Classical Hollywood Cinema: most people get a picture of what it is at the mere evocation of this influential and extraordinary “machinery”. However, it is more difficult to put a word on what exactly defines classical Hollywood style and how it works.  David Bordwell, in the chapter “Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures,”[1] explains how Classical Hollywood Cinema works as a narrative system, deciphering the means by which Hollywood movies are constructed. It is a neoformalist approach, that is to say based on the devices used (empirical approach) rather than imposing a prior theoretical approach (sociological or historical). Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) is a classical Hollywood film, that I will use it to illustrate some of Bordwell’s points. Linda Williams, feminist film theorist, questions Mildred Pierce’s meaning for the female spectator in a both psychoanalytic and poststructuralist approach in “Feminist Film Theory: Mildred Pierce and the Second World War”[2]. In other words, she studies the relation between the film and the viewer within sociological-historical context.

Mildred Pierce is a particularly interesting case study because it is a typical Classical Hollywood film (as it has all the ingredients explained by Bordwell) and an atypical film for its plot combines – as Williams says – two contradictory genres: film noir and melodrama. In a very schematic language, it imbricates the most masculine genre and the most feminine genre, yet the targeted audience was the female spectator. My point is that Bordwell’s and Williams’ readings are complementary, for Hollywood reflects the dominant ideology, and studying its forms as well informs on society of the time. Women are part of society, and they have to seen as spectator within a historical-sociological-ideological context, just as a film is a snatch of time and way of thinking and looking.


First, as I mentioned in the introduction, Bordwell has a very scientific approach to Hollywood narration. Indeed, the neoformalist reading is partly focused on the film’s narrative form and style. Bordwell defines three ways to study narrative[3]. The semantic reading refers to representation (a world or body of ideas), the syntactic reading concerns the structure, or how the elements of the narrative combine to create a certain world and the last one would be the study of the actual act of telling (here showing, projecting) a story to a viewer.

By analysing representation and structure, Bordwell wants to demonstrate how “Hollywood narration constitutes a particular configuration of normalized options for representing the story and manipulating composition and style.”[4] In other words, Hollywood narration has its own patterns and structure repeated in all its films, whatever the plot is.

One of the key rules is that everything in classical Hollywood narration has to be clear, defined and easily legible. For example, a classical character has to be stereotyped, with a quite simplistic psychology. The character struggles to solve a problem or to achieve his goals, and in the course of this struggle, he enters into conflict with an external element. The end is either a victory or a defeat, a resolution of the problem and a clear achievement or non-achievement of the goals. Usually, the main character is the most “specified,” he/she is at the centre of what happens in the story and the object of audience identification. The beginning of Mildred Pierce exemplifies these rules.

In Mildred Pierce, the main protagonist, as the title indicates, is Mildred, interpreted by Oscar-winning and star Joan Crawford. Mildred is at the centre of the plot first because it is the first word of the film:  it is the last word of a man after he is shot. The identity of the murderer is not shown, as there is no reverse shot. However, the next shot is that of Mildred driving away from the crime scene. We are led to think that she committed the crime. Later in the beginning, she is questioned by the police, and starts to tell the story of her life – there is then a flashback – and we learn that she was not happily married, as her husband (who is cheating on her) blames her for spoiling her daughters. Therefore we have the two intricate plot lines Bordwell mentioned: Mildred’s struggle in her personal life and this mysterious murder (the external element). She is both an object of identification as a mother and as a mysterious woman – the femme fatale. The femme fatale is an emblematic figure of film noir of the 1940s. She is “a mysterious, alluring, enigmatic female character in stories, who poses a threat to male protagonist, using her sexual power to entrap him and lure him to his downfall.”[5]

Bordwell divides the narration into fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot). The story is a construct of the spectator, as he puts the narrative events in causal chronological order. Mildred Pierce for example contains flashbacks, and the spectator is able to make a chronological sense out of them. The plot is how the events are presented. In Mildred, the film begins with an event that actually happens towards the end of the story (the murder). As said earlier, the plot has two plot lines usually heterosexual romance/another sphere (here work). The two lines coincide in the climax. It is the case in Mildred:  in the end she goes back to her husband Bert, meaning that she will stop working in her successful restaurant business and go back home.

Bordwell provides a closer dissection of the functioning of the plot (syuzhet). A scene, for example, is an independent segment which “continues and closes off cause-effect developments left dangling in prior scenes while also opening up new causal lines for future developments.”[6] If we look at the scene where Mildred is in the kitchen (the beginning of the first flashback), everything is already exposed. The voice-over specifies the time and the past of Mildred. She is baking in the kitchen and represents the archetypal housewife. As the voice-over mentions the two daughters (Veda and Kay), there is a close-up on a picture of them in a frame. Bert comes back from home (he is wearing a suit and a tie, embodying the typical working head of family, and they argue about the fact that Mildred spoils her kids too much. Mildred says that she “would anything for them. Anything.” It foreshadows the tragedy that will occur because of Mildred spoiling Veda. The phone-call suggests that Bert is having an affair, and that the couple will part for economic reason, as Bert cannot sustain for Veda’s extravagances.

The manipulation of space is important in the legibility of the narration. Bordwell calls it the “classical omnipresence”. The camera is an “invisible observer,” meaning that there is no trace of actual “making” of the illusion. The classical narration depends on the notion if “invisible observer,” as the narration pre-existed its representation. The aim is to give an illusion of reality, as if the fictional elements (characters, settings…) had their own existence before the camera came to film the disruption in their equilibrium (without them knowing).

The story (fabula) is a logical construct of the spectator. Classical Hollywood guides this construction in the spectators’ mind through different devices. As always, the strong causality is the priority of the story to avoid ambiguity. There is also a firm borderline between the subjective and objective POVs. For instance the flashback may be a subjective action of a character, yet it shows more than the character could know.

Lastly, Bordwell studies the relationship between the spectator and the classical Hollywood film. According to him, the classical spectator is not passive for the spectator performs cognitive operations (rational and conscious attempts to make a sense out of what he is watching) even though he is familiar with this style. Indeed, the spectator has internalized the schemata of Hollywood cinema (causality, defined characters, realistic motivation…). The spectator projects hypotheses on these schemata (e. g. they will fall in love with each other, he is going to die, etc…).

At the end the chapter, Bordwell sketches a more poststructuralist analysis of the film, as a film cannot escape ideological or economical context. “The goal-oriented hero (…) bears the traces of social-historical processes of production and reception.” Mildred is often seen by the feminist film theorists as the example of the working woman of the 1940s who has to go back to the kitchen when the GIs are back from war. Mildred Pierce would be therefore an expression of the patriarchal society, the latter having been upset by the war and the new opportunities it gave to women.



Before studying Williams’ text, we need to differentiate the notions of spectatorship and audience.  Spectatorship is the relationship with the film text; the spectator is an abstract notion. The audience implies sociological and cultural notions; there are therefore different kinds of audiences, as for example the male audience and the female audience. Feminist film theorists challenge the notion of spectatorship because it does not take into consideration how gender can influence the reception of a film. This is why Linda Williams refers to the female spectator – that is to say the target audience of Mildred Pierce – in her text.

Williams, influenced by feminist theory on psychoanalysis and visual pleasure, asserts that the female spectator has been denied access to male’s gaze pleasure, and woman as “a subject in her own right” has not been shown in films, notably classical Hollywood films.[7] Thus she wants to define the interaction between the female spectator of the 1940s and the way women were depicted in the films of that period. She introduces to two key concepts on representation of women upon which two traditions of theorists have argued.

The first concept is repression, “the often devious ways in which texts that supposedly represent women actually repress them.” That is why melodramas – here Mildred Pierce – are at the centre of feminist film theorists’ debates: are melodramas in favour of women or subtly inject patriarchal ideology to maintain women as inferior in women’s own minds? The other concept is reflection, “which establishes the connection between a given female image [e.g. Mildred] and the historical moment that produces such an image [e.g. the 1940s].”[8]

According to Williams, each tradition has something to learn from one another. Moreover they are based on feminist enlightenment and do bear in mind that the female spectator of the 1940s did not have their feminist hindsight (feminism became important in the 1970s). For Andrea Walsh, in favour of reflection theory, Mildred Pierce is a sign of nascent feminism consciousness, for it showed a strong woman, Mildred becoming a successful and independent businesswoman. Yet, Williams says that it is an optimistic point of view, and that treatment of Mildred in the film was not in her favour – she does everything for her ungrateful daughter (Veda) who happens to have an affair with Mildred’s husband, and kills him. It all happened because of Mildred who spoiled Veda too much.

Pam Cook (repression theory) argues that the double structure of the film makes Mildred guilty. The story she is trying to tell is intercut by the film noir scenes which contradict what she is saying and therefore destroy her credibility. The false structure – the murder at the beginning and Mildred getting away in a car) – suggests that Mildred is the murderer. All in all, Williams think that the reflection theory underestimates the power of patriarchy and the repression theory overestimate it. Williams’ point is that the reading of the film text should be more aware of the specificities of the historical moments in which the film was produced and the situation of its contemporary audience. We must look how Mildred Pierce reflects and represses the contradictions of its historical moment. This is the concept of the political unconscious by Frederic Jameson: the analysis of the collective denial of historical contradictions.

The female spectator of the 1940s was in a “contradictory situation,” as in the men were back from war, during which women had replaced them in the workforce. Mildred Pierce parallels this contradiction in itself, as it is both a melodrama and a film noir. The film shows the contrast and conflict of the gendered-genres: “the day-time filmic discourse of Mildred’s own story and the noir male discourse of a dangerous nocturnal underworld.”[9] Although Mildred Pierce was released in 1945, the film lacks direct political-historical references. By not anchoring the film clearly in history, it allowed to apprehend the gender upset less abruptly, and this upset is resolved at the end to a return of the patriarchal order. Moreover, the absence of patriarchal authority – an oblique reference to the war, suggesting that the father was fighting – “permits a more substantial reflection of the new opportunities for women in a wartime economy.”[10] The new female financial independence allowed by wartime was unacceptable to the dominant patriarchal ideology. Mildred’s financial success and independence lead to a murder: because a man did not guide her, she badly raised her daughters. Kay is dying after Mildred flirted with Monte Beragon and Veda becomes an obnoxious spoiled and materialistic woman. The film noir is repressive and dark, yet seeing Mildred Pierce as only a repression against women would be too simplistic, for this genre is “unbalanced and untriumphant genre” itself.[11]

Mildred Pierce is neither an expression of matriarchal power or a patriarchal power. It is rather a combination of contradictory identification: Mildred as a Depression-era wife, wartime mother, businesswoman and post-war femme fatale. The historical circumstances of the film create even more upset in the roles of wife, mother, worker and woman.



To summarize: Bordwell analyses how Hollywood narration is constructed and says in the end of the chapter that construction is influenced by a given sociological-economical-historical context. Williams tries to explain what Mildred Pierce’s narration did to its female spectators, by taking into consideration the sociological-economical-historical context of the 1940s.  My point is that we should look at how classical Hollywood narration constructs its representation of gender, and what look it has on women.

But first, let’s have a deeper sight of the purely historical context to understand better the dominant ideology, which affects inevitably the production of films. Julie Weiss interestingly points out that we should study Mildred in a longer historical perspective and not only the 1940s.[12] Weiss goes back to the 1910s and 1920s in America, when feminists argued for women’s rights (voting, economic independence and sexual liberation) while women’s presence in the workforce was increasing. In the 1920s, the flappers represented the independent, sexually liberated women. During the Depression-era, more men were thrown out of work than women, as men’s work in industry was more affected by the crisis than feminine jobs. The Second World War was in a way a great hand to women’s independence, as they had to replace men, and thus question the patriarchal values of American society. This turmoil in gender roles gave rise to the “Mom-bashing” phenomenon: basically mothers were blamed for absolutely everything. It was epitomized by Philip Wylie’s best seller, Generation of Vipers (1942), which attacked American motherhood. According to him, American society was “veering towards matriarchy.”[13] This sentence underpins an important notion: male’s fear of castration, which in psychoanalytic film theory, has a direct impact on how women are represented in films.

Laura Mulvey, in her influential article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” argues that classical Hollywood cinema ensures the spectator to adopt a masculine point of view, notably on women who are objectified by the visual pleasure of the male gaze. “As an advanced representation system, the cinema poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking.”[14] The woman is the bearer of the meaning, not maker of the meaning. It is the case in Mildred Pierce: the detective makes the meaning out of what Mildred is telling.

Mulvey clarifies the notion of pleasure in looking (scopophilia). To look or being looked at can be both sources of pleasure. Hollywood, through its strong borderline between the screen and the audience, allows voyeuristic pleasure. The pleasure in looking is often in this one-way: active/male and passive/female. The spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, who controls events and possesses the active power of erotic look. He is therefore omnipotent. In Mildred Pierce, as it is a melodrama, the object of identification is a woman. So how does Hollywood manage to convey a male gaze through the point of view of a woman?

Mildred Pierce was aimed at female audience. The question is: do women enjoy films that seem to denigrate them?  Mulvey explains that women as representation provoke a castration complex, a threat that must be circumvented thanks to voyeuristic and fetishistic (even sadistic) mechanisms. Fetishism is “the quality of the spectator’s belief in the illusory world on the cinema screen and also to an over-investment in, or an idealization or worship of, the female form on the screen.”[15] Mildred, both as mother and femme fatale is beautiful. The fetishization of her body as a sex object is emphasized by the sexual advances of Wally Fay and Monte Beragon. As a femme fatale, she is punished in the end in being deprived of her two daughters (sadistic mechanism). How can female audience still identify? As I said, she is a mother. But I would not draw a clear and definite borderline between the mother and the femme fatale, for all she does is for her daughters. She uses her charms and traps Wally to make him accused at Veda’s place of the murder of Beragon. She eventually goes back to her first husband, giving up her business. I think that most of all she is a figure of self-abnegation and sacrifice to women, and this in the 1940s or nowadays. The only difference is the hindsight the female spectator has.



To conclude, Bordwell explains the workings of Hollywood narration, and I used Mildred Pierce to illustrate some of his points. It is characterized by its linearity, legibility and psychologically defined characters. The plot presents this rule: equilibrium/disruption/back to the equilibrium with a shift, hence a standardisation of the plots and only variations in the stories. Williams analyses the psychological impact of Mildred Pierce on the female spectator of the time by investigating on the social-historical-economical context.

[1] David Bordwell, Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

[2] Linda Williams, Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, ed. Deidre Pribram (London: Verso, 1988).

[3] Bordwell, 17.

[4] Bordwell, 17.

[5] Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, 1st ed., s.v. “femme fatale.”

[6] Bordwell, 20.

[7] Williams, 12.

[8] Williams, 12.

[9] Williams, 13.

[10] Williams, 23.

[11] Williams, 27.

[12] Julie Weiss, “Feminist Film Theory and Women’s Theory: Mildred Pierce and the 20th Century,” Film and History 22, no. 3 (1992): 80.

[13] Weiss, 82.

[14] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 7.

[15] Oxford Dictionnary of Film Studies, s.v. “fetichism.”

The Code, established in 1934 and ruled by Catholic Joseph Breen until 1954, prohibited, to name a few, explicit violence, sex, sedition, “gruesomeness” etc. The Code was set as a safeguard of family values and American legal, religious and political institutions.[1] In this respect, Noir films of the forties are seen as particularly worth studying because of their subversive subject matters and visual style, defying Hollywood’s principles of the time, ruled by the Hays Code. More specifically, Noir films often present a private eye or an alienated ambiguous male hero who falls in love with a woman he is not suppose to fall in love with. The spectator thus follows the intrigue of an illegitimate couple implicated, by will or by force, with crimes.

Therefore, one is to ask how these films provide morality in the Hays Code sense. Do noir films manage to solve the issues they address, regarding cynicism of wartime, gender shifts and social changes in general? What does the spectator really remember from noir films: morality or the attractiveness of sin?

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), a “canonical noir”, is considered to be a watershed in the weakening of the Production Code. I will thus study the historical and sociological context which allowed for the flourishing of the genre. Indeed, its increasing appeal is notably due to its crude treatment of crime and sexuality despite the Code’s rules, thanks to means of circumvention such as for instance verbal and visual metaphors. Subversive sexuality is embodied by the femme fatale, who is systematically punished by death. Through retrospective feminist reading, the femme fatale’s dangerous yet mesmerizing beauty is considered both a mirror of male anxieties and a symptom of growing female independence. Noir films sometimes offers the “good” alternative thanks to a mythical opposition and symbolism; Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) might be the prominent the example which I will analyse later.

First, how do we explain the rise of noir and more specifically its challenging visual and thematic topics in the light of the historical and sociological context? Let us not forget that film noir is a retrospective label given by French critics, implying an unconscious similar pattern rather than a distinct and self-aware movement. As Paul Schrader argues, the forties were a time of social shifts and male anxieties due to wartime.[2] In the forties, studios started to survey audiences and make audience research: urban working-class males were the target audience of Hollywood noir films, or rather psychological thrillers as they were not yet called noir at the time. The films’ posters and trailer emphasized on the sexual content to attract “younger, male-dominated audiences who enjoyed crime thrillers with and adult content.”[3] The appeal for attracting audiences, thanks to more controversial content, took over moralism: “The ‘adult’ content and sophisticated pleasures that noir provided, together with its generally masculine orientation, were much more likely to succeed in this changed context of reception.”[4] Regarding style, Noir is strongly influenced by European cinema, specifically German expressionism and its highly stylized mise-en-scène, diagonal lines and harsh chiaroscuros, giving the genre its dark quality of style and content. In addition, both German expressionism and French Poetic Realism implied a traditional and cultural criticism of society that Hollywood did not necessarily possess, and which was brought by European émigré filmmakers such as Austrian Billy Wilder and French Jacques Tourneur.

Double Indemnity instigated the softening of the Code, correlated with the long-standing popularity of hard-boiled fiction (on which noir films are based) and the wartime production environment. Double Indemnity’s ‘adult’ content (sex and violence), and the fact that the film makes the viewer identify with the adulterous and criminal couple made the film a watershed and a pioneer that allowed for more explicit films later.[5] Indeed, the scenario was first rejected in 1935 then accepted in 1943, thanks to Wilder’s adaption to make it more “moral.” Instead of committing suicide, Walter Neff kills his accomplice then repents by confessing his crimes into a Dictaphone.[6] Yet the film’s content was still controversial, since it covered adultery and murder, actions that could only be expressed through circumvention of the Code.

Circumvention was made possible because of “metaphoric innuendo and verbal wit,”[7] and nuances on which the Code could not have any control:  ellipsis for intercourse and off-screen action. For instance, Mr Dietrichson’s murder by Neff is implied by sounds, while the camera stays on Phyllis’s cold expression. Phyllis’s first appearance and meeting with the hero is the perfect example of circumventing the Code, without depriving the dialogue and subject matters of sexual tension and moral issues. Phyllis appears at the top of the stairs, behind the handrails, as if she was on a theatre balcony, from a low angle shot that is not Neff’s. She is wearing nothing but a towel, which precariously covers her body, yet still covers it. The script describes her as such: “she holds a large towel around her very appetizing torso,”[8] which shows clearly the filmmakers and screenplay writer’s intention to make Phyllis sexually appealing within the Code’s boundaries. Neff’s sexual innuendo about the insurance cover of Mr. Dietrichson’s car, emphasizes, still within the limits set by the Code, his attraction: “I’d hate to think of your getting a smashed fender or something while you’re not… fully covered.” Their dialogue is shot in POV (low angle for him, high angle for her reverse shots). There are POV shots of both Neff and Phyllis, meaning that he is also the object of her gaze. The inside of the house is slashed by diagonal and linear shadows, already announcing the trap in which Neff has entered. As we observe through his eyes the pictures of Mr. Dietrichson and his daughter, Lola, one can notice that there is not a picture of Phyllis, which shows that it is not a happy marriage. Moreover, the age discrepancy (Phyllis is in her early thirties while her husband is in his fifties), foreshadows her will to have a lover. As she comes back, Neff fetishizes her anklet, as the camera cranes on her legs.

Fetishization would be a process of fragmentation of the body in order to avoid seeing the “threatening lack” of the woman,[9] thus reducing Phyllis into body parts is a way to diminish her. However, the Neff’s voice-over emphasizes on the anklet more than the camera shows it, meaning that although the story is told from the male’s view, the camera’s different gaze allows for different interpretations. Phyllis buttons up her dress as she comes back and applies lipstick. One might argue that she is putting on her mask, as she would be a character devoid of sincerity. The frame shows both of them in the mirror, illustrating their duplicity. Indeed, Neff is at least as malicious as Phyllis. He brashly flirts with her, knowing that she is married.

Phyllis, at the time of the film was simply read as cold-blooded manipulator. “She delivers a blood-chilling performance of a beautiful, thoroughly evil woman… In certain scenes, her eyes are like black marbles, glacial and devoid of feeling. Her only emotions are passion and greed – she uses one to satisfy the other.[10] Barbara Stanwyck herself even said of her character: “’I’m afraid to go home with her. She’s such a bitch.’”[11] Later feminist interpretations actually see her also as a victim of patriarchy without much of agency. For instance, her sitting at the corner of the sofa, while speaking with Neff, dominating her, might be epitomizing her asphyxiating role as a femme attrapée,[12] i.e. a woman trapped in her domestic role, “her position evokes her way of life: … on her own, out of place, backed into a corner, diminished.”[13]. Neff will be the instigator of the plan, which “is consistent with the film’s presentation of a male fantasy of power and control.”[14] Indeed, Neff does not hesitate to kill her, after she renounces shooting him, which might symbolize the masculine punishment of the castrating woman. All in all, the flashback from the male perspective indicates fatality and and ambiguity towards the judgment of the woman, Jaclyn Gledhill argues the “distance … between the expressed male judgement and the woman who is investigated and judged – leaving room for the audience to experience at least an ambiguous response to the female image and what is said about her.”[15] Although the film strives to re-establish patriarchal control and condemnation of the femme fatale and the man who fell for her, one can read Phyllis as a multifaceted character, femme fatale, femme attrapée, “projected male fantasy, ‘femme fatale,’ victim of social rules and gender roles, autonomous personality- none of them forcefully presented or fully realised.”[16]

The femme fatale epitomizes the paradox of moralism, combining “sexual mystification and conservatism,”[17] since it is an alluring figure which must be repressed and punished for the sake of equilibrium. Contrary to Phyllis, one might argue that Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past is depthless. She is responsible for the deaths of Fisher, Eels, Stefanos, White and Jeff, but her malevolence cannot be explained through psychological elements like Phyllis. Kathie is both a character and a screen, i.e. “both woman and film are invested with the power of fascination by the homme fasciné.”[18] Thus she exemplifies the idea of femme fatale as sheer surface, an iconography that is

… explicitly sexual, and often explicitly violent as well: long hair, make up… Cigarettes with their wispy trails of smoke can become cues of dark and immoral sensuality, and the iconography of violence (primarily guns) is a specific symbol (as is perhaps the cigarette) of her ‘unnatural’ phallic power.[19]


Kathie’s entry, from the light source and the door frames of the café, is theatrical – paralleling Phyllis’s first appearance. The theatricality of her entrance not surprisingly states her as duplicitous character, but more importantly the mise-en-scène accentuates her beauty. The men’s repeatedly say that it is understandable to fall or her, which gives a paradoxical message regarding morality. Men do wrong things but they have extenuating circumstances: the woman’s irresistible beauty. The superficiality of the presentation of women might be expressive of the male gaze’s projections on the female character.

Her beauty is considered as a weapon used “’ to steal the paternal phallus beneath of mask of feminine compliance.’”[20] Visually, high-key lighting is used in scenes of male control, low-key lighting is used in scenes in which Kathie is in control, echoing the danger she represents, as well as sensuality, as she is often associated with the night. Kathie is killed by the police after shooting Jeff, who previously turned her in, achieving the punishment of the femme fatale for defying the law. Moreover, noir does not only punish the woman, but also the male hero, even if he is presented as a repenting victim, like either Neff or Jeff. The male protagonist in noir can be seen as the symbol of a crumbling patriarchal system. Jeff is particularly passive, trying to cope with the traps set for him by Kathie or Whit. The scene of the fishnets on the beach metaphorically illustrates Kathie’s web around him. He (like Neff) is often constructed as victim of a woman’s charms, but also a victim of their conditions of working class men wanting to escape the frustrations of a non fulfilling life. This refers to the mythical opposition between domesticity and the appeal of wandering. Jeff has the will to live a respectable, settled life with Ann, but is ideologically punished “for his failure to uphold patriarchal authority.”[21]

Out of the Past adopts a Manichean division of good and evil in terms of space, opposing the corrupted city (San Fransisco, Acapulco, New York) and the honest small town America (Bridgeport.) However, Bridgeport appears much less appealing compared to the other cities. They are associated with danger and corruption, as well as sultry women and glamourous life: “femme fatale have been identified with the transformative depredations of the ‘modern world,’ which is forever in danger of slipping from patriarchal control.”[22] Indeed, the scenes in urban places are shot in closed frame, studio sets, while the scenes in Bridgeport are shot on location and wide-open vistas, which “adds a further judgmental opposition: naturalness versus artificiality.”[23] The purpose of this mythical opposition provides, according to French anthropologist Claude Levis-Strauss: “ ‘a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction,’”[24] contradiction which is, as said previously, the glamourous mise-en-scène of the “wrong” as opposed to a flat and dull imagery for the “good”.

The good alternative is also embodied by Ann, the “good” girl. Contrary to Kathie, she is blond, and modestly dressed, “framed as the eternal, understanding listener, offering forgiveness and the promise of a stable world of loyalty, faithfulness and loving security.”[25] She is mostly shot in high-key lighting, within open, natural environments, as well as in her parents’ house, where they are performing traditional gender roles – her mother in the kitchen, her father reading the newspaper. They criticize Jeff who they have always considered as a dangerous man because not belonging to their community. Paradoxically, the good alternative – the married life, the countryside, the “good people” – seem much duller. As Silvia Harvey argues, the marriage in forties films is sine qua none for sexuality yet marriage is presented as de-eroticized, so that “the family at the same time legitimates and conceals sexuality.”[26] Indeed, Ann’s old parents (or Phyllis’s impotent husband) make the sensual and good-looking illegitimate couple more attractive to the audience. The scene when Kathie and Jeff have sex for the time is highly romanticized. After having run in the rain, Jeff kisses passionately Kathie, while throwing the towel away on the lamp, making the camera diverge from the couple onto the door, violently opened by the wind, metaphorically reproducing the passionate intercourse.

In the end, the Kid hides the truth regarding Jeff’s heroic gesture, letting Ann believe that he ran away with Kathie. This makes Kathie go back to Jim, her “legitimate” sweetheart from Bridgeport, without regret. It has also the function to erase Jeff as if he never existed, the shadow in the picture that must be forgotten for the sake of the “good” people. Only the Kid knows the truth – but he is mute and deaf – as well as the audience. Again, this creates a paradox regarding morality: “Logically, the end marks the restoration of the patriarchal order, but what is memorable is Kathie’s strength and sexuality, Jeff’s futile struggle and Ann’s loss.”[27]

To conclude, we should bear in mind that noir appeared in troubled times – World War II, as well the upsetting of gender roles implied by the latter and urbanisation. The Hays Code was forced to adapt to this more subversive content because of the appeal of the audience, in demand for a more subversive and ambiguous text. Double Indemnity acted as a watershed as it was the first film to explicitly show adultery and greed. The controversial content managed to be passed through by circumvention of the Code’s rules such as innuendo, verbal and visual metaphors, off-screen actions. The femme fatale is a malevolent character who represents a threat to the patriarchal order, as she lures the man into corruption because of her irresistible sex-appeal. Her death is the solution to the reestablishment of morality by Hollywood. However, as for Phyllis, the camera’s distance with the male’s gaze coupled with his own malice allow for a more empathic reading of the femme fatale, retrospectively read as a symptom of masculine anxiety regarding the crumble of the traditional patriarchal system. Out of the Past shows an alternative to Jeff’s wrong choices, opposing Kathie and the urban cluttered frames and to Ann and the openness of Bridgeport. Despite their moral closure, maintaining the Code and social norms, these films still express social contradictions and anxieties of their times.



























Andrews, David. “Sex Is Dangerous, so Satisfy Your Wife: The Softcore Thriller in its Contexts.” Cinema Journal 45, no. 3 (2006): 59-89.

Biesen, Sheri Chinen. “Censorship, Film Noir, and ‘Double Indemnity.’” Film and History 25, no. 1 (1995): 40. Retrieved from

Grist, Leighton. “Out of the Past a.k.a Build My Gallows High.” In The Movie Book of Film Noir, edited by Ian Cameron, 203-211. London: Studio Vista, 1992.

Harris, Oliver. “Film Noir Fascination: Outside History, but Historically so.” Cinema Journal 43, no. 1 (2003): 3-24.

Harvey, Sylvia. “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir.” In Women in Film Noir edited by Ann Kaplan, 35-46. London: BFI, 1998.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film, (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland, 1962), 406.

Klevan, Andrew. “Restraint.” In Barbara Stanwyck 81-107. London: BFI/Plagrave Macmillan, 2013.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16 no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.

Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” In Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, 53-64. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited, 2002.

Wager, Jans B. “Female Agency and Its Lack: The Femme Fatale Gains (Possible) Admittance in Asphalt.” In Dangerous Dames: Women and Representation in the Weimar Street Film and Film Noir, 52-66. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1999.


Tourneur, Jacques. Out of the Past, 1947.

Wilder, Billy. Double Indemnity, 1944.





[1] Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited, 2002), 37.

[2] Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” in Film Noir Reader, eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 53.

[3] Spicer, 41.

[4] Spicer, 41.

[5] Spicer, 38.

[6] Sheri Chinen Biesen, “Censorship, Film Noir, and ‘Double Indemnity,’” Film and History 25, no. 1 (1995): 47.

[7] Biesen, 44.


[9] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.


[10] Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film, (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland, 1962), 406.

[11] Andrew Klevan, “Restraint,” in Barbara Stanwyck (London: BFI/Plagrave Macmillan, 2013), 89.

[12] Jans B. Wager, “Female Agency and Its Lack: The Femme Fatale Gains (Possible) Admittance in Asphalt,” in Dangerous Dames: Women and Representation in the Weimar Street Film and Film Noir (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1999), 52.

[13] Klevan, 94.

[14] Klevan, 92.

[15] Jaclyn Gledhill quoted in Leighton Grist, “Out of the Past a.k.a Build My Gallows High,” in The Movie Book of Film Noir, ed. Ian Cameron (London: Studio Vista, 1992), 210.

[16] Klevan, 107.

[17] David Andrews, “Sex Is Dangerous, so Satisfy Your Wife: The Softcore Thriller in Its Contexts,” in Cinema Journal 45 no. 3 (University of Texas Press, 2006): 68.

[18] Oliver Harris, 2003. “Film Noir Fascination: Outside History, but Historically so”. Cinema Journal 43 no. 1 (University of Texas Press, 2003): 8.

[19] Janey Plaice, quoted in Grist, 207.

[20] Joan Riviere quoted in Grist, 211.

[21] Grist, 209.

[22] Andrews, 68.

[23] Grist, 204.

[24] Claude Levi-Strauss, in Grist, 204.

[25] Spicer, 91.

[26] Sylvia Harvey, “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir,” in Women in Film Noir ed. Ann Kaplan, (London: BFI, 1998), 37.

[27] Grist, 212.