Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Introduction: Gender, Sexuality, and the Soundtrack

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Introduction: Gender, Sexuality, and the Soundtrack

Article excerpt

Scene One: 'She just had a voice with hormones'

The protagonists of A Woman's Secret (Nicholas Ray, 1949) are all musicians. Marian, a professional singer, suffers a mysterious bout of incurable laryngitis that forces her to end her career. Together with her composer-pianist friend Luke, she begins to mentor Susan, a seemingly fresh-faced and innocent country girl who has come to the city to make it as a showgirl but ends up cold and half-fainting inside Marian's apartment after yet another failed audition. Luke offers to accompany Susan at the piano, and she elects to sing 'Paradise' - a romantic ballad that we have previously heard as a tragic recorded memento of Marian's faded glory. Although largely static in its physical choreography, the number features an intense series of 'looks' between the trio, who exchange various glances as Susan's performance continues. 'Paradise' begins with Susan staring into the middle-distance, as the unexpected quality of her voice is highlighted by reaction shots of Luke at the piano and Marian, who creeps out from behind a curtained doorway to move closer to the music (see Figures 1-3, over). Susan's performance intensifies and becomes more overtly seductive as she starts to direct her singing towards Luke, inching closer to him until she is perched on the end of the piano. When a look passes between Luke and Marian, Susan responds by directing her singing briefly towards Marian, although here her facial expression changes and becomes challenging, rather than inviting. Marian puts her arm around Luke and stares intently at him, but her look is not returned: Luke is captivated by Susan, who assumes her initial posture as the song ends, performing towards an unseen and imaginary audience elsewhere in the room.

Susan's rendition of 'Paradise' belies her earlier positioning as girlish and innocent via the use of musical and extra-musical signifiers that mark the visual and sonic space of the femme fatale (for example, Kalinak 1982; Doane 1991; Flinn 1992; Wager 1999). Her mouth and body are emphasised through the closely miked and closely shot act of singing; the number draws upon the intimacy and emotional transparency of the torch song tradition; and her performance uses vocalised sections of melody and is heavy with portamento, working in conjunction with the song's jazz harmony and popular styling to give an improvisatory feel. These features align 'Paradise' with jazz, blues, and other 'non-white' cultural practices in the generic and problematic way that studio-era Hollywood uses to suggest ideas about loss of control and moral deviance, while also giving Susan access to the emotional affect and poignancy associated with seemingly heartfelt songs of romantic longing (Gabbard 1996; Butler 2002; Jones 2002; Stanfield 2005; Ford 2008). The sequence also features the characteristically strange juxtaposition of static, lingering close-up photography and sound recording with the 'unknowable' elements of the femme fatale, represented here by Susan's glances into the middle-distance, the obvious use of dubbing to provide her singing voice,1 and the contrasts between her sophisticated and sexualised presentation in the song and her earlier characterisation as naive and countrified. The performance as a whole is designed to emphasise her coldness and unknowability, while simultaneously constructing her as erotic, sexualised, and available for consumption: a depiction of deviance that, in classical cinema at least, is always punished, resulting in the femme fatale's containment via death, imprisonment, or marriage.

Susan's musical characterisation therefore gives us a double dose of her difference: she not only occupies a marginalised space outside the more consonant, pastoral, and romantic scoring that characterises Hollywood's good wives (Gorbman 1987: 79-81), but is also (like the good wife) musically defined by her femininity and its difference from the masculinised sonic space of the hero figure. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.