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.


Who is she:  While viewers treat of the femme fatale as the glamourous bad girl and potential pin up, her role is probably to undermine all the other women.  The argument goes that while men were away blowing each other up in the World War of the early 1940s, women took on roles at home that were often associated with men.  Worse, when the men came back to America, they were terrified to find a race of proud, strong and independent women had taken their jobs.  This not only fostered the idea of the weakened-male-lead in film noir, but it called for the femme fatale figure to represent the fact that women were just as evil as ever, and maybe even more so.  The femme fatale is not therefore as you might think the image of a strrong and independent women.  On the contrary, she is the cultural shorthand for the awful possibility of an assertive women ... a negative fantasy and a reminder than the women's place is in the home.


Linda Darnell in FALLEN ANGEL (1945)

Ann Savage in DETOUR (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)


Who is she:  The potentially childbearing sweethearts that Sylvia Harvey describes are common to all types of film, from every period.  Typically, in a western, in a comedy, in a musical and in dramas and even crime films, the film resolves with the strong male lead shacking up with his future wife.  I have called her a wifelet to emphasise her diminutive role; it's a term that was coined by writer Lucy Ellmann, and a helpful one when looking at these cake-baking, worried suburban girls, who are only ever there to support the hero when he cuts his hand.  There are plenty wives-at-home in film noir, such as in Pitfall, and it is common to see these demure women contrasted against their more dark, daring and dangerous sisters, those awful femmes fatales.


Jane Wyatt in PITFALL (1948)

Loretta Young in THE STRANGER (1946) 

Joan Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

Joan Crawford Mildred Pierce 1945


Who is she:  The female seeker hero is quite unique to film noir, and one of its most interesting tropes.  While she is as easily moral as a stay-at-home wifelet, she is probably going to be sucked into the urban nightmare as she leads the quest in films like Destination Murder and Stranger on the Third Floor.  The female seeker hero often has to adopt the guise of the femme fatale, but of course this is always in the name of clearing her man, the well-known weakened male lead of film noir, who has often been accused a crime he didn't commit, or been murdered at the start of the film.  For a female-seeker-hero film to resolve, she must of course return to her dreary life of cake-baking and baby-bearing, but through her eyes and her disguises and deceits, we explore the noir city, as she takes the lead and becomes the detective for the first time.


 Ella Raines in PHANTOM LADY (1944)

Joyce MacKenzie in DESTINATION MURDER (1950)

June Vincent in BLACK ANGEL (1946)


Who is she: The so-called Woman's Film was a genre which presented women-centered narratives, female protagonists and was designed to appeal to a female audience. Woman's films usually portrayed problems in domestic life, the family, motherhood, self-sacrifice, and romance.  When the film noir era opened, and largely thansk to the enormous success of Rebecca (1940), the paranoid womna film was born.  In a typical paranoid women film like Dark Waters, or The House on Telegraph Hill, or The Secret Behind the Door, a women will arrive, often ill, at a strange gothic house, populated by ambiguous characters, where there are all sorts of bumps in the night, and where she generally fears for her life.  It is then the paranoid woman's job to solve the mystery of the house, and therefore free herself from its psychological grip.  Presumbaly the symbolism represents women's natural fears about entering into marriages and marital homes, which are in one sense presented as dream houses, but often contain unexplored fears.  To see a typical film noir paranoid women in action, have a look at how much time Merle Oberon spends in Dark Waters, either in bed looking scared ... or simply fainting in general.


Merle Oberon in DARK WATERS


Valentina Cortese in THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951)

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