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  • Framed:Forging Identities in Film Noir
  • Mark Osteen (bio)

"Every painting is a love affair." So says the cashier and Sunday painter Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945). Cross is explaining his aesthetic principles to Katherine "Kitty" March (Joan Bennett), who later conspires with her lover, the slimy Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), to sign Cross's paintings with her name. Yet Cross's words resonate beyond this film; indeed, they could provide the epigraph for a group of early films noir that depict men falling in love with a woman's portrait.1 Three films in particular—I Wake Up Screaming (1942), Laura (1944), and The Dark Corner (1946)—feature fetishized female images that males use to bolster their own identities or to fashion new ones. These women's portraits become, in effect, mirrors or self-portraits of the men. In these retellings of the Galatea/Pygmalion myth, each man ends up creator and forger of the woman and of himself. The pictorial representations in the films also generate two types of self-reflexivity. First, in employing the typical noir device of the framed narrative or flashback, the films analogically replicate the fashioning of these characters' framed identities within exploitative perspectives. Second, their stories of fabricated female identities invoke Hollywood's own fabrication of female stars in the studio system.

A second triad of painting films—Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street and the film on which the latter was based, Jean Renoir's (non-noir) La Chienne (1931)—employs painting to explore problems of originality, authorship, and replication. In testing the relation between unconscious desire and waking life, Woman explicitly depicts its female portrait as an aspect of the male psyche. Here the lines between representation and viewer become nearly invisible: the portrait is less a painting than a mirror. Scarlet Street multiplies the reflections, at once repainting Lang's Woman and forging a copy of Renoir's film. The latter two films also stage a debate about cinematic authorship and record the filmmakers' concerns about their position in a culture that devalues art in favor of commerce.

Finally, the little-known 1946 film Crack-Up uses an art-forgery plot to complicate further these problems of authenticity, originality, and subjectivity, posing anxious but ultimately unresolved questions about the reliability of memory and pictorial representation. Blurring the lines between originality and forgery, subjectivity and objectivity, and reality and representation, these films imply that all identities are to some degree forged, that human character is too malleable and complex to be framed within a single subject or explained within a single narrative.


In I Wake Up Screaming, the murder of model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) precipitates a search [End Page 17] for her killer. Three witnesses recall, in nine flashbacks, the circumstances leading to her death. Promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) relates how Vicky was "discovered" while working as a waitress and how she cooperated with the efforts of Christopher, washed-up actor Robin Ray, and columnist Larry Evans to create her as a "face." The flashback structure suggests that each narrator has imagined a somewhat different Vicky: Ray, for example, testifies that "the very sight of her gave [him] new hope" that he might revive his fading career. Vicky's image will refresh his image. Although Vicky insists to Frankie, "I'm a very attractive girl. You didn't create that. I'm no Frankenstein, you know," the film implies that she is just that—a synthetic creature pasted together from fragments of others' aspirations. Like Charles Foster Kane, she remains a puzzle, a mirror within a mirror—a canvas on which others paint their own desires and values.

Vicky's sister Jill (Betty Grable) remembers warning her, "One week your face is on the cover of a magazine, and the next it's in the ashcan." Vicky dismissed the admonition. "From that moment on," Jill recalls, "life became just one big dizzy world for her"; before long she even "fancied herself a chanteuse." Grable's presence injects a curiously self-reflexive note into this examination of celebrity. Her career followed a path similar to Vicky's...


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