WEIRDLAND: Fatality and Identification in Noir Films

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Fatality and Identification in Noir Films

An icy blonde whose trademark hairstyle - a cascade of golden tresses that obscured one heavy-lidded eye - remained among the enduring images of Hollywood glamour, Veronica Lake was for a time, one of the most popular and sought-after actresses in motion pictures. She starred in a handful of features that, though the years, earned legendary status, including the film noirs, "This Gun for Hire" (1942) and "The Blue Dahlia" (1946), as well as the smart comedies, "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) and "I Married a Witch" (1942). She also motivated a generation of women to imitate her cool sexuality and chic style, at the same time, causing an equal number of men - particularly fighting WWII G.I.s - to fall for her. Unfortunately, her success was short-lived, her star fizzling under the weight of personal tragedies, gossip and mental illness. Despite her fall from grace, Lake stood the test of time as a Tinseltown icon, inspiring tribute in songs, literature, and movies - most notably Kim Basinger's Academy Award-winning turn in "L.A. Confidential" (1997), as a prostitute whose glacial beauty is modeled after Lake. Source: www.tcm.com

The famed "fascination and destnictiveness" of the femme fatale is, however, always enigmatic, and the power she wields is typically far in excess of her material presence.' One way of understanding this paradox is to say that the femme fatale functions neither literally nor allegorically but synecdochically within noir cinema, as a screen: as both herself and the bearer of a projected image. Now we can begin to recognize how noir negotiates between two versions of fascination: as the inherent property of a certain object, eliciting the gaze, or as relational and fantasmatic, projected by certain subjects. [...] renaming her the femme fascinant, the essence of film fascination, in noir both woman and film are invested with the power of fascination by the homme fasciné. For there is almost always one-and only one-for whom fascination with the femme as image proves fatal.

The scenario of Lang's The Woman in the Window is especially clear in this respect. Three friends-a district attorney, an old doctor, and a professor of psychology-all fantasize about the painting of their "dream girl," but only the expert on Freud falls for his fantasy. The synecdochic function of the femlne fatale is clear: she embodies one type of cinematic experience, a certain relation to the image, an exception to the rule.

In line with Mary Ann Doane's reading of the femme fatale as a doubly traumatizing "figure of fascination," in that she articulates not only a threat to male subjectivity but to a system of signification based on faith in the image: certain noir narratives became cinematically self-reflexive and made visible a moral or political preoccupation with film's power of fascination, in relation to the demands of negotiating fascination historically in the sphere of desire and death.

In the case of Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945), the invocation of Hollywood cinema's complicity is emphasized by the voice-over's open challenge to the audience's capacity for belief ("You're going to tell me you don't believe me!") and its desire to forget ("Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory and blot it out? You can't, you know!"). Variations on the theme connect such different films as The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak, 1946), a Gothic tale of trauma that begins with an extraordinary scene juxtaposing audience fascination and a brutal murder; Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947), often paired with The Killers for the lethal return of the past and the fascinating allure of its femme fatale, and Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947), in which the sight of acute male lack coincides with a radical restriction in camera point of view.

Swede relates to Kitty as spectator to image: he only has eyes for her, so that the room becomes a kind of cinema for Swede. It is as if he had kept his date but passed through the screen to encounter his fantasmatic image of a woman, animated like Alice's painting in the window in Lang's movie or, even more precisely (given the resemblance of their dark cross-strap dresses), like the uncanny portrait in Otto Preminger's Laura (1944). The body of the homme fasciné ends "near tore in half," proof that contact with the image is lethal.

We might conclude that what noir criticism has failed to reckon with is noir cinema's own engagement with fascination. How the movies themselves understand fascination historically has remained obscure, while fascination in noir has much to do with the obscurity and obscuring, the loss of history itself. Logically enough, our "objective" critical distance is also already inscribed reflexively within certain noir films, but with a twist that is crucial to their affective appeal: when the dispassionate analytical eye triumphs over a gaze distorted by desire, it feels like a defeat, suggesting that what must be recovered is in fact precisely the naive affinity, the apparently uncritical and unhistorical "identificatory" note, suggested by Michael Walker's "unsolved mystery": what at first appears as a simple internal contradiction between fact and fantasy, typically embodied by the central character(s) in the split between knowledge and belief, breaks down; and as it does so, it opens up what Tom Conley calls the "median area, between spectators' fantasies and the facts of the film." -"Film Noir Fascination: Outside History" by Oliver Harris (Cinema Journal, Vol. 43, No. 1., Fall 2003)

James Naremore uses the example of "Double Indemnity" to illustrate what he terms "performance within performance" whereby the film character is also performing a role in the diegesis. Fred MacMurray plays the role of Walter Neff who falls for the wife of a potential client; playing innocent to his superior Walter Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). For Richard De Cordova, this masking of "dissimulation" is a common model in film noir. Sylvia Harvey (Woman's Place: The Absent Family in Film Noir) argues than a canonical noir text as "Double Indemnity" stages the woman as a sign of desire for insurance salesman Walter Neff, an emblematic alienated male in an economy driven by corporations rather than individuals. -"A Companion to Film Noir" (2013) by Andrew Spicer & Helen Hanson

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