Domestic Labor: Film Noir, Proletarian Literature, and Black Women's Fiction
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 229-254



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Domestic Labor: Film Noir, Proletarian Literature, and Black Women's Fiction

Paula Rabinowitz


On the trail of the missing Kathie Moffett, private investigator Jeff Bailey begins uptown, in a Harlem nightclub, by interviewing Kathy's black maid, Eunice. In this minor scene in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), Bailey enters the smoke-hazed, jazz-filled club and is escorted by the maître-d' to a table with two couples; he asks which woman worked for Kathie. Bailey seems at ease in the club; like many private eyes, he's used to interacting with African Americans, and after one couple leaves for the dance floor he inquires about Kathie. Elegant and sly, Eunice says she has no idea where Kathie went--she got some vaccinations and took off, to Miami perhaps. Bailey buys the table a round of drinks and leaves, commenting, in his detective voice-over narrative, that you don't get vaccinated to go to Florida: Kathie took off to Mexico. James Naremore describes this scene and others like it, depicting interactions between beautiful, sophisticated black women and white detectives in various films noirs, as crucial to the construction of the noir hero's/detective's "aura of 'cool' [. . .] his essential hipness" (240-41). 1 Undoubtedly Naremore is correct, as the integrated nightclub is an iconic location within film noir and one generally visited by the male detective figure, but a difference here is that Eunice was Kathie's maid. She serves a woman, and she is a woman. [End Page 229]

Coded through dress, lighting, and mise en scène as a femme fatale in her own right, Eunice is a replicant of Kathie's aura--a femme noire. The dark lady of film noir is a woman with a past, a kept woman who performs no useful function other than sex. Her body is available, draped in mink and diamonds, for display and desire. She is free to meet men at night or in the afternoon because she is unencumbered by the usual trappings of domesticity. She is free in part because she has a housekeeper to clean up after a long night of drinking, to fix the drinks and make the coffee, to help her dress. The "aura of cool" Blacks impart to the white detective occurs through a transference: as authentic bearers of alienation, African Americans are the original outsiders. Both the white detective and the white femme fatale acquire their abilities to pass into the underworld through their encounters with and knowledge of a darkness found beyond conventional work and marriage. Like the "authenticity" of the original possessing an "aura," as Walter Benjamin defines it (220), Eunice stands before Bailey as the "prerequisite" of another woman he has never seen. She doesn't acquire a metaphoric status as femme noire; she embodies it. In this, she resembles Benjamin's notion of the "original" work of art, which remains fixed within "tradition," while its copies, endlessly available, are mobile and potentially revolutionary (223-24). Eunice vibrates sexuality--a sign hanging around black women's necks since they arrived shackled together on this continent--and thus allows us to know Kathie through her. Yet Eunice resists Bailey; she is straightforward in her lie and Bailey can see through her because she is the original woman of the dark. She points up Kathie's double duplicity. The "tradition" of racism and its economic and sexual effects are potentially wrecked by the white femme fatale. However, her radical rupture with conventional white femininity is still dependent upon this tradition.

Eunice never reappears in the film; however, her presence is essential to the construction of the white femme fatale in many films noirs. Dressed as Billie Holiday did in the 1940s, upswept hair coifed with a veil of white camellias, black dress accented with white trim, Eunice, stylish and independent, assuredly resists a white man's authority. She defends herself and her former boss in a gesture of female solidarity, which extends to her...