When artists - painters, sculptors, film directors - create a portrait, they are depicting more than what they see in front of them. They are also painting themselves as well as painting their moment in history. These last two may or may not be intentional; indeed they are most usually not intentional. However, every artistic portrait is a window into an entire worldview, as we see can see when we look at the world of film noir and particularly at the way in which women are portrayed in this world. Women in this genre are routinely portrayed by the male directors of most of these films as at least metaphorically food to be devoured by the viewer.
Although it is certainly not an original idea that male artists undress and serve up their female subjects for a variety of different kinds of pleasure, it is still somewhat disturbing and even shocking for us to come across such blatant and not entirely consensual acts of revelation and display of the female flesh as one sees in these films. But a second viewing of such images suggests that the ways in which women are presented is more complex than it at first appears: These femmes fatales are not simply ciphers, not simply signifiers for some of the more problematic aspects of masculine identity. They are other things as well. But first of all they are the subjects of the director's gaze.
We are presented in archetypical examples of film noir as The Lady From Shanghai and Kiss Me Deadly with a world in which women are the property of men. Their beauty and sensuality make them a valued and often cherished form of property, but property they nonetheless remain. We are made aware in each one of these films that there is very much a power differential between the director - and the viewer - and the female subject, a difference that is both created by and reflective of the power difference between men and women in the society in which these films were created as Behar (1998) argues.
Women in these films are duplicitous, fundamentally untrustworthy. Yet they are also clearly less powerful than the men in their world; what power they do have is confined to the arenas of sexuality and destructiveness. This depiction of women as weak is of course a time-honored practice in most cultures, however, it also in many ways undoes the dominant message of these films, which is that men must beware of the darkly sexual power of women. If women use what weapons they have against men in these films and so are damned in the eyes of the director, they are also freed from responsibility. These women operate in a man's world, and they thus reflect the world that men have made.
We might be asked to believe that their own duplicity stems from their femininity, but by the end of each one of these films we have also begun to suspect that the forces that propel these women are reflections of the motivations of the men around them. These women, if given the chance, would lead very different lives.
This 1946 movie of Charles Vidor centers on the red-haired and fabulously endowed Rita Hayworth. The film contains one of the most famous scenes of the era, one in which Hayworth strips off her long black gloves in a moment as erotic as any full-body strip tease in Las Vegas. It is both a tease about women's sexuality and a full-blown exploitation of it.
The movie is centrally about what is seen and what is not seen, what can be hidden and what will be exposed, about power and impotent - and Nazis who escape to South America. The movie's plot focuses on a menage a trois among a crippled Buenos Aires casino owner named Ballin Mundson (played George Macready), a down-on-his-luck and untrustworthy gambler named Johnny Farrell (played by Glenn Ford).
The film is striking for the ways in which it addresses sexuality - not only female sexuality but what might loosely be referred to as feminine sexuality, for the movie is as much about the dangers of (male) homosexuality as well. Indeed, the homophobia is more marked in this film than is the misogyny, although both clearly derive from the same impulse - a distaste for the ways in which the attractiveness of sexuality can undermine a man's ability to use force to obtain what he wants in the world.
We see examples of this when Mundson rescues Farrell from a group of sailors whom he has just cheated at craps and who are confronting him in an alley, trying to get their money back. Mundson scares off the sailors by threatening them with a sword cane, which Mundson describes in loaded, sexual terms: "It is a most faithful, obedient friend. It is silent when I wish to be silent. It talks when I wish to talk." Mundson is a man who perceives the proper purpose of male sexuality is simply to penetrate - and to hurt. The relationships among the three characters exist for Mundson to be able to exploit the power of his sexuality as much as possible. But - and this is a key element of the power that women have in film noir - women often have the power to turn back the power and force of men's sexuality (Kaplan 116-117). It is not so much their own sexual power that makes the women in film noir the kind of dangerous creatures that they are. Rather, it is their power to negate the sexuality of usually dominate men that makes them dangerous.
Gilda (Hayworth's charater and Mundson's bride) makes the same claim, but throughout the film she asserts her own power. Women in film noir may have delectably soft skin but they are never soft inside. Mundson's threats ring hollow against the force of Gilda's personality:
Johnny: You can't talk to men down here the way you would at home. They don't understand it.
Gilda: Understand what?
Johnny: They think you mean it.
Gilda: Mean what?
Johnny: Doesn't it bother you at all that you're married?
Gilda: What I want to know is, does it bother you?
It clearly does not bother Gilda.
The Lady From Shanghai
As is true of many examples of film noir, the plot of Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai is not the film's strong point: It is full of complexities that serve only to confuse the audience rather than to reveal truths either about the characters themselves or about human nature in general. However, as is so often the case in this genre, at the center of this film is a femme fatale, once again Rita Hayworth, who plays a darker character in this film. Here she is more a simple cipher: Her character exists to oppose the hero. From the first moment that we see the two characters together, as the two of them meet at the edge of Central Park, we are directed by Welles to see this woman as the symbol of all the forces that good upright men should fear and avoid - and conquer if they are able to.
The place of their meeting is hardly coincidental in terms of Welles' overall construction of the movie: They meet on the border between the civilized world (the world of men, of order, of power used for its proper purposes) and the wilds of the part (the world of nature is here, as so often, allied with feminine power. The world of the city is predictable and in some fundamental way safe while the world of the park is a place of dark fecundity.
The fact that Hayworth appears in a hansom cab is also an important bit of symbolism: In 1947 this overly Old World vehicle would not have seemed quaintly romantic as it does to us viewing it now. Rather, it would have seemed at least faintly menacing, a reminder of the forces that had brought such grief to the world through the recent carnage of the war.
Adding to these double threats that Hayworth's character represents - the anti-civilizing forces of both the Old World and the even older, primeval world of nature itself - is the fact that they meet at night. While the traditional symbolism of night as a time in which evil is afoot might as logically cling to the man in this couple as to the woman, it becomes associated with Hayworth's character because she has already been tarred with the feather of wildness and wilderness (viz. Kaplan 134).
Here the femme fatale is not simply a sign of female sexuality posed against male sexuality but that more fundamental (and more fundamentally terrifying to so many) traditional structural dichotomy of nature against nurture. Film noir is fundamentally concerned with the fragility of civilization, about the ways in which the public structures of the daytime - the family,…