Film noir is often described as a masculine genre, as it pivots around male narratives. In film noir, the masculine narrative attempts to contain subversive female characters, or “femmes fatales,” by turning them into spectacle, or by deploying the male voice-over narration. Although voice-over narration in film noir often grants the male narrator control over the representation of the female character, this male dominance over narration is not always all powerful. A closer reading of film noir reveals gaps in the male narrative that allow for the female narrative to push through and exert its presence. This essay examines how the woman’s story vocally and visually struggles for narrative control in two film noirs,
Film noir is often described as a masculine genre, as it pivots around male narratives, or stories of male characters that are charged with masculine anxieties and desires. Although these male protagonists are often shown in various states of vulnerability (even death), they often assert power by narrating their own stories. In film noir, the masculine narrative attempts to contain subversive female characters, or “femmes fatales,” within its parameters. One method of asserting male control over representations of women is turning them into spectacle by emphasizing their visual qualities. The issue of patriarchal and institutional silencing of female speech and subjectivity has often been discussed by feminist film scholars, most notably Laura Mulvey in her discussion of the voyeurism inherent in “the male gaze” and the fetishism of the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of women characters in classical Hollywood cinema.1 This visual emphasis diverts attention away from their authorial voice or powers of speech, thereby depriving them the role of speaking subjects.
Another common device of containment in cinema is the male voice-over narration. Although voice-over narration in film noir often grants the male narrator control over the representation of the female character, this male dominance over narration is not always all powerful. Karen Hollinger suggests that the voice-over creates a fragmenting effect “by establishing within the film a fight for narrative power as the narrator struggles to gain control of the narrative events recounted” (245). Narrations are porous, with openings and fissures that allow for intrusions of other voices and perspectives, especially when the narrator is an unreliable or weak character, which is often the case in film noir. Edward Branigan also speaks of “multiple narrations in the film that create a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety in the spectator” (191). This feeling of anxiety caused by multiple narrations can be found in the typical film noir, in which the plot revolves around “a struggle between different voices for control over the telling of the story” (Gledhill 16). Questions that delve into who is telling the story, whose story is being told, and how the story is being told, invite a complex revision of the narrative focus and authorial power in such films.
A closer reading of film noir reveals gaps in the male narrative that allow for the female narrative to push through and exert its presence. In this essay, I examine how the woman’s story vocally and visually struggles for narrative control in two film noirs,
1See Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.
It is necessary to clarify here what I mean by the terms “objective” and “subjective.” Stephen Heath explains the term “subjective” in his essay “Narrative Space.” Noting how Jean Mitry classifies subjective images into five categories,2 Heath points out that a point-of-view shot can be “subjective” as “it assumes the position of a subject-character” (399), but that what is “subjective” in the point-of-view shot is not the image or the camera, but its spatial positioning. He writes that the point-of-view shot is therefore not subjective, but “the objective sight of what is seen from the subject position assumed” (400). He argues that “a true subjective image would effectively need to mark its subjectivity
Throughout the film
Camera movements and editing also play a role in emphasizing the subjective quality of Al’s flashback by guiding the audience into and out of his mind. For instance, the camera moves closer to Al’s face when his flashback begins, and recedes away from it when it ends. This reinforces the fact that we are in turn entering and exiting Al’s mind. This camera movement is repeated in the scene when Al has the flashback nightmare of Haskell’s death. Likewise, the film reminds the spectator from time to time that the onscreen images are part of Al’s flashback through brief returns to the present. Also, a montage of shots showing images of a map and of Al on the road accompanies Al’s musings on his lack of money and the dangers of hitchhiking. Not only does this summarize Al’s westward journey, it also functions as an expressionist visualization of his mobility and instability. The fact that the whole flashback barely lasts for the length of the song on the jukebox also emphasizes its subjective nature by implying that the whole film is a nightmarish memory replaying inside Al’s head.
Meanwhile, the suspicion that Al may be an unreliable narrator further accentuates the subjective quality of his narration. After Haskell’s death, Al breaks away from his flashback narration to vehemently protest his innocence to the audience. He anticipates the listener’s disbelief and says explosively, “You’re going to tell me you don’t believe my story about how Haskell died and give me that ‘Don’t make me laugh!’ expression on your smug faces.” Although Haskell was evidently an ill man, Al is positive that no one would believe that he did not kill him. Al shows a similar lack of faith when Vera dies, asking his imaginary listeners, “In the Haskell business, how many of you would believe he fell out of the car? And now after killing Vera without really meaning to do it, how many of you would believe that it wasn’t premeditated?” Al repeatedly and desperately tries to convince Vera that he is innocent. In fact, he seems to be trying to convince himself, as though afraid to face the possibility that he acted out of greed. This persistent denial of his culpability only serves to undermine his credibility as narrator.
Al’s emotional outbursts and his fatalistic attitude are also detrimental to his reliability and authority as narrator, once again underlining the subjective nature of his narration. A nihilist, defeatist outlook pervades his narration. Al scoffs at Sue’s encouragement that he would perform at Carnegie Hall one day, retorting that he would make his debut in the basement as a janitor. Al is always quick to exonerate himself and blame the malevolent forces of destiny for his troubles. When he discovers Haskell is dead, he says, “From then on, something else stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself.” When Al meets Vera, he says, “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” At the end of the film, Al concludes that “fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” True to character, Al steadfastly believes that he had no control over what happened to him, and that he was only a pawn in the hands of capricious fate.
Al’s tendency to shirk responsibility leads the spectator to regard his narration as a form of self-justification and rationalization of his defeatist, aimless stance toward life. In his analysis of the film, Andrew Britton notes that “Al is incapable of providing the impartial account of the action,” and that his narration is “profoundly selfdeceived and systemically unreliable” (174). Compared to Al’s narration, the voice-over narrations of the main characters in classical film noirs
The scenes between Al and Sue manifest the instability and vulnerability of Al’s narrational authority, which is destabilized by the discrepancy between Al’s description of his relationship with Sue and the onscreen dramatized action. Although Al uses such phrases as “an ordinary, healthy romance” and “the most wonderful thing in the world” to describe their relationship, this is far from being the case. It is obvious that Sue and Al want different things; Al wants to get married immediately, but Sue wants to succeed as a singer first. While Al insists that working with Sue made it seem “a little like working in heaven,” Sue sees the nightclub as a “dump” where drunken customers made unwanted advances, and where she could never realize her dreams of success. Al is unsupportive when Sue talks about going to Hollywood to “try her luck,” and responds, “That’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard of.” The thick, murky fog that envelops them during their conversation visualizes this sense of alienation between the two lovers. A similar discrepancy is found between Al’s description of Vera and what takes place onscreen. For instance, Al reports to the audience that “Vera unfortunately was just as rotten in the morning as she had been the night before,” but it is clear that Vera has visibly mellowed overnight.
Al’s narrational power becomes further debilitated with the entrance of a vocal woman named Vera, a femme fatale with a razorsharp tongue. Her overpowering feminine presence persistently erodes the authority of the narrator. His narration occurs less frequently and less prominently in the film. Although temporally embedded in his flashback, Vera’s words are not mediated through Al’s narration, but expressed directly through dialogue. The direct, dynamic nature of her words strengthens her credibility. Unlike Al, whose prevarication is made evident to the audience, her words are never considered suspect or deceptive. In fact, Vera repeatedly forces Al to confront his mendacity and self-deception by refusing to believe his innocence, and urges him to take responsibility for his actions. She tells him, “You’re a cheap crook and you killed him,” and “You’ve got yourself into this thing.” Until her death, Vera dominates Al’s character and the narrative events. Vera forces Al to comply with her wishes, that is, to give her Haskell’s money, to follow her around while she shops, and to sell the car, thereby setting in motion the ill-fated sequence of events that follow in the narrative.
Vera further subjugates Al through her linguistic power. Earlier in the film, Al tries to monopolize the conversations with Sue. During the discussion of their future, Al refuses to pay close attention to what she says, and becomes upset when she refuses to marry him immediately. When Al calls Sue in Hollywood, we only hear Al’s part of the conversation. During the phone call, Al decides to join Sue out west and tells her, “No, don’t try to stop me. Just expect me.” In contrast, Vera will not be thus silenced or ignored. She repeatedly orders Al to “shut up,” and constantly interrupts him during their conversations. It is not long before Vera seizes supremacy in her relationship with Al, aided by her verbal potency. She easily manages to subordinate him, saying “Just remember who’s boss around here. If you shut up and don’t give me any arguments, you’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Vera’s verbal competence is also illustrated when she participates actively in the conversation with the car dealer, despite Al’s orders to keep her mouth closed. Meanwhile, Al himself is at a loss for words when the dealer asks about the car insurance, and is rescued by Vera’s intervention. Although Al has the privilege of narrating the events and telling his story, Vera overpowers him verbally in their conversations and ultimately invades his voiceover narration. At times Al merely regurgitates what Vera dictates to him, and his narration repeats what Vera says or describes what she does. Consequently, Al unwillingly relinquishes control over his life and the narrative to Vera. To extricate himself from her power, Al tries in vain to dissuade her from pursuing the plan for him to impersonate Haskell. Unable to defeat Vera with words, Al attempts to silence her and free himself from his verbal subordination through physical violence. He threatens to break the telephone to prevent Vera from talking to the police, but ends up killing her. It is symbolic that the telephone, an apparatus of verbal communication, becomes the instrument of Vera’s death. By strangling her with the telephone line, not only does Al take her life, he also destroys Vera’s verbal potency by literally blocking her vocal cords, thus cutting off her power of speech. The film’s narrative thereby asserts control over the unruly woman character, but even then, her death (and silence) does not liberate the male protagonist, as the police ultimately find him.
The clear contrast between the subjective nature of the scenes before Vera’s appearance and the objective nature of those that follow visualizes Al’s loss of control over the narrative. Although the scenes with Vera are embedded structurally in Al’s flashback, they are presented objectively from a third-person perspective. Once Vera enters the narrative, Al and Vera visually occupy the screen in almost equal amounts of time and space. This is evident in the numerous scenes in the car when the camera shows them sitting side by side, and the scenes in the apartment when they talk. Here the camera does not favor one over the other, treating them equally with an impersonal impartiality.
This objective perspective becomes most obvious when the film presents scenes that Al could not have witnessed. For instance, the audience is able to see the inside of Vera’s room, when it is clear that Al is outside the room and unable to narrate what is happening inside, as when Vera undresses at night or prepares to go out the next morning. One notes that, immediately after Vera’s death, the film relapses once more into a highly subjective perspective by showing objects around Vera’s room from Al’s disoriented viewpoint. We are given a subjective point-of-view shot from Al’s perspective when the camera floats about the room, going in and out of focus on certain objects that could be used as evidence against him, such as the telephone, Vera’s body, and her belongings. Thus in the film, the disjunction between Al’s subjective flashback and the objective shots of Vera are visualized through lighting, camera movement, and shot composition. This juxtaposition allows for narrative gaps in the film, ultimately opening up space for the female character Vera to exert her presence in the narrative without the mediation of the male narrator Al.
The masculine discourse of film noir often succeeds in containing female narratives within its parameters by constantly repositioning them within the patriarchal context. The subversive figure of a vocal woman, however, causes chaos in Al’s life, and her verbal and visual potency overcomes the narrative power of his narration. Moreover, the unreliability of Al’s punctured narration destabilizes the ideological assumptions of a seemingly unified, contained narrative realm within a film. This destabilization ultimately indicates the narrative’s failed endeavor to contain unruly female characters, as well as subversive female narratives, within a masculine discourse.
2Mitry’s five categories of subjective images are: “the purely mental image,” “the truly subjective or analytical image,” “the semi-subjective or associated image,” “the complete sequence given over to the imaginary,” and “the memory image.”
To discuss the significance of a female voice-over narration, it is necessary to consider the forms of authorship and authority associated with representing the “woman’s voice” in cinema. Amy Lawrence notes that this term includes three issues: “the woman’s physical voice,” “her relationship to language or verbal discourse,” and “her possession of authorial point of view.” She describes how “the simple, physical ability to produce a sound is interrupted by specifically patriarchal pressures” on women in cinematic texts (111). In
The previous section demonstrated that having a narrational voice does not necessarily enable a character to wield more power over the narrative. Moreover, the role of narrator in
The visual images accompanying Pat’s voice-over narration alternate between subjective and objective viewpoints. The subjective quality of the images is more prominent toward the beginning of the film. Pat’s narration commences when she visits Joe in prison. As she describes the plans for Joe’s prison break, the audience is invited to share her nervous excitement through a subjective point-of-view shot. Accompanied by the sound of her heels clicking on the path, the image trembles slightly as Pat draws closer to the prison building, as if the character herself is carrying a handheld camera. The unstable camera movement mirrors Pat’s emotional and psychological state. The audience is again made privy to her point of view during her second narration in the film, when she waits for Joe to break out of prison. While she sits in the car, her anxiety is expressed not only through her voice-over and the dramatic soundtrack, but also through point-of-view shots of the prison wall and of Pat’s watch from her perspective. These expressionist visual devices invite the spectator to share Pat’s thoughts and emotions. A close correspondence exists between exterior visual and sound cues and the character’s interior state. In these sequences Pat controls both image and sound.
The onscreen images accompanying Pat’s voice-over grow more objective and impersonal as her control over the narrative is weakened after Ann’s appearance in the film. The camera gradually pulls away from Pat’s consciousness. The point-of-view shots from Pat’s perspective are replaced by shots presented from a thirdperson-objective perspective. For instance, in the middle section of the film, Pat’s voice-over is accompanied by long shots of their car on the road. We do not even see Pat on the screen. Instead, we are given a bird’s-eye view of the car, while we hear Pat musing on Ann’s growing influence over Joe and Joe telling her to “shut up.” As her status as narrator grows weaker, the camera distances itself from Pat.
As the film progresses, the narrative emphasis becomes more focused on the story of Joe and Ann. The incapacitation of Pat’s narrational voice allows their story to be told from a third-personobjective perspective. In contrast to Pat’s interior monologue, the thoughts and feelings of Ann and Joe are communicated externally in an objective manner through their actions and their dialogue. Compared to
As an indication of Pat’s incapacitated voice, Joe is often shown not paying attention to Pat when she talks. Indeed, Pat’s internal monologue seems like a compensation for the fact that her spoken words are ignored by Joe. For instance, when Pat reminisces about the past at Oscar’s Tavern, Joe is not listening to her but thinking about Ann; Joe tells Pat to “shut up” several times; Joe tells her not to ask questions; Joe ignores Pat when she tells him not to open the door for the wife murderer; and he also disregards her advice not to meet Rick. Rather, Ann’s words are what influence Joe in the film, and she is the one who puts words in his mouth and ideas in his head. Although Ann has no narrational voice, she has more control over Joe’s character, and consequently over the events in the narrative. Joe reacts strongly when Ann tells him that he is not a free man as long as he is a fugitive, and that he is “something from under a rock.” Ann is also the one who changes the course of narrative events by unintentionally leading Joe to his death when he comes to Corkscrew Alley to rescue her from Rick.
Their story is also moved outside the range of Pat’s narrational scope, as she is frequently excluded from main narrative events. Pat’s presence as narrator and as character is thus compromised in the film. Most of the action between Joe and Ann takes place when Pat is not around to witness, or comment upon, the events, such as their confrontations outside Oscar’s Tavern and on the beach by Grimshaw’s Taxidermy. At times, this focalization on Joe and Ann’s story is visually reinforced in the film by ejecting Pat from the visual frame and narrative space. She is often placed on the margins of the screen or pushed out into off-screen space, as in the scene where Joe takes Ann into the closet at Oscar’s Tavern, or where Joe dies in Ann’s arms. In these scenes Ann is made more visually prominent than Pat in the film. She is usually situated in the middle of the screen, often occupying the space between Pat and Joe. Despite her seemingly central role in the narrative, Ann’s character is not given any opportunity to assert her voice as speaking subject, or challenge “the male gaze” and “to-be-looked-at-ness” of women characters in classical Hollywood cinema.
In contrast, the female character Pat is given a narrational voice, even though the powers of speech and control over the narrative are often wrested away from her. Although she is pushed into the margins when the film visually and narratively prioritizes the story of Joe and Ann, Pat is not relegated to a silent spectacle. Even when Joe exhibits anxiety toward the woman’s voice by making it difficult for her to speak, Pat is able to express her thoughts through her voice-over narration. Her voice is not made subordinate to the structural anxiety manifested by a patriarchal system that strives to keep women silent. Furthermore, as in the case of Vera, fissures in the narrative allow Pat’s story to be told. Despite the aforementioned obstacles, Pat’s story is relayed to the audience through visual devices when her voice as narrator is destabilized. Paradoxically, the subjective visual images accompanying her narration function as a double-edged sword; they undermine her status as narrator, but at the same time strengthen her role as protagonist by encouraging the audience to identify with Pat’s character. In fact, Pat is the only character in the film who is allowed the privilege of subjective-point-of-view shots.
After Ann leaves, the camera draws closer to Pat once more. Although the camera remains objective in the sense that the audience is no longer privy to point-of-view shots from Pat’s perspective, we see close-ups of her face with her last three voice-over narrations in the film. The scene where Pat and Joe are on the ship particularly illustrates how the film tells Pat’s story through visual devices. Here the shots become so tight that they are almost claustrophobic. Once again the camera functions as a substitute for Pat’s consciousness, as the images make visible what is invisible by externally visualizing her internal turmoil. Pat’s preoccupation with the passing of time is mirrored in the camera’s obsessive attention to the clock on the wall. One senses the alienation between the couple through the incongruity between Pat’s thoughts and Joe’s verbalized words; Joe talks about the future while Pat fixates on the present, visually represented through Pat’s image reflected on the face of the clock. Pat’s voice-over narration drowns out Joe’s words, and Joe is set outside the frame during most of the scene. At this moment, Pat’s perspective is visually and aurally prioritized over Joe’s. In this scene, the camera, shot composition, editing, and sound, as well as her voice-over narration, all collaborate to externalize her internal experience.
Karen Hollinger observes that film noirs “often contain weak, powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the events of their lives to their own designs” (243-44). The authority of the narrative voice in both films discussed here is likewise undermined through the inaccurate and unreliable nature of the narration in
As I have illustrated here, the narrative structure of both films also includes the juxtaposition of objective and subjective viewpoints. In contrast to the subjective nature of the first-person narration, the main story is ostensibly told from an objective viewpoint. This disjunction among subjective and objective perspectives punctures the integrity of narrative to permit female characters to assert their presence and to tell their own stories through various means that deploy image and sound. This disjunction reveals the illusion of narrative unity, thus opening up gaps in the predominantly male narrative for the female voice to emerge and exert its presence. Thus, the story of the “femme fatale” character need not depend on the mediation of the male narrative. This autonomy ultimately allows the woman’s voice to emerge through the gaps of the male narrative, thereby challenging the tendency to suppress and subordinate the female discourse in favor of the male—a tendency found in classical Hollywood cinema as a whole. This is particularly significant when considering films in the noir genre, in which the presence of the male narrator tends to prioritize the male perspective, because it provides space in the narrative for more liberating and empowered readings of female characters.