Has there been a film genre/style more fervently written about, debated, and theorized than film noir? Not just a staple of cinephilic lexicon (choosing between 1948’s They Live By Night and 1949’s Thieves’ Highway will define who you really are), but an ongoing source of inspiration for New Hollywood to present-day filmmakers (see Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad for the latest, and questionable, iteration), film noir has been and remains the quintessential cinematic forum to synthesize form and content, either in theory or practice. Thus, when a revisionist film or academic text attempts to realign the axis from which one comprehends these films, it should necessarily raise eyebrows. When that film or text succeeds, however, it’s cause for immediate attention and debate. Julie Grossman’s Rethinking the Femme Fatale attempts to be such a redefining work.
Seeking to dislodge more narrow-minded understandings of film noir as yielding readily identifiable archetypes, Grossman devotes a book-length analysis to accurately defining women’s roles in classical film noir while convincingly revealing the fallacy behind a long-standing myth of the genre: that its women are deceitful, malevolent, and hell-bent on male destruction. Rather, Grossman claims, careful examination and close readings reveal a dearth of femme fatales in most films noir; instead of simply attempting to rotely psychologize the women in these films as “fatal,” which “abstracts gender representation from the social world,” more attention to narrative detail and setting demonstrate the underlying factors that have led to this misrepresentation.
If Grossman’s book is simply too brief to be wholly convincingly in its redefinition, her pointed, vociferous identifications of rampant scholarly misreadings and faulty characterizations are all too convincing and alarming. A lucid discussion of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) explains how Cora (Lana Turner) is only characterized as threatening because of her denied subjectivity by male protagonist Frank (John Garfield), which is, in turn, a rebellion against patriarchy and her belittling by such forces. Likewise, in Laura (1944), more doubt is cast onto the crippled, debilitated males, who are convinced of female deceit. Thus, the mischaracterization of the femme fatale, on the whole, has been the result of audience/critic identification with male subjectivity, rather than an understanding of these films as social expression and critique of male dominance. Specifically in a late classical period noir such as The Big Heat (1953) and the neo-noir Chinatown (1974), Grossman locates an explicit, revisionist attempt to identify such tendencies that remained more implicit within the classical film noir.
Instead of understanding the femme fatale as a genre staple, Grossman wants to dispense of the characterization altogether, which puts more emphasis on the conventional aspects of these films, rather than their furthering an understanding of their capacity for social representation. Perhaps most illuminating in this fashion is an extended examination of Otto Preminger’s criminally underrated Whirlpool (1949), which casts considerable doubt on the “medical gaze” that identifies Ann (Gene Tierney) as an unstable kleptomaniac and murderer. The irony comes via the film’s “homme fatale,” a hypnotist named Korvo (José Ferrer) who functions in the willfully malicious manner often associated with noir’s female characters. These types of women, who crave “expression and independence” from their patriarchal trappings can be traced from Victorian literature, which offers Grossman an unusual, but fruitful arena to concretize her arguments. Indeed, by aligning the noir woman with, say, Thomas Hardy’s Tess from Tess of the D’Urbervilles (it’s well worth noting that Roman Polanski, often a benchmark figure in film-noir discussions, adapted the Hardy novel), these women become less devious archetypes than victims of circumstance and should be more characterized through their struggle for self-expression. The same could be said for her chapter-length analysis of Mulholland Drive (2001), which she aligns with Whirlpool for its outwardly deconstructionist nature and an “understanding of the vexed relationship between vital female agency and the limits placed on female desire.” Grossman is at her most adept when drawing such unusual and unexplored connections.
The book’s primary flaw lies, however, in its decision to omit an extended discussion of neo-noir and its undeniable influence on how viewers and scholars alike began to understand the genre. With the appearance of Body Heat (1981), Lawrence Kasdan instructed at least two generations of filmmakers that film noir was purely about archetype and visual style. Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) is pure pastiche, concocted with the explicit intent to detach her deceit from social significance. Similarly, Ridley Scott, the Coen brothers, Ken Russell, and John Dahl all contributed to Kasdan’s perpetuation of the femme-fatale myth, which came part and parcel with their understanding of film noir as primarily expressive and stylized. Therefore, films such as Robert Rodriguez’s soulless Sin City (2005) or Steven Soderbergh’s aberrant The Good German (2006) merely see film noir as fashionable posturing, inconsiderate of gender or genre beyond the superficial. By not identifying such a central component in characterizing the femme fatale, Grossman omits a significant piece of the puzzle—one which necessitates reckoning before her fascinating revisionism can be taken as gospel.
Julie Grossman ’s Rethinking the Femme Fatale: Ready for Her Close-Up was released on December 24 by Palgrave Macmillan. To purchase it, click here.