The essay won first prize in the Cinema and Media Studies competition in the winter of 2020. The jury hopes you enjoy it as much as we did.
Film Noir was a ground-breaking genre of film. With foundations in nihilism, film noir it portrayed life events in a negative manner, incorporating the principles of cynicism, pessimism, and worthlessness. This was a paradigm shift from the tendency for films to dwell upon the more positive aspects of the personal. This shift in the depiction of people also introduced a new form of characters and character relationships. Kevin L. Stoehr states that the “value in the lives of most film noir characters are usually relativized in a negative manner: In terms of utilitarian power relations that derive solely from materialistic and egotistic ambitions” (Stoehr 28). This negativity was connected to the events that were taking place in the United States during the rise of film noir. Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin explain in their book, America on Film, that the origin of the nihilistic themes was connected to the devastating events of World War II and the complicated relationship of soldiers returning back to America after the war. They state that “men returning from war faced another, often more personal complication to their sense of masculinity: stronger, independent woman. (…) and while birth rates did soar after the war, so did divorce rates” (Benshoff and Griffin 262). This conflict was conveyed in the interactions between male and female characters on screen, leading to the creation of the femme fatale character. “Male characters experience a heightened state of masculinity in crisis. (…) noir films center on men who feel trapped by their social or economic situations” (Benshoff and Griffith 262). While the woman, as E. Anne Kaplan states “is now a femme fatale, exuding her seductive sexuality directly (…,) Marked as evil because of her open sexuality” (Kaplan 6). Benshoff and Griffin elaborate the definition with the statement that these “women tend to act helpless and needy at the beginning of these films, but they are in fact only performing that pose to hide their ruthless ambitions” (Benshoff and Griffith 264). Therefore, she becomes “the ultimate threat.” The seductive femme fatale, along with the lead male character who is struggling with his masculinity, introduces new interactions and power dynamics between male and female characters in cinema. No longer is the female character consistently weaker than the male but often, with the femme fatale, it is the other way around.
With this change of power comes a change in which characters the audience sympathizes with, and how. Although the characters on screen are constantly making morally wrong choices, the audience is still able to find similarities with themselves, and consequently to sympathize. In the films Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon, and The Post Man Always Rings Twice, there is a prominent femme fatale character who interacts throughout the film with the lead male protagonist. Each of these interactions and characters differ greatly between the films. In analyzing the difference of power dynamics between these films as well as the changing power dynamics within the films themselves, I will show how important the display of power is to gain the sympathy of the viewer in these crime-filled films. In film noir, it is not the possession of power that gains the final vote of sympathy from the viewer but instead the display of weakness and loss.
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) demonstrates a classic film noir power relationship between the lead male protagonist and the femme fatale. Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, falls for the seductive wife of his client, Mr. Dietrichson: Phyllis Dietrichson. Phyllis is a true femme fatale who uses seduction to develop her strength throughout the film. She experiences a noticeable change in her representation of power from the beginning of the film to the end. She begins the film weak and in desperate need of Walter to save her from a loveless marriage. She easily seduces Walter and convinces him to kill her husband. The audience discovers at the end of the film that she never truly loved Walter and that her only goal was financial gain. By the climax, the audience feels no sympathy with Phyllis when she is shot by Walter. Instead, the audience sympathies with Walter who is injured physically and emotionally by Phyllis. Even though the audience knows he committed and staged the murder of an innocent man, they are able to feel sympathy towards him. This is because he is portrayed as weaker victim who has been tricked and betrayed by Phyllis throughout the film. Even though “the ideal male: the virile adventurer, the potent, untrammeled man of action” (Wood 477) is usually presented as extremely masculine on screen, in Double Indemnity, instead, the male protagonist shifts from a powerful character to a weak one. This successfully allows the audience to sympathize with him and relate to him as the protagonist.
Elizabeth Cowie points out another tactic which is used for the audience to find sympathy with the male. In her essay “Film Noir and Women,” she states that
in film noir the use of voice over narration is associated with the male hero, often a detective or tough guy investigator whose dialogue is ‘hard boiled’ – clipped and cynical. It functions to place the spectator subjectively with the character, allowing us to enter his world through his words (Cowie 138).
Because the audience feels connected to the leading male by knowing his thoughts and feelings, they automatically become sympathetic towards him. This use of narration is extremely successful in gaining sympathy from the viewer in The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953). Because the audience hears and sees the story through Harry’s thoughts, the audience finds themselves continuously sympathizing with him despite the obvious fact that he cheated and lied to two innocent women, neither of whom were femme fatales.
The 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich) follows a similar form to Double Indemnity. The main differences between these two films come from the relationship between the femme fatale and the leading male. Mike Hammer is a PI who meets Lily Carver/Gabrielle after a chance interaction with a woman on the side of the road. Lily has the same characteristics as Phyllis, with the change from weakness and neediness at the start to a strong sexual energy by the end of the film. Where she differs from Phyllis is in her relationship with the lead male, Mike. Lily tricks Mike at the beginning of the film into helping her, but he is never seduced in the same ways that Walter is by Phyllis. Mike remains invested in the true safety of his friend Velda and therefore is not convinced to commit any malicious acts like Walter is. However, like Walter, he becomes represented as weaker as the film progresses. This begins with the death of his friend Nick and finishes with his physical injury at the beach house. The film ends with Velda and Mike barely getting away but still remaining together. In this film, the audience feels sympathy towards Mike because he ends the film in a weaker position than before but also because he has remained morally good throughout the film. He was never fully tricked by a femme fatale and therefore there is no reason why the audience would not sympathize with him. In contrast, Lily does not gain sympathy because she becomes a greedy, power-hungry femme fatale by the end of the film. The audience is left with the slight satisfaction of watching her get blown up in the boathouse.
The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston, is different in its representation of power between the two leads. Throughout the film, the relationship between Sam and Bridget is slightly confusing. Sam is a private detective whom Bridget hires. The film follows a intricate mystery plot, which is only made more baffling by Bridget’s constant lies. Sam remains powerful and sure of himself throughout the film while Bridget remains distant and weak. Bridget is never shown as a seductive femme fatale, but instead consistently lies and states how wretched and bad she is. Sam also states in voiceover that although she appears good, he has a feeling that she isn’t. Despite this, he initiates each kiss. Bridget’s inconsistent dialogue and actions lead the audience to be confused about her motives and real thoughts throughout the film. This leads the audience to a puzzling sense of sympathy as well. When Bridget is arrested after the cold hard abandonment by Sam, the audience is left feeling sympathetic towards her, the consistently weak woman. Charles Scrug suggests that “In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) lists the reasons for sending Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to jail, but the anguished look on his face (presented as a good guy) suggests that reason continues to conflict with desire” (Scrug 677). This is the only clue the audience receives that Sam is perhaps remorseful or feels any real emotion towards Bridget. Although Sam has a similar record to Mike in Kiss Me Deadly in not committing morally wrong acts, the audience does not sympathize with him as easily. Like Mike, Sam does not commit any real crimes, with or without the encouragement of a femme fatale. He returns the falcon and money at the end of the film and helps the police arrest all guilty parties. Therefore, why does it seem as if there is less sympathy felt towards is his character? The audience’s sympathy is connected to Bridget’s constant weakness throughout the film, as well as her lack of seductiveness. Because Bridget is never represented as more powerful than Sam, the audience never feels threatened by her as a femme fatale. She remains a weak female that Sam does not take pity on. This leads the audience to sympathize with a more classic depiction of a woman who made mistakes, rather than the cold hard detective who has no room for love or forgiveness.
The most interesting dynamic between a leading man and the femme fatale is in Tay Garnett’s The Post Man Always Rings Twice (1946). When Frank encounters Cora for the first time, he is immediately attracted to her. Unlike her sister femme fatales, Cora does not do go out of her way to seduce Frank but instead tries her hardest to make him leave her alone. She has a powerful energy throughout the entire film which she uses to discourage Frank. This is demonstrated when, after Frank is hired, she asks her husband to let him go. When he refuses, Cora constantly tells Frank to leave her alone and obviously shows discomfort whenever he tries to seduce her, saying “please don’t” before he forcefully kisses her. At the beginning of the film, Frank has more characteristics of a femme fatale than Cora does. After Frank finally manages to seduce Cora, he is the first person to suggest they kill her husband. At first, Cora is horrified, but after a while she thinks about his suggestion and realizes how much better her life would be without her husband, even if it is a morally wrong idea. When they decide to carry out the crime, it is revealed that it is Cora who must commit the physical murder of her husband. This differs considerably from the typical femme fatale, such as Phyllis in Double Indemnity, who usually convinces the gullible male to commit all the murderous acts. Although Cora tries, it becomes clear that she does not truly want to commit murder. This is shown when she is obviously relieved and happy to hear that her husband survives the first accident. Cora remains a strong woman throughout most of the film, illustrated by her independence and determination to fulfill her dream for a better life. She does not possess the normal femme fatale traits of deception and greediness. Elizabeth Cowie states that in The Postman Always Rings Twice, “it is not the woman’s duplicity that is the couples undoing” (Cowie 135); instead, “the desire (of the lead protagonist) may result in the hero being drawn into criminal or self-destructive activities without the woman herself being in any way duplicitous” (134). This is the case in Garnett’s film. It is not Cora’s active seductiveness that leads Frank to suggest and commit the morally wrong acts, but his own desire.
The only point in which Cora appears weaker or frightened is during the trial when Frank abandons and betrays her. At this moment the audience feels sympathy for the femme fatale and not the lead male protagonist. They also empathize when Cora is killed in the car crash. They do not feel the same sort of judicial satisfaction as they did when Lily Carver died in Kiss Me Deadly because Cora is not greedy in the same ways Lily is.
Another important element of the audience’s sympathy for Cora is that she is not portrayed as a true femme fatale. Since she did not try to seduce Nick to make him commit wrongful acts, she does not seem like a villain. Furthermore, Cora’s true goals and dreams in life are more connected to that of the ideal wife as defined by Robin Wood as a “mother, perfect companion, the endlessly dependable mainstay of hearth and home” (Wood 477). Cora’s dream is to stay and work in the restaurant. She wants love, a home, and most importantly, she wants a family. This is shown with the reveal of a pregnancy at the end of the film between Frank and Cora. Cora is at her least powerful and most domestic in her final scene. The suggestion that Cora is going to become an almost perfect female character makes it only more devastating when she is instead killed.
After Cora is killed, there is another interesting power change for Frank. He is upset that she has died and is devastated that his life is also going to end. The use of narration in this scene, as well as the rest of the film, like the use of narration in Double Indemnity and The Bigamist, re-connects the audience to the lead male character. The sympathetic connection towards Frank is also aided by his last words when he asks the minister to pray for him and Cora to be together after he is put to death. This romantic and remorseful line leads the audience to feel sympathetic towards Frank as well as Cora. There is a sort of Bonnie and Clyde aspect to The Postman Always Rings Twice, where neither is completely innocent but the audience still feels a connection towards them. Neither character truly betrayed or blindsided the other into committing the malicious acts and they were intending to live a happy life. Both are strong and powerful at the beginning of the film, and both end the film weak and dead. This leads the audience to sympathize again with two people who have committed a morally wrong act.
In the essay “Film Noir: A Modest Proposal,” James Damico describes the interrelationships in film. He states that film noir is a genre where
Either [the male lead] is fated to do so or by chance, or because he has been hired for a job specifically associated with [the femme fatale], a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter, meets a not-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is the natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached (generally he is her husband or lover), an act which often leads to the woman’s betrayal of the protagonist, but which in any event brings about the sometimes metaphoric, but usually literal destruction of the woman, the man to whom she is attached, and frequently the protagonist himself (Damico 103).
Although each of the films discussed in this paper include most of these incidents, they are not quite as simple as Damico describes. While all of the women discussed in these films are femme fatales, each has different motives and each uses differing tactics to achieve her goals. The only thing the women have in common is the desire for a better life. For most, it is the desire for financial stability, but that is not the only goal these women have in mind. Damico’s description of the male is also not consistently true. As explored in this paper, the male is not always destroyed by the femme fatale and often does not complete malicious acts for her. This difference in opinion on the aspects of film noir illustrates how the characters in film noir vary, making it a difficult genre to define. Each of the femme fatales in Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon, and The Post Man Always Rings Twice display a different form of power and seduction.
The way in which these dynamics occur in the films is directly connected to how the audience sympathizes with the characters. The audience is able to sympathize with these characters even though most of the time they have very clearly committed morally wrongful acts such as murder. Influenced by the nihilistic thoughts surrounding the end of World War II, much of America had feelings of loss and nihilism. As Stoehr writes, “These dark movies taught the audiences about the brute reality of life’s contingencies and about our inevitable disappointment when looking ahead to a brighter future” (Stoehr 29). The feeling present in society during the rise of film noir was a sense of hopelessness. Many people most likely felt just as lost as the characters they saw on screen. Therefore, it became easy for the audience to sympathize with people who felt the same sort of hopelessness as they themselves were feeling. The American woman felt a connection to the femme fatale who wanted a better life for herself, while the American man felt a connection to the tough PI who wanted to protect the woman in his life.
Each of these film noirs shows a different form of a femme fatale and different power relationships between the femme fatale and the leading male protagonist. Although each of these films differ in the portrayal of women, men, and power, they all encourage sympathy towards the same display of weakness. Through analyzing Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon, and The Post Man Always Rings Twice we have discovered that it is not a specific character that the audience always sympathizes with but instead a certain display of power. At the end of each of these films, the character who displays a weaker and injured state is the character in which the audience sympathizes with. In film noir, it is not the possession of power that gains the final vote of sympathy from the viewer but instead the display of weakness and loss.
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