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March 2000, Week 2


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louie rayner <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 14 Mar 2000 11:29:09 GMT
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Film noirs  are commonly seen as “maladjusted” texts that reflect “ the dark
side of the screen”, the ideological contradictions, disequilibrium, and
disturbing imbalance characteristic of the World War Two and post-war
periods. Because noirs  reached their peak of popularity during and after
the war, wartime social turmoil has largely been seen as responsible for
their “deviant” nature. Noirs, with their preoccupation of paranoia,
commonly employs a confessional or investigative mode. Interestingly, what
these confessing male protagonists search for on their past experiences or
psychological conditions is a revelation that involves the truth not so much
about masculinity but rather about feminity. These films seem to be
concerned with ascertaining “what the women wants”, finding the essential
difference, which often is symbolised in female sexuality.

Feminity thus becomes the ultimate subject of the films’  discourse. This
search for the truth of sexuality while seeming to reveal sexual truth is
never attained by film noir  instead it acts only to mask, deny access to,
and assert power over it. Voice-over narration in film noir,  which is
typically male, implicates the spectator completely in the perspective of
the films’ male narrator in his condemnation of the film’s major female
character , the femme fatale. Mary Ann Doanne, for instance, sees the noir
voice -over as: ‘embedding the figure of the femme fatale in the narratives
metadiegetic level ‘, framing her speech within an overpowering masculine
discourse in order to withhold her access to narration and grant the male
narrator control of both her words and image. This is a common trope for the
classic noirs  yet it is difficult to find voice-over narration within the
contemporary noirs.

The very project of these films, their repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to
probe the nature of sexual difference, foregrounds a societal failure to
resolve the contradictions inherent in conventional configurations of
sexuality and gender difference. From a psychoanalytical perspective, the
male protagonist consistently tries to interpret the meaning of femaleness
by male standards- from the point of view of the phallus. In these terms,
femaleness is always judged as excess or lack from the perspective of

male normalcy. Femaleness becomes simply insuffiency or excess in comparison
to maleness, and real difference is masked under a discourse that approaches
understanding only of this limited conception of truth. In this way, the
films can soothe castration fears that the notion of sexual difference might
raise in the male spectator and that the advances of women out of the home
and into the work place exacberated in 1940’s society. By eliding
difference, the noir  films can create a unified male spectator untroubled
by contradictions within his society that are symbolised in the films by
female otherness.

The spiderwomen of nineties Hollywood, like most Americans, have enjoyed the
benefits of the post-World War Two prosperity. Early femme fatales were
concerned with traditional greed, as a direct threat to the males’ power.
Bridget O’Shaunessey
of the Maltese Falcon (1941) and Lana Turner’s character in The Postman
Always Rings Twice (1946) are but two examples. Where as Sharon Stones
character in Basic Instinct is more concerned with “mind games” than with
money. The later femme fatales, also, appear to be better educated and
wealthier than their predeccesors. This makes a bold statement about women's
contemporary representation in film. It depicts a sense of liberalism
throughout  the noir  films and more importantly emphasises the once
disguised equality of women.

Women in classical Hollywood films have been positioned as objects of
spectacle, fixed and held by the male gaze. The femme fatale of the film
noir  is clearly yet another female object of spectacle, defined by her
dangerous, yet desirable sexual presence,
but she is an object with a difference. Female characters in classical
Hollywood films are traditionally portrayed as weak and in need of the male
hero’s affection and protection. Film noirs  release the female image from
these fixed roles and grant it overwhelming power. The iconography of the
femme fatale grants these beautiful women visual primacy through shot
composition as well as camera positioning, movement, and lighting. The
freedom of movement and visual dominance of the femme fatale admittedly is
presented as inappropriate to a proper female role and as igniting sinister
forces that are deadly to the male protagonist. Narratively, this dangerous,
evil women is damned and ultimately punished, but stylistically she exhibits
such an extremely

powerful visual presence that the conventional narrative is disorientated
and the image of the erotic, strong unrepressed woman dominated the text.

This unattainable enigma of the femme fatale is constructed around the
sexual needs of the male protagonist. The image of the femme fatale presents
a beautiful, fascinating surface, but one impenetrable to investigation. I
venture that the classic femme fatale were not themselves interested in sex
but used it as a tool for survival or, more commonly  for achieving wealth
or power. This is exemplified in Johnny’s voice-over in The Postman Always
Rings Twice “I hated her so I couldn't get her out of my mind for a minute”.
This remark seems more a product of frustrated sexual attraction than of
disdain. The contemporary noir  spider women is an actively sexual creature
who threatens the wholesome young protagonist not merely through her
sexuality but with it. For example, Madonna’s character in Body of Evidence.
To this extent the contemporary version is less evasive about what in women
threatens men.

The major difference between classic and current film noir femme fatales was
Hollywood Production Code, which was finally abandoned in the mid sixties.
The Production Code gave the characters license to say and do things to
express their
use of sexuality that had to be implied or veiled in the earlier films
(e.g. the open references to oral sex in BODY HEAT and the kitchen table
scene in the Raphelson POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE).  But the freedom to
acknowledge and act on female sexual desire can make their actions more
complex than greed alone can account for.  The very end of BODY HEAT
seems to hint at this, the remake of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE
acts on it more openly. While it was acceptable to show greed (allowing for
"compensating moral values") overt sexuality was not allowed - particularly
female. After all, it was the aggressive, if comical, sexual "come-ons" of
Mae West  - and the
androgony of Marlene Dietrich - which finally made the Hays Office
implement the Code - thanks mainly to the Catholic Church's Legion of
Decency  and its threat to boycott all Paramount Studios movies.  Also,
social movements such as female equality helped the neo-noir females to show
their sexuality, as well as their classic-noir greed and manipulation of the
often weak male


A very interesting aspect to the comparison of the Garfield/Turner POSTMAN
ALWAYS RINGS TWICE to the Nicholson/Lange version is the way Cora is
filmed. In Turner's version, she drops something  and the camera with him
(i.e. from his point of view)  slowly pans up her body
beginning with her feet (where he has lunged for the dropped object) and
proceeds up past her naked knees and short skirt. In contrast, Nicholson's
(and ours) first view of Lange's Cora is caught through the swinging doors
to the kitchen where she works over a grill in a worn looking shirt. The
Code necessitated some very obvious signals in lieu of more open displays
of sexual action. Lange's Cora achieves a greater aura of mystery and,
arguably, I think, agency in the plotting against her husband and in her
sexual liaison with Nicholson's character. Turner is filmed to denote
sexuality rather than being asked to help create it. The Code in this way
forced Turner to be "coded" almost completely as "sex" whereas Lange's
character's sexuality plays a more causal role in the plot.

Well, a femme fatale is a femme fatale - sex and duplicity....... In the
heyday of classic film noir, roughly from the mid forties to the mid
fifties, the Hollywood Production Code was very much in effect, so sexual
activity was suggested rather than shown. This translated into loaded
dialogue, double entendres, the cigarette smoking ritual, and a few chaste
kisses.   Also, before "women's liberation" came along, a femme fatale
usually had
to hook on to a man to carry out her nefarious schemes (e.g:  The Maltese
Falcon: Double Indemnity: Out Of The Past; The Postman Always Rings Twice).
With modern film noir, a femme fatale often operates more independently
(e.g: The Grifters), and sexual activity is graphically shown rather than
hinted at. For instance, compare the seduction scene in the 1946 and the
1981 versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Also, femme fatales can
get away with a much higher level of violence (and profanity) in modern
film noir than they could in the classic period, following the general

trend in film and other popular entertainment, and the demise of the
Production Code in the late sixties. But the most striking thing about the
two groups is that they rely on seduction to serve destructive (to say
nothing of illegal and/or
immoral) ends. Whatever their time period, they are femme fatales and as
such have to have certain basic characteristics.

The concerns of Film Noir appear to be a current day enigma. From what
sociological and historical background did these films arise from? It all
seems too simple to suggest it originated from a post-war paranoia!

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