A Psychoanalysis Of Noir

I am currently reading, the first ever book about film noir, A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953, published in France in 1955, and only translated into English in 2000.

It is a revelation. Authors Borde and Chaumeton, in seeking to explain why films noir appeared, see a major influence as the emergence of a wider awareness of psychoanalysis and its motifs in America at the time. Their analyses of their canon of the first big three post-war noirs are centered on the films’ dream-like qualities and the emergence of protagonists with pronounced psychoses: The Big Sleep (1945), Gilda (1946), and The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Within the noir series Gilda was a film apart, an almost unclassifiable movie in which eroticism triumphed over violence and strangeness. Howard Hawke’s The Big Sleep is, on the other hand, a veritable classic of the genre, the essential laws of which it encapsulates… The Lady From Shanghai is a film noir in the full sense of the term… the director’s [Orson Welles] personality bursts out at every step, extends beyond the bounds of the series, and streams forth in a whole series of marvelous images.

The authors’ views on each of these movies are deeply eloquent. Very brief excerpts follow.

Gilda (1946)

Gilda: [the] apparently disconcerting plot is often… studied in the extreme… [tracing] … in the umpteen wrangles of Johnny Farrell, torn between Gilda and her husband, who’s clearly a father substitute father for him.

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep: The sordid settings and their bizarre details, the brief but merciless fistfights, the furtive murders, the sudden reversal of roles, the “objects” in the Surreal sense of the word… the eroticism of blood and pain (Vivian kissing Marlowe’s bruised lips) … the wild dancing of the women… Never will film noir further the the description of a cynical, sensual, and ferocious world.

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

The Lady From Shanghai: The main characteristic of this confused story is an atmosphere of malaise. But [the film] is mainly impressive for its extraordinary technical mastery… when the drama begins to take shape, the virtuosity of the direction becomes perceptible: a motley assortment of mobile shots, tilted frames, unexpected framings, long circular panning or tracing shots.

It is interesting that Borde and Chaumeto see virtuosity where the accepted wisdom is that these elements are weaknesses arising from post-production studio ‘butchering’ of Welles’ original vision. The authors indicate they were aware of this intervention.


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