Thursday, July 10, 2014

Homme Fatale: The Murderous Effete in Film Noir

The opposite of one of film noir’s most popular characters – the femme fatale – is the less frequently discussed but almost as commonly used homme fatale. These characters are as deadly as their female counterparts and they possess some similar traits – they are charming, charismatic, well-dressed and well-groomed, and they love power, control, and manipulation. Like the femme fatale and unlike many stock male noir characters, the homme fatale doesn’t rely on violence, but is not afraid to use it when necessary. While the femme fatale is sexually threatening because she represents wanton female sexuality outside the parameters of marriage and domestic life, the homme fatale is more sexually ambiguous. The Hollywood Production Code forbade explicitly gay characters, but many of the overtly effete hommes fatale come close.

Not that film noir is particularly friendly to heterosexuality – these films express the deep American anxiety about the changing roles of men and women in the wartime and postwar worlds. Film noir almost never ends in marriage and it also does not often end with a heterosexual couple successfully coming together. At best, several films end on an ambiguous note, with the central couple together, but surrounded by nearly insurmountable problems: Laura, The Big Sleep, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Gilda, Possessed, Mildred Pierce, Dark Passage, Deception, and many more. There are even more films noir where the central conclusion involves the destruction, disgrace, or imprisonment of one or both members of the couple: In a Lonely Place, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Reckoning, Double Indemnity, Leave Her to Heaven, Detour, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Witness for the Prosecution, The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, Conflict, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Nora Prentiss, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Letter, The Reckless Moment – the list is nearly endless.

The family home – such a staple of ‘50s cinema with a stay at home wife, businessman husband, and two precious children – is not often shown in film noir (The Desperate Hours, where three criminals on the run invade upper middle class suburbia is a notable exception). Generally there are three types of home environments in noir. The first belongs to single men or women; these are usually basic, unadorned apartments; an exception is Laura, where the titular character has had her home immaculately decorated by the film’s controlling homme fatale. The second type of home is generally a mansion or large, expensive house that belongs to a married couple – a younger woman and older man. If a child is present, it is generally the grown daughter of the older man from his first marriage. Double Indemnity, Caught, and Farewell, My Lovely are all key examples.

The third home environment is the domain of the homme fatale, a place of luxury and beauty, immaculate and shrine or museum-like, not an environment conducive to domestic bliss. Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb) of Laura (1944) is the perfect example of this and probably the most famous homme fatale. His apartment is full of books, art, elaborate carpets and tapestries, and ornate, expensive furniture. The film introduces him rather suggestively – as he is sitting naked, soaking in the bathtub, and working somewhat idly away on a typewriter. He’s the head of an exclusive ad agency and effectively sets the standards of class and elegance for the entire city. He’s obsessed with the titular Laura, his young protégé and has complete molded her clothes, apartment, and behavior, though she frustratingly maintains her own identity, driving him to mania and murder.

It’s easy to draw a direct line between these homme fatale characters and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, as both Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian himself are part of this type, though particularly Wotton. Wotton is the height of taste, culture, and wit. He shapes and molds the young Dorian Gray, turning him away from heterosexual love and towards decadent exploration. He’s related to the intellectual/artistic class that both fascinates and repels middle class British and American society – established bohemians, artists, and writers – really anyone interested in or knowledgeable about art, culture, fashion, gourmet food, wine, travel, and intellectual pursuits; in other words, what was seen as European decadence.

This concept of the decadent has regularly challenged conventional, working and middle class masculine ideals – the trial of Oscar Wilde during the close of the nineteenth century is a perfect example. Changing ideas of masculinity were already a major part of wartime and post war society; these fears and anxieties are reflected in all traditional noir protagonists. Philip Marlowe – a somewhat eccentric, alcoholic loner with a strong moral center and a thirst for danger, but with no familial or sexual relationships, and who loved to play chess alone – is perhaps the leading example, and many of these characters are based on Chandler’s memorable detective.

All these traits – loneliness, isolation, an aversion to sex or affection, an idea that love is an inherently romantic, not realistic notion that no longer has any place in the world – these all plague the protagonists of noir. Though these “masculine” male characters are certainly damaged and troubled, and often entagled with crime or violent, the hommes fatale was portrayed as perverse. The often glamorous hommes fatale is obsessed with appearances and luxury, which is codified throughout noir (and most of American cinema) as a feminine trait. As a result, these characters are shown as weak, amoral, or outright villainous or evil. I believe the primary issue at play here is that glamorous, beautiful women were not seen as individuals; they were purely objects meant to be possessed and owned. Female characters who seek their own sexual agency – the femme fatale – are generally punished or at least represented as depraved, decadent, or evil. The hommes fatale, in an inversion of this, is almost always a figure obsessed with possessing.

In one of the earliest films noir, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Laird Cregar plays a detective obsessed with a young singer. He follows her through the city and adorns his apartment with elaborately framed pictures of her and other memorabilia, building a sort of shrine. After she is murdered, his sanity snaps. Cregar played similar obsessed, murderous, and sexually ambiguous characters in The Lodger (1944), where he is obsessed with his dead brother and attempts to avenge him by killing beautiful women, and in Hangover Square (1945), where his unrequited obsession with a singer drives him to madness. Another early entry, The Maltese Falcon (1941), includes two such characters. The ineffectual thug Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is openly gay in Dashiell Hammett’s novel and wears perfume and elegant clothes. His boss, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greensteet) is equally coiffed, has a tough younger man that he’s very fond of (supposedly a body guard), and is obsessed with owning the Maltese Falcon statue.

In Gilda (1946), Ballin Mundson (George Macready) is only interesting in amassing wealth and possession – his number two man, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is devoted to him and the two agree no woman will ever come between them. When Mundson marries sultry singer Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who just happens to be Johnny’s ex, Johnny becomes obsessed with keeping her in line and even compares her to Mundson’s laundry and his other possessions. Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) of Murder, My Sweet is a glorified gigolo, seducing, courting, and occasionally blackmailing older, wealthy women in exchange for wealth, gifts, and stylish clothes. In Mildred Pierce (1945), Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) fulfills a similar role. Though raised with wealth, he squandered his family fortune and survives by exploiting wealthy women. William Holden’s Joe Gillis is sort of an inversion of this; he allows Norma Desmond (Gloria Holden) to seduce him and provide him with expensive gifts and a lavish lifestyle. Finally, Vincent Price plays a similar role in both Laura and While the City Sleeps (1956). In Laura, he’s the heroine’s fiancee, who is having an affair with an attractive younger woman, as well as a wealthy older one. In While the City Sleeps, he’s the wealthy, effete son of a newspaper mogul who is obsessed with holding on to his fortune after his father’s death. He marries and is possessive of his beautiful young wife, but she is little more than a status symbol.

There are numerous other examples, including Bruno (Robert Walker) from Strangers on a Train (1951), actually a gay character in Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name. Her most famous character, Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a similar type – possibly gay, ambiguously sex, and obsessed with a life of wealth. More of Hitchcock’s characters, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) of Rope (1948) were openly gay in play the film is based on, but in the film were simply ambiguous murderers obsessed with wealth, taste, and intellectual superiority.

Somewhat ambiguous male relationships are a major part of film noir and pervade the nearly all-male worlds of police work (The Enforcer), trucking (They Drive By Night), and boxing (The Harder They Fall), as well as soldering (Dead Reckoning). In Detour, a criminal takes a young hitchhiker under his wing, and in The Hitch-Hiker, two men alone on a cross country vacation have their lives invaded by a violent hitchhiker. In The Big Sleep, General Sternwood, a man with two out of control daughters involved in numerous illegal activities, is only concerned that his loyal male companion has gone missing.

The homme fatale is certainly a more nebulous character than his female counterpart, but is a fascinating way to look at the changing gender roles during the postwar period. His inherent repression and sexless-ness generally drives him to murder and – perhaps ironically – occasionally drives together heterosexual couples throughout film noir.

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