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  • The Maritorious Melodrama:Film Noir with a Female Detective
  • Philippa Gates (bio)

Feminist critics tend to disagree whether the parachuting of women into traditionally male roles—for example, that of detective—results in a feminist representation.1 The female detective of the 1930s, however, can be seen to offer a decidedly positive feminist hero in that she defies the stereotype of the "masculine" (i.e., unnatural) woman—especially when one considers the time in which she appeared and representations of female detectives in contemporary film.2 Despite popular conceptions of classical film, Hollywood did offer progressive representations of working women, ironically in the decade characterized by economic and social upheaval during the Depression. The prolific female detective of 1930s B-films and series is an independent woman who puts her career ahead of the traditional female pursuits of marriage and a family, and who chases a mystery as actively as, and with greater success than, the men who populate the police department or a rival newspaper's staff. However, during World War II and especially its aftermath, the representation of the female detective began to change, and the independent woman came to be depicted as all but the criminal herself.

Critics of film noir have discussed at length the figure of the femme fatale as dangerous femininity, but noir's female investigative protagonists have been ignored.3 This article focuses on the representation of the female detective in film noir of the 1940s and the shift from the celebration of the independent and career-oriented woman to her demonization. More specifically, it examines how the sex of the investigating protagonist complicates the traditionally male noir detective narrative. The result is a hybridization of generic conventions: the narrative is driven forward as much by the female protagonist's personal desires familiar in many types of melodrama (specifically the woman's film) as by her investigation, which usually drives the narrative of a detective film;4 however, at the same time, the heroine's independence as a detective poses an undesirable challenge to the masculinity of her husband (or husband-to-be), as with film noir. Just as the maternal melodrama demanded a woman make personal sacrifices to facilitate her daughter's success in the world, so too do these noir films demand the sacrifice on the part of the female protagonist to see the man she loves returned to his "proper" place as head of the household. Thus, I term these films "maritorious melodramas" as opposed to "maternal melodramas" because they see the female protagonist "excessively devoted" to her husband.5 In the noir films Phantom Lady (1944), Black Angel (1946), and Woman on the Run (1950), the heroine is offered simultaneously as a progressive image of femininity—because she occupies the center of, and drives forward, the investigative narrative—and as a contained one because ultimately she is proven incompetent as a detective and is returned [End Page 24] to the prescribed social role of devoted and sacrificing wife.

From Women to Wives

The female detective was an ideal heroine for the Production Code, as one whose sexuality was literally kept under the wraps of her tailored suit while the focus of the narrative was on her investigation of a crime.6 Although her popularity and increased presence on screen by the mid-1930s might be related to the stricter enforcement of the Code by 1934, the female detective was a notable figure in the early 1930s as well and was most likely the result of the industry-wide shift to sound at the dawn of the decade. Certainly the fast-talking woman and her penchant to engage in witty banter with male rivals seemed well suited to the "talkies" and saw the detective film in keeping with the themes of the screwball comedy—including the inversion of sex roles. The female detective was a woman operating in the male-dominated world of criminal investigation and, as a woman with authority and power over men, could be regarded as a potential disruption to dominant masculinity—just like the criminal. Kathleen Gregory Klein suggests that the female detective must be put in her "proper" (i.e., secondary) place: "Like the criminal...


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