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.

Night and the City (1950) Film NoirHere I shall look at a few versions of the weakened male lead in film noir, and do so through the film noir work of Richard Widmark.

First though, here are some common male tropes in film noir.

We have:

  • The cynical private eye
  • The narcissist
  • The psychopath
  • The loser
  • The heel
  • The haunted man

First up, and best exampled by Richard Widmark in — among other films Night and The City (Jules Dassin, 1950), we are going to deal with THE NARCISSIST.

Richard  Widmark in Night and the City (1950)

Men in film noir tend have a fatal flaw in their character. One such fault is narcissism, so in film noir we sometimes have lead males who are dreamers, a person whose grip on the realities of life is so flimsy that trouble is inevitable.

Such is masculinity in the neighbourhood of noir.

Richard Widmark in Night and the City (1950)
A man in love with hismelf and a dream of success.

Consider Richard Widmark’s role in Night and the City (1950), in which he plays Harry Fabian, an American conman and hustler operating in post war London. Of course, the person that Harry Fabian cons the most is himself.

As is common in film noir, the word hero isn’t applicable, and here, as in many other films in the noir cycle of the 40s and 50s, the hero of the piece is a criminal, although not necessarily a villain. In fact, excepting Gene Tierney's character, Mary Bristol, and the artsy neighbour Adam, an incidental part, probably every character in Night and The City is a criminal, or at least an exemplar of poor morals.

The storyline and plot twists in Night and The City are not great, but they are helped by excellent filmmaking and acting. The city as backdrop is exceptional, as is the photography and all of these elements combine to produce a film that will remain fascinating for all time.
The woman as realist ... but not a saviour

At the conclusion of Night And The City it is Gene Tierney, the only decent character in the drama, to tell the narcissist that ‘he could have been anything’, and that he could do anything and be whomever he wanted to be.

Even in her role as realist, however, the female character cannot save this doomed man.

Implicit in this dramatic unfolding is the suggestion that Richard Widmark's film noir character Harry Fabian is never going to succed on his own terms. This is despite him momentarily achieveing what he craves, when he becomes briefly at least, what amounts in his eyes to a successful wrestling promoter. This is all a fantasy however, and the one moment of his triumph is to be tempered by an almighty fall.

They key to the narcissit trope is the immense ignorance of the protagonist. He's not lazy, and although he is ambitious, it is his belief as a fantasist that powers the story and makes it so uncomfortable. As viewers we know the narcissit is doomed to failure, and Richard Widmark plays this so well, exaggerating the enthusiasm of this ill-fated though likeable man.

A man among men ... face off at the gym in Night and The City (1950)

This is not how the world is to be rebuilt after the war, it appears, and although dreamers and visionaries are traditionally rewarded in Hollywood stories, in film noir they are punished. This is because the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s takes place in a world where people have no control, despite their energies and ambitions. Once again, it is possible to feel the shadow of the mushroom cloud, because World War Two didn't just wreck the lives and hopes of much of the planet, but introduced a genuinely existential threat.

And film noir also points out, as it does here, that holding fast to these dreams is a form of error, and that self-belief is a kind of narcissism from which there is no return.

Possibly most incredible is Harry Fabian's final action in Night and the City, in which he tries to make his girlfirend rich by having her cash in on the reward the underworld boss has put on his own head.

Richard Widmark in Night and the City (1950)
Begging his way to the top ... only to be laughed at.

He has begged and borrowed his way to the top, and charmed his way through a villainous world, and it has not been enough.  And what it points to is a typically down-to-earth and noirish lesson: if you think the dream is real, you are in for a rough awakening.

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