Noir & Sexuality (Discussion)

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Janey Place

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  1. Group 4: Place focuses on two aspects of noir narrative structure: the spider woman and the nurturing woman. Discuss the characteristics of each of these character types, drawing examples from the films we've seen.
    • Student response: Place mentions aggressiveness and sensuality, with respect to the spider woman. These two aspects are represented through long hair, sensual dress that exposes some skin, looks into mirrors, cigarette smoke, and possession of weapons. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Phyllis lives up to this standard immediately. In the first scene she is featured, she appears in a towel, then quickly changes into a dress, which still reveals her legs. In the same scene, Phyllis sits and looks into a mirror and applies some lipstick. According to Place, such behavior indicates the character is narcissistic and duplicitous, while her appearance speaks for itself.
  2. Group 1: What is the "ideological operation of the myth[s]" of film noir, according to Place? How is Place using the terms "myth" and "mythology"? Discuss, with reference to Out of the Past, The Grifters, and Double Indemnity.
    • Student response: The ideological operation of the myths of film noir as discussed in this article is to condemn women who use their sexuality to manipulate men; however, film noir also functions to allow for the audience to retain a strong image of a powerful and sexually free woman. Place uses the term "myth" to mean popular culture which "expresses and reproduces the ideologies necessary to the existence of the social structure."
  3. Group 2: How is the "duplicitous nature" of women expressed in noir, according to Place? Is this evident in the films we've seen? Explain.
    • Student response: JPlace expresses that mirror shots indicate a “duplicitous nature” of woman in noir. She states, “they are visually split, thus not to be trusted.” It adds to confusion of the motives and the intentions of the character. She also states, “mirror images are seen in odd, uncomfortable angles, help to create a mood of threat and fear.” An example of this “duplicitous nature” was seen in "Double Indemnity" with Phyllis Dietrichson. She was described as being in front of the mirror trying on black hats before her husbands murder. Another example from films seen in class that use the mirror image is "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Although the main characters were not as “evil” or “conniving” they were still manipulative -- fitting in with Place’s point that they should not be completely trusted.

All Groups:

  1. Place contends, "The style of these films thus overwhelms their conventional narrative content." Explain, with examples from the films noir we've seen.
  2. What does Place feel is the "central obsession of film noir"? Do you agree with her?
  3. Place uses a term rooted in Freudian psychology: narcissism. What does this term mean and how is is important to understanding women in noir?

Richard Dyer

  1. Group 3: How does Dyer feel film noir can be defined beyond Schrader’s "mood"? What does he mean by the term, "iconography"? Hint: he uses it more broadly than Kitses.
    • What, then, are gay iconographic features? He mentions The Maltese Falcon in particular. Have we seen these features in other films shown in class?
    • What does Dyer feel is significant about the "luxury milieu" of noir? Explain his comment that "gay men and the femmes fatales share the same decor iconographically."
    • Student response: Iconography "may be defined as the study of the set of images (objects, people, settings), sounds and music shared by a run of films that marks them off as a genre." Settings - Homes are usually shown as abnormal. They belong to single, childless men or gays. Stars - The hero has a lack of concern for his appearance and "social conventions being what they are... these men are not married." Dyer also suggests that there are a number of gay portrayals listed on page 60. He also mentions the luxury milieu, and lesbian love.

All Groups:

  1. How does noir imply "male uncertainly about sexuality"? How does this compare with the representation of the male group in Hawks's films?
  2. What does Dyer mean when he writes, "Gays are thus defined by everything but the very thing that makes us different"?
  3. Dyer writes that gays can serve the narrative function of the villain, but, besides that, what other function do they often serve within the narrative structure?


  1. Janey Place, "Women in Film Noir," Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: BFI, 1998), 47-68.
  2. Richard Dyer, "Homosexuality and Film Noir," The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 52-72. Originally published in Jump Cut 16 (1977).[1]