Tropes Vs Richard Widmark in Film Noir #1

Richard Widmark in Night and the City (1950)
An article from 1975 by Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema argues that although masculinity may be the normative from which femininity is described, masculinity in itself may not be one simple and unchallenged construction.

Masculinity in the movies still revolves around some pretty basic ideals — heroism — toughness — dominance — and in the body of the mainstream (superhero films, crime films, sci-fi, fantasy and comedy etc) the men will always outnumber women substantially.  The industry in fact prefers to remain stereotypical in its gender portrayal, and tends to be demeaning of women, giving them secondary roles, and usually the kind of tropes that feminists have highlighted in decades of criticism.

While this may be the case in the present day, the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s shows us that this was a time of crisis in the Hollywood representation of the male.

Often, commentators point to the sense of loss felt by men as they returned from World War 2 to find that women had left the home and were now running the workplace. This is one reason why in film noir, we just about always see what is called the weakened male lead.

All this means is that the men in film noir, are somehow diminished in terms of that normative portrayal. In Hollywood before film noir, and pretty much after the film noir era also, men engineer the happy ending, triumph over the baddies, and as it happens, the story told in most films, over most genres, is that the man gets the woman at the end, and that the whole thing has been one long mating ritual. It's rarely the other way around.

Tropes Vs Women in Film Noir

women in film noir
... who is she going to be today?
Sylvia Harvey in the book Woman's Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir, in an essay titled Women in Film Noir, states that women in noir tend to conform to two types:  'the exciting childless whores, or the potentially childbearing sweethearts.'

Today I'd like to offer two more types of women who appear throughout the cycle of film noir in the 1940s and 1950s.  These will be the Female Seeker Hero and the Paranoid Woman.

There is a long established tendency not just in film but in all art to define women in relation to men. We all know about the film noir femme fatale but other female types are less discussed, so here is a quick look at them.

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
Jane Wyatt and Lee J. Cobb

The Man Who Cheated Himself, 1950 film noir and available free from - directed by Felix E. Feist and starring Lee. J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt and John Dall.

For anyone who isn't only enjoying the film noir feel of skid row, but is actually living on skid row and can't afford to rent any movies, free film noir is an invaluable source of entertainment.  

Free in this instance just means free of copyright, but of course this generally means you can watch a bunch of these films on or on public uploads made to YouTube.

Directors beware. Failure to renew copyright can default your masterpiece to the List of Films in the Public Domain in the USA.

Where Does Poetic Realism Fit in to Film Noir?

If we are going to get anywhere with this film noir thing, we have to understand Poetic Realism.  For once, let's not got to WIKIPEDIA.  Instead, I'll try and call this one in pictures of Jean Gabin.

The story goes that when film noir surfaced in America in the early 1940s, it was the product of a mixing of current American themes with two stylistic strands from Europe, the first being German Expressionism and the second being Poetic Realism.


It's hard to define this topic of Poetic Realism however, without mentioning another whole heap of -isms, but that is what European art was always about.

It's the difference between movement and genre.  Genres have names like — thriller — comedy — action and adventure — romance — and so forth, and that's because genres are used to create and market certain expectations.

Isms however, such as Poetic Realism, are not so easy to market.  And film noir, if it is anything, is an ism, not a genre.

New York Confidential (1955)

The Kefauver Committee
Frank Castello appearing before the Kefauver Committee
In the wake of the televised Kefauver hearings which revealed the extent of organised crime in the USA to a fascinated public, Broderick Crawford stepped up to camera to play a leading member of a syndicate, in its Manhattan headquarters, in the movie New York Confidential.

The television broadcast of the Kefauver committee's hearings had attracted huge public interest and informed the public about issues of municipal corruption and organized crime.

An estimated 30 million Americans tuned in to watch the live proceedings in March 1951, and so it was no surprise that the popularity of these broadcasts would lead to a brief rash of exposé crime films.  It might have seemed like life was imitating the movies, but film noir fans will know that during the 1940s and 1950s, film noir had been prodding away at America's underbelly, and exposing a world of crime, deceit and greed.

The first one of these films was probably The Captive City (1952), which was produced with the blessing of senator Kefauver himself, who appears in the prologue and epilogue, informing viewers about the evils of organized crime.  Other notable examples of exposé films include Hoodlum Empire (1952) and The Turning Point (1952), but the best of them by far is New York Confidential (1955)

Color Film Noirs

color film noir
Niagara is a full color film noir
There is no rule of criticism which states that a film noir has to be in color.  

The fact that most film noirs are in black and white is probably down to their budget, and the times in which they were made. 

We all agree today that film noir is properly associated with black and white, but since nobody was saying: "Hey let's make a film noir!" in the 1950s the use of black and white was probably not a deliberate and conscious decision.  I'll deal with colorisation elsewhere, bub.

The first thing that you'll notice about this list of color film noirs is that it is pretty much confined to the later period of film noir.  This is for technological reasons as much as anything.  There are also some bankable names on the list, two of the films being directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  The Hitchcock films are interesting, because they often come up in discussions regarding their credentials. Generally Alfred Hitchcock is held to be not a film noir director, but for the purposes of this page, he's in the canon.

So you bums, here is a short list of a few of the color films noirs out there.  Take up your arguments with the boss.

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

She's a paranoid woman but she's not alone.  They are all over film noir, and not just in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951).

She's got plenty company, including the heroines of Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Gaslight (1944), Experiment Perilous (1944), Dark Waters (1944), The Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Sleep My Love (1948) and Caught (1948)

Paranoid Woman Film Noirs tend to suffer from a similar set-up: a woman moves to a dream home, often in the company of a newly-married but shifty male.  

In the new house, the paranoid woman spends a lot of time in the bed with the covers pulled up to her neck, while shapes tap against the window.  Generally, she is under the illusion that somebody is trying to kill her, and generally it is not an illusion!  Everyone else is sure she's mad, and does their best to convince her of this.

Is she as crazy as she thinks she is ... or is she as crazy as everyone else thinks she is?  These are some of the essential questions of film noir.

Watching Film Noir on Your Cell Phone

Few of us dashing young things of the Twenty First Century have seen a film noir on the big screen.

For that to happen you need to live in a massive urban area, like Paris, San Francisco, or London, or be fortunate enough to have a local club or festival that celebrates the virtue of such public viewing as the large screen enjoys.

Most enthusiasts of film noir therefore settle for watching their favourite classics from the 1940s and 1950s on television screens at best, possibly on their laptops, or even on occasion on their tablets and phones.

Is there anything they may be missing?  What should these tablet-wielding film fiends, fans and freaks consider as they resample cinematic gems which were built for the auditoriums of the mid-century?

San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

San Francisco is something of an idée fixe in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941).

In fact the first words on the screen when the film begins are the words SAN FRANCISCO which precede the film's action.

It goes a bit deeper than that though!

Just as in the novel by Dashiel Hammet, The Maltese Falcon charts Sam Spade's disjointed and incoherent chase around the city in great detail, and with a weird accuracy that simply must be trying to make a point.

Dark Waters (1944)

Dark Waters (directed by André De Toth, 1944) doesn't follow the obvious conventions we associate with the film noir style, such as the long shadows, the urban setting, the tough guy talk, the femme fatale and the cruelty of fate.  

But these weren't the only aspects of the movement, and although it's not overt in the more traditional noir crime stories of the 1940s and 1950s, Freudian psychology looms large in the cycle, and is pressed to the fore in such hits as The Woman in the Window.

Dark Waters also tips it hat to Freudian therapy, but that should be obvious from the title.  It follows patterns largely established in the hit film Rebecca, and is typical of the paranoid woman film of the time.  

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at HUAC

Danny Kaye, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall  protest at the HUAC Hearings

Some notes on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and their 1947 trip to Washington to present their case to HUAC, on behalf of the Committee for the First Amendment.

A bitter young blogger, intent on bringing to light the connections between film noir and the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, visits his local library to see what books they have on offer on the awful years of HUAC.  

In the library, this bitter young blogger is interested to note, that on the cover of both the books he find, is Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.