Academic journal article Film & History

Henry Hathaway's Rawhide and the Hermetic Frontiers of Film Noir

Academic journal article Film & History

Henry Hathaway's Rawhide and the Hermetic Frontiers of Film Noir

Article excerpt

Henry Hathaway's 1951 film Rawhide presents a particularly fascinating form of generic hybrid: a film noir hostage drama in the guise of a Hollywood Western. Though it would be possible to analyze the numerous tactics though which the film violates the conventions of the Western genre, this essay understands Rawhide from the opposite perspective: as a highly revealing test case whose Western pretensions can help illuminate the deep structures of film noir. Rawhide's depiction of an 1860 Overland Mail relay station, and of the Old West more broadly, is pure semblance-the film is overloaded with Western mise-en-scène, yet emptied of many of the Western's tried-and-true narrative conventions. Indeed, as Rawhide's narrative unfolds, what we witness is a film noir in drag, an intricate criminal conspiracy draped ever so thinly in Western garb. At the same time, by transposing its masterminded "perfect crime" scenario into the east Wyoming prairie, the film effectively "outs" itself, setting the question of cinematic genre in high relief, and revealing a series of paradoxes that are definitively noir.

In the decades since French critics coined the term in the late 1950s, film noir's status as a full-fledged genre has been hotly contested. Although noir's classic phase (roughly 1941 to 1955) stands as a hugely creative period in American cinematic history, most critics would be quick to stipulate that film noir was never preordained as a genre, as were the Western and the Musical, for instance.1 Consequently, scholars have dedicated a great deal of effort to defending noir's turf-outlining the narrative and stylistic hallmarks of noir, while attempting to situate the films along a number of different historical trajectories.2 As an indicator of the instability of the noir corpus, genre theorist Steve Neale points to the impossibly broad range of features commonly associated with film noir:

[T]he use of voice-over and flashback, the use of high contrast lighting and other 'expressionist' devices, the focus on mentally, emotionally and physically vulnerable characters, the interest in psychology, the culture of distrust marking relations between male and female characters, and the downbeat emphasis on violence, anxiety, death, crime and compromised morality [...]. (174)

Given this multiplicity of expected traits, Neale warns that, "Any attempt to treat these tendencies and trends as a single phenomenon, to homogenize them under a single heading, 'film noir' is [. . .] bound to lead to incoherence, imprecision, and inconsistency" (174).

Though a totalized definition of noir is perhaps impossible, this essay suggests that the seemingly incoherent list of qualifiers attributed to film noir derive from a more limited set of deep structures, all of which center upon a revamped and reconfigured conception of what it takes to deceive the public eye. By setting its criminal deception in a temporally distant and highly conventionalized version of the past, Rawhide is not at all confused about its generic status. Instead the film manages to distill the essence of noir, rendering its key structures in a more pure form than most classic noirs are able to. Rawhide develops four crucial themes, detailed in the sections that follow, that point the way toward a more substantial, and ultimately more stable generic definition of film noir: first, an emphasis on extreme criminal perfectionism; second, the structure of double-deception-a deception that deceives precisely by telling the truth; and third, the narrative construction of a hermetic seal between public and private knowledge, coupled with an overly explicit "spelling out" of the logical paradox of noir crime in the film's opening voice-over. By comparing Hathaway's film to a range of other late noirs-films such as Cause for Alarm! (1951), Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and The Desperate Hours (1955)-Rawhide comes into focus as a commentary on the question of genre itself, a film that deconstructs the hermetic structures of film noir by reproducing them in an unexpected, yet all too familiar setting. …

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