The 1940s represented a time when masculine control of the world was coming undone. Men returning from war, the social paranoia of the emerging cold war and the perceived communist threat to America were all signifiers of a world where man is not as dominant as he once believed. Therefore, the masculine role was changing. When this changes the feminine roles change too. It was these social changes that led to the shaping of what we now know as Film Noir. The man losing control or giving up control is not an invention of film noir but it is a staple of the Film Noir protagonist. Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and his follow-up film Scarlet Street (1945) are excellent representations of the changes in masculinity in the 1940s. These two films starring Edward G. Robinson will be explored through this essay.
By social standards there are certain qualities that a man should have, such as being protective, providing and aggressive when needed. What all of these have in common is the need to have some form of control over ones environment. Film Noir, stripped its male protagonists of control and emasculated these characters by turning them into the weaker sex.
The two Edward G Robinson characters, Richard Wanley from Woman in the Window (1944) and especially Christopher Cross in Scarlet Street (1945) are examples of the emasculated man. Cross was a character that appeared almost asexual in his desires. His need was to be loved and to be needed or at least appreciated. Wanley on the other hand wanted adventure and to relive his glory days.
Cross never had these glory days. Yet his masculine desires were still prevalent. This is evident in the scene where he stabs Kitty (Joan Bennet) with an ice pick and the earlier scene where he attacks Johnny (Dan Duryea) with an umbrella.
The use of phallic objects was also prevalent in his paintings with the snake and the long-stemmed flower in the bathroom. This was a man who was not allowed to be a man. The only masculine outlet he had been his art. This can be seen when the art dealer questions Kitty about the paintings and says that he can usually see the difference between art painted by a man and a woman. She not only stole his art but she also robbed him of what little masculine pride he had.
At every turn Cross was being emotionally castrated by the world he lived in. A good example can be seen in the bathroom where his wife throws away the flower. All he had to show for 25 years of work locked in a cage cashing paycheck’s was a gold watch and a demanding wife that disrespected him. Cross had no human contact by anyone but those who wanted to use him. The person who cared about him the most was his boss. His boss was the closest thing he had to a friend and the watch signified the deep respect that he had for Cross. This was a seventeen jeweled, fourteen-carat gold, pocket watch. This was the man who Cross betrays. He does so by taking money from the cashier station. The alternative would have been to sell the watch. Stealing from a person that has been loyal to him for twenty-five years was in this writers opinion Cross’ calculated downfall. If Cross is fired then he cannot pay any more bribes and he can remain an emasculated, victimized man. This appeared to be easier for him than actually standing up to the people in his life. This negates his responsibility for his own actions. This was the one action that he controlled but he was not completely aware of why he chose this course of action.
Wanley on the other hand had the confidence that Cross lacked. Wanley puts forward the argument in the opening of the film that ‘the man who kills for self-defence should not be tried in the same way as the man who kills for personal gain’. This sounded like a fair judgment. Unfortunately he did not have the perspicacity to form such a judgment. Wanley and his friends were old men who sat around smoking pipes and sipping port with butlers doing their deeds. This was a controlled environment for Wanley. These were men of inaction who wanted to engage in-action. Fritz Lang procedes to contrast the fantasy of adventure with the reality of horror. The horror is that in reality these men have no control over their world and that evil exists within all men.
Wanley had never been in a dangerous situation where he had to fight for his life and the evil within Wanley had never been provoked. After killing the finance with the scissors, Wanley was able to rationalize his actions as self-defence. If he truly believed in his own ideals and what he taught his students he would not have covered up his crime. He rationalized this too by saying that he will be ruined either way. By giving in to the temptation of a woman and his desire for adventure Wanley takes a path that is in stark opposition of the values that he and his friends make a claim to. Without his butler to nurture him he delves into the evils of his own psyche just by accepting an offer to have a drink.
Wanley’s attempt to regain his masculine control was to drink poison but even this was outside his control. He awakens in what could be either, his real life, the after life or purgatory. Cross goes in the opposite direction by living as a condemned man who will never move beyond his actions. He lives in an emotional purgatory whereas Wanley, (in the after life theory) has a ‘blissful ignorance’.
Entrapped in a Changing World
Anxiety and entrapment became dominant motifs as a response to masculine and feminine social structure. This is because they are trapped between masculine and feminine roles in society. Therefore, anxiety and entrapment became a motif because since that time, the world that preceded film noir, the world of an illusory masculine control over the environment has not been restored. Therefore, Robinson’s characters of Wanley and Cross were archetypes for our own discomfort and despair at this time in history. We are still afflicted by the past, and like the film noir protagonists we as a society rarely learn from the past until it is too late.
Geoff Mayer & Brian McDonnell, Encyclopedia of Film Noir, pp. 90 – 92, 141 – 144, 242 – 244, 321 – 323, 365 – 367, 382 –383, 398 – 400. 435 – 437, 446 – 449.
Andrew Spicer, Film Noir, Ch. 5
Tony Williams, ‘Phantom Lady, Cornell Woolrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic’ in Alain Silver & James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader.
Richard Lippe, ‘At the Margins of Film Noir: Preminger’s Angel Face’ in Alain Silver & James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader.
Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, Part 111, esp. ch. 6
Gaylyn Studlar, ‘Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema’ in Bill Nichols, Movies and Methods, Volume 2