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Dames in the Driver's Seat

Jans B. Wager
Copyright Date: 2005
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/706941
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    Dames in the Driver's Seat
    Book Description:

    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 Seatoffers 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 noirsThe Killers, Out of the Past,andKiss Me Deadlyand the contemporary noirsL. A. Confidential, Mulholland Falls, Fight Club, Twilight, Fargo, andJackie 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readings of these films reveal that retro-noirs fulfill a reactionary social function, looking back nostalgically to outdated gender roles and racial relations, while neo-noirs often offer more revisionary representations of women, though not necessarily of people of color.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79684-3
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION DAMES AND DRIVING
    (pp. 1-10)

    The 1946 film noirThe Big Sleephas a brief sequence featuring a professional dame in the driver’s seat, a taxi driver played by Joy Barlow (Figure 1.1). Barlow’s name does not appear inFemme Noir: Bad Girls of Film, nor inThe Film Encyclopedia. Hers is a bit part. She is a secure and far from demure version of femininity. Like all the female characters inThe Big Sleep, she displays an overt attraction to detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). She helps Marlowe tail a suspect and then suggests that if he can use her again, he call her....

  5. PART 1: CONTENTS AND CONTEXTS
    • CHAPTER 1 MANNING THE POSTS: CLASSIC NOIR, POSTCLASSIC NOIR, AND POSTMODERNISM
      (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, style, series, or system.¹ Meanwhile, the devotee can often reel off a definition, and film reviewers in the popular press regularly usefilm noiras a defining term in identifying the style and content of new...

    • CHAPTER 2 SEXING THE PARADIGM: WOMEN AND MEN IN NOIR
      (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 termfemme fataleimplicates 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 very least, containment within prison walls or marriage. I also rename her passive, nurturing opposite, identified by Janey Place in “Women in Film Noir,” as the “woman as redeemer.”¹ This female character becomes a femme attrapée,...

    • CHAPTER 3 RACING THE PARADIGM: THE WHITENESS OF FILM NOIR
      (pp. 29-36)

      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. The male noir protagonist, the homme fatal, often has nothing but disdain for the working man willing to punch a clock and bring home a small paycheck, and the femme fatales are equally unwilling to raise...

  6. PART 2: PROTOTYPES IN CLASSIC NOIR
    • CHAPTER 4 THE KILLERS (1946): QUINTESSENTIAL NOIR?
      (pp. 39-52)

      The Killers(1946) features nearly all the elements constitutive of noir—a white cast of mostly working-class characters that includes the doomed homme fatal alluded to in the second of the opening epigraphs; a femme fatale who, true to type, destroys both the male protagonist and herself with her duplicity; a femme and an homme attrapé functioning within the patriarchal system, both of whom offer the protagonist a redemption he cannot accept; and a depiction of domestic life that does not glorify that realm. The film has an investigator seeking to discover the mystery of the femme fatale and a...

    • CHAPTER 5 OUT OF THE PAST (1947): PASSIVE MASCULINITY AND ACTIVE FEMININITIES
      (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 attrapée masquerading as a femme fatale. Set primarily in California (Bridgeport, San Francisco), Nevada (Lake Tahoe), and Mexico,Out of the Pastfeatures the wonderful, passive, powerful masculinity of Robert Mitchum, who plays the doomed homme fatal; Kirk Douglas as a wealthy, unscrupulous gambler; and Jane Greer as the femme fatale. Directed by Jacques Tourneur...

    • CHAPTER 6 KISS ME DEADLY (1955): APOCALYPTIC FEMMES
      (pp. 63-72)

      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. InThe Killers, the femme fatale becomes a femme attrapée when her boyfriend returns to the narrative. InOut of the Past, the femme attrapée wants more than she should in her generic role as “woman as redeemer.” In bothThe KillersandOut of the Past, the safety and security of domestic life includes an indisputable visual and emotional drabness, and in the case ofOut of the Past, connotes a life...

  7. PART 3: RETURN OF THE REPRESSED IN RETRO-NOIR
    • CHAPTER 7 L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) AND CASABLANCA (1942): DOES ANYTHING CHANGE AS TIME GOES BY?
      (pp. 75-90)

      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 women and nonwhites. Here, two texts demonstrate that point, one the famous non-noirCasablanca(1942), the other the retro-noirL.A. Confidential(1997). These two films tell remarkably similar stories about masculinity and femininity, about whiteness, and about class. Although the women’s movement, feminism,...

    • CHAPTER 8 MULHOLLAND FALLS (1996): NUCLEAR NOIR AS NUMBSKULL NOIR
      (pp. 91-100)

      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 Fallshas not been well received by most critics in the popular press, who have classified it as “numbskull noir” or “Chinatownfor chowderheads.”¹ Of course, the classic nuclear noirKiss Me Deadlywas not received well by critics either. As Naremore points out, whenKiss Me Deadlywas first released, “The New York Timesdid not review it, the Legion of Decency...

    • CHAPTER 9 FIGHT CLUB (1999): RETRO-NOIR MASQUERADES AS NEO-NOIR
      (pp. 101-114)

      The first time I went to seeFight 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 seeingFight 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 leave because of the disturbing nature of the film, although it does contain heavy-handed violence and misogyny. Aside...

  8. PART 4: REVISION OF THE REPRESSED IN NEO-NOIR
    • CHAPTER 10 TWILIGHT (1998): AGE, BEAUTY, AND STAR POWER—SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
      (pp. 117-128)

      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.¹Twilight’s director, Robert Benton, worked with Newman in the frigid but lovelyNobody’s Fool(1994), another film in which the male protagonist gets to act Newman’s age.Nobody’s Fooltakes place in the squeaky cold of a small northern town in winter;Twilightrevels in the warmer California haunts of classic film noir, modern California architecture (and not postmodern...

    • CHAPTER 11 FARGO (1996): A WOMAN WHO IS NOT HERSELF MEAN—SNOW-SWEPT HIGHWAYS AND MARGIE
      (pp. 129-142)

      In the neo-noirFargo(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.²Fargohas a lot more going for it than a frozen 1987 setting that includes exaggerated Minnesota accents, a new tan Ciera car, a smorgasbord, blizzards, and lots of people in well-padded parkas with hoods. Despite the attractions of the bizarre crime-gone-wrong story line, the setting, and the eccentric cast,...

    • CHAPTER 12 JACKIE BROWN (1997): GENDER, RACE, CLASS, AND GENRE
      (pp. 143-154)

      Neo-noirJackie 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 noirThe Big Sleep.Jackie Brownreflects noir influences in the characters, the plot, and the working-class milieu that serves as the film’s setting.¹ It also features a densely layered, information-packed mise-en-scène that rewards repeated viewing. A middle-aged, underpaid airline stewardess, Jackie Brown, played stunningly by Pam Grier, winds...

  9. CONCLUSION DOING IT FOR bell: CULTURAL CRITICISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE
    (pp. 155-160)

    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, one where imagination shut down in the face of the relentless consumption of the same old new product. In the mid-1940s, Horkheimer and Adorno collaborated on “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” They asserted that “the culture industry as a whole has moulded men as...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 161-172)
  11. WORKS CITED
    (pp. 173-180)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 181-190)