The dark lady, the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western culture. She is as old as Eve, and as current as today's movies, comic books and Youtube videos. She and her sister (or alter ego), the virgin, the mother, the innocent, the redeemer, form the two poles of female archetypes. Film noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art. Thus woman here as elsewhere is defined by her sexuality: the dark lady has access to it and the virgin does not. Women are defined in relation to men, and the centrality of sexuality in this definition is a key to understanding the position of women in our culture. The primary crime the 'liberated' woman is guilty of is refusing to be defined in such a way, and this refusal can be perversely seen (in art, or in life) as an attack on men's very existence. Film noir is hardly 'progressive' in these terms - it does not present us with role models who defy their fate and triumph over it. But it does give us one of the few periods of film in which women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality.
The style of these films thus overwhelms their conventional narrative content, or interacts with it to produce a remarkably potent image of woman. This expression of the myth of man's 'right' or need to control women sexually is in contrast to the dominant version of it in 'A' films of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, which held that women are so weak and incapable they need men's 'protection' to survive. In these films, it is the woman who is portrayed benefiting from her dependence on men; in film noir, it is clear that men need to control women's sexuality in order not to be destroyed by it. The dark woman of film noir had something her innocent sister lacked: access to her own sexuality (and thus to men's) and the power that this access unlocked.
Nevertheless, film noir is a movement, and as such is remarkably stylistically consistent. It thus becomes possible to identify recurrent visual motifs and their general range of meanings. Within these recurrent patterns, some drawn from conventions not specifically filmic, others specific to film generally, and still others to film noir, the source and operation of the sexual woman's dangerous power is expressed visually. Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is the most highly stylized 'spider woman' in all of film noir as she weaves a web to trap and finally destroy her young victim, but even as she visually dominates him, she is presented as caught by the same false value system. The huge house in which she controls camera movement and is constantly centre frame is also a hideous trap which requires from her the maintenance of the myth of her stardom: the contradiction between the reality and the myth pull her apart and finally drive her mad.
The source and the operation of the sexual woman's power and its danger to the male character is expressed visually both in the iconography of the image and in the visual style. The iconography is explicitly sexual, and often explicitly violent as well: long hair (blond or dark), makeup, and jewelry. Cigarettes with their wispy trails of smoke can become cues of dark and immoral sensuality, and the iconography of violence (primarily guns) is a specific symbol (as is perhaps the cigarette) of her 'unnatural' phallic power.
The femme fatale is characterized by her long lovely legs: our first view of the elusive Velma in Murder My Sweet and of Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice is a significant, appreciative shot of their bare legs, a directed glance from the viewpoint of the male character who is to be seduced. In Double Indemnity Phyllis' legs (with a gold anklet significantly bearing her name) dominate Walter's and our own memory of her as the camera follows her descent down the stairs, framing only her spike heels and silk-stockinged calves. Dress - or lack of it - further defines the woman: Phyllis first is viewed in Double Indemnity wrapped in a towel, and the sequined, tight, black gown of the fantasy woman in Woman in the Window and the nameless 'dames' of film noir instantly convey the important information about them and their role in the film.
The strength of these women is expressed in the visual style by their dominance in composition, angle, camera movement and lighting. They are overwhelmingly the compositional focus, generally centre frame and/or in the foreground, or pulling focus to them in the background. They control camera movement, seeming to direct the camera (and the hero's gaze, with our own) irresistibly with them as they move. In contrast, the 'good' women of film noir and many of the seduced, passive men are predominantly static, both within the frame and in their ability to motivate camera movement and composition. The femme fatale ultimately loses physical movement, influence over camera movement, and is often actually or symbolically imprisoned by composition as control over her is exerted and expressed visually: sometimes behind visual bars (The Maltese Falcon), sometimes happy in the protection of a lover (The Big Steep), often dead (Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity), sometimes symbolically rendered impotent (Sunset Boulevard).
The ideological operation of the myth (the absolute necessity of controlling the strong, sexual woman) is thus achieved by first demonstrating her dangerous power and its frightening results, then destroying it.
Often the original transgression of the dangerous lady of film noir (unlike the vamp seductress of the twenties) is ambition expressed metaphorically in her freedom of movement and visual dominance. This ambition is inappropriate to her status as a woman, and must be confined. She wants to be the owner of her own nightclub, not the owner's wife (Night and the City). She wants to be a star, not a recluse (Sunset Boulevard). She wants her husband's insurance money, not her comfortable, middle-class life (Double Indemnity). She wants the 'great whatsit', and ends up destroying the world (Kiss Me Deadly). She wants independence, and sets off a chain of murders (Laura). She wants to win a uninterested lover, and ends up killing him, herself, and two other people (Angel Face). She wants money, and succeeds only in destroying herself and the man who loves her (Gun Crazy, The Killers). She wants freedom from an oppressive relationship, and initiates events that lead to murder (The Big Combo, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Whether evil (Double Indemnity, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Night and the City, The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice), or innocent (Laura, The Big Combo), her desire for freedom, wealth, or independence ignites the forces which threaten the hero.
Independence is her goal, but her nature is fundamentally and irredeemably sexual in film noir. The insistence on combining the two (aggressiveness and sensuality) in a consequently dangerous woman is the central obsession of film noir, and the visual movement which indicates unacceptable activity in film noir women represents the man's own sexuality, which must be repressed and controlled if it is not to destroy him. The independence which film noir women seek is often visually presented as self-absorbed narcissism: the woman gazes at her own reflection in the mirror, ignoring the man she will use to achieve her goals.
Another possible meaning of the many mirror shots in film noir is to indicate women's duplicitous nature. They are visually split, thus not to be trusted. Further, this motif contributes to the murky confusion of film noir: nothing and no one is what it seems. Compositions in which reflections are stronger than the actual woman, or in which mirror images are seen in odd, uncomfortable angles, help to create the mood of threat and fear.
The framed portrait of a woman is a common motif in film noir. Sometimes it is contrasted with the living woman: in Night and the City Helen is a nagging, ambitious, destructive bitch, but her husband gazes longingly at her 'safe' incarnation in the framed portrait - under control, static, and powerless. Laura's portrait is compositionally dominating, inciting Mark's fantasies and giving visual expression to Waldo's idealized vision of her, but only when she unexpectedly turns up alive does further trouble ensue as she refuses to conform to the fantasies inspired by the portrait. The lesson is obvious: only in a controlled, impotent powerless form, powerless to move or act, is the sexual woman no threat to the film noir man.
The opposite female archetype is also found in film noir: woman as redeemer. She offers the possibility of integration for the alienated, lost man into the stable world of secure values, roles and identities. She gives love, understanding (or at least forgiveness), asks very little in return (just that he come back to her) and is generally visually passive and static. Often, in order to offer this alternative to the nightmare landscape of film noir, she herself must not be a part of it. She is then linked to the pastoral environment of open spaces, light, and safety, characterized by even, flat, high-key lighting.
Film noir contains versions of both extremes of the female archetypes, the deadly seductress and the rejuvenating redeemer. Its special significance lies in the combination of sensuality with activity and ambition which characterizes the femme fatale, and in the mode of control that must be exerted to dominate her. She is not often won over and pacified by love for the hero, as is the strong heroine of the forties who is significantly less sexual than the film noir woman. Indeed, tier-strength is emphasized by the general passivity and impotence which characterizes the film noir male, making her a threat to him far greater than the career woman of the forties was, and thus only actual or symbolic destruction is an effective control. Even more significant is the form in which the 'spider woman's' strength and power is expressed: the visual style gives her such freedom of movement and dominance that it is her strength and sensual visual texture that is inevitably printed in our memory, not her ultimate destruction. The tendency of popular culture to create narratives in which male fears are concretized in sexually aggressive women who must be destroyed is not specific to the forties to middle-fifties in the United States, but is seen today to a degree that might help to account for the sudden popularity of these films on college campuses, television, and film retrospectives. But despite their regressive ideological function on a strictly narrative level, a fuller explanation for the current surge of interest in film noir must acknowledge its uniquely sensual visual style which often overwhelms (or at least acts upon) the narrative so compellingly that it stands as the only period in American film in which women are deadly but sexy, exciting, and strong.
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