I wrote an essay in 1987 that was published as “The Rise and Fall of the War Noir,” in Film Noir Reader 4 (Limelight Editions, 2004), edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini. Below is a quote from the essay.
“A telltale blindspot in the history of critical writing on film noir is that, while the femme fatale is a standard topic of interest, the woman in distress has been largely ignored. Similarly, hardboiled fiction, whose novels and pulp stories were targeted to a male audience, is always cited as a ‘source’ of film noir. However, melodramatic fiction, whose novels and and popular magazine articles were aimed at a female readership, has been overlooked as a key ‘source’ of film noir.” (220)
That my criticism is still valid shows, on the one hand, the persistence of the film noir hardboiled paradigm and, on the other hand, that the paradigm can be challenged.
For an expanded version of the original essay, see the page Film Noir Plot Elements: WWII vs. Postwar.
In my discussion on Daisy Kenyon, I quote Foster Hirsch’s explanation of the “literary background” of film noir from his book, Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. (Da Capo Press, 1981, and second edition, 2008) For my analysis of this film, see the page Daisy Kenyon.
“Combining the objectivity and harshness of naturalism with the tough, stylized realism of the hardboiled crime school, film noir draws on a rich literary tradition.” (p. 51)
It is worth quoting more from Hirsch’s book about the connections between naturalism, hardboiled crime fiction and film noir. The reason is that Hirsch’s perspective represents the film noir hardboiled paradigm, and it misinterprets the actual relationship between naturalism and film noir. Hirsch says:
“Noir did not spring full-blown in the early forties. It has a complex ancestry, drawing on literary, artistic, and cinematic precursors to arrive at its own unique blend of American and European styles. The hard-boiled school of crime writing which flourished in the pages of pulp magazines in the twenties and thirties had a great impact on the noir tone. Noir also shows temperamental and philosophical affinities with the brand of naturalism practiced early in the century by such novelists as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.” (23)
“…[T]he naturalists and the hard-boiled crime writers overlap in some respects. Both introduced to American writing what was at the time a new kind of realism; both presented the big city as a ferocious, suffocating place; and both worked for an objective mode in which to present their versions of harsh urban realities, though both ended up embellishing their observations with strokes of literary flourish.” (49)
My criticism of Hirsch’s opinion about the literary background of film noir was limited to the following:
“Hirsch made no mention of literature written for a female readership. However, the sources of a huge number of film noirs were novels, short stories and plays (plus original screenplays) whose primary audience was women, such as Elizabeth Janeway’s novel, Daisy Kenyon: An Historical Novel 1940-1942 (1945).”
However, Hirsch’s interpretation of the relationship between naturalism and film noir was more inaccurate than I realized. Over a year later, I read a book by Leonard Cassuto, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories (Columbia University Press, 2009). Cassuto says:
“An American Tragedy thus stands as a gateway book pointing the way to the hard-boiled – but more important, it shows the unlikely sentimental sources of the hard-boiled attitude. And perhaps most important of all, the novel illustrates the social changes that sparked the shift from one to the other. Both sentimental and hard-boiled fiction elaborated on the division between home and the marketplace in the United States; both cast themselves as critical reflections on these spheres. In An American Tragedy, Drieser shows these two literatures to be inextricably intertwined. He uses Clyde Griffiths to illustrate how American aspirations – both domestic and economic, both sentimental and hard-boiled – combine to produce American criminal behavior. Drieser stands transfixed by the fatal struggle to form relational ties. His stories pay tribute to this idealistic impulse as they also acknowledge the forces of the new world that grind it down. This conflict plays out across a century of American crime stories, and it’s still going strong.” (41)
Contrary to Foster Hirsch, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) does not represent a connection between naturalism and only one other literary tradition, hardboiled crime fiction. Instead, as Cassuto reveals in his “secret history of American crime stories”:
a) naturalism comes out of a late nineteenth century sentimental literary tradition;
b) naturalism contains sentimentalism; and
c) when hardboiled fiction succeeds naturalism, sentimentalism is carried over into hardboiled.
Consequently, not only does film noir draw on the literary background of naturalism and hardboiled, it also draws on sentimentalism. In fact, given that sentimentalism is part and parcel of naturalism and hardboiled, it’s inevitable that film noir contains sentimentalism.
Cassuto’s book supports my challenge to the hardboiled paradigm about the relevance of women’s noirs to film noir overall.
“Sentimentalism is stereotypically female in the United States, with the majority of sentimental novels written by women…The heyday of sentimental fiction lasted from the 1820s until the 1880s or so, but the sentimental outlook ranged widely before and since then, and has dispersed throughout the culture. One of the places that sentimentalism dispersed to is hard-boiled storytelling, and there it has made a decisive and long-lasting impact. Hard-Boiled Sentimentality locates the sentimental in the hard-boiled, and ties the persistent place of the sentimental to the development of twentieth century American crime fiction.” (8-9)
The difference in perspective between Hirsch and Cassuto is fundamental. Hirsch only sees naturalism and hardboiled as pertaining to realism and urbanism. There is no recognition of sentimentalism in either literary tradition. In his conception of film noir, Hirsch acknowledges no significant female character other than the femme fatale. As a classic representation of the hardboiled paradigm, Hirsch’s book, Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, says nothing about women’s noirs nor anything about another major female character in film noir, the woman in distress.
Leonard Cassuto’s explanation of naturalism and hardboiled crime fiction thoroughly contradicts Hirsch’s. His book, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality, helps us better understand how women’s noirs rightfully belong in film noir. With Hirsch, published sources of women’s noirs, which I present on another page, are excluded from the “literary background” of film noir. However, in Cassuto’s interpretation of the history of American literature, published sources of women’s noirs are relevant to sentimentalism. The conclusion to be drawn from Cassuto’s analysis is that, instead of sentimentalism being a marker of what film noir is not, as proponents of the hardboiled paradigm would have it, sentimentalism is both part of the literary background of film noir as well as being a vital and an essential aspect of film noir.
My analyses in the pages about Raw Deal and The Leopard Man address how each of these film noirs has sentimentalism plus hardboiled. In fact, in each film there’s a tension, a struggle among characters between what should dominate, a sentimental temperament or a hardboiled attitude.
In 2007, a couple of years before I read Hard-Boiled Sentimentality, I wrote plot summaries and commentaries for about 20 classic film noirs that were published in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia (Overlook Duckworth, 2010), edited by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, and Robert Porfirio.
I emphasize how there is a dichotomy between romantic melodrama and noir in my commentaries for the following five films: Whistle Stop (1946), No Man of Her Own (1950), Walk Softly, Stranger (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), and The Desperate Hours (1955). Leonard Cassuto’s “sentimentality” correlates with my term, “romantic melodrama,” and Cassuto’s “hard-boiled” correlates with my term, “noir.”
The distinctions between romantic melodrama and noir are shown in these films in a variety of ways. (Quotations and page references are from Film Noir: The Encyclopedia.)
For my full plot summary and commentary for each of these films, click the appropriate link below. (The films are presented in chronological order.)
In Whistle Stop it’s the way people die and the visual style.
“As in melodrama, there are other love interests for the principals. Fran [Jorja Curtright], a waitress at Lou’s club, is devoted to Kenny [George Raft]. Lou [Tom Conway] is a heel Mary [Ava Gardner] takes up with when Kenny won’t make the changes she wants. As in hardboiled fiction, a bad influence, Gitlo [Victor McLaglen], has a scheme to get Kenny what he wants — money and Mary. The melodramatic solution for Fran is accidental death. The hardboiled method for getting rid of Gitlo and Lou is violent death. Indeed, each of them dies the appropriate way… The mixture of melodrama and hardboiled storylines is replicated in the mise-en-scene. On the one hand, the Veech’s house, especially Mary’s bedroom, is brightly lit. On the other, an impressive noir style is used for the locations associated with crime – the whistle stop and Lou’s office.” (332-333)
In No Man of Her Own, it’s a turn in the plot and the visual style.
“Stephen [Lyle Bettger] dumped Helen [Barbara Stanwyck, who’s also impersonating the character Patrice Harkness], and Hugh [Richard Denning, along with the real Patrice, died in a train wreck], whose ring she wears, wasn’t her husband. So until Bill [John Lund] says he loves her, Helen hasn’t had a man of her own. In the scene after they kiss, Helen’s atop a ladder decorating a Christmas tree. It’s halfway through the film, and it brings to a head both a romantic storyline and the classic visual style. The classic style reinforces Helen’s ‘perfect peace and security’ in the Harkness home. For example, although Bill doesn’t believe Helen’s his sister-in-law, when she commits telltale errors, the visual style remains classic. Were Bill going to expose Helen as an imposter, the style would turn noir. While Helen’s up on the ladder, she finds out someone (Stephen) knows who she really is, and she falls to the floor. Thereafter, a crime story (blackmail and murder) supersedes the love story, and the noir style eclipses the classic style. When Helen’s cleared of killing Stephen, her blissful suburban life is restored. In contrast, the original novel ends with Helen and Bill’s romance ruined because each suspects the other murdered Stephen. No Man of Her Own is a film noir although it doesn’t have the bleak conclusion of I Married a Dead Man. The difference in their endings derives from the mutually exclusive ways noir and melodrama deal with Helen’s social origins and opportunities. Since Stephen personifies noir’s inescapable dark past, he must also personify the wrong side of the tracks, where he and Helen come from. Because of noir’s determinism (and, therefore, its conservatism), Stephen/her past/her background will topple Helen from her accidental lift up the social ladder. In melodrama, Stephen’s simply an invader into an idyllic suburb. The past – Helen’s class – won’t stop her climb. In melodrama, whether seen as naïve or progressive, unexpected upward social mobility, rags to riches, is conventional. Both the film and novel depict a nightmarish way for a penniless, pregnant, unmarried woman to achieve a postwar American dream — a loving family in a large, ‘warm and friendly’ home. Let her survive a freak train wreck that takes scores of innocent lives. In melodrama, Helen’s fine character redeems such a deus ex machina. Her replacement of Patrice shows the ease with which class differences can be effaced. In noir, Helen’s qualities are irrelevant. The final scene underscores how melodrama, as opposed to noir, doesn’t circumscribe people’s fates to the cards they were dealt. Helen’s voice-over, lauding the charms of her home, speaks for her kind of woman, who deserves to have the good life as much as a woman born to it, like the real Patrice. (212)
In Walk Softly, Stranger, it’s geography.
“The romantic world is fictitious Ashton, where, as a brochure says, people can ‘enjoy healthful, happy living.’ The noir world is located far away, in places reached by airplanes, where Chris (Joseph Cotton) has been ‘a gambler, a card shark, a dice hustler [and] a thief,’ and his name is ‘Steve.’… As Chris holds a blanket over the driver’s head so he can’t steer Bowen’s car, Bowen [Howard Petrie] shoots Chris three times at point-blank range. The car runs off the road and bursts through a billboard, which shows an airplane and reads, ‘Next Time…Go By Air.’ To places where planes fly, the noir world, the bullets and the crash would most likely kill Chris. But since he belongs to the charmed community of Ashton, governed by romantic melodrama, the gangsters die, and he survives to have Elaine [Alida Valli].” (320)
In A Place in the Sun, it’s two women, a turn in the plot and the visual style.
“Janus (from which January is derived) was the mythical Roman god of doorways, beginnings and endings. He had two faces, which looked in opposite directions. They symbolized not only the moon and the sun but also time, since one face looked to the past and the other to the future. He represented such dichotomies as barbarity and civilization, rural and urban living, and youth and adulthood. In multiple ways, A Place in the Sun is the Janus-film of its time. The original theatrical trailer says, ‘One love grew in the shadows of night. The other love flamed in the bright light of gaiety and laughter.’ Not only does each of these love stories have a distinct visual style but each style is associated with a different time. Their affinity with Janus is that the style for love in the shadows looks backward toward film noir of the 1940s, whereas the style for love in bright light looks forward to the romantic melodramas of the 1950s. Indeed, each of these kinds of cinema, film noir and melodrama, is represented by a different face, that of Alice [Shelley Winters] and Angela [Elizabeth Taylor], respectively.
“In the style of film noir (A Place in the Sun is in black and white), the key incidents of George [Montgomery Clift] and Alice’s affair are set in shadows: their first kiss; the night they sleep together; their conversation in his car after a doctor refuses to perform an abortion; when George hears a radio report about people drowning and gets the idea to murder Alice; and the final six-minutes of the scene when Alice drowns and George survives. The shadows that conceal George are also the shades of time and class in his life. As he moves up the corporate ladder, his origins in the working class are supposed to disappear into the past. Time fading is also emphasized via frequent prolonged dissolves, as one scene slowly transforms into another. Because the old scene is as visible as the new, the overlapping creates a Janus-effect by simultaneously showing past and future.
“In contrast, and anticipating the lush color cinematography of the remarkable melodramas soon to come, George and Angela’s romance is shown in bright light and, most famously, tight close-ups. Angela’s association with brightness extends to her clothing. She’s often dressed all in white, in a dress, or a full-length coat with a white scarf around her head. In the first half of the movie if she is wearing black, it’s under a striking white accessory (a mink stole, a jacket or a Hawaiian lei). George’s future — upper management at the plant, marriage to Angela and membership in the community’s high society — is associated with a bright visual style. His passion for Angela, as opposed to his alienation from Alice, is evidenced through close-ups. Alice’s only close-up with George (which is medium, not tight) occurs in the rowboat when she asks him if he wishes she were dead. Moments later she plunges into the lake. Angela, on the other hand, may be one of the characters in Hollywood history most identified with close-ups. When she has her first conversation with George in the poolroom at his uncle’s house, she’s photographed close up and in soft focus. Afterwards, as they dance, the camera moves in even nearer to her face. The huge close-ups continue while Alice is alive. However, Alice’s death finishes the film’s two separate yet intertwined stories. In the single narrative that concludes the film (George’s trial and punishment) the film noir of A Place in the Sun eclipses the romantic melodrama. Prefiguring this, the visual style for the love that began in bright light turns dark. At the lake where Alice will drown, Angela sits on shore in a strapless black swimsuit (no cap) looking outward with her back to the camera as she tells George about a woman who drowned there and whose male companion was never found. When George and Angela kiss the day before Alice dies, Angela’s face is unseen in shadows. Prior to his arrest, they kiss in front of her lodge, and then Angela steps through the doorway into darkness. They aren’t together again until she comes to his cell. Her appearance is the opposite of their first meeting in the poolroom, when she wore a strapless white dress over petticoats. At the prison she wears a conservative, full-length black dress appropriate for a funeral, with only a small white collar and a black cap covering her hair. The film ends with George facing the camera as he walks toward the execution room. At this moment the film noir and the melodrama converge. Superimposed over a screen-filling close-up of George’s face is Angela’s, as she’s being kissed in his memory. In the film’s last shot, their two faces, like Janus, are embodied in one.” (229-230)
In The Desperate Hours it’s the conflict within two different groups, the Hilliard family and the three gangsters who invade their home.
“Glenn [Humphrey Bogart] and Dan [Fredric March] are doppelgangers in three ways. First, they’re similar in age. (This is specific to the film. Bogart and March were in their late fifties. In the novel and the play, Dan’s in his forties, and Glenn’s in his twenties.) Second, Glenn makes Dan become like himself, a man willing to kill. When Dan points a loaded gun at him, Glenn says, ‘You ain’t got it in you, Pop.’ Dan retorts, ‘I got it in me! You put it there.’ Third, each confronts opposition to his authority from the younger generation. Glenn assumes Hal [Dewey Martin, Glenn’s younger brother] wants Cindy [Mary Murphy, Dan’s teenage daughter] for her body. In fact, Hal wants her respect. He protests whenever Glenn treats ‘the Spitfire’ as a sex object. But Hal gets nowhere with Cindy, and it hurts. When he asks her in friendly way, ‘What time’s the next news,’ she looks at him with contempt. She walks away and he looks down, humiliated. After observing the middle class world of the Hilliard family, as well as, through the living room curtain, a group of well-dressed teenagers across the street singing in a convertible, Hal recognizes his alienation from them as a class difference. Glenn brags about all that he’s ‘learned’ his brother, but Hal complains, ‘You taught me everything, except how to live in a house like this.’ That remark cuts Glenn to the quick because he disdains people like Dan. In one of several outbursts in which he smears Dan and his class, Glenn shouts, ‘Guys like you. Smart-eyed, respectable! Suckers! We seen ‘em, ain’t we Kobish [Robert Middleton, the third member of the gang]? Sittin’ on parole boards. ‘Throw ‘em back in the cell! They ain’t fit to live with decent folk!’ Hal, however, doesn’t share Glenn’s class anger. He infuriates Glenn by calling Dan, ‘Mr. Hilliard.’ Also, Hal, like Kobish, refuses to give up his gun when Glenn asks him for it.
“The conflicts among the gangsters, and Glenn’s failure to overcome them, make The Desperate Hours more noir than the struggles between the gang and the family. Furthermore, tensions within the family dilute the noir in the film because Dan’s confrontation with the younger generation is the stuff of melodrama. In the first scene Dan and Ellie [Martha Scott, Dan’s wife] get an earful. Their son wants to be called Ralph [Richard Eyer] instead of ‘Ralphy,’ and he wants to shake his father’s hand good-bye instead of kissing his cheek. Dan doesn’t want Cindy to marry her boyfriend, Chuck [Gig Young], because ‘she’s still a child.’ Showing off her breasts in front of a mirror, she counters, ‘Even though she doesn’t look like a child!’ After the invasion, Ralph thinks his father’s afraid of the gangsters. Dan must prove to Ralph he knows what he’s doing (that father knows best). His triumph comes when he commands Ralph to run to him and the boy does, even though Glenn has a gun against Ralph’s head. As Hal is a rebel to Glenn, so is Chuck to Dan. Chuck drives a sports car, but to Dan it’s a ‘hot-rod.’ Dan sees Chuck, an attorney in a black overcoat, like he’s a JD or Hal in a black leather jacket. Concomitant with 1950s anti-communist paranoia, all kinds of Hollywood invaders – gangsters, juvenile delinquents, ‘redskins,’ and red planet monsters – are vanquished and ‘decent folk’ regain their security. With Glenn and Kobish lying bullet-ridden on the Hilliard’s front lawn, the final scene can be associated with a rollback of evil by the middle class. Ellie, Cindy and Ralph hug Dan outside their home (Ralph also kisses his cheek), and they walk together through the front door. Chuck, seemingly the outsider if not the outcast, is left alone in the yard, facing the closed door with his back to the camera. However, the final shot shows that completing the family melodrama means bridging the generation gap. Dan steps back through the doorway and, with a broad smile, waves Chuck to come inside. Chuck romps up the brick steps into the house. Glenn starts as the unrivaled authority over his henchmen and hostages; he ends unable to dominate anyone. Dan starts as a declining patriarch to his children; he ends with their admiration and obedience. As with the best noir in the classic period, Glenn suffers a nightmare of everything going wrong. Consistent with a 1950s family melodrama, Dan masters a crisis, one that is exacerbated by the external complications from the invasion. The final scene appropriately ends the film noir (with corpses) and the family melodrama (with reconciliation).” (95)