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Women’s Noirs in Reference Books

Introduction

Below is a table with the titles of movies cited by author Mark Bould as “women’s pictures.” He says these movies “have been excluded from the film noir canon.” My table indicates whether or not those movies are cited in the filmographies in six film noir reference guides.

In the page Women’s Noirs in Hardboiled Books, I have a table that shows how often Bould’s movies are named in six books that represent the film noir hardboiled paradigm. The discrepancy between the two tables is remarkable — and revealing.

Presentation

In Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City (Wallflower Press, 2005) Mark Bould challenges the film noir hardboiled paradigm.

“Female identity, and masculine fantasies thereof, were at the center of a film noir cycle about wives who find themselves isolated, in danger or victims of husbands’ plots. In Suspicion and Beyond the Forest the danger is imagined, but in Experiment PerilousGaslightMy Name is Julia RossGildaNotoriousUndercurrentThe Two Mrs. CarrollsSecret Beyond the DoorSleep, My LoveSorry, Wrong NumberCaughtCause for Alarm and Sudden Fear, the threat is real. Women are trapped and imperiled by criminals, psychotic killers or unscrupulous men in Hangover SquareThe Spiral StaircaseThe Reckless MomentBeware, My Lovely and The Blue Gardenia. Some of these films have period settings and most, having been perceived as “women’s pictures,” have often been excluded from the film noir canon, just as discussions of melodrama have often excluded film noirs – impoverishing our understanding of both genres.” (pp. 51-52)

Mark Bould is simultaneously wrong and right to say that the movies he cites “have often been excluded from the film noir canon.” My table below is based on the filmographies in six film noir reference guides, which consistently include Bould’s movies. If the reference guides are considered as source books of the film noir canon, then these movies have long been included in the canon.

However, since film noir has been interpreted through a hardboiled paradigm in academic and popular books, as well as articles in academic journals and the mass media, the kind of movies Bould that describes (“women’s pictures”) have indeed been excluded because, by definition, these movies don’t fit the hardboiled paradigm.

In other words, there are two competing literatures about film noir, the reference guides vs. virtually everything else that’s been published for decades. The reference guides explicitly deny the basis for the hardboiled paradigm. That is, their filmographies include the kind of movies Bould describes. However, the other literature has established the interpretation of film noir in terms of the hardboiled paradigm. Therefore, although the reference guides don’t reinforce the hardboiled paradigm (but implicitly refute it), the other, much larger film noir literature has succeeded in making the hardboiled paradigm seem valid.

The key character in the “women’s pictures” that Mark Bould discusses is known as the woman in distress. Although Bould doesn’t comprehensively describe all the ways in which the woman in distress appears in film noir, his wording accurately pertains to one frequent kind of storyline, in which women were “wives who find themselves isolated, in danger or victims of husbands’ plots.”

In fact, there has been an unpardonable failure in the history of the academic and general literature on film noir to properly acknowledge the woman in distress. This character is as common in one literature (the discographies of the reference guides) as the “iconic” femme fatale. Yet the woman in distress in film noir is “unseen” in the sense that she’s unmentioned in the “other” literature. (See the page, Woman in Distress vs. Femme Fatale.)

1981: Robert Ottoson, A Reference Guide to the American Film Noir, 1940-1958 (The Scarecrow Press, Inc.)

1984: Spencer Selby, Dark City: The Film Noir (McFarland & Company, Inc.)

1995: Michael L. Stephens, Film Noir: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons (McFarland & Company, Inc.)

2000: Paul Duncan, Film Noir (Pocket Essentials)

2003: Michael F. Keaney, Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959 (McFarland & Company, Inc.)

2010:   Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, Robert Porfirio, editors, Film Noir: The Encyclopedia

* = The film is cited in the book.

0 = The film is not cited in the book.

 Title 1981 1984  1995 2000 2003 2010
Beware, My Lovely 0 * * * * *
Beyond the Forest * * * * * *
The Blue Gardenia * * * * * *
Caught * * * * * *
Cause for Alarm 0 * * * * *
Experiment Perilous * * * * * 0
Gaslight * * * * * *
Gilda * * * * * *
Hangover Square * * 0 * * *
My Name Is Julia Ross * * * * * *
Notorious * * 0 * * *
The Reckless Moment * * * * * *
Secret Beyond the Door * * * * * *
Sleep, My Love * * * * * *
Sorry, Wrong Number * * * * * *
The Spiral Staircase * * * * * *
Sudden Fear * * 0 * * *
Suspicion * * 0 * * *
The Two Mrs. Carrolls * * * * * *
Undercurrent 0 * * * * *