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Dames in the Driver's Seat

Rereading Film Noir

By Jans B. Wager

Publication Year: 2005

With its focus on dangerous, determined femmes fatales, hardboiled detectives, and crimes that almost-but-never-quite succeed, film noir has long been popular with moviegoers and film critics alike. Film noir was a staple of classical Hollywood filmmaking during the years 1941-1958 and has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since the 1990s. Dames in the Driver's Seat offers new views of both classical-era and contemporary noirs through the lenses of gender, class, and race. Jans Wager analyzes how changes in film noir's representation of women's and men's roles, class status, and racial identities mirror changes in a culture that is now often referred to as postmodern and postfeminist. Following introductory chapters that establish the theoretical basis of her arguments, Wager engages in close readings of the classic noirs The Killers, Out of the Past, and Kiss Me Deadly and the contemporary noirs L. A. Confidential, Mulholland Falls, Fight Club, Twilight, Fargo, and Jackie Brown. Wager divides recent films into retro-noirs (made in the present, but set in the 1940s and 1950s) and neo-noirs (made and set in the present but referring to classic noir narratively or stylistically). Going beyond previous studies of noir, her perceptive readings of these films reveal that retro-noirs fulfill a reactionary social function, looking back nostalgically to outdated gender roles and racial relations, while neo-noirs often offer more revisionary representations of women, though not necessarily of people of color.

Published by: University of Texas Press

CONTENTS

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pp. vii-viii

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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pp. ix-

Many people assisted me in completing this project. Two anonymous readers for the University of Texas Press provided cogent critique. Wendy Moore and Jim Burr at UTP remained encouraging throughout the process. Thanks also to Lynne Chapman and Kip Keller from UTP. J. D. Davidson at Utah Valley State College consistently supportedmy scholarship.His sustained advocacy has been instrumental. I thank Dr. William Cobb for his encouragement and his...

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INTRODUCTION: DAMES AND DRIVING

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pp. 1-10

The 1946 film noir The Big Sleep has a brief sequence featuring a professional dame in the driver’s seat, a taxi driver played by Joy Barlow (Figure I.1). Barlow’s name does not appear in Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film, nor in The Film Encyclopedia. Hers is a bit part. She is a secure and far from demure version of femininity. Like all the female characters in The Big Sleep, she displays an overt...

PART 1: CONTENTS AND CONTEXTS

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CHAPTER 1: MANNING THE POSTS: CLASSIC NOIR, POSTCLASSIC NOIR, AND POSTMODERNISM

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pp. 13-18

One of the characteristics that distinguishes the film noir scholar from the film noir devotee, in addition to the language each uses to talk about the movies, might be the scholar’s ambivalence and the devotee’s confidence about the definition of film noir. The scholar struggles under the weight of over forty years of accumulated academic discourse on the nature of noir as genre, cycle,...

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CHAPTER 2: SEXING THE PARADIGM: WOMEN AND MEN IN NOIR

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pp. 19-28

In the introduction, I discuss the two antithetical female characters common to film noir and suggest that parallel male characters exist as well. Historically, in scholarly and popular texts, the term femme fatale implicates the female character in the downfall of the male protagonist; for me, it implies her own inevitable demise. The femme fatale almost always causes her own destruction or, at the...

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CHAPTER 3: RACING THE PARADIGM: THE WHITENESS OF FILM NOIR

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pp. 29-35

Issues of race do not seem to dominate film noir narratives; issues of gender and class do. As noted in the introduction, these films usually narrate the efforts of working-class women and men who struggle to escape their economic situation not through legal and less profitable means but through scams, heists, and seductions that promise (but in classic film noir never yield) financial nirvana....

PART 2: PROTOTYPES IN CLASSIC NOIR

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CHAPTER 4: THE KILLERS (1946): QUINTESSENTIAL NOIR?

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pp. 39-52

The second evening we wanted to see The Killers, the film based on the new Hemingway novel, which was playing in an outlying district [of San Francisco].We set out on foot in the evening....Suddenly, we were on a dark road lined with tracks, unmoving trains, and hangars, crossed now and then by other deserted streets....It began to rain violently, and in the wind and rain, we felt...

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CHAPTER 5: OUT OF THE PAST (1947): PASSIVE MASCULINITY AND ACTIVE FEMININITIES

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pp. 53-62

Out of the Past (1947) has always been one of my favorite films noirs. It is quintessential noir because, in addition to the ambiguity of the characterizations of the standard cast of noir characters, it also features a true femme fatale rather than a femme attrap

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CHAPTER 6: KISS ME DEADLY (1955): APOCALYPTIC FEMMES

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pp. 63-71

In choosing texts to include in the section dealing with classic film noir, I sought films that were both quintessentially noir and more than that as well. In The Killers, the femme fatale becomes a femme attrapée when her boyfriend returns to the narrative. In Out of the Past, the femme attrapée wants more than she should in her generic role as ‘‘woman as redeemer.’’ In both The Killers and...

PART 3: RETURN OF THE REPRESSED IN RETRO-NOIR

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CHAPTER 7: L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) AND CASABLANCA (1942): DOES ANYTHING CHANGE AS TIME GOES BY?

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pp. 75-89

Hollywood has always told and retold the same tales, enhancing the appeal of certain stories by dressing them up in different clothing while providing cinema spectators with the dual pleasures of visual variety and narrative consistency. I suggest that retro-noirs tell primarily reactionary, nostalgic tales about gender and race, stories that confirm white male supremacy while marginalizing...

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CHAPTER 8: MULHOLLAND FALLS (1996): NUCLEAR NOIR AS NUMBSKULL NOIR

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pp. 91-99

Mulholland Falls (1996) fits into the postclassic noir canon as a nuclear noir. A retro-noir starring a number of big names, big men, and a beautiful woman whose death initiates a search for the nuclear secret, Mulholland Falls has not been well received by most critics in the popular press, who have classified it as ‘‘numbskull noir’’ or ‘‘Chinatown for chowderheads.’’1 Of course, the...

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CHAPTER 9: FIGHT CLUB (1999): RETRO-NOIR MASQUERADES AS NEO-NOIR

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pp. 101-114

The first time I went to see Fight Club (1999), I walked out of the theater right as the narrator and Tyler Durden went to steal fat from the liposuction clinic. I knew this was what they were heading to do because I had insisted on hearing a detailed narration of the plot before seeing Fight Club, a device I often use to help me get through movies that I ought to see but do not desire to see. I did not...

PART 4: REVISION OF THE REPRESSED IN NEO-NOIR

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CHAPTER 10: TWILIGHT (1998): AGE, BEAUTY, AND STAR POWER—SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

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pp. 117-127

Twilight (1998), starring Paul Newman (73), Gene Hackman (67), Susan Sarandon (52), James Garner (70), and Stockard Channing (54), has enough mature star power to earn the moniker geriatric or (less fondly) geezer noir by virtue of the male protagonists alone.1 Twilight’s director, Robert Benton, worked with Newman in the frigid but lovely Nobody’s Fool (1994), another film in which...

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CHAPTER 11: FARGO (1996): A WOMAN WHO IS NOT HERSELF MEAN—SNOW-SWEPT HIGHWAYS AND MARGIE

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pp. 129-141

In the neo-noir Fargo (1996), all the dark and shadowy excesses of classic noir get inverted, whitewashed in the snowy environs of northern Minnesota and, briefly, North Dakota in winter.1 The Coen brothers, Joel, who wrote and directed, and Ethan, who wrote and produced the movie, grew up in Minnesota.2 Fargo has a lot more going for it than a frozen 1987 setting that includes exaggerated...

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CHAPTER 12: JACKIE BROWN (1997): GENDER, RACE, CLASS, AND GENRE

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pp. 143-154

Neo-noir Jackie Brown (1997) has it all: a gorgeous black femme fatale, a glib black criminal, a host of other peripheral characters, a low-key white male protagonist who never seeks the limelight, a pair of cocky but unsuccessful white cops, and a triple-cross complex enough to rival the plot of classic noir The Big Sleep. Jackie Brown reflects noir influences in the characters, the plot, and the...

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CONCLUSION: DOING IT FOR bell: CULTURAL CRITICISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

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pp. 155-159

A continuum connects classic noir and postclassic noir, the same continuum that connects feminism to third-wave feminism and postfeminism, and modernism to postmodernism. The endpoint is not the current ‘‘post’’ isms; these isms lead somewhere too. Modernist cultural critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer felt that film induced a dangerously passive state in spectators,...

NOTES

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pp. 161-172

WORKS CITED

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pp. 173-180

INDEX

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pp. 181-190


E-ISBN-13: 9780292796843
E-ISBN-10: 0292796846
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292706941
Print-ISBN-10: 0292706944

Page Count: 202
Illustrations: 60 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Sex role in motion pictures.
  • Social classes in motion pictures.
  • Race in motion pictures.
  • Film noir -- History and criticism.
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