The preferred source of film noir, the hard-boiled novel, manifests an obsession with the possibility of ‘disconnected subjectivity’. Because it’s a suspense story, there are delays and complications in the solution of the enigma. In addition to this, the determination of the hero’s identity as a unified subject is also delayed. Insecurities and flaws that crack the hero’s personality as a solid creator of reality, so that his place in society, his power as history-changer and his centrality as power-wilder becomes questioned.
Post-1944 (and so post-WWII) film noir also tend to focus his attention on this issue.
These stories are most often concerned with the aims, ambitions and activities of a male protagonist who proves and defines himself by his ability to overcome the challenges to his life and to his integrity which the story throws at him. This hero seeks to prove his competence by outwitting the criminals and by triumphing over the dangers represented by the feminine – not just women in themselves, but any ‘non-tough’ potentialities of his own identity as a man.
In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gilles tries to use silent film star Norma Desmond’s influence to make a life and a career of his own. But Norma’s ‘gifts’ come at a price: he is forced to accept her blackmails in terms of lust and economic security, and in so doing he gives up his integrity and his ability to determine his own life. These non-tough characteristics (leaning on the wealth and desires of a woman and the willingness to give in to her) is what ultimately dooms him.
The noir hero often fails. He has shrunken world aspirations. He let basic impulses guide him. Very often, for a reason or another, he is not in control of his life. In short, he doesn’t look at all what traditionally heroes are supposed to look like. He is a traumatised hero, incapable or unwilling to use his traditional position of prominence to mould his life and identity. And still, in this films, he is glamorised to the point that, in spite of all the heroic features he lacks, he is undeniably the centre of events. The hero becomes an anti-hero, but still engages the viewer as the centre of identification.He has shrunken world aspirations. He let basic impulses guide himself. He's the #FilmNoir fragile hero Click To Tweet
The character’s arc still seems to have a traditional trajectory of ‘power, omnipotence, mastery and control’, where the hero sets out to prove his worth by overcoming any test the story presents to him, but the outcome is very different. All of the hero’s efforts result in failure or succeed only narrowly or at a high cost.
In this way, the narration creates a disjunction between the image the male protagonist has of himself and his actual possibility to make that image real.
Within the context of a fictional mode which has the glorification of masculine achievements as its apparent aim, film noir was able to open up a problematic discourse that was otherwise avoided in contemporary 1940s society. That there was such a market for this dissonant and schismatic representation of masculinity is evidence of some kind of crises of confidence within the contemporary regimentations of male-dominated culture.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder
An aging silent film queen refuses to accept that her stardom has ended. She hires a young screenwriter to help set up her movie comeback. The screenwriter believes he can manipulate her, but he soon finds out he is wrong. The screenwriters ambivalence about their relationship and her unwillingness to let go leads to a situation of violence, madness, and death.(Google synopsis)
Gun Crazy (1950) by Joseph H. Lewis
When gun-obsessed pacifist Bart Tare (John Dall) witnesses expert shooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) demonstrate her firearm prowess at a carnival one night, it’s love at first sight. Aimless Bart joins the traveling show and begins a romance with Annie, but her dangerously rebellious spirit soon gets them both fired. After eloping, the young lovers embark on an armed robbery spree, managing to elude the authorities until Annie insists on pulling one last job. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Barbara In Caneyhead
When looked at this way, one can see what a deep physiological study some of these films were.
Perspectives at Life & Faith in Caneyhead
True, eh? Maybe they were the origine of psychological thriller as well.
You’ve given us a lot of material to ponder. I’m learning a lot! These films appear to be the darker side of film noir…not my favorite.
Later film noirs are indeed darker than the earlier, probably because they can lean on what came before and delve deeper into the psychology of their characters.
Wow you have given so much insight, thanks for sharing
Thanks for stopping by 🙂
J Lenni Dorner
Interesting to see what the ideas of “manly” were and weren’t back then, and how these movies took turns at shaping and reshaping the perception. Excellent post!
I agree. It’s awesome how much a film can tell us about the society who produced it, if we look a bit deeper.
When I think of the film noir hero I definitely think of a moody, broody, hard boiled sort of guy who is down on his luck or life just isn’t going great for him.
That’s definitely the trope 😉
It never pays to try and get the best of an aging film star or pull that one last job. Doomed.
True eh? LOL! 🙂
Thanks to the hierarchical power structure and social construct known as “gender,” we still have ideas of masculine vs. feminine in the modern era, though it’s not exactly the same as it was in the 1940s. Even today, many men who don’t conform to ideas about “real manhood” are seen as threats, viewed with suspicions, and bullied into conformity. The 1940s man had an even bigger challenge in proving his manhood, since society was even more regimented.
I think conformity will always hinder any human. Society likes stability, and unconformity has the potential to create instability, so sociaty will always try to stiffle it.
Shame that on the other side, humans will always search for their true self, which most often won’t fit the mould.
I don’t think there is a solution to this. This is why stories od identity will always appeal us.
The notion of masculinity and femininity have been in flux since early 20th century, I guess films are a more dramatic medium to reflect those wider societal changes.
Especially when you don’t expect to find that kind of discourse in that kind of films. Which is an interesting topic in itself, if you think abotu it.
We could call today’s films the anti-masculinity approach. There must be some middle ground!
LOL! That’s true.
Yes, there must be a balance, but then, that won’t make for a good story 😉
See, again, these struggles with the concept of masculinity continues today. You’d think we would have evolved in 70 years, but nope! It all comes back around to the same preconceived ideas and misconceptions.
I think there will always be tension between the sexes, because you know, we ARE different, and it’s in differences that a good story is borne.
I have a teory about why this kind of stories appeal to us still today… but you’ll have to wait for letter X 😉
Interesting perspective in masculinity depicted in film noir back then!
Happy you found it interesting, Shilpa ,and thanks for stopping by 🙂
That is very insightful, I think its still same even today!
In some respect, I think this is a universal theme, that’s why film noir of 70 years ago are still relevant to us today 😉
Sara C. Snider
Fascinating. Such a bleak outlook makes me wonder how much men of the day truly struggled, or if it was overemphasized in the films. The world was (and still is in a lot of ways) a man’s world. But I guess change is always scary in the uncertainty of it all.
It was probably overemphasized, besides that’s what storytelling is supposed to do 😉
And I think the point of the story (at least as I see it with my ‘modern’ eye) wasn’t just in the fact that masculity was questioned, but more in the uneasy feeling of the change, the unknown it opens up in front of us, the uncertainty about what tools we should use in order to reach the goal of stability.
It is a more universal message than it looks like, in my opinion.
Just out of idle curiosity, weren’t there ANY films where the WOMAN was the main character and went through all the angst? (And who in the world would sleep in that silly bed??? Just sayin’. 😉 )
A to Z Challenge Letter M
Well, probably I’m not the right person to ask, since I’m no expert of 1940s Hollywood cinema. I understand that there were other forms of films where women tended to be protagonists, though I also understand those were more of the comedy kind.
Just my unedicated impression 😉
Are you going to be doing a series anytime in the near future about women’s roles in movies? Would love that. Have so enjoyed these.
I’m not planning it at the moment, but in the future… who knows 😉
Thats a very new perspective, looking it your way I really find it a lot more interesting and introspective.
Launching SIM Organics This April
*Menaka Bharathi *
It’s a new perspective for me too, learned it while researching this topic 🙂
Thanks for stopping by.