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Male Trouble: Masculinity in the Film Noirs of Otto Preminger

Male Trouble: Masculinity in the Film Noirs of Otto Preminger

William Beard

Being a person of a certain age, I am still slightly shocked that attention to Preminger’s cinema no longer centres on his big, imposing pictures as an independent producer/director: Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent and The Cardinal principally, but also such other ambitious “major releases” as Carmen Jones, The Man With the Golden Arm, Saint Joan and Porgy and Bess. The vagaries of auteurist film criticism have shifted the focus from Preminger’s “objective” style of long takes, camera movement, and minimal editing that shows the world without judging it in his independent projects (such was the prevailing analysis), to the narrative content of  his earlier contract films for 20th Century Fox in the late forties.  Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, Chris Fujiwara can open his major book on Preminger’s cinema with the following words:

These days, one reads mostly of two Otto Premingers. The first exists in history books as an important figure in the struggles against film censorship and the anti-Communist blacklist. The second exists for film buffs, as a great director of “film noir.”1

The explanation for this shift is not hard to find.  A shrinking proportion of film criticism devotes itself to identifying film authorship through visual style, and in the move towards perspectives either of genre or of cultural politics (or both) Preminger’s grand, sometimes lumbering essays in self-consciously big subjects have lost both respect and interest.  Simultaneously the spectacular discovery of film noir by Anglophone critics in the 1970s, and the fantastic stamina the topic has displayed as a field of interest, has meant that Preminger’s handful of noir projects have attracted much greater recent attention than his more “important” films.  In 1968, Andrew Sarris could say that Preminger’s “melodramas at Fox, particularly Laura, Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and his RKO loan-out Angel Face, are all moodily fluid studies in perverse psychology rather than crackling suspense movies.”2 (This is the complete list of Preminger’s noirs, but that category was not yet available to Sarris, Francophile auteurist though he was.)  The early 1970s brought, first in driblets and then in waves, the recognition in English-speaking countries of film noir as a distinct category, and it grew through the decades as Preminger’s more ambitious efforts grew small in the rear-view mirror.

Despite all this, there has not been quite as much critical attention to Preminger’s noirs as one might perhaps have expected. Many, many other titles from the period have received a good deal more, and Preminger’s list, though certainly recognized, remains in the margins of the general critical noir discourse.  In the framework of narrative and theme (as opposed to visual style), one still finds descriptions of noir as being centred on the femme fatale.  That idea is a large oversimplification: it is very easy to compile a long list of noirs without any such characters. Indeed, every one of Preminger’s noirs, with the partial exception of Angel Face, lacks a femme fatale, and their women are depicted as victims or saviours or simply important onlookers.  Instead of the destructive presence of evil women as the engine of noir I would assert instead the inverse of that phenomenon: the inability of men to fulfill the requirements of dominant masculinity.  It is often said that the femme fatale is a politically regressive element, that she is to blame for preventing the men she ensnares from living strong and psychologically healthy lives.  Noir males stumble, make mistakes, become the victims of their emotions, fail, even die – and it is all the fault of some sexually predatory woman. That is indeed a common spectacle in film noir, but how is it that women have achieved such power?  Just by being unscrupulous?  Some feminist critics have noted how empowered the femme fatale is, how much she is a woman who has escaped the position of submission required of women in mainstream ideology. Also true. And yet I want to invert that configuration too.  In classical pre- (and post-) noir cinema, it is the unshakeable role of the male protagonist to overcome any and all obstacles.  That is simply a reflection of his proper ideological position in the narrative.  Male heroes have been seeing through, and shucking off, sexually seductive women throughout the whole Hollywood Golden Age. Why are they now folding up, rendered powerless?

This again is a recognized feature of film noir as a narrative form – its defection from classical certainties and ideological neatness.  The lack of clarity, the disturbing ambiguities, the dreamlike irrationalities, the failure of standard features of stability and reassurance are all commonly noted characteristics. Critics have accounted for this more or less sudden disappearance of structural optimism in various ways: delayed anxieties suppressed during the Depression and the war now “safe” to experience, the arrival of the atomic bomb and psychoanalysis, domestic political paranoia growing out of suddenly ubiquitous anti-Communist hysteria – to name a few. The fact that noir appeared only when the war was won, and was coincident with complete economic recovery, good jobs, home ownership, and a more equable distribution of income than any other period of recent American history makes the phenomenon even stranger and more nightmarish from a certain angle.  In any event the problem, as I would like to boil it down, is that male characters no longer have the ability to dominate the narrative.  In short, noir is based most importantly on a crisis of masculinity.  This is hardly a new idea, although it remains only one strand among several competing critical models.  But using it as a central tool in addressing the noir films of Preminger produces fruitful results.  I would like to examine each of these films in turn through that lens.3


Laura (1944)

I include Laura on my list only for form’s sake. It is almost always classified as a film noir, and always grouped with Preminger’s other four titles from the period.  And yet Laura is in my view not a film noir at all. It could certainly be described, as Sarris does, as a moody and psychologically perverse melodrama.  But it is essentially a stylish whodunit, with no miasma of psychic confusion and lack of solid confidence in the world. To be sure, there are noir elements. There is a murdered woman, whose beautiful portrait hangs in her apartment, were police detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) becomes so struck by it that it can be said he is in love with a dead woman.  The character of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is devious, baroquely eloquent, and a psychotic murderer. Then the dead Laura (Gene Tierney) shows up alive, and the ambiguity and confusion of her death is replaced by the ambiguity and confusion of her survival. But the film lacks a truly noir hero. McPherson is one, perhaps for the first part of the film, but after Laura actually enters the film he just becomes a romantic hero and a detective. Lydecker is the kind of villain who is more characteristic of Agatha Christie than James M. Cain. The film resolves itself into standard categories of good guys and bad guys, with a conventional couple formation at the end. And for my purposes, there is no male in crisis.

Fig 1

Fallen Angel (1945)

Fallen Angel is a noir by any yardstick, including that of stunning chiaroscuro photography.  But the film’s narrative begs for commentary and analysis within the framework of noir, and especially that of a crisis of masculinity.  It is the story of Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), an itinerant, almost a vagrant, 30-year-old man who is a kind of freelance promoter and publicist, and who at the beginning of the movie is kicked off a bus in the middle of nowhere because his ticket has run out. It is not quite in the middle of nowhere but in a small California town called Walton that is 150 miles short of San Francisco. [Fig. 1] Stanton has exactly one dollar in his pocket, and he drags himself into the local restaurant and pretty soon runs right into Stella (Linda Darnell), a sultry wrong-side-of-the-tracks bombshell working there as a waitress. [Fig. 2] These early scenes are almost a slap in the face, because the milieu they portray is so glamourless and threadbare, and so many of the people we see lack every vestige of refinement and conventional pleasantness.  In fact the movie conveys very well how these people are all scratching for a subsistence life, desperate for any slim hope of upward mobility, allergic to or unable to afford the niceties of civilized relationship with each other.  It’s a tough place to live, and the people who are trying to do the living are tough, and often nasty, too. Also present in the bar is old Pop, the proprietor (Percy Kilbride), and a sombre, rough-voiced, hard-looking man named Judd (Charles Bickford), a former New York cop who also shows a particular interest in Stella.

Fig 2

Although Eric is able to realize some cash by promoting for a fake spiritualist coming through town, the way he does it only reveals further depths of degradation in his character.  He is not a nice guy, and the means he uses to survive and get ahead materially show off the hucksterism and cheap salesmanship at the basement foundations of free enterprise.  It’s every man for himself here, and if that means playing on people’s weaknesses, or lowest instincts, or on their sentiments or their greed, well who can be choosy?  This universe of manipulation and dog-eat-dog also includes sex – because sex is virtually all that is left of the love or affection between couples in these circumstances.  The relationships of Stella with Eric, and Stella with practically every other man in the movie, are simply the female version of Stanton’s shysterism – the use of every tool available to get out of the rat trap she’s in.  Her attempts at betterment have basically been a succession of cheap two-week relationships with men who could show her a good time and give her trinkets, but who weren’t interested in anything more permanent.  Now she won’t settle for anything less than a marriage license and a home – though what Andrews is offering her is essentially more of the same. Among Stanton’s first targets are the sisters Clara Mills (Anne Revere) and her younger sister June (Alice Faye), seriously respectable women whose approval is important for the spiritualist’s success and Eric’s salesman’s cut. Soon, Stanton is hatching a scheme to romance June Mills, rob the sisters of their money, and use it to provide Stella with a home and family.

Contemporary viewers may wonder what is so awful about the milieu and the characters  in Fallen Angel, but anyone familiar with the movie standards of the 30s and early 40s will see it right away.  It is the sleaziness, the anti-idealism, the rejection of a simplified story where it is easy for characters to behave in a good and admirable way – the playing up instead of selfish motives, of seediness and failure, of lying and cheating and manipulating.  There is absolutely nothing edifying about what we see in most of this movie. But there is also another side of Walton than the seedy one exemplified by Pop’s diner and cheap hotel rooms – the one represented by the Mills sister.  Indeed there something not only respectable, but good and edifying: June Mills. [Fig. 3] She is the antitype of the Linda Darnell character—blonde instead of dark, virtuous instead of sexy, and middle-class educated instead of working-class instinctive.  She is held out as the ideal of decency and devotion who can redeem the fallen hero, and in enacting this scenario the movie becomes not only sentimental but also practically incoherent.

Fig 3

“Practically incoherent” is a good description of Fallen Angel.  Certainly the story has a bizarre structure, with characters and whole subplots showing up at length and then just disappearing.  That is what happens to the charlatan spiritualist Professor Madley (John Carradine), for example – and ultimately even to the character of Stella, who is right in the middle of things until she gets erased about two-thirds of the way through.  And then the opposite thing is happening to the character of June, who has practically nothing to do for the first third of the film and ends up in charge of everything.  The way the hero swerves violently from one woman to the other, and from one philosophy of life to another, is difficult to square with the classical narrative values of consistency and logic – and, even more important, hard to integrate into any kind of orderly world-view.  Of course this is a redemption story: the “fallen angel” of the title is Eric Stanton, and his conversion from the ways of error and failure to the ways of virtue and success is a very old convention of melodrama.  But the spectacle of Eric and June’s instant marriage – occurring offscreen without a single word of explanation – is jarring.  Worse follows, as Eric deserts June on their wedding night to go prowling after Stella. He asks Stella to accept his wedding proposal to her on the basis of his actual marriage to another woman, a patsy with money, whom he can ditch as soon as he gets the contents of her bank account. Stella naturally drops this lunatic immediately. [Fig. 4] Then, what seems like only minutes later, he is falling in love with June , getting utterly redeemed by her, and living happily ever after on her sympathy and her money.  All this violence to logic and sense is very hard to swallow.  This is bad dramatic construction – implausible, insufficiently grounded, poorly thought through, and relying far too much on hokey dramatic leaps.  Also, the character of June, with her infinite trust and womanly sacrifice and commitment, is politically nauseating.

Fig 4

But from another angle all these bizarre developments demonstrate the desperate condition of the male hero.  For there is a double vision of Eric Stanton.  He is smart and resourceful and talented and good-looking, he has all the tools to really be the hero and is played by the star performer Dana Andrews.  But he is also a three-time-loser, a penny-ante shyster, a skirt-chaser, a cheap manipulator of people’s feelings, really a con-artist in every way.  It is very disconcerting to the film itself that it should hold these two visions of the protagonist simultaneously; it is a state of schizophrenia that gives rise to a kind of hysteria.  It is as though the movie is looking at the underside of that heroic model of the street-smart loner male, the guy who has no advantages but the natural ones of talent and energy, and who is untainted by inherited money or excessive education or any connection with institutions of any kind – he is just the natural hero who inhabits a thousand American movies.  But in this movie the school of hard knocks has not made him better: if it has toughened him it has also coarsened him and worn him down.  What is under assault here is the whole ideology of individual masculine heroism.  It is terribly flawed, it needs to be saved by some June-type female, who can perform an ancient miracle and drag the protagonist up out of material despair and crude sensuality into middle-class security. And June’s pure faith and love are the polar opposite of Eric’s destructive neurosis.  He can only be healed by a female perfection that is strictly unbelievable.

What is remarkable is how strenuously, how violently, the movie batters that perfection with lies, insults, and humiliations.  That is what a man of Eric’s poor judgement, soiled morality, failure, and general incompetence to run his own life requires: a woman whose perfect faith in him and love for him are absolutely bulletproof. Such a woman is akin to something supernatural. The film offers a representative catalogue of the kinds of humiliations this man receives at the hands of the world. The opening scene is startling: he is rudely awoken by the bus driver telling him his ticket ran out at the previous stop (“I know that sleeping trick,” he tells Stanton, whose face is hidden under his hat). [Fig. 5]  Stanton asks the fare to San Francisco: it is $2.25, but all he has is a single dollar. That is a public shaming. He gets to Pop’s diner and orders a hamburger, but he never even gets to eat it, as it is whisked out from under him by Pop to give to Stella.  His masculine status is further challenged by the presence of the dark, brooding Judd – a man of true power, even violence.  Eric’s wheeling and dealing in Walton are all very painful to watch. His insincerity, his bland lying, are very clear to the viewer while remaining opaque to the locals.  When he finds June practising the organ in church, the scene is drenched with fakeness.  He praises her playing to the skies, tells her that Toscanini is appearing with the San Francisco Symphony the next day and he will talk to the maestro about her talent. She can be rich, famous, free.  The complete phoniness of Eric’s pretence to musical literacy is cringingly revealed as he identifies what she is playing as Beethoven, then Brahms, then Bach (in keeping with the program of her recital posted outside the church), all wrong guesses, and then tries to bluster past the errors (“the old masters – they all sound the same”).4  This is one of many examples of Stanton’s contempt for his fellow humans: try anything on them, the world is full of suckers. His behaviour towards June makes a long march from this blatant manipulation through feelings of panic and desperation in their hotel room in San Francisco on the run from the police, to his final melting into proper “angelic” status.  Everything boils down finally not to love or forgiveness, but to confidence.  He has lost his self-confidence5 and is thus reduced to the dry husk we see performing the empty acts of a confidence man.  What is most important about June is her faith in him, her confidence in his complete viability and his talents.[Fig. 6] In the end they are enough to restore his proper masculinity and allow him to solve the murder (Judd is the guilty one) and bring him to justice.

Fig 5
Fig 6

If June is Stella’s antitype as a woman, Judd is Stanton’s. [Fig. 7] Older, stern and unsmiling, radiating strength with his deep voice and his economy with words, he appears authentic in all the ways that Eric is fake. Part of his masculine authenticity is the lurking suggestion of violence, a trait that is confirmed in great detail later in the film when he beats up a suspect he knows is innocent. He is calm while Eric is skittery, solid where Eric is made of cardboard, and he offers a model of maleness that reproaches Eric in ways quite different from his own failures in money-making. The part is one of Charles Bickford’s best – never without his slouch-brimmed hat, pulling on a kid glove before administering a beating, running his massive ring clankingly along a radiator in his office. Since he (falsely as it turns out) represents the Law, since he wields the power of chastisement, Judd becomes a living embodiment of the punishing patriarchal superego, a looming terror to Stanton’s inadequate masculinity.  In the end Stanton’s confrontation with and victory over this superego armed with the spiritual power of June’s faith in him, renders him psychologically whole. Meanwhile, the women in the film show no destructive or self-destructive qualities whatever. June’s older sister Clara has had her heart broken and her bank-account raided by a worthless lover whom she trusted, and has remained a stable and considerate person. June is a paragon of paragons and saves an impossible situation.  And Stella’s behaviour is guided by completely understandable motives.  It is another remarkable feature of Fallen Angel that it displays the typical iconography of a femme fatale narrative – virtuous blonde (Alice Faye) versus dangerously sexy brunette (Linda Darnell) – but without any femme fatale. Stella is certainly cut out for the part visually, and she does indeed drive Eric to the kind of disastrous actions so characteristic of noir heroes under the spell of a deliriously desirable woman.  But that is entirely Eric’s doing: he comes on to her, and she indicates that she would be willing to have a relationship, but only within the institution of marriage. He is driven crazy by her, but she doesn’t drive him crazy.

Fig 7

Finally, then, all of the movie’s mad contortions may be read as a hysterical symptom of the failure of the male hero, and American patriarchal order, to function as they should.  Its writhings are the sign of its desperation.6  As with so many other noir films, inconsistencies and incongruities and desperate leaps actually add to the noir feeling.  When Stanton is reminded after Stella’s murder that he was just about to steal all of June’s money and run off with Stella, he has no explanation, he can only pass his hand over his brow and say truthfully that he doesn’t know what he was thinking about. On the one hand this is a pathetic excuse, and poor character construction for a movie that is planning to make Stanton into a real good guy.  But on the other hand it is dreamlike, confused, at the mercy of impulses for good or evil that the character can’t control and doesn’t even know about – in a word it is expressionist and noir.  By this standard the more incoherent and disordered a film noir becomes the more noir it is.

Fig 8

Whirlpool (1950)


Whirlpool displays few of the standard features of film noir narrative, but a film noir it is.  It is a movie that has received only passing attention and its story is an amalgam of family melodrama and noir.  Its heroine is Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), an educated and refined and well-to-do, and of course beautiful, woman married to eminent psychiatrist Dr William “Bill” Sutton (Richard Conte). [Fig. 8]  In the opening scene of the movie she is grabbed outside a swanky department store in the act of shoplifting a piece of jewellery.  The deed is witnessed by a totally strange man named David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) – a kind of astrologer/hypnotist/parlour-trick-artist – who arranges for the incident to be covered up but who then starts to slide himself into Ann’s life.  Immediately the story divides into two parts.  On the one hand there is Ann and her perfect marriage to her perfect husband – but obviously something is not right there because why is she shoplifting and suffering from headaches and insomnia?  And on the other hand there is the slimy and fascinating Korvo, who hypnotizes her into a good night’s sleep, starts making discreet passes at her, and explains that her whole condition is the result of the pretence involved in her too-perfect marriage.  He certainly looks like a con-man and probable sexual predator. [Fig. 9] The plot evolves further when a former patient of Korvo’s, Terry Randolph (Barbara O’Neil), is found murdered and many clues point to Ann Sutton as the killer.  She is charged and imprisoned, and has to be rescued by her husband, who has finally figured out a few things about his wife’s condition that had formerly been completely invisible to him.  The real murderer is, of course, Korvo, whose alibi that he was in hospital mere hours after having abdominal surgery seems, bafflingly, to clear him, before it is discovered that he is capable of hypnotising himself into feeling no pain and could leave the hospital during the time of the murder.

An important feature of the film is its interest in psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind.  Whirlpool was one of a number of films of the period whose narratives centrally featured psychoanalytic elements – among them Spellbound (1945), The Dark Mirror (1946), and Behind Locked Doors (1948). Screenwriter Ben Hecht was particularly fascinated, and both Spellbound and Whirlpool had scripts by him.7  It is certainly true that the psychological confusion of the Ann Sutton character is an open doorway to all the noir qualities of disorientation and dreamlike helplessness and compulsion.  So that the film almost begins to manifest neurotic symptoms itself in its efforts to disentangle the starkly different forms of psychic treatment it displays and their relative outcomes. The plot rises to a baroque climax in the final scenes, but even from the outset there is the sense of a hidden layer of pathology. There is something sick under the too-happy, too-wealthy, too-perfect married life of the Suttons, something whose immediate symptom is Ann’s kleptomania.  In Whirlpool this realm of hidden disease is strikingly enmeshed with the rival head-doctors (Sutton and Korvo) and their methods. The schematic juxtaposition is between neat, nice, bow-tied eminent psychoanalyst Dr Sutton, who cleanses people and makes them well again, and the sinister, literally mesmerising figure Korvo, who maybe invades people’s unconsciouses to befoul them and make them sick.  Korvo and the sick Ann Sutton are certainly far more noir, and far more interesting to the movie, than Dr Sutton and the well Ann Sutton (except insofar as the perfection of their relationship suggests its opposite).

This is the arena in which masculinity in crisis is staged.  Dr Sutton, who is repeatedly described by everyone as “brilliant” and a shining example of enlightened patriarchy, is supposed to be good, wise, resourceful, in charge, and so on.  But he keeps finding himself in false positions.  He is a psychiatrist whose wife exhibits compulsive behaviour he doesn’t even know about; he spends almost the whole movie in a condition of bafflement at the hands of this sleazy charlatan Korvo; his whole armoury of scientific knowledge and social prestige are nightmarishly ineffective; he just becomes powerless and confused. He is shocked and alarmed when his perfect wife is arrested for murder, then when he discovers she is a lifelong compulsive thief.  But he is even more deeply troubled when it is suggested with more than ample evidence that she is having an affair – and with this disgusting, slimy, alien specimen who is physically ugly and, in the Suttons’ circle, socially dubious.  The other important patriarchal figure in the film is the gruff police detective Colton (Charles Bickford, iconographically very reminiscent of himself in Fallen Angel).  He is in charge of the investigation, and is led around by the nose through Korvo’s carefully placed series of false clues incriminating Ann for his own murder of a former patient/lover whom he has cheated out of her daughter’s fortune. Colton is naturally sympathetic to Sutton, pillar of respectability and achievement that he is, but both of them are baffled for the longest time by events and by the impenetrable fog that Korvo has implanted in Ann. [Fig. 10]

Fig 9
Fig 10

On the other side is Korvo, the pure antitype of Suttton. He is not trained, registered, or officially recognized, moreover somehow foreign (Eastern European, perhaps? Levantine?), with a darkened complexion often covered in sweat, speaking in the elaborate paragraphs of an educated European. He is coded as foreign and also low or at any rate outside the white upper-middle-class social environment in which he circulates, someone who is in all ways too repellent to belong in the environment of respectable people.  But as in many other melodramas, he can be seen as symptomatic of something repressed in this society and in the individuals in it, namely the superficiality of that entire way of life.  In contrast to the ordinary society of the Suttons and their friends, and also in the context of Dr Sutton’s psychoanalysis, Korvo has access to (specifically) women’s underlying realms of desire, fear, impulses and drives.  These realms of the female unconscious are so unknown to “legitimate” psychoanalysis that they can only be reached by mysterious methods that the film presents as astrology and mesmerism – that is, forms of psychic understanding that resist reason and classification.[Fig. 11]  In fact the film has no answer to how Korvo is able to alleviate Ann’s headaches and cure her insomnia. All the pills her husband has been prescribing don’t work, and leave her feeling “jumpy.” And, unlike Korvo, he has no inkling that his wife is in distress.  When she sees Bill immediately after Korvo liberates her from her shoplifting detention the husband and wife are almost sickeningly loving and kind. She apologizes profusely for interrupting a session, and says, “I often wish I were brighter and you could talk to me about your scientific problems,” to which he replies, “Stay just as you are, as you’ve always been – healthy and adorable.”  After this one feels that Korvo has insights that the “brilliant” psychoanalyst lacks. As he tells Ann,“What an advertisement for a psychoanalyst: ‘Married unaware to a kleptomaniac.’” And his hypnosis works as if by magic, and almost seems like magic in this context. That he is also clearly trying to get her into a sexual relationship is odious, and she never responds to any of his advances, even when he tells her: “your soul can undress in front of me.” As things unfold, we learn details of his criminally manipulative behaviour. His profession is separating women from their money.  Then we find that his last victim has been murdered.  Korvo’s villainy is no longer a matter of low class and slithering style, but now of fraud, blackmail and violence. So that his overtones of disease and dangerous insinuation now rise to the level of monstrosity, and his role can be compared to that of the monster in a horror film. Following Robin Wood’s influential analysis,8 the monster is produced exactly through oppressions and inadequacy of “normal” society.  That characterisation works particularly well, I think, in the patriarchal world of the whiter-than-white Dr Sutton, his breezy consciousness of virtue and distinction, his bland self-consciousness, and his imperviousness to his wife’s emotional condition and failure to minister to it effectively. Meanwhile Korvo’s outrages to propriety, foul lusts, and predatory narcissism rise to an epic level at the end of the film. He becomes fabulously monstrous when he hypnotizes himself and drags himself from his hospital bed, finally when he bleeds to death while still trying to control and manipulate everything. [Figs. 12-13]  It is perhaps José Ferrer’s finest moment.9

Fig 11
Fig 12
Fig 13

The battle between Korvo and the forces of “normal” patriarchal society is finally a battle for legitimacy. The whole movie is about establishing the correct hierarchy of male power, seen in terms of scientific knowledge and professional credentials: Dr Sutton is supposed to be on top, then the police detective Colton; and what they have to defeat is a kind of illegitimate perversion of male power as represented by Korvo, the quack, the unlicensed practitioner. Both Sutton and Colton are professionals with prescribed, codified methods, and legal standing; Korvo’s methods are so blurred that one can hardly say what they are, and his standing is almost subterranean.  And the particular ground for this battle is for the control of women, in particular Ann Sutton (but also Terry Randolph, a patient of both men).  Korvo’s illegal, unholy, unnatural power is, again, power over women, whom he somehow enslaves through a combination of sexuality and mumbo-jumbo. Sutton’s efforts to reincorporate his wife into his own system of treatment and understanding are strenuous and desperate, presenting him in a tarnished condition that no man of his eminence and polished surface should have to endure.  As much as anything else, it is Sutton’s bewildered suffering that presents a noir situation: a man drained of his power and confidence, a figure of masculinity unmanned.

Fig 14

Ann Sutton, usefully described by Sheri Chinen Biesen as “a naïve gothic ingenue,” reminds us of the fact that the film is also a women’s melodrama.10  Ann’s very extensive confusion and misery present melodrama’s familiar suffering woman at the centre of the action. Her state is one of permanent bewilderment: “I don’t know,” “I don’t remember,” “I’m not sure,” followed by a collapse into tears.  This amnesiac condition is in fact a familiar, and perfect, symptom of the noir condition. [Fig. 14]  But if Sutton and Korvo are men in a rivalry for control of her, she herself is a completely passive figure.  Women in Whirlpool are just creatures of unconscious impulse and compulsive behaviour, whose problems come from their necessary dependence on men, and whose health or sickness is totally a matter for men to take care of.  Ann is sick because of her father, because of her husband, and because of Korvo.  Her innate condition of compliance and childishness and self-indulgence simply passes from one man’s control to another’s. In any case she doesn’t have anything to say about it, she is just under the sway of a good doctor or a perverted bad doctor, an indulgent father or a stern father, an all-knowing husband or a somewhat-uninformed husband.  Ann Sutton is infantilized, she is made into a spoiled child who takes to stealing because she can’t have candy whenever she wants it; she develops a complex because her husband forbids her luxuries just like her father did.  It is noteworthy that when Bill denied her money it was because he insisted she be a poor doctor’s wife.  Why?  To satisfy his male vanity, and the patriarchal structure that said that it was shameful for a man not to be the sole financial support of his wife. The final line of the movie belongs to the policeman Colton: “I’ll pass Mrs Sutton over to your custody, Doctor.” Custody is the word.

There is also a subversive and potent subtext in the scenario, where Ann is having an affair with Korvo, and where all of his analyses are simply correct, while Sutton’s straight-arrow expectations and values truly are delusional.  The movie cannot really look this subtext in the face – the subtext that says that the Suttons and the Coltons are the inhuman ones, and true humanity consists of really sexual David Korvo giving Ann Sutton a satisfaction, and a good night’s sleep, she could never get from Mr Clean.  In the end the story tries to set everything straight again, as it should be, as it should have been from the beginning.  But as with so many noir films, Whirlpool has really taken too many things out of the box to put them all back in neatly again, has uncovered a problem which it really cannot solve.

Fig 15

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends – bearer of my personal favourite of all evocative noir titles – is a proper and generically uncontroversial film noir.  Its protagonist is Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), a police detective with a consistent record of violent intimidation of suspects (“twelve more legitimate complaints against you this month, for assault and battery” says his boss at the beginning of the movie). [Fig. 15]  He is busted down a rank and warned that if there is any more trouble of this kind he will be a beat cop again. His reaction is unrepentant disgust at the concern for these “hoods, dusters, mugs,” whereupon Inspector Foley (Robert F. Simon) says that Dixon “likes to beat them up – your job is to detect criminals, not to punish them.” At a private gambling room run by gangster Tommy Scalese (Gary Merrill), a craps game is going on, and a wealthy visiting Texan named Morrison (Harry Von Zell) is up $19,000 and wants to leave.  Scalese is indignant, and turns on the man who has brought this customer, Kenneth Paine (Craig Stephens), because Paine has brought in a mark who has run the table. [Fig. 16] Paine drunkenly strikes his companion, Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), hard across the face, and when Morrison comes to her defence a prolonged struggle ensues during which Morrison is fatally knifed by Scalese. The murder investigation is headed by newly appointed gung-ho police lieutenant Thomas (Karl Malden), who fixes on the fled Paine as the murderer, and assigns Dixon to find him and talk to him.

Now the film turns seriously noir. Dixon visits Paine in his dingy hotel room. Paine is drunk and cop-hating. He refuses to come along for questioning, and slugs Dixon and goes after him with a bottle. There is a brief fight, Dixon lands a solid punch to the jaw, and Paine goes down. But Paine is dead.  Nothing Dixon has done has been out of line in the least, but how will this look, given his history?  Nevertheless, he is just about to pick up the phone to call headquarters when it rings. It is his partner Paul Klein (Bert Freed), and Dixon tells his first lie: he hasn’t seen Paine, Paine wasn’t home. Paul tells him: “Go easy on him – he’s a war hero. A lot of medals and a lot of newspaper stories. When he got out of the service he wrote a syndicated column for a couple of months.”  So a sleazy, alcoholic, violently abusive scumball is instantly transformed into not just a respectable citizen but an actual hero. Immediately everything is turned on its head. Paine appears like a crime victim, and Dixon has gone from hero to guilty lawbreaker. [Fig. 17] As in so many noirs, a small moment of indecision, then poor judgement, sets the protagonist on an agonizing path.  He convinces himself that he must dispose of Paine’s body, so he dresses himself in Paine’s coat and hat and adorns himself with the small bandage that Paine has acquired from his fight at Scalese’s, packs up all his things in a bag labelled with Paine’s name and goes out to a waiting cab, then to the train station to buy a ticket to Pittsburgh.  Back then to his day job: searching Paine’s apartment with his partner, he opens the closet where he has stowed Paine’s body and reports nothing.  Later, he returns to the apartment and hoists the body onto his shoulder, but is interrupted (and hides) when Morgan’s father Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully) appears at Paine’s door ready to knock his block off for his mistreatment of Morgan. [Fig. 18, Fig. 19] Then it is off to the docks, where he saps a night watchman and slides Paine’s body into the river.

Fig 16
Fig 17
Fig 18
Fig 19

These events represent another sinister turn of the narrative’s giant machine that is enveloping Dixon in a remorseless, tightening grip.  Each decision, each calculation, each move is transformed in this way. First Paine’s body is found, and is immediately classified as a murder victim. Dixon is now assigned to the Paine murder investigation, an excruciating process during which he must witness in extended detail his own potential detection while playing as minimal a role as possible as an actual policeman. Then, Paine’s bag that Dixon had consigned to oblivion in a locker at the train station is identified.  And then, direst of all, bloodstains from Paine’s corpse are detected at his own rooming house where Dixon had hidden while Jiggs Taylor had visited.  So the conclusion is that Paine has been murdered in his own room, and Dixon has to do some elaborate fabrication to account for how he could have missed the murder, since he was at Paine’s apartment at the right time.  There remains one solid suspect: Jiggs Taylor – and Thomas has this happy, cop-loving innocent arrested on the spot. Dixon’s exit from the house dressed as Paine had been witnessed through a window by the old landlady living in the basement apartment. Thomas tells Jiggs to put on Paine’s coat and hat and a face-bandage and leave the house so the old lady can see if she recognizes him.  This is of course a questionable demand, and Jiggs refuses.11 So Thomas orders Paine to conduct the charade. [Fig. 20] This produces one of the most surreally noir moments in the entire genre, where the trapped protagonist is forced to become the “innocent” doppelgänger of his own guilty self.  Horrifying.  There is a final twist when the landlady finally understands that the man she saw leaving was not her tenant, because he didn’t wave to her (a final touch in Paine’s rehabilitation).  Thomas immediately charges Jiggs with murder.12

Fig 20

Meanwhile, Dixon has been seeing Morgan Taylor, at first in the line of duty, then more casually. Morgan, rather like June Mills in Fallen Angel, is a perfect woman.  It is another disconcerting fact that Paine turns out to have been not just a drunken, boorish date for a gambling night, but her actual husband. She has felt sorry for him, understood him as a suffering individual. It is another detail in the transformation of a man who was a worthless dog when we first encountered him. If Gene Tierney, never more beautiful and sympathetic, can have loved this man, how wrong was Dixon’s summary judgement of him, and how much more awful is the thought of him stuffing the man’s corpse in his car and dumping it in the river.  Dixon and Morgan dine at his favourite little neighbourhood restaurant run by the endlessly bantering Martha, the apple of whose eye Dixon is.  The whole developing relationship, driven by Morgan’s tenderness and warmth, exists under a dark shadow that she knows nothing of. Her intense gratitude for Dixon in helping her, and then going to great lengths to help her arrested father, is a bitter counterpoint to his own hypocrisy and lies: the more she loves him, the more he loathes himself.  And he is of course in love with her: how could he not be?  He follows the increasingly difficult path of trying to defend Jiggs, ending with coming up with $1000 for the retainer of the best lawyer in New York.  In doing so, he is forced to ask his partner for $300 to make up the sum, and there is a telling little scene between Paul and his wife, who points out the insults Dixon has recently inflicted on her husband before reluctantly giving over her jewels to be pawned (“who knows? I might even get to wear them some day.”) But the lawyer turns the case down as too hopeless. [Fig. 21] Dana Andrews’s stone face looks ever more severe as Morgan unknowingly twists the knife by showering extravagant praise on him (“I never heard of anything so generous – you’re an amazing man! I could kiss you right here.”) We may note how there is now a genuine bandage on Dixon’s face to match the fake one he has worn twice.

Fig 21

Ultimately, of course, Dixon is going to have to confess. He finally comes to this conclusion at Morgan’s apartment, where he visits her in a state of confusion after receiving a beating at Scalese’s, now a textbook noir protagonist (“Where the devil am I? I keep coming and going. I don’t know why I came here.”) [Fig. 22] In anguish, he pours out his childhood history to Morgan – to be met as always with her dewy sympathy. As she sleeps, he sits down to write a suicide note for his Inspector to be opened in the event of his death, then goes to Scalese’s hideout expressly to get killed by the gangster. [Fig. 23]  Everyone, especially Scalese himself, remarks on how deranged Dixon’s obsessive pursuit of him is. “It’s a fancy way of trying to frame somebody – by getting yourself knocked off,” he says, “a guy has gotta be out of his head for that.” The answer lies another feature of Dixon’s personality. He is trying to atone for the fact that his father, Sandy Dixon, had been a criminal boss himself, and had set Scalese up in business.  The anger he brings to his violent treatment of hoods and thugs springs from this gnawing torment. Now, in adopting a criminal course after his accidental killing of Paine he has repeatedly betrayed the very profession of cop that he has inhabited as a means of denying his hated patrimony. All of this is worked out in Scalese’s hideout, where the gangster pours scorn on all of Dixon’s actions, and proposes to lock him into the building while the whole gang flees the country. As Scalese crows over the wounded Dixon:

You’ve been walking around all night, half cop and half killer. The man who hates crooks! The law that works by itself! The cop who can’t stand to see a killer loose. A hood and a mobster, like his old man.

Meanwhile at the jail they are questioning one of Scalese’s heavies, Steve (Neville Brand). The Inspector tells Thomas, “Try talking to this guy – like Dixon would.” They administer a beating, and Steve coughs up all the incriminating evidence against his boss. This is rather amazing, given the early scene in which the same Inspector was busting Dixon down in rank for exactly this behaviour.  At this point one has to ask whether the film is against cops who act like thugs or for cops who act like thugs. It is undecidable, like so many plot elements in Hollywood cinema that transform themselves pragmatically in accordance with the exigencies of the narrative.  A cop should respect a citizen’s rights, but a cop need not respect a citizen’s rights. Meanwhile Dixon manages to lock the whole crew of criminals in the vehicle elevator of the building until the police arrive.  At the station, the Inspector gushes over Dixon’s success, giving him his old rank back and recommending him for promotion. Jiggs has been cleared, it seems, without a single event presented for this about-face. Who killed Paine, then? More pragmatism, or perhaps in this case slipshod writing. Dixon, now completely in the clear, asks for the letter to be opened and read aloud.  He must finally remove himself from his own trap, prove his virtue to the viewer, and disentangle the lies he has been telling to Morgan. The now angry Inspector places him under arrest, but no force on earth can deflect Morgan’s tidal wave of sympathy. [Fig. 24]  Misty closeups, a final kiss, blackout.

Fig 22
Fig 23
Fig 24

Where the Sidewalk Ends once more shows the central male character in the kind of helpless, untenable situation. Like all of the noir heroes I am talking about here, Dixon is unable to fulfill the dominant role of problem solver and master of the narrative that classical narrative expects of him. He begins in a position of power: he is the protagonist, he is a police detective, he has courage and strength, he is intelligent and exercises initiative, in short he is so placed as to be dominant.  But all of these potential tools of command are instead turned into the instruments of his own entrapment.  Every skill must be turned against his own ideal self, and, as we have seen, almost the whole movie consists of an almost virtuoso elaboration of torture, a machine almost like the one in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony that inscribes the sins of the miscreant upon his own flesh. He can be rescued from this hellish fate only at the expense of his career and his freedom.  Luckily, he has the redeeming love of the flawless, all-forgiving woman to console him.


Angel Face (1953)

Angel Face is the most powerful, and also the most widely admired,13 of Preminger’s noirs.  It was made at RKO instead of at Fox, with Howard Hughes particularly requesting Preminger and giving him carte blanche for what was to be Jean Simmons’s final film for her contract.14 The protagonist, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) gets tangled up with the beautiful Diane Tremayne (Simmons), daughter of Charles (Herbert Marshall) and stepdaughter of Catherine (Barbara O’Neil), Charles’s second wife. Diane is a creature of moods, sometimes bright and lively, more often darkly moody. Diane meets Frank when he arrives driving an ambulance to minister to Catherine, who has been nearly gassed to death in her bedroom – an event we suspect and are later quite assured that Diane deliberately caused. She sits at her piano, playing sombre, Scriabinesque music and looking almost as though not there. [Figs. 25, 26] Diane decides she wants Frank, and wrests him away from his no-nonsense blonde girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman).  Before the war, Frank was a professional race-car driver, and in the service was a tank commander. He has ambitions to open his own auto repair shop catering to racing cars. He openly admires Diane’s car, a Jaguar XKE that her father describes as a “horrible little jet-propelled torpedo.” She suggests he race her car at Daytona, with her paying entrance fees, and also that he should apply to her stepmother for a loan backing his auto shop.  To facilitate this, she persuades him to take a job as the Tremayne chauffer, living in an apartment in an out-building of the grounds.

Fig 25
Fig 26

We discover how very close she is with her father, playing chess with him, bringing him milk and cookies at his bedtime, and generally wrapped in mutual love with him. [Fig. 27] Charles is “a very famous writer,” but has written nothing since marrying Catherine and coming to America from Britain. The marriage is the age-old arrangement whereby an upper-class Englishman gets a rich American wife.  He brings class, wit, refinement, education, and she brings money, which she administers herself.  He has been cadging more and more allowance money from his wife, as he is not at all good at staying on a budget. Diane resents Catherine for causing her father’s loss of inspiration, and when Catherine decides to fund Frank’s business, but then changes her mind, she is brought to a pitch of quiet hatred.  She sets up the murder of Catherine by sabotaging the family car before Catherine’s regular trip to the city. But Charles decides at the last minute to get a lift with her, and both parents are killed when the car accelerates backwards over a 180-foot escarpment. This crash, staged a second time at the end of the movie, is one of the most brutal scenes of physical violence in classical Hollywood. Down, down, and down plummets the car, through four different camera positions, crashing off rocks and outcrops, with pieces flying off and brutal collisions, to rest at the bottom of the cliff, a picture of utter and final destruction. [Figs. 28, 29, 30]

Fig 27
Fig 28
Fig 29
Fig 30

The police discover that Diane and Frank were involved, and planning to leave together, and further investigation reveals that the car has been rigged to malfunction.  Both of them are charged with murder.  The Tremayne lawyer has brought in Fred Barrett (Leon Ames), “the best trial lawyer in the country,” to defend Diane. She is in a state of collapse in the prison hospital, just coming off a long bout with sedatives. She immediately confesses to the murder, insists that Frank had nothing to do with it, and will accept a death sentence as a just punishment for her crime. [Fig. 31] At this point Barrett becomes virtually the controller of the narrative. When Diane insists on the truth of her confession, he says, “the truth is what the jury decides.” He declares that the two must be tried together,15 and that they get married to each other in prison. During the actual trial – which features an extended sequence detailing the tinkering with the car – Barrett demolishes the technical arguments, explains that the prosecution has no hard evidence at all, and sums up for the jury the story of two innocent young people who committed the crime of falling in love. The pro forma wedding in jail is made even crueller by a chorus of women inmates singing the hymn “Oh Promise Me” – a tender, lovely tune.16 [Fig. 32] The newly-weds return home, and Frank’s first act is to announce he is getting out and applying for a divorce.  Diane says that Mary won’t take him back, and bets him her Jaguar that she will turn him down, a bet he is happy to take. Diane visits Barrett once more, again to make a witnessed confession, only to be told that double jeopardy means she cannot be charged for the crime and the only thing the law could do to her would be to put her in an insane asylum.  The confident Frank visits Mary, now in a relationship with Bill, and finds that indeed she will not have him.  Frank returns in the Jaguar to Diane, who offers to drive him to his bus out of town. She brings out a bottle of champagne, and Frank opens it while Diane jams the gearshift into reverse and plunges the car backwards over the escarpment and through that excessively brutal gauntlet of destruction. The ending is savage. (There is a pitiless epilogue: the cab that Frank had ordered to take him to his bus arrives, stops, honks the horn twice, the driver gets out of the car and looks expectantly towards the mansion now cleared of everyone by death.  End credits.) [Fig. 33]

Fig 31
Fig 32

Angel Face has received the most scholarly analysis of any of these films except Laura. The reasons are clear: the film is a fascinating contribution to themes and topics that run right through noir. (In my view the best and most penetrating single contribution is Richard Lippe’s “At the Margins of Film Noir: Preminger’s Angel Face.”17  Lippe looks closely exactly at the issues of gender, class, and cars in the film that are hermeneutic categories for me, and many of his views overlap with my own.)  The film, then, explores three large categories – gender, class and money – and one smaller one focusing on automobiles as symbols of power and social and cultural standing.  These categories are permanently intertwined, so that it is difficult to deal with any of them separately. To begin with the last category, we can note how cars and other vehicles operate metaphorically in the film. Frank Dunlop’s character is firmly rooted in them: Frank the mechanic, Frank the entitled owner of the technology of going and stopping and constructing and repairing, Frank the former race-driver and tank commander. All this history and knowledge form the basis of Frank’s entrepreneurial hopes of making a secure, higher place in society. Class is operative at this level – a wish to rise – and so is gender.  These qualities are also an important basis of Frank’s masculinity, his power and control over his own life and over the women who enter it. But the most important car, the Jaguar, belongs to Diane. Moreover Diane “fixes” her parents’ death-car, and finally she is at the wheel when she drives it over a cliff.  Frank “naturally” climbs behind the wheel for their first time out, and demonstrates his sense of superiority in this realm when Diane asks him “Think you can drive it?” and he replies complacently, “Oh, I think so.”  The Jaguar equals power, and also sexuality and danger, and its name signifies it as a predatory big cat.  And (it is worth repeating), it is Diane’s. She lends it to him to drive, she proposes to enter him at Daytona. She always gives it to him, it’s not his.  He is supposed to the driver, but she is really the driver. In the end it is the prize in their final bet – a bet that she wins. She definitively and finally takes charge of the car as it rockets sickeningly backwards into the fatal drop. The big trial scene which features the actual engine with a male expert who expounds it has as a significant component the assumption that of course a woman could not have mastered this technology. [Fig. 34]  But it is revealed to the viewer here that Diane (whom we know to have done the tampering) is the master of cotter pins, bell cranks, and throttle retractor springs. As in so many ways, she has trespassed on the masculine realm in all of this.

Fig 34

We have now entered the realm of gender, where Diane’s femininity and Frank’s masculinity are in a kind of struggle, just as Catherine’s femininity and Charles’s masculinity are. On every occasion, femininity wins – or, perhaps more basically, masculinity loses.  It is entirely relevant that Frank is played by Robert Mitchum, perhaps the single most “natural” bearer of masculinity in the whole period. [Fig. 35]  His slow, cat-like movements, his sleepy manner, his complete ease in any situation are marks of his masculine confidence, and of course his physical stature  and his deep, drowsy voice are further parts of the charismatic package. Frank is a driver on an exalted level – race cars, then tanks.  It is mysterious and almost nightmarish how all the old shibboleths fail to work. Mitchum’s tough self-reliance evaporates; he is a domestic servant instead of an entrepreneur; his protestations of how he is too smart to get mixed up in this are at first credible (coming from Mitchum), but are in the end pathetically wrong.  His macho history as race-car driver and tank driver has somehow slipped through his fingers and is mocked.  He is the chauffeur both of whose cars go backwards over a cliff, one because the female has tampered with the mechanism, the other because she is behind the wheel.  Also, he moves from the humiliation of the white-apron-like hospital uniform and its attendant limitation of regular living, regular saving for a big purchase, and regular girl (who is also at the hospital) to the humiliation of being a resident servant wearing actual livery. When Diane broaches that suggestion, he says, “No, I don’t think I’m quite the type for that. ‘Yes sir.’ ‘No ma’am.’ ‘Home, driver.’ ‘Walk the dog, Franklin.’” Yet he ends up doing exactly that. [Fig. 36] Similarly, other pronouncements meet a similar fate: “I’m a free agent,” he says, and “I’m not getting involved – how stupid do you think I am?”, and “I learned one thing very early: never be the innocent bystander, that’s the one who always gets hurt.” There is a stark contrast between harmless “steady guy” Bill Compton, with his bow tie and his pure devotion to Mary, and macho Frank, whose first words to her are to lie that he is too tired to keep their date while actually sitting next to Diane.  Frank definitely suffers from rooster’s hubris. He can get Mary back whenever he wants, he can put her on the back burner while he dallies with Diane.  But he can’t; he can’t stay in control with Diane, and when he tries to bail out back to Mary she won’t have him.  This complacent macho ego is just flattened – without the movie’s ever making an overt point of it.

Fig 35
Fig 36

Viewers of Angel Face start out with the assumption that of course the male protagonist will triumph in the end – or if he doesn’t, he will at least achieve the stature of a good man, a tragic victim. The spectacle of this natural masculine winner losing every contest is first disconcerting, then embarrassing, and finally depressing and sad. Another protagonist enduring this unending gauntlet might descend to the status of a sad sack, a loser, a mere punching bag.  But Mitchum simply cannot occupy that role, not in 1953.18 A useful comparison may be drawn with the great noir Out of the Past (1947), which also features Mitchum dying in a car crash at the hands of a too-powerful woman; but there he is a sacrificial victim, a man who has completely regained his moral stature and his proper masculinity.  Mitchum in Angel Face never reaches that goal. To the contrary, his end – which arrives as a result of his firm intention to leave Diane – is terrible and meaningless. To behold Mitchum enduring this relentless process of what we may well call castration is exactly cruel and unusual punishment for viewers.  Similar things are happening to Diane’s beloved father, who has been reduced to an impotent figure who has given up his once considerable status as a successful writer for the role of a witty and eloquent pet poodle.  Even at the level of the servants, the male house servant is constantly being nagged by his wife (eliciting Frank’s comment, “I thought that in Japan the men wore the pants.”) The only male in the film with any real power is Barrett the lawyer, and his power is vested in complete cynicism and straight-faced twisting of the facts; emphatically nothing “natural” about him.

Diane, meanwhile, has many of the classic qualities of the femme fatale. She is beautiful, sexually alluring, manipulative, ruthless, and finally murderous. Commentators rarely have difficulty with this characterization.  Eugene Arthur says that she has “the personality of a raging psychopath,”19 and Tag Gallagher describes her as “a witch” and “a vampire.” And yet she is not a good fit for that role, given her selflessness in the later stages of the film. [Fig. 37] She wants to tell the truth, she wants to exonerate Frank and accuse herself, even to the point of being put to death by the state. At the end, after they are both acquitted, she responds to the lawyer’s reassurance, “Now that it’s off your conscience…”, with “It will never be off my conscience, Mr Barrett.“ Putting it this way, it might seem as though she develops as a character: first a harpy, then redeemed by self-sacrifice.  But that is also not a good description of Diane.  Instead, she seems to be inscrutable even to herself. [Figs. 38, 39, 40] Paul Mayersberg offers this telling desciption:

Characteristically, she talks incessantly about “not knowing,” “not understanding” and “not realising.” She sits and plays the piano alone in a darkened room. She wanders, lost, through the rooms of her huge, deserted house. She stares over the empty cliffs at the rocks hundreds of feet below. And she gazes sadly at the camera with a child’s face and eyes.20

Her music is wonderful.21 Dark, moody tone clusters on the piano, near the end of the film repeated and expanding to full orchestra as she contemplates the cliff over which she is going to send the car. Moment later the reverse happens: the music is non-diegetically on the soundtrack, and Diane plays the same music on the piano, joining and overlapping with it.  She is at one with it, in all dimensions.

Fig 37
Fig 38
Fig 39
Fig 40

Opaque, instinctive, brooding, she is capable of controlling events from some dark, secret place as if hypnotized.  And yet her control brings her nothing but grief. Her father-love and Mitchum-love become a death impulse. She is almost a kind of dark angel of death with her “angel face” and her dark hair and clothes, her closed expression, moodiness, and irrationality. Her name, Diane, descends from that of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt – but also of chastity, and the moon. She can be easily identified as a huntress, but can she be a goddess of chastity? Somehow, yes, because of the single-minded purity of her obsessions.  Her Electra-like love of her father is certainly not carnal, and even in the midst of her frequent kissing sessions with Frank she seems cool. Her white face framed by black hair and black clothing is like a moon in the dark sky, and like the moon she is cool and not hot. The scenes of her moonlit trysts with Frank are very apt, in this respect. [Fig. 41] It is fascinating in this context to read some of Wikipedia’s remarks on the goddess Diana:

Diana was often considered an aspect of a triple goddess, known as Diana triformis: Diana, Luna, and Hecate. According to historian C.M. Green, these were neither different goddesses nor an amalgamation of different goddesses. They were Diana…Diana as huntress, Diana as the moon, Diana of the underworld.22

Adding “Diana of the underworld” to the list chimes beautifully with Diane’s other goddess-traits.

Fig 41

At any rate Diane has a kind of female power that is nothing like that of her stepmother.  We see Catherine at first through the smokescreen of Diane’s calumnies against her. But as even Diane realizes in the end, she is a kind and generous woman, whose will leaves her estate to Diane rather than to Charles, who is unreliable with money.  But Catherine does manifest the kind of social, and above all financial, power that was in the period liable to be described as “mannish.” The film makes no criticism of her, however. Certainly somebody with practical gifts is needed to manage the hopeless Charles’s life for him. [Fig. 42] Charles is too refined, too poetic, to be pragmatic, and yet his refinement and literary gifts are producing absolutely nothing at this stage and so cannot be weighed in the balance against his practical dysfunction.  Mary, meanwhile, takes up the familiar role of the good blonde, opposite of the dark femme fatale. She is prosaic, sensible, down-to-earth, pretty but not irresistibly alluring.  Many of these noir good girls triumph at the end of the movie, when the hero has finally understood that virtue is better than vice – although in many cases it is too late for the hero (Out of the Past again offers a good example).  Here, Mary ends up with the even more bland Bill, while Diane hurtles Frank over the cliff. [Figs. 43, 44]

Fig 42
Fig 43
Fig 44

We may turn now to the related issues of class and money.  It is essential to the film that its hero must be an ordinary American with bravery, street smarts, and a plan for moving up the social and economic ladder through his own gifts and ambition. He is uneducated, uncultured, ordinary.  Being Robert Mitchum, he is also instantly recognized as the charismatic hero whose business it is to dominate the narrative. He is confronted with Diane and her father, and with Catherine. Both Charles and Diane are British, and speak with educated accents.  This alone places them on a higher social plane than Frank.  He recognizes their type, but really he does not understand them at all – nor does he wish to.  Mainstream viewers, too, recognize this cultural battle of class, and expect that the rugged American hero will prove superior to these people whose refinements are exactly what America exists to leave behind.  Catherine is not the same: her power is founded in material wealth. She may move in circles that bring her together with people such as Charles and his daughter, but she lacks their artistic interests and sophistication (in one scene she chides Charles for simply sitting there listening to “his music” – a Mozart symphony).  Music is another bond between father and daughter: Frank can take Diane to a dance and be right at home, but he can never penetrate the depths of her own music, or Charles’s. Catherine too is excluded from this world, but her wealth – and the innate confidence and poise that comes with it – is enough to make up for any high-cultural deficit. Frank too must acknowledge Catherine’s status, in fact bow before it. In the scene where Frank is submitting his proposal for his garage, she plays exactly the role of a bank manager, and Frank that of a humble petitioner. So many of Frank’s humiliations come as a result of class and financial inferiority.  Although he instinctually rebels against being a chauffeur or asking any kind of favour from the Tremaynes – as an American hero of his kind should – he is enmeshed in their “high” world to such a degree that he rendered permanently uncomfortable.

One of the most remarkable things about Angel Face is the way it carries these deconstructions of Mitchum-esque masculinity all the way to the broader social level.  Barrett the lawyer is a sublime exegete of exactly how barren of heroic values the patriarchal world of laws and virtue is.  A teacher he is, first of Frank and Diane regarding the practical necessities of lying and misleading to gain a crucial advantage, then of how to manipulate facts in the courtroom. As he discusses trial strategy with the Tremayne family lawyer Arthur Vance (Raymond Greenleaf):

Barrett: Certainly they were lovers and not ashamed to admit it. But a tragic accident and the intervention of the police prevented their elopement. But even prison bars cannot change their love or halt the marriage.

Vance: But wouldn’t the district attorney block it?

Barrett: He wouldn’t dare stand in the path of true love with an election coming up in November.23

The strong pressure he exerts on the pair to get married is particularly derisory. After all the actual romantic interchanges between Diane and Frank, their “loving” relationship will be solemnized at exactly the moment when all that Frank wants is to get as far away from Diane as he can. Then Frank, and we, must sit still while Barrett speechifies about young love to the courtroom.  There is nothing left of the majesty of the law after this, and romantic narrative conventions are exploded at the same time.  The whole world of patriarchy – of male authority in relationships and in society – receives mortal blows in Angel Face.  Even the idea of truth itself is eviscerated. “The truth is what the jury says it is,” says Barrett. Truth is no less contingent than all the other certainties of the film. All of existing ideology’s claims to legitimacy and virtue and wisdom go crashing down that terrible annihilating cliffside.


To conclude, I will simply reiterate that there is something peculiarly systematic about these films’ assaults on ideologically functional masculinity. Although Preminger himself was not especially enamoured of several of the projects, and in some cases had no role at all in choosing the material, their thematic persistence seems collectively to be the expression of an authorial angle of view. Certainly the visual style of the films – dreamlike, fluid, enigmatic – creates the right aura of trance-like uncertainty that is here somehow lodged in the heart of mainstream Hollywood classicism.  The motif of weakness and failure where there are supposed to be strength and achievement is strangely insistent, and the disorienting mood is so similar. Altogether, Preminger’s noirs seize on the crisis of masculinity that runs right through film noir, and form a distinct and individual moment.

1 Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009, p. 7.

2 Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, E.P. Dutton 1968, p. 105.

3 Partly this essay was jump-started by the appearance of Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, and Where the Sidewalk Ends on Blu-Ray issues from the British Film Institute. Sadly, though, Angel Face can only be had in lesser video formats.

4 The program for the recital is as follows:

Beethoven – Stabat Mater

Brahms – Requiem

Bach – Jesus in Gethsemane

Beethoven never wrote a Stabat Mater, Brahms’s (German) Requiem is a choral and orchestral piece lasting over an hour, and Bach’s Jesus in Gethsemane is a cantata aria not by “the” Bach but by his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel.  These egregious errors cannot be accidental, so must be a joke perpetrated by the writer or perhaps the composer of the film, and the viewer can be the joke’s only target.

5 At one point he pleads with Stella, “If only you had confidence in me.”

6 I am reminded of the 1938 movie Angels With Dirty Faces, which has actually to make the brave and honourable gangster protagonist pretend to break down in screams on his way to the electric chair – in order to provide a corrective example to the slum hoodlums who idolize him. How this is supposed to work on actual teenaged viewers who know the sobs and struggles are a noble imposture rather than the cowardice of an unworthy hoodlum is a complete mystery. Some fractures in ideology give rise to panic and irrationality in their narrative vehicles, fractures that can only be healed by cheating.

7 Whirlpool was co-written with Hungarian Andrew Solt.

8 See Robin Wood’s seminal analyses of the horror genre in the 1970s, in which he argues that the monster is something produced by the sins of the society it preys upon.  Korvo is a kind of more discreet horror monster in the more discreet social context of Whirlpool. See Wood, ed., The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film (Toronto 1979).

9 Foster Hirsch remarks à propos Ferrer’s performance:

José Ferrer offers the enticing spectacle of a phony actor playing a phony actor. The hamminess that was to curdle almost all of Ferrer’s work is exactly the point here: Korvo is an out-and-out charlatan.

Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King (New York, Alfred Knopf 2007), p. 165.

10 Sheri Chenin Biesen, “Psychology in American Film Noir and Hitchcock’s Gothic Thrillers,”

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, Spring 2014, Volume 13, Issue 1. Accessed at http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2014/biesen.htm.

11 There is a very similar situation in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), where Henry Fonda is taken by the police through a number of stores he is suspected of robbing to be identified by victims. Being innocent, he is quite willing to do this. These scenes have something of the quality of nightmare, as the protagonist is being inserted, as it were, into the identity of a criminal to see if it fits. The Wrong Man was based on actual events, so this technique of the police may have been accepted practice at the time.

12 The implausibility of all this is nicely skated over. Jiggs is of a quite different stature and build than Dixon, and there is not a single piece of hard evidence against him. The idea that he is doomed to the gallows is necessary, perhaps, but hardly convincing.

13 Especially in France. For example, Angel Face is number eight on Jean-Luc Godard’s list of ten greatest American films (although Godard’s enthusiasms for Hollywood movies are idiosyncratic to say the least).  See Hirsch, p. 191.

14 The story of the film’s origins and production is told in some detail by both Foster Hirsch (Op. cit. pp. 184-88) and Chris Fujiwara (Op. cit. pp. 166-169). Preminger didn’t want to do the picture, but Hughes begged him: “My friend, I need you. You come tomorrow to my studio, and you come like Hitler: the studio will be yours, and you can hire whomever you want.” (167).

15 Frank has his own lawyer, who is brusquely swept off the scene when Barrett arrives.

16 Also used to magical effect in Murnau’s Sunrise (1928).

17 CineAction No. 13/14, Summer 1988, pp. 47-5). Also illuminating is Tag Gallagher’s visual essay “A Moment’s Inattention,” an extra on the Kinowelt DVD version of the film.

18 A much older Mitchum, in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), can portray a character who is a pathetic victim and a loser. (In sour 1970s Hollywood all kinds of things get turned on their heads.)

19 Eugene Archer, “Why Preminger?”, Movie No. 2 (September 1962), p.13.

20 Paul Mayersberg, “From Laura to Angel Face,” Movie No.2 (September 1962), p. 15 .

21 One of the sometimes bombastic Dimitri Tiomkin’s finest hours.

22 At https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana_(mythology) (accessed May 24, 2020).

23 Another example occurs a little later, as they are discussing whether Diane should plead insanity: “And what if they did find she was off? That wouldn’t help the man, would it? … Besides, it would tie up the estate.”


William Beard

Contributing Writer

William Beard has taught Film Studies at the University of Alberta since 1978. He has published books on David Cronenberg, Guy Maddin, and Clint Eastwood, and written several articles or book chapters on Atom Egoyan, as well as numerous other pieces on Hollywood and international cinema.

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