An Introduction to Film Noir

Film Noir, a controversial film genre from the 1940s and ‘50s, encouraged feminism following World War II, said a leading expert from Middle Tennessee State University.

In fact, the American thriller or detective film genre made people question their lives and brought the world’s cultural anxiety to the screen, explained Elyce Helford, who is an English professor at the school.

“It was also a controversial, yet empowering era for women in film and everyday life,” Helford said.

Helford’s lecture was the third in a four-part series titled “An Introduction to Film Noir” that concludes in May.  Helford obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and her areas of expertise are women, gender and queer studies, film and popular culture, and holocaust and Jewish American studies.

She is currently the director of MTSU’s Jewish and holocaust studies minor and teaches courses on film studies, popular culture, Jewish American literature and holocaust studies.

Film Noir developed during a time period where many women moved from their normal roles as “homemakers” into professional and trade jobs while the men fought in the war, Helford said. However, when the war ended, and the soldiers returned home, employers forced women to give up their jobs to men.

The femme fatales in Noir films, also known as “spider women,” showcased tough women with the utmost sex appeal. These characters also showcased a feministic aspect of women that people had never seen in films before.

However, the role of femme fatale did not just emerge suddenly, Helford said. Instead, femme fatales are a direct relation to the vamp, or dark seductress, of the silent film era. This specific character was described as a dark seductress figure in silent films.

Actresses loved the femme fatale roles because the scripts gave them much more dialogue, Helford said. However, their characters typically were killed or imprisoned due to codes enforced by the motion picture industry to prevent government-enforced censure.

“There were only two scenarios for women in these roles,” Helford said. “They had to be punished or humiliated in the end or pose as solely a sex object and non-threatening to avoid controversial backlash.”

A screening of the movie Double Indemnity written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler and directed by Wilder followed the lecture. It took eight years for the script to be approved. When it was filmed, Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most famous film noir actresses, starred as the femme fatale.

The fourth and final lecture in this series will take place in May at Linebaugh Public Library in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and the topic of discussion will be the end of the film noir era.

A screening of Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Wells and starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor will follow the lecture.

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