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. 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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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. 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,” 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,” 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, 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. Barbara Stanwyck herself even said of her character: “’I’m afraid to go home with her. She’s such a bitch.’” 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, 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.”. Neff will be the instigator of the plan, which “is consistent with the film’s presentation of a male fantasy of power and control.” 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.” 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.”
The femme fatale epitomizes the paradox of moralism, combining “sexual mystification and conservatism,” 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.” 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.
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.’” 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.”
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.” 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.” The purpose of this mythical opposition provides, according to French anthropologist Claude Levis-Strauss: “ ‘a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction,’” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.
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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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225928
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. http://imlportfolio.usc.edu/ctcs505/mulveyVisualPleasureNarrativeCinema.pdf
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.
 Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited, 2002), 37.
 Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” in Film Noir Reader, eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 53.
 Spicer, 41.
 Spicer, 41.
 Spicer, 38.
 Sheri Chinen Biesen, “Censorship, Film Noir, and ‘Double Indemnity,’” Film and History 25, no. 1 (1995): 47.
 Biesen, 44.
 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18. http://imlportfolio.usc.edu/ctcs505/mulveyVisualPleasureNarrativeCinema.pdf
 Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film, (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland, 1962), 406.
 Andrew Klevan, “Restraint,” in Barbara Stanwyck (London: BFI/Plagrave Macmillan, 2013), 89.
 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.
 Klevan, 94.
 Klevan, 92.
 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.
 Klevan, 107.
 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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3877749
 Janey Plaice, quoted in Grist, 207.
 Joan Riviere quoted in Grist, 211.
 Grist, 209.
 Andrews, 68.
 Grist, 204.
 Claude Levi-Strauss, in Grist, 204.
 Spicer, 91.
 Sylvia Harvey, “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir,” in Women in Film Noir ed. Ann Kaplan, (London: BFI, 1998), 37.
 Grist, 212.