Noir Anxiety

Noir Anxiety

Noir Anxiety

Noir Anxiety


Among the elements that define the classic film noir -- chiaroscuro lighting, voice-over narration, and such archetypal characters as the world-weary private eye and the femme fatale -- perhaps no element is more responsible for the genre's continued popularity among movie buffs, filmmakers, and critics than the palpable sense of anxiety that emanates from the screen. Because the genre emerged in the shadow of the Second World War, this profound psychological and philosophical unease is usually ascribed either to postwar fears about the atomic bomb or to the reactions of returning soldiers to a new social landscape. In Noir Anxiety, however, Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo interpret what has been called the "free-floating anxiety" of film noir as concrete apprehensions about race and sexuality.

Applying feminist and postcolonial psychoanalytic theory to traditional noir films (Murder, My Sweet; The Lady from Shanghai; Vertigo; and Touch of Evil) and the "neo-noirs" of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s(Chinatown, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Bound), the authors uncover a rich array of unconscious worries and desires about ambiguous sexual, racial, and national identities, often displaced onto these films' narrative and stylistic components. In particular, Oliver and Trigo focus on the looming absence of the mother figure within the genre and fears about maternal sexuality and miscegenation. Drawing on the work of Freud and Julia Kristeva, Noir Anxiety locates film noir's studied ambivalence toward these critical themes within the genre's social, historical, and cinematic context.


Someday fate, or some mysterious force, can put the
finger on you or me for no reason at all.

Detour (1946)

The "Free-Floating" Anxiety of Noir

Given that the film noir genre was born at the end of World War II, critics often attribute its anxieties and fatalism to the turmoil of the postwar era. Some critics point to changes in the social structure that opened the door for more public participation by women and African Americans in various social institutions: while men were away fighting in Europe, women were needed in the factories to manufacture the war machines; African American men who were drafted to fight in World War II insisted that having fought for freedom, this country was theirs, too; with the GI Bill, African American men had new opportunities and new expectations. These critics argue that upon returning home from the war, men, particularly white men, discovered that in their absence their authority in the home, in the factory, and in the city was being challenged on all sides, that their fear was that "their" women had left them for jobs or other men, their families and children were no longer theirs to control, that the family breadwinner and head of household had been displaced, and that although patriarchal and racist values kept white men in positions of power, the confluence of various historical factors was starting to chip away at their authority. In general, these critics identify this breakdown of patriarchal authority as the source of the anxieties and fatalism of noir. They interpret the sense of fate or doom in film noir as a response to white men's sense of a loss of control and authority, especially control and authority over women.

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