All movies express social values, or the erosion of those values, through the ways in which they depict both institutions and relations between people. -Sylvia Harvey
The style and content of the original US film noir cycle (1940s-50s) emerged at least in part in response to WWII and changing social norms, especially those related to gender and white middle-class experience. Women were increasingly joining the workforce, as men’s roles in the family were preempted by military service. When the war ended, women were encouraged to go back into the home, trapping them in domestic lives despite education and work experience they valued. And many men returned from war with PTSD and/or physically wounded, while at the same time being encouraged to take ever more dominant roles in the home and workplace. No wonder the anxieties of the war and post-war years made their way into the newest cinematic style, full of cynicism and creating dissonance and disequilibrium in viewers (Harvey 35): film noir.
Complex chronological order, imbalanced frame compositions shot from odd angles, darkness and shadows, and tales of criminality and deviance came together to represent a nation in transition and the ideological contradictions Americans were living with. A key site for exploration of these tensions in film noir was domestic life. Even when plots focused on murder, blackmail, or gang activity, the impact was most often on the individual, on romantic relationships, and, by extension, on the family. Women bristled at domesticity and became tough-as-nails femme fatales. Men adopted or failed to live up to hypermasculine behavioral norms, becoming the hard-boiled dick or the doomed everyman. And couples could not stay together long enough or were not financially or morally stable enough to create domestic lives together.
Despite and perhaps because of this, noir’s emotionally crippled individuals and lovers pointed to the limitations of traditional family structures and “values.” As Sylvia Harvey argues, “The absence or disfigurement of the family both calls attention to its own lack and to its own deformity, and may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life” (45).
I am drawn to this interpretation and its emphasis on film noir’s “subversive significance” (45). Such a reading works well with feminist readings of the femme fatale’s frustrated desire for independence (see Place 56-57) and the burdens of patriarchal masculinity on men of the era (see Brazzi 3).
Lately, however, I have been watching and contemplating film noir that features the disrupted family and includes children. I have yet to find articles discussing the subject in depth, though I am sure they’re out there. Meanwhile, however, I’ve been making notes of categories and types:
The Child as Damaged Witness
- Lee (Connie Laird) in Guest in the House (1944)
- Meg (Allene Roberts) in The Red House (1947)
- Susan (Gigi Perreau) in Shadow on the Wall (1950)
The Child as Victim/Icon of Era Anxiety
- Jeb (Darryl Hickman) in Keeper of the Flame (1942)
- Carolyn (Gwendolyn Laster) in The Well (1951)
- John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) in Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Child as Proto-Femme Fatale
- Veda (Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce (1945)
- Young Martha (Janis Wilson) in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
The Child as Proto-Hardboiled Detective
- Junior (Billy Gray) in Talk About a Stranger (1952)
In future posts, I plan to discuss each category in depth. If you have any suggestions for kids/films or categories, please let me know!
Brazzi, Stella. Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Postwar Hollywood. London: BFI, 2005.
Harvey, Sylvia. “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: BFI, 1998. 35-46.
Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: BFI, 1998. 47-68.