(This paper is constructed from a series of short essays that were used to introduce three films in a film noir series I organized for the American Psychoanalytic Association’s winter meeting in 2001.)
Film noir is dense with the sort of things that interest us as psychoanalysts: sex and violence, obsessive love, the expressions of unconscious conflict, psychic determinism and fate, ambiguity and contingency, an engagement of the dark side that isn’t undercut by moralizing. The noir protagonist enters the film the way a new patient enters our offices: ensnared by circumstances beyond his conscious making. Sitting with that, as analyst, as audience, and in particular as we watch film noir, we’re anxious. Withy?/ra noir it’s not the anxiety of a suspense film in which we’re worried if the hero will survive; we know that our protagonist is doomed, we may know that explicitly from the start with the film framed as a deathbed confession. Nor is it the anxiety of a horror film, which perhaps comes closer to dread, the nightmarish anticipation of violent destruction. Film noir captures what we might call our existential anxiety, our sense that as creatures with pasts, significantly unknowable pasts, and with confusing desires, and ultimately alone, we have to negotiate a world that has no built-in meanings and no romantic sunsets (only the inevitable gray sunset), a world in which we can never be sure whether someone stacked the deck against us or whether we did it to ourselves. Deeply unromantic,_/z/m noir has no heroes, it has no way out, and in that sense it’s the antithesis of Hollywood, at its best, ironically, Hollywood’s self-deconstruction.
The French got their minds around our new film style before we did. They’d been completely cut off from Hollywood during the war, and when they caught up with us in 1946 they were captured by the dark mood of the American cinema, which they labeled film noir. Its closest predecessor was the crime film genre of the Thirties, the cinema of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. But those films had had an objective, quasi-documentary sensibility; the viewer had watched from a safe outside. The audience had identified with the police, who were idealized, and had been assured a moral ending. In the new film noir, if the police were featured they were usually rotten, and the other lawbreakers, at least the men, were more or less sympathetic figures. The cinematic perspective had moved inside, become subjective, as we were invited to think more about motives than methods.
Many film theorists have understood the emergence of noir as a response to our social and political condition. Screenwriter Paul Schrader (1972) argued that this thematic downturn in our cinema was a delayed reaction to the Thirties. During the Depression and to a substantial degree during the War, he reasoned, Hollywood tried to keep our spirits up with musicals and amelioristic dramas. It seemed that the film industry was upholding a tacit commitment to play its part in the war effort. The postwar shift to a sardonic cinema reflected the evaporation of the American Dream. We’d watched the rise of totalitarianism and fascism, we were frightened by Communism, war in Korea was on the horizon, and we’d invented and used the Bomb. Winning the Great War hadn’t so clearly improved things for us -veterans had trouble readjusting, women lost their autonomy as they returned from the factories to their homes, small businessmen had to struggle to adjust to the new peacetime economy. After we’d made all those sacrifices, we felt more than a bit let down. The great American ideal of individual initiative, the spirit our country was founded on, was tarnished with the growth of the technocratic state. This post-war mood was expressed in a harsher, at times quite cynical, and yet also more honest cinema; the moralizing split between good and evil had dissolved. We needed films that moved away from the facile answers of the Thirties.
It’s particularly interesting from a psychoanalytic point of view, and in a sense ironic given all these social changes, that our cinema was less engaging when it had the context of a contemporary societal problem. (“On the Waterfront,” an apparent exception to this point, holds up only because of Brando’s bravura performance; otherwise it would have been a forgettable piece of union bashing.) By contrast, we could relate to the individual noir anti-hero, criminal or loser, because he captured our own sense of conflict. We needed a psychological cinema to do that, and one that could acknowledge our dark side. Aided by an influx of German expressionist directors (Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder) we succeeded in creating a substantial body of work; there are probably over a hundred noir films still worth watching. By the mid-Fifties our national mood had shifted again and film noir was a thing of the past.
Film noir has offered us three protagonist prototypes: first, the Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled private eye, who is hired to solve a murder, or to find a missing person, or to expose a gang (Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum); second, the doomed victim, who was accused of a crime he didn’t commit, or who slipped into crime because of a momentary lapse, or because he was seduced by a woman, or because he was sick of his wife, or in a financial hole and needing money fast (Burt Lancaster in “The Killers”, John Garfield in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”); and third, most disturbingly, the noir psychopath, the anti-hero tormented by a daemonic inner self, most stunningly Orson Welles as the deranged sheriff in “Touch of Evil.”
It’s the second group, the doomed victims, who we’ve really taken to represent the heart offilm noir, perhaps an ironic phrasing because_///m noir is notoriously heartless. Here’s one description of the prototypical doomed victim plot offered by James Damico (1978, p. 103):
Either he is fated to do so or by chance, or because he has been hired for a job specifically associated with her, a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter meets a not-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is the natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached (generally he is her husband or lover), an act which often leads to the woman’s betrayal of the protagonist, but which in any event brings about the sometimes metaphoric, but usually literal destruction of the woman, the man to whom she is attached, and frequently the protagonist himself.
One appeal of such a story line is familiar to analysts: it’s a particular reworking of the Oedipal narrative which features patricide, forbidden fruit, betrayal, revenge, and a tragic justice. But to explain the emergence offilm noir, we have to wonder why this story line became compelling at this particular point in our history – how, as one line of approach, that appeal might be a response to the post-war disillusionment. While I’m not enough of a film historian to definitively answer that question, there are a couple of psychological trends worth noticing: alienation and woman bashing.
In their 1955 article which definedy?/m noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton wrote: “The moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience the anxiety and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir… the psychological reference points are removed. The aim of film noir was to create a specific alienation ” (1955, p. 25). This alienation is manifest both in the story and in its telling. Noir’s protagonists feel fated, and yet at the same time they find no meanings beyond the meanings they create. They dread the future, their lives are unanchored by family or career or community or commitment, they survive day to day, they are driven by passions they barely understand toward destinies they can hardly envision. The risk of being knocked off is taken for granted (“So what are you going to do, kill me? Everybody dies”), and the prospect of death can even seem enthralling (think of Burt Lancaster awaiting his murderers in “The Killers”). All that’s left is to do unto others before they do unto you. Film noir’s titles capture the hopelessness: “Cornered,” “The Big Sleep,” “Edge of Doom,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” “Odds Against Tomorrow,” “One Way Street,” “No Way Out,” “Caged,” “The Dark Corner,” “In a Lonely Place.” Parallel with this sense of anomie is a romantic longing for the past, albeit a mysterious past ambiguously known; but this nostalgia is accompanied by the certainty that there’s no returning. The spirit of alienation is also reflected in the telling: noir films are distinctively dispassionate, the viewer is kept at a distance from the action, a narrator may be interposed between the actors and the audience – we’re left, in a curious way, disinterested voyeurs.
We can imagine that audiences in the Forties and Fifties might have found an expression of their sense of dislocation in noir’s alienation. But why express this through conspicuously tormented Oedipal tellings? Perhaps that’s where we can best be engaged, in the intensely personal dramas of guilt-ridden love that saturate our unconscious minds. By analogy, in the wake of our recent political violence, my patients described intensified marital wars. These films are nighttime business, the stuff of dreams. Maybe that’s where we go when our daytime musings and encounters are too destabilizing. Hitchcock certainly made a career out of dramatizing our sense that dark leering culpable selves lurk beneath our civilized masks (Hirsch 1981) – we are the (unfairly accused) ‘wrong men’ only in the light.
Finally, a few words about the woman bashing. It’s been widely observed that film noir’s women – dominating, castrating bitches – represent the worst of male sexual fantasies. Hirsch observed: “Women who in real life were strengthened by their wartime experience, while their husbands were away, appear in films as malevolent temptresses, their power confined almost entirely to a sexual realm, their strength achieved only at the expense of men” (1981, p.20). Male novelists, screenwriters, directors, and producers created this typology, again arguably in response to the times. Perhaps they echoed the fears of their mates who felt threatened by wartime women’s emergence outside the home, women invading their own traditional territories. As Hirsch points out, these narratives work to deny the real accomplishments of women during the war. Perhaps the sense of world disorder after the war was experienced as a loss of security, a feeling of being dropped from mother’s arms, as we sensed again in September of 2001, and these caricatures constituted an unfortunate revenge (and at the same time, perversely idealized women, making them indestructibly formidable until near the end). Perhaps these stories were simply vehicles for expressing a broader sense of castration, making it all personal. By the mid-Fifties, feeling a bit resuscitated, we could back off and invent Donna Reed.
3. STYLISTICS (For this section I am especially indebted to Hirsch  and Place and Peterson .)
Having investigated the political and cultural context offilm noir, and having interpreted its psychology, I now want to look at its style. Film writers generally think that noir doesn’t have the consistency of narrative and conflict required for it to be formally considered a genre; Paul Schrader suggests that it can rather be defined “by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood” (1972, p. 53). Certainly noir has its settings: “night clubs, hotels, tenements, police stations, offices, docks, corner luncheonettes… factories, warehouses, crumbling mansions, boxing arenas, train stations” (Hirsch, p. 85) – the dark corners of the city. But what’s most striking about noir is the way it shows these settings, the way it peoples them, the way it looks, the city as nightmare. I’d like to focus on noir’s imagery, its visual style.
The prevailing style before noir was high-key lighting in which the image was softened by using fill light to remove the shadows, giving a naturalistic effect. Night scenes were typically shot day-for-night, which meant that the photography was done in broad daylight, with the cameras shooting through darkening filters. Noir reversed all this. The palette was now black. Low-key lighting, without a softening fill, was used to create areas of sharp contrast, bright pools of lights attacked by threatening dark shadows, shadows which hid faces and motivations. Night scenes were shot at night with artificial lighting. The new German and Eastern European expatriate directors in Hollywood (Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Max Ophuls, and many others) brought with them their mastery of chiaroscuro. Schrader (1972) sums it up by saying that they directed unnatural lighting onto realistic settings; this became a hallmark of film noir, the corruption of our ease and familiarity in the places we live. And the light was often angular, diagonal, splintering the screen, disorganizing. Janey Place and Lowell Patterson observe that ‘film noir creates a visually unstable environment in which no character has a firm moral base from which he can confidently operate… Moral values, like identities that pass in and out of shadow, are constantly shifting and must be redefined at every turn” (1974, p. 69).
Noir undermines the protagonist’s control and it does this visually. Setting and actor are equally lit, and, by use of greater depth of field, equally in focus, thus equally appealing for our attention. The protagonist can’t take control of the territory. In typical noir filming, the director moves the scene around the actor, rather than letting the actor conventionally control the scene through his actions. The high angle overhead shot, “the most unheroic of perspectives,” is a noir staple – peering down, “pressing characters to the bottom of the screen,” it increases our sense of their powerlessness. These stylistics all contribute to noir’s fatalistic cast.
And it’s not just the protagonists who are undermined – the audience is also. By avoiding the customary establishing long shot at the beginning of each new scene, which would allow us as viewers to find our place in the allow us as viewers to find our place in the setting, noir leaves us disoriented. In its place we’re offered a variety of claustrophobic constructions. Cars and trains aren’t ways to get somewhere, more typically they become confining spaces, traps. As are bedrooms and boxing rings. Something’s always about to go wrong. Ifweseea pyramid of stacked glasses, we know that someone in a rage is going to smash them. Staircases, bathtubs, and rooftops are never benign settings.
But noir doesn’t only make us anxious and disorient us, it also keeps us at a distance. Noir directors aren’t looking for our sympathies, we’re not meant to care too much about the characters (there are no film noir tearjerkers). The noir film is fashioned as somebody else’s bad dream, and we’re just voyeurs. The noir director fends us off- he shifts the point of view, he doesn’t let us stay in one character’s subjective frame of reference, he fractures time with flashbacks and with flashbacks inside flashbacks, he uses narration which tends to set us apart from the action. We’re kept away from conventional responses, there are no soft edges, it’s life, it’s death, and it’s hopeless.
This is a quick sketch of the film noir vision. If you’d like to check out the field, Barry Gifford offers a useful guide to specific noir films in his book, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir.
Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne (1955). In A. Silver and J. Ursini (1996), Film Noir Reader. NY: Limelight Editions.
Damico, James (1978). Film Noir: A Modest Proposal. In A. Silver and J. Ursini (1996), op. cit.
Gifford, Barry (2001). Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Hirsch, Foster (1981). The Dark Side of the Screen. CA: Da Capo Press.
Place, Janey and Peterson, Lowell (1974). Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir. In A. Silver and J. Ursini (1996), op. cit.
Schrader, Paul (1972). Notes on Film Noir. In A. Silver and J. Ursini (1996), op. cit.