Male Anxiety and Film Noir

By Lloydville on the blog Friday 29 Jun 2007: Male Anxiety and Film Noir.

…The male anxiety embodied in the [noir] tradition clearly derives from a deeper source — the moral discombobulation of war itself, the spiritual exhaustion this particular conflict induced, and the inconceivable fact of the atomic bomb which raised moral issues and created fears that the human psyche was ill-prepared to engage… The ravaged psyches of Americans in the aftermath of a “good war”, a good war they won, so vividly explored in film noir, in some ways says more about the nature of all wars than any works of art which dealt with the conflict itself.

Lloydville is as always provocative, but in film noir, it is the narrative and existential angst rather than anxiety that drives the male protagonist. The post-war anxiety of film audiences can help explain the popularity of the genre, but I think Ann Douglas in her piece in the March 2007 issue of Vanity Fair takes us further:

Noir is premised on the audience’s need to see failure risked, courted, and sometimes won; the American dream becomes a nightmare, one strangely more seductive and euphoric than the optimism it repudiates… Noir provided losing with a mystique.

In America it is the anxiety of being a “loser” that underlies male existence more than the experience of war.

The male archetype in film noir is an outsider. The great noir novels, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, for example, that were brought to the screen, were written before WW2 in the 1930’s, and cannot be understood by reference to post-war trauma.

Consider two noirs recently featured in posts: Out Of The Past (1947) and The Big Heat (1953). In both movies, the male protagonists are clearly outsiders. Jeffy Bailey in Out of the Past tries to be rid of his past in a small town but his outsider status is firmly established from the outset before he even appears on the screen, and in The Big Heat, honest cop, Dave Bannion, is not helped by fellow cops in his fight against corruption and moral turpitude. These men are outsiders also in the fuller European sense, and it is no coincidence that the directors, Tournier and Lang, were emigres from Europe.

Out Of The Past

The Big Heat

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