Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Male Nostalgia and Hollywood Film Music: The Terror of the Feminine

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Male Nostalgia and Hollywood Film Music: The Terror of the Feminine

Article excerpt


There is a certain currency to the idea that music can "take you back" radio capitalizes on this every weekend with "oldies" programs; entire films devote themselves to it (The Big Chill); rock music videos would seem to offer a return to the most basic and puerile of adolescent fantasies.

Hollywood film scores of the studio era (roughly 1935-1950) also used music to conjure forth lost, bygone periods. Think, for example, of the ability of "Tara's Theme" to evoke the antebellum South in Gone with the Wind, or "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca which sends us back to the idyllic days of Lisa and Rick's love affair in Paris. Entire genres have come to rely on music to present these lost epochs (historical dramas). But historical authenticity is not the most pressing subject at hand (for compositional styles often did not emulate those of the periods in which the films were set); indeed the "subject" at hand is the subject itself - in particular the male subject, whose own nostalgic past these scores repeatedly put into play.

The detective film of the 40s - or film noir - offers a prime example of this for as a genre it is literally obsessed with the past. This reveals itself in titles such as Out of the Past and The Postman Always Rings Twice; in the commonly used flashback narrative structure of films such as Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, and in the way in which pre-existing, past events - as is the case in many mysteries - have to be resurrected in order to "explain" the present or the film as a whole.

Like other Hollywood films of this period, film noir relies heavily on music to signal these lost moments: a song will often trigger the hard-boiled detective's reverie, and leitmotifs are usually associated with characters from within these memories. David Raksin's famous score for the film Laura perhaps best exemplifies this: the "Laura" character of this film is presumed to be dead, quite literally a thing of the past. Yet this does not deter the film's detective hero from falling hopelessly in love with her, and the theme song that bears her name is repeated compulsively throughout the film.

The Laura example also indicates the centrality of woman's position within the past of film noir. Detective movies almost always feature a "duplicitous dame" who has betrayed or otherwise undone the hero, a woman who has left him with psychological scars or with marks of actual physical disablement: consider Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity), Elsa Bannister (The Lady from Shanghai) and Kathy Moffet (Out of the Past). Each of these women emerge from "out of the pasts" of their respective partners to destroy them, effecting a "return of the repressed" that terrifies these men as much as it attracts them.

Unlike other films of the period, films like Gone with the Wind or Casablanca, which tend to romanticize the past, film noir ultimately poses the past as something that is always threatening to re-emerge - consider how the past "catches up" with the characters of The Postman Always Rings Twice and how the passage of time itself is something to be feared, something the protagonist must "beat" in films like D.O.A. and The Big Clock.

My present concern is with how music and femininity represent the burden of that unpleasant past in the 1945 film noir Detour. Detour also reinforces film music scholarship's own cliched association of music and femininity -the score is considered "seductive," "emotional," "passive," and is usually disparaged for precisely these reasons.

But this is more than a matter of metaphor, and suggests something more disturbing and with a wider sphere of influence. For Detour dramatizes the sense of a "nostalgia gone bad." Femininity and music are first construed as a source of goods, and when this is proven inaccessible, they become objects of terror that are subsequently punished - both by the hero of these films and the male critics who respond to them. …

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