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Women and Film Noir

5.01.2011

Changes in gender roles during and after World War II had a tremendous influence on film and popular culture, particularly with regard to images of women. During the war, because so many men were called to active duty, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers. In fact, they were strongly encouraged to work for the war effort, which allowed them to step out of the traditional woman’s role of homemaker. After the war, however, it was considered patriotic for women to give up their jobs for the returning vets. Though the change in gender roles might have appeared to be temporary, many men felt threatened by it, and anxiety toward strong, independent women was prominently displayed in the film noir genre.


Hundreds of such films constitute a cinematic movement that spoke to a disillusioned, jaded, tired audience of mid-twentieth-century Americans with few ideals left. Among the most celebrated was Billy Wilder’s tale of murder and betrayal, Double Indemnity (1944), in which insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and vampish Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) plot to kill Phyllis’s husband for the insurance money. Stanwyck’s character was emblematic of film noir’s manipulative and often vicious femme fatale.


POSTWAR CHALLENGES TO THE MOVIES


Though the title role of Mildred Pierce (1945) is no such femme, the movie is perhaps director Michael Curtiz’s darkest look at postwar American life, focusing especially on tensions between mother and daughter. Mildred (Joan Crawford) does whatever she humanly can to make her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), happy, but seemingly to no avail. When Mildred’s second husband is found shot to death in her beach house, the police start asking questions, and Mildred is forced to recount her painful life story in a series of flashbacks. With first-class direction and impeccable acting—Crawford won an Academy Award—Mildred Pierce is one of the most brutal visions of American consumerism ever made in Hollywood.


THE SOCIAL PROBLEM FILM


In the postwar years, Neorealism crossed over into other genres as well, most notably the “problem film.” Billy Wilder’s harrowing tale of alcoholic writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) in The Lost Weekend (1945) was partially shot on the streets of New York, in particular a memorable sequence in which Don, desperate for a drink, tries to hock his typewriter on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, only to find that all the pawnshops are closed. As one Jewish store owner tells him, the pawnshops have reached an informal agreement—“they don’t open on Yom Kippur, we don’t open on St. Patrick’s.” Wilder stages the sequence in a series of seemingly endless tracking shots that highlight Don’s Sisyphean trek through the city, as he meets rejection on all sides. Later, Don lands in the drunk tank at Bellevue, actually a studio set enhanced with judicious exterior shots of the real psychiatric hospital to lend veracity to the scene and embellished with a web of shadows to create a suitably ominous atmosphere.


Other problem films included Jules Dassin’s brutal exposé of prison life, Brute Force (1947), featuring Hume Cronyn as a sadistic martinet who delights in dressing up in neo-Nazi regalia while torturing his prisoners to the strains of Wagner, and Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948), in which Olivia de Havilland descends into insanity and is committed to a public mental institution, with horrifying results. Without assistance from the public agencies that are supposed to help her, she is left to cope as best she can, though she is hardly able to care for herself. Also notable were two movies directed by Elia Kazan: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), dealing with ingrained anti-Semitism in postwar American society, and Pinky (1949), examining the problem of racial “passing” in an America still acutely color-conscious. In such films the endings are generally left unresolved, as if to say these were problems that could not be solved by the artificial narrative closure of a happy ending.


Neorealism, born out of the ashes of a defeated Italy, and film noir, created by the rising social tensions at the end of the war, and the problem film, which recognized that in the postwar world not all men and women were created equal after all, together created a late 1940s milieu in which the dominant social order was resoundingly called into question and found wanting, even if no solutions to the problems the films presented were forthcoming or even possible. We were living in a different world, and these films presented that world in a brutal and uncompromising fashion, in a radical departure from the films of more than a decade before, prior to the start of the war.



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