Mankato
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