Film noir evokes the dark side where the noir protagonist is usually trapped in a web of dire circumstance.
A particular noir trope is amnesia. Hemmed in by internal barriers the noir amnesiac struggles to recover memory and meaning. The lost doppelganger, usually the dark flip-side of a new better self. In the redemptive noir the better self in the process of discovery cancels the past and gets a second shot, while in a less sanguine universe the fusion is bitterly destructive. A variation has the anti-hero hunting down the perpetrator of his own repressed memory, or stealing the identity of a better self.
The femme-fatale is a kind of amnesiac. An alluring front to a rotten foundation. On rare – perverse – occasions she repents and lives happily ever after. And it is not only the female of the species. Hommes-fatales are not unknown. Indeed pairings in-fatale though rare have a frission all their own.
And sometimes it was all a dream – or a psychotic delusion.
Identifying films noir that trace particular strands of fractured identity would be revealing too much, so here is a selective list to get you started:
- La Bionda (The Blonde – Italy 1992)
- Black Angel (1946)
- The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany 1919)
- The Chase (1946)
- The Clay Pigeon (1949)
- Crack-Up (1946)
- The Crooked Way (1949)
- The Dark Mirror (1946 )
- Dark Passage (1947)
- Deadline at Dawn (1946)
- Fear in the Night (1947)
- The File On Thelma Jordan (1950)
- High Wall (1946)
- The Locket (1946)
- Memento (2000)
- Mister Buddwing (1966)
- No Man of Her Own (1950)
- So Dark the Night (1946)
- Strange Impersonation (1946)
- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
- The Unsuspected (1947)
- The Woman in the Window (1944)
10 thoughts on “Noir Amnesia”
Street of Chance, from Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Curtain, is a good early noir film centered on amnesia.
Thanks Bill. I haven’t actually seen Street of Chance and appreciate your heads up. Tony
Great article again Tony & a list of some great films (many of which I’ve not seen but will now look into).
I agree that Street Of Chance is an excellent addition to this list. Another great example is an early Joseph L. Mankiewicz film – many years before he shot Cleopatra, called Somewhere In The Night, full of weird characters and situations. The whole thing is rather surreal but brilliantly done. John Hodiak in the lead is particularly peculiar, which lends itself well to the film. There are some classic Noir moments and cinematography.
You very kindly reviewed and showcased our short film AnnA (another psychological journey!) last year & you might be pleased to know that we are working on another short now – with amnesia as the main theme (a variation called dissociative fuge).
Influenced by the highly popular Nordic Noir style, we are filming in London and Stockholm & our lead actor is Christian Hillborg from the Nordic Noir Swedish series ‘The Bridge’ (‘Broen’).
In a few months, I hope you will be able to share the final film with our fellow Noir fans here!
Thanks Robin and for mentioning Somewhere in the Night, which I have reviewed and missed when compiling my list. My review is here.
Certainly exciting news on your new project! I will definitely feature the film here when the time comes. All the best. Tony
Actually Bill in Street Of Chance when Burgess Meredith gets hit on the head it returns his memory, it’s the trope in reverse.
Thanks for that info Ray. I recently visited Noirsville and see you have been unearthing a number of 60s noirs – great stuff!
It has always been a great theme, and your stellar list attests to the inherent fascination. 1943’s classic weepie RANDOM HARVEST is another that qualifies, and movie fans of recent vintage will point to THE BOURNE IDENTITY, TOTALL RECALL and DARK CITY not that I consider myself a huge fan of these. But there are infinite possibilities.
Yes Sam there are others that could make the list. A second edition may be necessary 🙂
I’m intrigued to read this list – will aim to see some of the films. Does Spellbound count as a noir?
Tony, I’ve just read your excellent review of Sunset Boulevard, after seeing the movie last night, and I suppose that film’s the opposite of amnesia – someone who can’t forget anything in the past for a moment.
Thanks Judy and for your visit.
Spellbound has I think a noir mood – an unsettling scenario, expressionist visuals exploring the darker side of dreams manifesting repressed memories and mental instability.