Term Paper: Women in Film Noir

Pages: 9 (2395 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Film  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] Women's sexuality has been traditionally linked - in Western tradition at least - with this particular fragility. Women's fecundity has all too often linked them in the minds of men as agents of chaos. Artistic creation is the mirror image of birth, but it is controlled, refined, limited, civilized: Creation without the messiness of birth. The act of creating an artistic product is for many a male response to the act of birth; however, it is rarely undertaken with any attempt to honor the forces of female creativity but rather to demonize and so diminish them. We see this attempt throughout this movie.

Kiss Me Deadly

Robert Aldrich's 1955 movie takes us further away from the wake of World War II and deeper into the era of the Cold War, a time in which the perceived dangers were in general more tacit, but all the more frightening as a result. This film is often offered as the last true film noir work - both the end of film noir and a springboard to the New Wave French cinema that would develop in the 1950s and would hold the same fundamental aesthetic and cultural position that film noir had claimed.

Kiss Me Deadly is an adaptation of a Mickey Spillane, centering on Spillane's two protagonists: Mike Hammer and the city of Los Angeles at night. Hammer is even more of an anti-hero than the male characters in the two other films that we have discussed here and the connection between the moral decay of the entire world and the fearfulness of female sexuality is made even more directly in this film, especially in the scene in which he pimps his own secretary - not because she is a whore herself but because all women are whores and in a world as corrupt and as close to ultimate failure as this one is, a man has to use whatever tools are at hand to fight to hold on to whatever is left of his soul.

We saw in the first generation film noir productions that we examined a world that was precariously balanced between good and evil and between order and chaos. While the men in these two films are hardly the typical hero, they are more closely allied with the powers of goodness and order than are the women. But in this film, the balance between order and all-consuming chaos has been entirely lost. Women are therefore less central to this story than they are to the previous ones: They no longer represent the otherwise faceless enemy. Rather in this film the enemy is everywhere; one manifestation of this fact is that rather than a single central female character this film is people with a series of interchangeable females, all of whom represent for Hammer the increasing danger of the world. These women are different manifestations of the same idea in the way that enemy soldiers - all nearly alike in their uniforms - merge into a common enemy.

If the political background to the previous two films was the direct and urgent dangers that the United States had just passed through during World War II, the background for this film is the Cold War, in which at least putative enemies were indeed everywhere, ready to spring upon one as the series of women do in this film. This is the other side of American pop culture - and American popular psychology - from "Leave it to Beaver," the side of American culture that spawned the racism that would lead to the Civil Rights Movement, the paranoia that would produce HUAC and the Communist witch hunts - and a thousand suburbs in which women drugged themselves with Quaaludes and gin and tonics.


Each one of us, of course, looks through the world through the vantage point (and with the limitations) of our own era. The women that we have met in these films no doubt appear different to us than they did to the men who made these movies - and the men and women in the audience. We see these women as symbols of much of what men feared at the end of Modernism. Looking back, we can afford some pity for these fears, for we know that these were the last decades of unchallenged patriarchy.

We can understand how men would be frightened by the changes that were coming. We cannot be terribly sympathetic that they would create such films as part of the attack on equality that lay at the center of American culture and politics in the two decades after the end of the war. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the march on Washington this week we cannot help but be aware of how much has changed in this country in the past two generations and how painful much of that change was. These films were both meant to entertain and at the same time to defend a world that was indeed falling apart. But what replaced it was not the chaos that these films threatened but a world in which order was at least somewhat more leavened by equality.

Works Cited

Behar, Ruth. "A Woman's Body is Her Country." J. Of the International Institute 5 (2), Winter 1998.

Kaplan, E. Ann. (ed.) Women… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Women in Film Noir."  Essaytown.com.  August 29, 2003.  Accessed July 22, 2019.