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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003) 57-77

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Phantom Limbs
Film Noir and the Disabled Body

Michael Davidson

In Out of the Past (1947), a deaf boy (Dickie Moore) protects Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) from police and gangsters who, for differing reasons, pursue him for his role in a murder. Jeff is subsequently killed by the femme fatale, Kathie (Jane Greer), when she discovers that he is handing her over to the police as the killer. When Jeff's current girlfriend, Ann (Virginia Huston), asks the deaf boy whether Jeff intended to return to Kathie, the boy nods, telling a lie that frees Ann from her emotional dependence on the hero and permits her to marry a local policeman. In The Fallen Sparrow (1943), Kit McKittrick (John Garfield), having been tortured in prison during the Spanish Civil War, is haunted by one of his tormentors, a "man who limps" who has followed him back to the United States. The sound of the man's dragging foot reduces the shell-shocked Kit to shuddering hysteria until, faced with evidence that his pursuer is a Nazi spy, he confronts him in a final shootout. In The Blue Dahlia (1946), Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) has returned from World War II to find that his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), has been unfaithful to him. After an argument between them, Helen is killed, and suspicion points to Johnny but, more particularly, to his wartime buddy, Buzz (William Bendix), injured in the war and suffering from what we now call posttraumatic stress syndrome. Buzz's disability, although not evident all the time, causes him to become violent whenever he hears certain kinds of loud music. 1

These noir examples could be expanded to include numerous films in which a person with a disability plays a supporting role, serving as a marker for larger narratives about normalcy and legitimacy. 2 The deaf boy in Out of the Past mirrors Jeff's flawed yet stoical integrity, providing a silent riposte to the glamour of and tough-guy patter between the other males in the film. The figure of the limping Nazi spy in The Fallen Sparrow enables the director, Richard Wallace, to use disability to shift Kit's problematic leftist collaboration with Republican Spain [End Page 57] to World War II patriotism, and Buzz's disability annexes the era's concern about soldiers psychologically damaged in war. In most cases the disabled figures in the noir films that I discuss play cameo roles, much as black, Latino, or Asian figures provide a racialized counternarrative to the hero's existential malaise. In Eric Lott's terms, the proximity of a racially marked character assists in "darkening" the white hero, linking him to more subversive or morally suspect forces in the society at large. 3 A similar troping of able-bodied disability appears in films structured around a male who, although internally wounded, must be able to walk down the mean streets of midcentury America. 4

This phenomenon can be partly explained by what David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder call "narrative prosthesis," the use of disability to en-able a story. The disabled body serves as a "crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight." 5 If narrative closure depends on restoration of the able-bodied individual (to health, society, normalcy), the disabled character represents a form of deviance necessary for marking the body's unruliness. But disability may facilitate other narratives not so easily represented. Moreover, the disabled body may be used as a site for social panic about unruly bodies in general, diverting the public gaze from one stigmatized identity to another. Hence my title, "Phantom Limbs," refers to the residual sensation of narratives that film cannot represent or reconstitute. We might say that the phantom limb phenomenon is the affective response to narrative prosthesis, the way that trauma is experienced after a limb has been surgically replaced and therapy undergone. 6

The phantom limb phenomenon is especially...


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