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Dames in the Driver's Seat

Dames in the Driver's Seat
Rereading Film Noir

Astute analyses of how gender, class, and race have been portrayed in classic film noir (1941-1958) and in retro-noir and neo-noir films of the 1990s

January 2005
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202 pages | 6 x 9 | 60 b&w photos |

With its focus on dangerous, determined femmes fatales, hardboiled detectives, and crimes that almost-but-never-quite succeed, film noir has long been popular with moviegoers and film critics alike. Film noir was a staple of classical Hollywood filmmaking during the years 1941-1958 and has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since the 1990s. Dames in the Driver's Seat offers new views of both classical-era and contemporary noirs through the lenses of gender, class, and race. Jans Wager analyzes how changes in film noir's representation of women's and men's roles, class status, and racial identities mirror changes in a culture that is now often referred to as postmodern and postfeminist.

Following introductory chapters that establish the theoretical basis of her arguments, Wager engages in close readings of the classic noirs The Killers, Out of the Past, and Kiss Me Deadly and the contemporary noirs L. A. Confidential, Mulholland Falls, Fight Club, Twilight, Fargo, and Jackie Brown. Wager divides recent films into retro-noirs (made in the present, but set in the 1940s and 1950s) and neo-noirs (made and set in the present but referring to classic noir narratively or stylistically). Going beyond previous studies of noir, her perceptive readings of these films reveal that retro-noirs fulfill a reactionary social function, looking back nostalgically to outdated gender roles and racial relations, while neo-noirs often offer more revisionary representations of women, though not necessarily of people of color.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Dames and Driving
  • Section One: Contents and Contexts
    • Chapter One. Manning the Posts: Classic Noir, Postclassic Noir, and Postmodernism
    • Chapter Two. Sexing the Paradigm: Women and Men in Noir
    • Chapter Three. Racing the Paradigm: The Whiteness of Film Noir
  • Section Two: Prototypes in Classic Noir
    • Chapter Four. The Killers (1946): Quintessential Noir?
    • Chapter Five. Out of the Past (1947): Passive Masculinity and Active Femininities
    • Chapter Six. Kiss Me Deadly (1955): Apocalyptic Femmes
  • Section Three: Return of the Repressed in Retro-Noir
    • Chapter Seven. L.A. Confidential (1997) and Casablanca (1942): Does Anything Change as Time Goes By?
    • Chapter Eight. Mulholland Falls (1996): Nuclear Noir as Numbskull Noir
    • Chapter Nine. Fight Club (1999): Retro-Noir Masquerades as Neo-Noir
  • Section Four: Revision of the Repressed in Neo-Noir
    • Chapter Ten. Twilight (1998): Age, Beauty, and Star Power—Survival of the Fittest
    • Chapter Eleven. Fargo (1996): A Woman Who Is Not Herself Mean—Snow-swept Highways and Margie
    • Chapter Twelve. Jackie Brown (1997): Gender, Race, Class, and Genre
  • Conclusion. Doing It for bell: Cultural Criticism and Social Change
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Jans B. Wager is Associate Professor of English and Literature at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah. This book continues the investigation of film noir she began in Dangerous Dames: Women and Representation in the Weimar Street Film and Film Noir.


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By arguing episodically for the presence of a noir sensibility—a pulp politics—throughout twentieth-century America, I improvise a method for theorizing its peculiar modernism, not as a seamless grand narrative, nor as a tightly focused case study, but as the chaotic repetition of the familiar.

Paula Rabinowitz, Black and White and Noir: America's Pulp Modernism


But if we think, as we sometimes do, that we are uncovering "subversion" in the midst of [Hollywood production], that subversion will usually have much more to do with the contradictory conditions of cultural production than with any genuine attempt at counterideological statement. In the first instance Hollywood is a force for social stability and must be understood as such.

Philip Green, Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood

The 1946 film noir The Big Sleep has a brief sequence featuring a professional dame in the driver's seat, a taxi driver played by Joy Barlow (Figure I.1). Barlow's name does not appear in Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film, nor in The Film Encyclopedia. Hers is a bit part. She is a secure and far from demure version of femininity. Like all the female characters in The Big Sleep, she displays an overt attraction to detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). She helps Marlowe tail a suspect and then suggests that if he can use her again, he call her. He asks, "Day or night?" and she responds, "Night's better; I work days." There is much to like about this sequence. The character—white, dark-haired, and beautiful—follows the suspect expertly and without chatter, with Marlowe looking over her shoulder from the back seat. When she does take her turn to talk, she wields her language with wit, innuendo, and competence—much like Marlowe himself. Although Marlowe never gets back together with this woman at the wheel, she epitomizes one of the most potent pleasures that classic film noir, and later postclassic noir, has to offer: a smart, capable, verbally astute, often beautiful female character who goes after, and sometimes gets, what she wants.

The femme fatale who often drives the narrative in classic film noir remains a feature of my fascination with noir. But Barlow's brief appearance in this 1946 film noir also represents a dramatic change in work-related gender roles brought about by World War II. These changes affected all women, although white women benefited most, as women flooded into previously male-dominated professions. As William Chafe notes in The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century, "the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor swiftly erased opposition to hiring women workers." According to Chafe, "women hackies took to the wheel" in New York City and the New York Times detailed "the 'Adventures of a [female] Hackie.'" Barlow's character reflects changing women's roles, and underscores film noir's enduring focus on class. While she seems content with her job, noir narratives often tell the story of working-class people seeking to escape their economic situation, a story that resonates deeply with movie audiences, both in the classic noir years and today.

Film noir continues to fascinate, and to serve as a durable feature of many Hollywood narratives, as a bankable advertising mode, and as an ongoing inspiration for consumers, students, and scholars of popular culture. Film noir provides spectators with the "chaotic repetition of the familiar" governed, in general, by what cultural critic bell hooks calls the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. One might add heterocentric to this already daunting phrase, to really take into account the dominant ideological discourses of twenty-first-century U.S. culture. Although "Hollywood is a force for social stability," a crucial element in noir's abiding appeal remains the hint of ideological subversion exhibited by classic noir, and the aura of subversion that persists in postclassic texts. This project builds on the work begun in Dangerous Dames: Women and Representation in the Weimar Street Film and Film Noir and considers how femininity, masculinity, class, and race articulate in classic films noirs, and late-1990s postclassic films that reflect a noir sensibility. I separate postclassic noir into two categories: retro-noirs (made in the present but set in the classic noir period, the 1940s or '50s) and neo-noirs (made and set in the present but referring to classic noir narratively or stylistically). My exploration of these categories suggests that, in their treatment of gender, retro-noirs fulfill a reactionary function while neo-noirs often seem to reflect revisionary views. For class and especially race, the issue is less black-and-white.

Classic films noirs are Hollywood crime movies made in the 1940s and '50s. The films often feature a femme fatale and hard-boiled male protagonist. Low-key lighting, with minimal fill light, and night-for-night photography provide atmospheric shadows and stark pools of light. Extreme and unsettling camera angles, voice-over narration, and episodic narrative structure may also appear in classic film noir. The crime films of postclassic noir usually include some of these visual and narrative elements. Postclassic noir includes both reactionary retro-noir and somewhat revisionary neo-noir films.

I analyze these films as a way of charting the resistance to and strength of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in the early twenty-first century. My heterosexual, middle-class, academic, white, feminist, visual, and narrative predilections no doubt inform my scholarship. Nevertheless, through thinking, theorizing, writing, and teaching about movies, I imagine a future where Hollywood gratifies my visual and narrative pleasures instead of thwarting them with conservative sex, gender, race, or class politics.

Dangerous Dames explored the connection between the femmes fatales in German street films of the early twentieth century and American films noirs of the mid-twentieth century, concluding with a brief analysis of some postclassic German and Hollywood noirs of the 1990s. That project also discusses another female character often featured in these films: the passive, domestic antithesis to the femme fatale, which I name femme attrapée to foreground her imprisonment in the patriarchal system. In Dangerous Dames, I follow other feminist film scholars and suggest that although female characters in the Weimar street film and film noir may well have reflected unstable postwar male subjectivity, these characters also implied other possible readings, readings that related to women's lived experiences. The visual and narrative pleasures of these movies, especially for female spectators, derives from their representations of cultural changes in gender roles, changes that often provided women with more agency. In Weimar street films and classic films noirs, the femme attrapée does not resist the patriarchy and therefore survives the narrative. The femme fatale, meanwhile, fights against male economic and social domination, usually at the cost of her life or her freedom. She is murdered, tortured, jailed, or at the very least contained by marriage in the final reel of the film. The femme fatale's resistance is fatal, sometimes to the men who fall for her, almost always to herself.

These antithetical female characters continue to appear in noir narratives today, reflecting the contradictions inherent in a supposed postmodern, postfeminist existence, in the same way the classic dames once reflected the contradictions of U.S. culture in the forties and fifties. But masculinity figures powerfully in noir narratives as well. Once I recast the femme attrapée as trapped by the patriarchy and the femme fatale as doomed by her resistance to it, I saw an analogous reading of the male protagonists. Almost every film noir features men who function much as the typical female archetypes do. Like the femme fatale, the homme fatal wants more than he should, more money and often a dangerous dame as well. Like the femme attrapée, the homme attrapé does not resist society's demands, and usually he survives the noir narrative. These male characters are also endemic to today's noirs.

Both femmes and hommes fatals pay for their visibly antisocial desires in classic film noir. The ideologically conservative Production Code, in effect from the 1930s through the 1960s, ensured their punishment. A joint effort between Hollywood executives and religious leaders designed to mitigate the possibility of external censorship, the code required that "no picture shall be produced that will lower the standards of those who see it. Hence, the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." Femmes and hommes fatals pay for their power, money, or sexual lust in The Killers (1946) and Out of the Past (1947), discussed here, as well as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Gun Crazy (1950), The Killing (1956), and countless other classic films noirs. Despite the constraints of the code, films noirs still managed to portray the ambiguities and difficulties involved in both acquiescence in and resistance to societal demands, in part by portraying those choices affecting both male and female protagonists.

While the cabby in The Big Sleep is not a protagonist, she does reveal cultural changes in what constitutes women's work; she represents the working class, and she signifies Hollywood's dominant interest in whiteness. Classic noirs virtually always tell stories about whiteness, stories that both rely on and elide nonwhiteness. As Eric Lott notes in defining film noir, "Leave it to white folk to turn chiaroscuro into a racially coded metaphor for the 'dark' places of the white self." In "The Whiteness of Film Noir," Lott sees film noir as concerned, above all, with race. He suggests that "film noir is . . . a sort of whiteface dream work of social anxieties with explicitly racial sources, condensed on film into the criminal undertakings of abject whites." Lott analyses the blacks and other nonwhites at the periphery of various classic noir narratives, seeing these "characters of color [as those] who populate and signify the shadows of white American life in the 1940s."

Paula Rabinowitz makes a similar assertion in Black and White and Noir: America's Pulp Modernism; she views "film noir as the context; its plot structure and visual iconography make sense of America's landscape and history." Rabinowitz provides an evocative discussion of the pulpy nature of popular, political, and personal culture in the United States, using film noir as inspiration rather than primary text. Yet her central point also proves Lott's complaint. According to Rabinowitz, "modernity in America is structured around two poles, each working to suppress a hidden history of state violence: racial codings (hence the black-and-white motif) and class melodrama (hence the recourse to noir sentimentality and nostalgia)" (18). Instead of interrogating how race, class, and gender materially appear in specific films noirs, Rabinowitz suggests that race and class conflate and "are revealed in the femme fatale—that dark lady who glows in the bright key lighting of B-movies" (18). Various cultural fears might be reflected in the generic figure of the femme fatale; however, this project reads specific films to articulate the representations of gender, class, and race, and charts some of the changes in how noir represents race, including whiteness.

Looking forward to 1990s noir, Barlow's taxi driver serves as a precursor to the sexy, barefooted taxi driver Esmarelda Villalobos (Angela Jones) in Pulp Fiction (1994) but also to more interesting female protagonists in late-1990s neo-noir: Catherine (Susan Sarandon) in Twilight (1998), Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) in Jackie Brown (1997), and even Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo (1996). These films exhibit a change in the representation of the femme fatale. In the early 1990s, the sexualized performances of characters such as those played by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992) and Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1994) dominate noir narratives. According to Kate Stables in "The Postmodern Always Rings Twice: Constructing the Femme Fatale in '90s Cinema," the early 1990s femme fatale is a woman motivated by "her enormous appetite for power, money, sex." Stables suggests that the classic film noir femme fatale existed as "sexual presence," while the early 1990s femme fatale "is redefined as sexual performer." Slavoj Zizek, in "The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime," agrees with Stables, asserting that "the neo-noir femme fatale is to be located in the context of the dissolution of the . . . Production Code: what was merely hinted at in the late '40s is now explicitly rendered thematic."

In the late 1990s, a different sort of femme fatale appears, one who relies less on sexual performance (although her sexuality remains appealing) and more on other abilities. She suggests a shift in direction for at least some of the noir narratives in the twenty-first century. This new femme fatale appears in neo-noirs, those films made and set roughly in the late 1990s. Neo-noirs can undermine the institutions of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, at least with regard to gender.

Yet in addition to the attractions of the late-1990s neo-noir, the last half of the decade also produced a series of reactionary films noirs that feature a pastiche, or imitation, femme fatale. These more reactionary films, made in the late 1990s but set in the classic noir years, I call retro-noirs. The pastiche femmes fatales of the retro-noir have little or no ability to drive the narrative. They include Lynn (Kim Basinger) in L.A. Confidential (1997), Allison (Jennifer Connelly) in Mulholland Falls (1996), and Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) in Fight Club (1999). These characters seem designed to prove Laura Mulvey's thesis in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema": women function solely as objects of the male gaze and signifiers of castration and, as such, must be punished or controlled.

Under the influence of a rating system more concerned with policing sexuality than morals, postclassic noirs continue to represent cultural shifts in gender roles and in women's and men's lived experiences, expressing both the fears and benefits of these shifts. The noir of the late 1990s becomes a paradigm for understanding the conflicting nature of lived experience. These films provide spectators with "a pulp politics" of gender, class, and race. The focus here is not just the oppression and resistance of women under the patriarchy, but also the ways that the capitalist patriarchy—even the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—determines all film form. In this project, femininity, masculinity, race, and class enter the discussion. As Teresa Amott and Julie Matthaei assert in Race, Gender, and Work: A Multicultural Economic History of Women in the United States, "race-ethnicity, gender, and class are interconnected, interdetermining historical processes, rather than separate systems."

The first of four sections, "Contents and Contexts," explores some of the theoretical and ideological currents informing contemporary film noir and feminist scholarship. Chapter One, "Manning the Posts," provides a discussion of classic film noir and postclassic noir's mutable generic status and explains some of the terminology. The chapter concludes with an inquiry into how the discourses of postmodernism inform current cinema, and late-1990s noir in particular, perhaps accounting for both the reactionary and revisionary aspects of these films. Chapter Two, "Sexing the Paradigm: Women and Men in Noir," and Chapter Three, "Racing the Paradigm: The Whiteness of Film Noir," provide a brief historical examination of how masculinity and race articulate with the representations of women in movies. Chapter Two reconsiders gender representations in classic and postclassic noir and discusses the influences of third-wave feminism, sometimes referred to as postfeminism, on current media practices. Then, beginning with Patrice Petro's study of Weimar cinema and working forward to late-1990s noir, I suggest a series of oppositions that seek to organize and understand the discourses of gender in retro- and neo-noir. Chapter Three concentrates on the representation of race in film noir and adds race to the oppositionally gendered paradigms. Although drawn primarily from film noir and postclassic noir, the binary oppositions of revisionary and reactionary trends suggested here also provide a possible model for thinking about Hollywood film beyond the confines of noir.

After this academic orientation, we go off to the movies. The next three sections explore first classic film noir, then retro-noir, and finally neo-noir. Most of the people I talk with about film are not cinema scholars: they are medievalists, creative writers, my mother and family, ski patrollers, office managers, and undergraduate students. These moviegoers make up an important part of my intended audience. For many of these film lovers, A. O. Scott, Janet Maslin, Ebert and Roeper, and even Joe Bob Briggs provide useful criticism. My academic colleagues who regularly utilize film in the classroom have not read Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, or even Béla Balázs. A lot of filmgoers, although not film scholars, are experts at watching and thinking about movies. They enjoy engaging in critical and complex analysis, enjoy working to understand their responses and to build their own interpretations. Film scholars share a canon of theoretical texts and a specialized language that often exclude the expert nonscholar. I invite both film aficionados and film scholars into this discussion by moving obliquely away from scholarly discourse and toward more personal and popular responses, especially in the later chapters that focus on recent Hollywood movies.

For the classic films, in addition to scholarly writings and reviews from the classic period, I also include commentary from one of the first works of noir criticism, A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton. In this wonderfully exuberant discussion, published in 1955 and finally translated into English in 2002, two French intellectuals make noir exemplary of their own surrealist ideology. The language they use to talk about the movies remains as vibrant and evocative as the films themselves. For Borde and Chaumeton, classic film noir begins with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and ends with Kiss Me Deadly (1955). I follow other noir theorists who see Citizen Kane (also 1941) as an additional inaugural film, since Citizen Kane has the complex narrative structure, unsettling camera work, and dramatic lighting often identified with film noir. From this perspective, another film directed by Orson Welles, Touch of Evil (1958), brings classic film noir to a close. Instead of a hard-boiled detective and femme fatale, this film features a grotesque and corrupted detective, a host of other perversions, and takes the noir camera work and lighting to extremes.

The second section examines "Prototypes in Classic Noir" and provides close readings of three classic film noir texts: The Killers (1946), Out of the Past (1947), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), each in some way quintessential. These films, well known and often cited in scholarly and popular texts on film noir, provide a basis for understanding classic noir. Chapter Four examines The Killers, starring Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. Gardner functions as both femme fatale and femme attrapée, although the dominant reading of her character dooms her to jail at the end. Lancaster portrays the passive yet powerful masculinity of an homme fatal, doomed by his desire for both economic wealth and the femme fatale. Chapter Five discusses Out of the Past, starring another passive and powerful homme fatal played by Robert Mitchum, as well as an exemplary femme fatale played by Jane Greer. Kirk Douglas—father of Michael Douglas, the quintessential American man in numerous postclassic noirs—also stars. Finally, Chapter Six looks at the famous late-classic noir Kiss Me Deadly. Much has been and continues to be written about this film, which ends with the femme fatale opening a box that unleashes a nuclear explosion. My analysis, inspired by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, reads the investigative competence and unstylized appearance of the female characters as a revision of cinematic conventions. This revision makes it possible to interpret the film as a postmodern feminist text despite its generalized misogyny and misanthropy. Both Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly feature a black jazz club sequence, but the latter invests the sequence with more meaning than most classic noirs do. These quintessential texts set up a discussion of postclassic noir.

For postclassic films noirs, I use current voices—newspaper reviews, popular film journals, directors' and actors' commentaries, scholarly responses, and others—to calibrate reaction to these films relative to issues of gender and race. I ask what the films and the responses to them circulating in popular texts suggest about cultural relationships, and thereby explore how spectators might understand, internalize, or resist these suggestions. As the opening epigraph from Philip Green implies, these films and the responses to them reflect, above all, "the contradictory conditions of cultural production." Yet the effectiveness of these films as reactionary or revisionary texts is reflected in the cultural responses discussed here; these responses have some potential to determine the future of film form.

Every decade since the close of the classic noir period (1958) has had its share of noir-inspired films, including, to name only a few, Harper (1966), Klute (1971), The Big Sleep (1978), Body Heat (1981), Fatal Attraction (1987), Point Break (1991), Fargo (1996), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Femme Fatale (2002). Postclassic noirs proliferated in the 1980s and '90s, and that proliferation continues today. Late-1990s noir provides the primary texts for this discussion, since these often successful films starring well-known actors reflect both a change from the early 1990s and serve to usher in a noir sensibility for the twenty-first century. The films analyzed in Sections Three and Four do not seek to provide an exhaustive selection of retro- and neo-noir. Instead, a sampling of late-1990s films allows the noir aficionada to fill in the taxonomy with other texts and contexts.

Section Three, "Return of the Repressed in Retro-Noir," focuses on retro-noirs, those ideologically reactionary films noirs made in the present but set in the past. Chapter Seven, "Does Anything Change as Time Goes By?" begins by comparing one celebrated non-noir text of the classic period, Casablanca (1942), to a retro-noir, L.A. Confidential (1997), and highlights the nostalgic and conservative impulses of retro-noir. Despite the intervening years and the social gains made by women and people of color, the 1942 non-noir and 1997 retro-noir tell remarkably similar stories about homosocial and heterosexual relationships and about whiteness, masculinity, and nonwhite marginalization. Chapter Eight, "Nuclear Noir as Numbskull Noir," analyzes the retro-noir Mulholland Falls (1996). This film, which promotes muscular and violent white masculinity and passive and doomed white femininity, serves as the antithesis to classic noir's active women and passive but powerful men. Nonwhite characters disappear almost completely from the narrative. Finally, in Chapter Nine, retro-noir masquerades as neo-noir. Binary oppositions are never absolute; according to my own taxonomy of retro- and neo-noir, Fight Club (1999), set in a vague and not too distant future, should be neo-noir. Instead, the film achieves retro-noir status because of its reactionary treatment of gender, class, and race. Fight Club promotes a white supremacist patriarchy.

Section Four, "Revision of the Repressed in Neo-Noir," discusses the visual and narrative pleasures of three neo-noirs, films made and set in the mid- to late 1990s, including Twilight (1998), Fargo (1996), and Jackie Brown (1997). Neo-noirs often revise, at least somewhat, gender representations. As noted earlier, the sexual performance aspect of early-1990s femmes fatales gives way to more interesting and complex characterizations in the late 1990s. Although I enjoyed watching Linda Fiorentino, as femme fatale Bridget in The Last Seduction, use and discard men and then drive off with a fortune, Pam Grier's Jackie Brown and Susan Sarandon's character Catherine in Twilight offer spectators a more nuanced and socially relevant femininity. Neo-noir generally revises sex or gender representations and, like classic noir, focuses on class, yet often seems ambivalent or reactionary with regard to race. In Twilight a nonwhite character serves as a racist stereotype. In Fargo, the representation of nonwhites seems somewhat ambiguous, although racist elements appear. Of the three neo-noir films discussed, only Jackie Brown provides nonwhite characters with larger and more complex roles.

All the films discussed here represent mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, written, produced, directed, and marketed primarily by white men. As Green notes, any subversion here "will usually have much more to do with the contradictory conditions of cultural production that with any genuine attempt at counterideological statement." Although these texts do not threaten social stability, neo-noirs occasionally subvert ideologies that bolster the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, whereas retro-noirs more insidiously support those ideologies. Film noir, with its focus on the mythologies of class, sex-gender, and race, continues to reflect the ambiguity and extremes of postmodern experience. These texts provide a unique site for exploring the comforts and threats implicit in Hollywood production. In the conclusion, "Doing It For bell," I discuss bell hooks's potential influence on film and filmmakers and promote the importance of culturally engaged and aware scholarship and teaching as a vehicle for social change. Late-1990s noir seems the perfect vehicle to initiate a discussion of gender, race, and class in the new millennium. Where do the paths in late-1990s noir lead? And how will we—as film spectators, theorists, and filmmakers—modify those directions in the twenty-first century?