WEIRDLAND: The Pyschological Splitting of Film Noir

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Pyschological Splitting of Film Noir

Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor in "Borderline" (1950) directed by William A. Seiter

One of the strange things about travel South of the Border is that it can have one of two contrasting effects: either reveal the real you, stripped down in elemental conflict with destiny (no better example of this than 'The Wages of Fear', but see also 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'); or it can be an opportunity for reinvention and masquerade. And this paradox, that Latin America is the site simultaneously of both truth and falsity, is not so dissimilar from the paradox that it instantiates both nature and culture at the same time.

In 'Borderline', which is a sort of film noir lite, Mexico is the site of duplicity and pretence.

Which is why the film rather goes against the conventions of noir, and becomes more a comedy of errors.

Claire Trevor plays Madeleine Haley, and ambitious young cop sent south to infiltrate and investigate a gang of drug-traffickers headed by one Pete Ritchie. She takes on the name "Gladys LaRue" and the character of, first, dancehall floozy and, then, gangster's moll to gain access to the formidable Ritchie, played by Raymond Burr. Yet she ends up kidnapped by another gang boss, who sends her North with a consignment of drugs in the company of hardman Johnny Macklin.

Little does she realize, however, that Macklin is, like her, a cop in disguise, tender-hearted Johnny McEvoy under his tough-guy exterior. Source:

Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) directed by Vincente Minnelli

Joseph Cotten as Holly Martin in "The Third Man" (1949) directed by Carol Reed, scripted by Graham Greene & Orson Welles

Borders and Borderers: The American film noir is a cinematic tradition whose representations are thoroughly liminal: the protagonists of these films characteristically find themselves straddling the border between competing forms of identity, as they often enter into perilous rites de passage through a nightmarish version of contemporary urban reality. Only seldom do these borderers emerge from that “dark city” (which is sometimes just a moral or psychological condition) to enjoy the transfiguration and triumph of a conventional happy ending.

In Billy Wilder’s 'Double Indemnity' (1944), an adulterous couple plot and then carry out a crime that is meant to be understood as an accident. To carry off the required elaborate masquerade, Walter and Phyllis become performers as soon as they begin plotting. In addition to playing at remaining “himself” even as he rejects that identity, Walter is even called upon to impersonate the dead man at one point.

After carrying out the murder, the pair must stay “in character,” which proves difficult after the accident theory is shown by the insurance company investigator to be untenable. A key effect of the narrative is that it highlights the willed, constructed nature of social roles, whose “naturalness” is thereby called into question. For once Walter and Phyllis determine to become other than what they were, they are forced by the very logic of their plan to inhabit self-consciously, and inauthentically, the roles they had previously performed unthinkingly: the pleasant housewife loyal to her husband and the successful insurance agent dedicated to his company’s financial well-being and the steady advancement of his own career.

Their situation comes to resemble closely that of those involved in what anthropologist Victor Turner terms “cultural performance,” those rituals and other modes of symbolic action that seem part and parcel of the everyday, but in which, Turner argues, “violence has to be done to commonsense ways of classifying the world and society” because performers must remain themselves even as they strive to inhabit another identity. Cultural performance, so Turner believes, therefore does not simply express or reflect “the social system or the cultural configuration,” but “offers a critique, direct or veiled, of the social life it grows out of, an evaluation (with lively possibilities of rejection) of the way society handles history”.

As Walter and Phyllis discover, the critical nature of the experience resides chiefly in the fact that, to quote Turner, “the ‘self’ is split up the middle—it is something that one both is and that one sees and, furthermore, acts upon as though it were another.” For anthropologists like Turner, the characteristic cultural performance is ritual, in which participants find themselves on the border between “secular living and sacred living,” in a “limbo that was not any place they were before and not yet any place. This doubleness, as James Naremore brilliantly demonstrates, also characterizes the viewer’s experience with the film’s foregrounding of performativity, for the “performances” of Walter and Phyllis as “themselves” are managed by MacMurray and Stanwyck as revealing the strain between the need to adopt one’s self as a mask and the powerful force of inner expression that defines the characters’ psychological states.

"Double Indemnity" evokes a secular limbo. Walter and Phyllis, to use the term popularized by Turner, find themselves in a liminal social space, defined by its bordering engagement with contradictory social spaces. Within this paradoxical space, the ordinary forms of everyday living are shown by Walter and Phyllis as what they always already are, that is, performances whose authenticity is by definition in question. Part of Wilder’s genius, in fact, is he stages the “random” encounters between the two “actors” in places where the contrast is greatest between their deadly plotting and the forms of everyday living they now act out. Unstable from the outset, these performances eventually breakdown completely, as Walter discovers within himself the capacity, and then the desire, to love a decent woman with whom he can imagine an ordinary life. It is, in fact, because he continues to inhabit his accustomed role that he has the opportunity to meet and get to know a woman who belongs solidly to ordinariness.

More spectacularly, Phyllis reveals herself less devoted to the coldly calculating accumulation of wealth and more driven by a psychopathic impulse to kill and passionately embrace her own destruction. In both cases, however, Walter and Phyllis discover the impossibility of remaining on the border between law-abiding normality and its oppositional heterocosm (the negative space in which the denial of the social contract plays out). The plot’s inexorable logic leads them to mutual murder. Realizing that she loves Walter after fatally wounding him, Phyllis gives herself over to her erstwhile lover’s embrace—and, shockingly, receives the answering shot he fires through her heart. Fleeing the scene, Walter eschews medical treatment for his wound, preferring instead to bleed to death while providing in his office a Dictaphone confession to the crime. This moment of Wilderian black humor suggests how Walter never manages to escape the all-too-solid identity of the company man devoted to closing the books on every case, even his own. Like the James M. Cain novel on which it is based, "Double Indemnity" exposes the self-defeating nature of that desire for self-fashioning whose trajectory it traces. So powerful is the demand that we be who we are and have been that the shedding of the self can only be achieved through the artfully inauthentic preservation of the self that has been shed.

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten in "The Third Man" (1949)

The Noir Chronotope: In a groundbreaking study, Vivian Sobchack argues that film noir is most deeply marked by its unique representational response to a culture in transition between the collective, public experience of a world war that required the widest marshalling of all the nation’s resources and the desired, collective return to “the family unit and the suburban home as the domestic matrix of democracy”. This national experience of inbetweenness finds its most substantial visual reflex in what Sobchack argues are the “recurrent and determinate premises” of this Hollywood type, its obsession with the dark city. Earlier critics, most notably Paul Schrader, located noirness in a cinematographic style heavily indebted to Weimar filmmaking, but Sobchack importantly turns critical attention toward mise-en-scène, the characteristic settings of this film type such as “the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the bar, the hotel room, the boardinghouse, the diner, the dance hall, the roadside café, the bus and train station, and the wayside motel”.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in "In A Lonely Place" (1950) directed by Nicholas Ray

These are the publicly accessible spaces of entertainment, dining, travel, and lodging, whose function is to provide for those literally, and also metaphorically, in transit. They substitute for what cannot be obtained in a world where nothing is “settled,” where the family home is unimaginable because it would depend on relationships (economic, sexual, and nurturant) that in noir narratives are not yet finalized. Such formal elements of mise-en-scène, Sobchack plausibly suggests, are the geographical reflexes of “existential, epistemological, and axiological uncertainty.”

The opening sequences of 'Act of Violence' juxtapose a gloomy urban neighborhood with the sun-drenched suburbs, a decaying East Coast with the vibrant prosperity of California, a young veteran, glorying in his beautiful wife and child who is celebrated for his charitable work with a lone cripple dressed in trench coat and fedora who shuffles painfully to his run-down apartment to remove a .45 automatic from the dresser drawer. An insert shot of Enley’s name and address provides something of a motive for the mission he embarks upon.

Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh in "Act of Violence" (1948) directed by Fred Zinnemann

Intercutting joins these two worlds until Parkson arrives in California, where he seems out of place (as upon his arrival he walks across the Memorial Day parade whose purpose in part is to celebrate the man he has come to kill). Enley hastens to a place that is transparently “other,” a paradoxical projection of Enley’s desires and his moral needs that exemplifies what Iser identifies as one of the most important characteristics of fictionality, the way in which it “becomes the epitome of inner-worldly totality, since it provides the paradoxical opportunity for human beings simultaneously to be in the midst of life and to overstep it”.

This doubleness is figured by the fact that Enley’s flight (he abandons both Parkson and Edith, thereby surrendering what anchors his self to the past and the present as well) actually moves him toward a reclamation of his true self, as he pays the price for his betrayal and simultaneously saves Parkson from having to commit murder.

From the uptown hotel, Enley hurries fearfully (and ever descending—one shot shows him stumbling down a huge flight of stairs) toward the dark side of the city, which seems a jumble of decaying factories, run-down tenements, and streets empty of passersby. As in the pastoral, the laying aside of identity (Enley here dons the mask of anonymity) leads him to what Iser calls the “counterimage . . . permitting what was excluded by reality,” as the world reshaped by the imagination allows the inner truth of the world imprisoned by mimesis to emerge.

Van Heflin as Frank R. Enley in "Act Of Violence", directed by Fred Zinnemann for MGM.

In this journey, imaged at a length far in excess of its importance to the narrative, the film engages with what Northrop Frye calls “the fabulous . . . something admitted not to be true” but which nonetheless possesses great significance. But it is also a place where “great rewards, of wisdom or wealth, may await the explorer,” even though, at its “structural core is the individual loss or confusion or break in the continuity of identity.” Even to the very end, Enley is liminal man, inhabiting the permeable border between past and present, between a self he has become and the self he would reclaim. -"The Divided Self and the Dark City: Film Noir and Liminality" (2007) by R. Barton Palmer

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