The divided self and the dark city: film noir and liminality.
The American film noir is a cinematic tradition whose representations are thoroughly liminal. What I mean is that the protagonists of these films characteristically find themselves straddling the border between competing forms of identity, as they often enter into perilous rites de passage through a nightmarish version of contemporary urban reality. Only seldom do these borderers emerge from that "dark city" (which is sometimes just a moral or psychological condition) to enjoy the transfiguration and triumph of a conventional happy ending. By way of illustration, let me begin by rehearsing some familiar details from what is arguably the best-known and most influential American film noir. In Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), an adulterous couple plot and then carry out a crime that is meant to be understood as an accident. That crime will pay by releasing insurance benefits to one of the perpetrators, and at a bonus "double" rate, but only if the coroner rules that the death in question is no murder, rather the result of an unfortunate and accidental tumble from the back of a train.
And so Walter (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) must become like the crime they commit, which is carefully designed to seem one thing though it is actually something quite different. During the thorough investigation of the "accident," they must struggle to maintain their ostensibly respectable identities. In outline, at least, their plan is both simple and ingenious. If there is no crime, there are no malefactors to be punished. If the accident, however, is interpreted as a crime, then Phyllis will immediately become the prime suspect according to the principle of cui bono and Walter, who sold the policy that now spectacularly pays off, will automatically fall under suspicion as well. To carry off the required elaborate masquerade, Walter and Phyllis become performers as soon as they begin plotting. In addition to playing at remaining "himself" even as he rejects that identity, Walter is even called upon to impersonate the dead man atone point. After carrying out the murder, the pair must stay "in character," which proves difficult after the accident theory is shown by the insurance company investigator to be untenable. A key effect of the narrative is that it highlights the willed, constructed nature of social roles, whose "naturalness" is thereby called into question. For once Walter and Phyllis determine to become other than what they were, they are forced by the very logic of their plan to inhabit self-consciously, and inauthentically, the roles they had previously performed unthinkingly: the pleasant housewife loyal to her husband and the successful insurance agent dedicated to his company's financial well-being and the steady advancement of his own career. (1)
Their situation comes to resemble closely that of those involved in what anthropologist Victor Turner terms "cultural performance," those rituals and other modes of symbolic action that seem part and parcel of the everyday, but in which, Turner argues, "violence has to be done to commonsense ways of classifying the world and society" because performers must remain themselves even as they strive to inhabit another identity. Cultural performance, so Turner believes, therefore does not simply express or reflect "the social system or the cultural configuration," but "offers a critique, direct or veiled, of the social life it grows out of, an evaluation (with lively possibilities of rejection) of the way society handles history" (22). As Walter and Phyllis discover, the critical nature of the experience resides chiefly in the fact that, to quote Turner, "the 'self' is split up the middle--it is something that one both is and that one sees and, furthermore, acts upon as though it were another."
Double Indemnity dramatizes this distancing from and yet reflection upon the nature of ordinary experience. Narrator of the flashback in which he is the principal character, Walter is both the subject and object of the resulting narrative. The disjunction between the experiencing-I and the narrating-I (always a feature of character narration) in this case emphasizes an already existing split that opens up within the character as his plot unfolds (25). For anthropologists like Turner, the characteristic cultural performance is ritual, in which participants find themselves on the border between "secular living and sacred living," in a "limbo that was not any place they were before and not yet any place they would be in" (25). Double Indemnity evokes a secular limbo. Walter and Phyllis, to use the term popularized by Turner, find themselves in a liminal social space, defined by its bordering engagement with contradictory social spaces. Walter cannot be both a law-abiding citizen and a conscienceless, cold-blooded murderer. Within this paradoxical space, the ordinary forms of everyday living are shown by Walter and Phyllis as what they always already are, that is, performances whose authenticity is by definition in question. Part of Wilder's genius, in fact, is he stages the "random" encounters between the two "actors" in places where the contrast is greatest between their deadly plotting and the forms of everyday living they now act out--most memorably for many viewers of the film, in an ordinary supermarket, where, obviously showing the strain, they must give the appearance of buying the week's groceries as, sotto voce, they speak passionately of matters that are far from mundane.
Unstable from the outset, these performances eventually breakdown completely, as Walter discovers within himself the capacity, and then the desire, to love a decent woman with whom he can imagine an ordinary life. It is, in fact, because he continues to inhabit his accustomed role that he has the opportunity to meet and get to know a woman who belongs solidly to ordinariness. More spectacularly, Phyllis reveals herself less devoted to the coldly calculating accumulation of wealth and more driven by a psychopathic impulse to kill and passionately embrace her own destruction. In both cases, however, Walter and Phyllis discover the impossibility of remaining on the border between law-abiding normality and its oppositional heterocosm (the negative space in which the denial of the social contract plays out). The plot's inexorable logic leads them to mutual murder. Realizing that she loves Walter after fatally wounding him, Phyllis gives herself over to her erstwhile lover's embrace--and, shockingly, receives the answering shot he fires through her heart. Fleeing the scene, Walter eschews medical treatment for his wound, preferring instead to bleed to death while providing in his office a Dictaphone confession to the crime. This moment of Wilderian black humor suggests how Walter never manages to escape the all-too-solid identity of the company man devoted to closing the books on every case, even his own.
Like the James M. Cain novel on which it is based, Double Indemnity exposes the self-defeating nature of that desire for self-fashioning whose trajectory it traces. So powerful is the demand that we be who we are and have been that the shedding of the self can only be achieved through the artfully inauthentic preservation of the self that has been shed. Change, real change, is only an illusion. As in a true rite de passage, the liminal experience of Walter and Phyllis--their suspension between identities, old and new--involves the full assumption (however ironic) of the new self through a return to everydayness. Within the social spaces that had once contained them (her home, his office), Walter and Phyllis in death reveal themselves to be what they had resisted becoming in life: criminals intent on the deep violation of the social order. And yet, displaced from the realm of everyday relations, they are never fully integrated within some morally oppositional social space. For in Double Indemnity, such a place can only be imagined by the characters, it being Wilder's point, following Cain, that the transcendence Walter and Phyllis aim at is purely dystopic, a pointless delusion. Later films in the noir tradition, of course, confect a geographical correlative to this rejection of everydayness.
A defining quality of noirness is its exploration of such liminal states of being, of a destabilizing betweenness that may well account (to adopt a historical perspective) for the enthusiasm postwar French intellectuals showed for a form of Hollywood filmmaking that, to them, had deep affinities with surrealism. Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, authors of the first full-length study of the genre, conclude that these films "give the public a shared feeling of anguish or insecurity ... a state of tension created in the spectators by the disappearance of their psychological bearings." Watching a film like Double Indemnity, filmgoers "no longer encounter their customary frames of reference ... a logic to the action, a clear distinction between good and evil" (13). The resulting disorientation is an affectual intent also to be seen in surrealist works that, as Susan Hayward writes, are "concerned with depicting the workings of the unconscious (perceived as irrational, excessive, grotesque, libidinal)" (78). Such themes, it goes without saying, are also central in the film noir, whose texts often trace the borders not only between modes of living, as in Double Indemnity, but between modes of experience, particularly the (dis)connection between dreaming (along with other alternative states like amnesia) and ordinary consciousness.
Liminality also memorably plays out in noir mise-en-scene. The action of many noir films plays out in a version of contemporary urban America that also contains its nightmarish mirror image. This negativity customarily assumes textual solidity through the dark city, a site of transgressive modernity whose most characteristic figure is the alienated individual. Characterized most tellingly by transient spaces (train stations, bars, cheap hotels), the dark city offers an alternative to respectable settled living, whose central image is the family home. But, more radically, noir's negativity also assumes presence as an alterity into which the filmic world occasionally threatens, but usually fails, to dissolve decisively. This is an effect achieved through the deployment of a visual style whose most important features are lighting effects (chiaroscuro and low-key schemes) that can instantly "other" everyday locations, which thus appear for viewers alternately in stylized (rendered with a particular stimmung or tone) or unstylized, "realistic" forms. Later in the essay, a brief discussion of another exemplary film noir, Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence (1949), will make these points clearer.
Fictional representation in general, it has been argued, also involves the crossing of an important border (between the real and the supposed real). As an analytical tool, liminality thus also proves useful to general inquiries about the nature of fictionality and, of more immediate interest, about the ways in which the construction of the fictional (that is, the processes involved in fictionalizing) may achieve self-reflexive textual representation. A key feature of the film noir, I suggest, is that through their dramatizations of the liminal, these texts become intriguingly metafictional. Often in an ostentatious fashion, they exemplify the processes that call them into being. It is to this larger question that I first turn.
An Unstable Ontology
Noting the increasing popularity of a "median mentality" during the last three decades, Mikhail I. Spariosu observes that "contemporary theory has attempted to rethink ... the relationship between margin and center in Western culture" (9). At least since Nietzsche, he argues, this relationship has been understood as an "essential complicity" deriving from the "agonistic nature of this systemic or intersystemic correlation," in that the margin becomes the center and the center the margin through always potentially reversible relations of power. This is a history traced most influentially and problematically in Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals and Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation. The agonistic model of Western cultural history is of interest to literary critics, Spariosu suggests, because both these thinkers "define aesthetics solely in terms of a mentality of power" (30). As is well known, this view has achieved prominence, perhaps even dominance, in poststructuralist literary and cultural theory. Spariosu suggests a different model. He argues that literature by its very nature transcends relations of power. Though, admittedly, "a marginal cultural phenomenon," fictionalizing transcends its "immediate agonistic context," pointing toward values that lie "outside a mentality of power" (31). The fictional is thus more accurately conceived as a liminal phenomenon, positioned on the border between what is and what might be because it offers "access to alternative worlds" (32). These worlds might, and often do, remain purely suppositional, of course. Through communal and cultural politics, however, the fictional can be actualized, forging connections with relations of power. Fictionality thus may be most accurately described as both ludic (partaking of that refusal to affirm inherent in Kantian disinterestedness), and also rhetorical, for it may, in some circumstances, dispose of the amoral power, in Nietzschean terms, to "create ethical codes [and] also discard them at will" (29). But how exactly might the fictional be theorized as something like the subjunctive mood, making statements that possess truth value only when they do?
The contemporary intellectual preoccupation with finding liminal, bordering grounds in the manner Spariosu exemplifies has surely been prompted, at least in part, by the immense popularity that the critical thought of Mikhail Bakhtin attained in the course of the 1980s. Surprisingly, Spariosu minimizes such influence, characterizing Bakhtin's notion of the open answerability of all utterances as an index of the Russian theorist's failed attempt to escape from an agonistic mentality in his conception of cultural relations. For Spariosu, Bakhtin remains trapped within the paradigm of dialogue, of question and answer, replicating the always already reversing opposition of center to margin. And yet, examples of a "median mentality" that is more productively triadic or liminal abound in Bakhtin's theorizing, which resembles what Turner says about cultural performance: that it posits social spaces and practices that "dissolve all factual and commonsense systems into their components and 'play' with them in ways never found in nature and in custom" (25). Consider, for example, the Bakhtinian conception of the carnival, complexly performative and "bordering" in that, as Sue Vice (following Julia Kristeva) describes, it is "a spectacle, but without a stage, in which the participant is both actor and spectator," a liminal effect whose textualizing correlative is grotesque realism (149). Following the triadic approach of Bakhtin, Wolfgang Iser offers his own critique of the Nietzsche/Schopenhauer position that the fictional can be turned into "a divining rod for the hidden dimension of social organizations and relationships'; on the contrary, its cultural function, he suggests, is to give "presence to what otherwise would remain unavailable" (x). In literature, we find "a continual repatterning of the culturally conditioned shapes human beings have assumed" (xi). Traditionally, this indeterminate determinacy has been approached through the binary opposition of fiction to reality, but, Iser observes, "the literary text is a mixture of reality and fictions, and as such it brings about an interaction between the given and the imagined" (1). The agency that brings about that interaction Iser calls the imagination, or the innate and often unwilled capacity of the human mind to indulge in fantasy. This means, so he argues, that the basic quality of literary creation is that it involves "a crossing of boundaries," for the imaginary is endowed with the determinacy of the real even as "reproduced reality is made to point to a 'reality' beyond itself" (3). Thus, fictionalizing may be described as "extratextual reality merg[ing] into the imaginary, and the imaginary merg[ing] into reality" (3). Like Spariosu, Iser sees literature as a liminal or borderline phenomenon, but he emphasizes how it is poised between the real (which it re-frames and stages for us to observe) and the imaginary (whose essentially subconscious formlessness if concretizes and makes available for communal consumption).
If the literary (and by extension the cinematic) fictional straddles the border between what exists and what fantasy may suppose, it seems unsurprising, as Iser goes on to demonstrate, that texts might stage this transitionality if they are committed to evoking the alternative worlds that are contrastingly forensic and suppositional. For Iser, the paradigmatic form in this regard is the pastoral, whose "two worlds ... are distinctly marked from one another by a boundary, the crossing of which can be effected only by the donning of a mask" (xv). This structural taboo permits the marking of the fictive as "the coexistence of what is mutually exclusive," a world that constructs the real and another that permits the imagination full rein in confecting fantasy or artifice. These two representational realms are related, for the pastoral world "becomes a kind of counterimage, permitting what was excluded by reality," completing in the process the task of representation, which is conceived as the conversion of the real into the fictive" (24). As Iser contends, fictionalizing "enables the imaginary to take on an essential quality of the real," endowing it with a determinacy (the concreteness of the fictionalized image) that gives it "the appearance of reality in the way it intrudes into and acts upon the given world" (3). If pastoralism, as Iser theorizes, has passed from the literary scene, the reason is that with the coming of modernity, "the function of literary fictionality no longer needed to be exhibited," becoming an implicit feature of textuality (25). If contemporary forms of the fictional are liminal, they are not self-reflexively so, at least for Iser. But then he does not consider the film noir, whose foregrounding of a real fictionalized by the power of the imagination (the legacy of German expressionism) has not gone unnoticed.
The Noir Chronotope
In a groundbreaking study, Vivian Sobchack argues that film noir is most deeply marked by its unique representational response to a culture in transition between the collective, public experience of a world war that required the widest marshalling of all the nation's resources and the desired, collective return to "the family unit and the suburban home as the domestic matrix of democracy" (131). This national experience of in-betweenness finds its most substantial visual reflex in what Sobchack argues are the "recurrent and determinate premises" of this Hollywood type, its obsession with the dark city. In film after film, a crowded yet impersonal modernity takes shape as spaces that invite casual, impermanent connection preclude, in their refusal to support traditional moral values, any establishment of family life, any realization of the public sphere. Earlier critics, most notably Paul Schrader, located noirness in a cinematographic style heavily indebted to Weimar filmmaking, but Sobchack importantly turns critical attention toward mise-en-scene, the characteristic settings of this film type such as "the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the bar, the hotel room, the boardinghouse, the diner, the dance hall, the roadside cafe, the bus and train station, and the wayside motel" (130). These are the publicly accessible (if hardly socially approved) spaces of entertainment, dining, travel, and lodging, whose function is to provide for those literally, and also metaphorically, in transit. They substitute for what cannot be obtained in a world where nothing is "settled," where the family home is unimaginable because it would depend on relationships (economic, sexual, and nurturant) that in noir narratives are hot yet finalized and perhaps never will be. Such formal elements of mise-en-scene, Sobchack plausibly suggests, are the geographical reflexes of "existential, epistemological, and axiological uncertainty" (133).
An obvious virtue of Sobchack's approach is that it eschews the simplicities of reflection theory in exploring the connection of film noir to its historical moment. She is certainly correct in not expecting to locate untransformed in the films prominent social themes of postwar America, such as the difficulties in adjustment experienced by millions of returning veterans, the sudden flourishing of a violent misogyny in popular culture, the political uncertainties alarmingly widespread in a post-atomic age, and, most important perhaps, a pervasive sense of rootlessness and anomie that finds varied expression, from an incredible growth in church membership to the burgeoning popularity of existentialist thought among American intellectuals.
As I have suggested elsewhere, however, her argument that the "hyperbolized presence" of "common places in wartime and postwar American culture" constitutes by itself the defining feature of this series fails to persuade for the simple reason that in too many films generally agreed to be noir, the main settings are not cocktail lounges, cheap bars, bus stations, and roadside diners (Palmer 2004). (2) Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Undercurrent (1946), for example, avoid altogether the dark city where such accommodations for those "in transit" are normally to be found. Both these films are set mainly in homes of the wealthy, permitting other versions of borderline experience to play out, especially notions of unstable identity. At the same time, no view of 1940s Hollywood film could fail to notice the striking contrast between, on the one hand, the inhospitable, dangerously permeable and anonymous spaces where the dark narratives of film noir most often (at least in part) unfold and, on the other, the single family house; this is the most conventional element of film melodrama, its rooms filled with family members and ifs walls a bulwark resisting any intrusion from the uninvited. These different "premises" reflect the contradictory identifies to which the noir protagonist, like Walter is called, the two selves upon whose unstable border the narrative soon locates him.
Sobchack makes the point that the Bakhtinian concept of the chronotope might prove useful in limning the rapprochement of "the internal logic of the films and the external logic of the culture," causing "each to be intelligible in terms of the other" (130). To quote Bakhtin, the chronotope (a melding of the Greek words for rime and space) helps us understand the "intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature [and by extension in the fiction film]" (84-5). Different literary forms would, in Bakhtin's view, be characterized by their deployment of distinct chronotopes. For Sobchack, the noir chronotope is "lounge rime," but she does not explore the particular experience of rime that expresses the contingent, discontinuous nature of its urban spaces. But what is the shape of time "intrinsically connected" to the impersonal, transitory, and inhospitable spaces where noir narratives customarily are set? Do these films dramatize a sense of rime that likewise expresses a profoundly disorienting sense of betweenness, of conditionality?
Act of Violence: Between Past and Present
Thematically speaking, noir films characteristically focus on their protagonists' dark past, which are frequently explored in some form of backward turning that is motivated by a present crisis of identity. Has the protagonist left behind the self he once inhabited for an identity he struggles in the present to fully possess? Does he belong to the negative space the film limns (a dark city and/or a stylized defamiliarization [demelodramatization?] of the family home)? This backward turning may be found in the discursive arrangement of story events, whose forward movement is interrupted by the filling in of some bypassed gap; or it may figure as an element of characterization (as in Double Indemnity), with an intradiegetic narrator relating what has gone before and thereby demonstrating his obsession with past events. A third possibility is that the present admits the return of characters who were thought to belong to the past and who, it seemed, had been bypassed as the protagonist embarked on a fresh start.
As Act of Violence demonstrates, these three forms of backward movement may have been found in the same text; the film's narrative loops back to examine how Frank Enley (Van Heflin), now a successful contractor much beloved for his civic involvement by the residents of his small California town, just a few years before betrayed his fellow captives in a German POW camp, informing the commandant of their plan to escape and thus causing all but one, his former best buddy Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) to be brutally killed. These are events Enley narrates to his innocent young wife in a confession that unburdens him of long-buried guilt and is prompted by the sudden appearance at his home of Parkson, who, living in the East, has suddenly learned of his erstwhile friend's whereabouts and spectacular success in civilian life. With its unfinished business, the past cannot be escaped (its inexorable demand to be acknowledged is conveyed by the series of images in which Parkson, impatient and single-minded, speeds west in a bus, relentlessly pursuing his quarry). Worse yet, the past must find renewed expression in the present, which is often doomed, as is the case in Act of Violence, to its repetition, as current projects and hopes are decisively sabotaged. And thus the present is revealed as always contingent, its apparent solidity subject to a sudden, often thoroughgoing disruption that is connected somehow to what has been left behind but is not, as the story begins, in any sense "over." Other genres, as Bakhtin points out, possess unitary chronotopes (a single setting, one sense of time), but the noir chronotope is essentially liminal, composed of unstable times (a present interrupted by the past) and unstable spaces (the family home threatening to turn into its mirror image).
The opening sequences of Act of Violence juxtapose a gloomy urban neighborhood with the sun-drenched suburbs, a decaying East Coast with the vibrant prosperity of California, a young veteran, glorying in his beautiful wife and child who is celebrated for his charitable work with a lone cripple dressed in trench coat and fedora who shuffles painfully to his run-down apartment to remove a .45 automatic from the dresser drawer. An insert shot of Enley's name and address provides something of a motive for the mission he embarks upon. Intercutting joins these two worlds until Parkson arrives in California, where he seems out of place (as upon his arrival he walks across the Memorial Day parade whose purpose in part is to celebrate the man he has come to kill). At the very moment that Enley enjoys the projection of a conventionally domestic, economically prosperous future, his past summons him away from the life he has chosen and in some sense earned, threatening him with death. Enley is not at home when Parkson knocks on his front door, but wife Edith (Janet Leigh), hearing that the man is an army buddy, tells him that her husband has departed on a fishing trip.
Easily tracking Enley down, Parkson fails in his attempt to ambush him, but Enley, discovering that he is pursued, hurries home, which now is swathed in shadows and lit dimly in the noir, low-key style. Like Walter, he must now perform as himself, pretending to Edith that he is not worried or fearful though appearing to be. Unable to persuade her, he is forced to tell Edith part of the truth--saying that Parkson is crazy and feels a grudge against his former friend. But he refuses to call the police as Edith advises, pleading concern for Parkson, and chooses to flee instead to a trade show in Los Angeles, where he is sure he will not be followed. But Parkson is hot to be denied and shows up at the hotel, where his quarry, blithely entertaining himself and his business associates, only barely escapes a second time. Edith has been warned by Parkson's girlfriend Ann (Phyllis Thaxter) and meets up with her husband hiding in a hotel corridor, where she demands a full account of what happened in the POW camp. Enley confesses with all the honesty of which he is capable, telling Edith that he fooled himself into thinking he is saving his men by turning them in despite knowing that the Germans, promising only to return the would-be escapees to captivity, were likely to go back on their word. His crime is self-serving treason: caring more about the food that, starving, he had been promised as a reward than for the others he delivers to a horrible death. This time he fails to receive comfort or understanding from Edith who, disgusted and horrified, flees from him.
What is most interesting about Act of Violence is that at this point it abandons its social realist concerns, particularly its engagement with a current issue, the supposed moral culpability of returning veterans, who were often forced during the horrors of wartime service to violate their culture's most deeply held precepts. Leaving behind the everyday world in which he occupies a prominent place, now called into question by what Edith now knows about him, Enley hastens to a place that is transparently "other," a paradoxical projection of Enley's desires and his moral needs that exemplifies what Iser identifies as one of the most important characteristics of fictionality, the way in which it "becomes the epitome of inner-worldly totality, since it provides the paradoxical (and perhaps for this very reason, desirable) opportunity for human beings simultaneously to be in the midst of life and to overstep if" (83). This doubleness is figured by the fact that Enley's flight (he abandons both Parkson and Edith, thereby surrendering what anchors his self to the past and the present as well) actually moves him toward a reclamation of his true self, as he pays the price for his betrayal and simultaneously saves Parkson from having to commit murder.
From the uptown hotel, Enley hurries fearfully (and ever descending--one shot shows him stumbling down a huge flight of stairs) toward the dark side of the city, which seems a jumble of decaying factories, run-down tenements, and streets empty of passersby. As in the pastoral, the laying aside of identity (Enley here dons the mask of anonymity) leads him to what Iser calls the "counterimage ... permitting what was excluded by reality," as the world reshaped by the imagination allows the inner truth of the world imprisoned by mimesis to emerge (24). In this journey, imaged at a length far in excess of its importance to the narrative, the film engages with what Northrop Frye calls "the fabulous ... something admitted not to be true" but which nonetheless possesses great significance (18). The Los Angeles Enley discovers (in a descent that, while using real locations, avoids identifying landmarks) corresponds to what Frye identifies as "the demonic or night world," in which unfold "adventures which involve separation, loneliness, humiliation, pain, and the threat of more pain" (53). But it is also a place where "great rewards, of wisdom or wealth, may await the explorer," even though, at its "structural core is the individual loss or confusion or break in the continuity of identity" (104). It is the kind of place from which we initially see Parkson emerge, and it provides the space apart in which Enley first plots to get rid of his nemesis so that he can reassume his life, but then decides to face the man's demand for vengeance instead.
Exhausted, his clothes a wreck, Enley stumbles into a bar where he meets an older woman, Pat (Mary Astor), to whom, in a scene that is the mirror image of his recent encounter with Edith, he fully explains his predicament. Once she learns that Enley owns a business that could be sold for a good price, Pat decides to introduce him to Fred Finney (Harry Antrim), the local crime boss who tells him that, for a price, he could have Parkson eliminated. Enley is horrified at the plan, even though he finds it appealing once Finney reminds him that he had already done the same thing in Germany and that then it was ten men, not just one, who had to die. In a drunken haze, he flees the bar, flings himself down on a pile of metal junk until heading uncertainly for the railroad tracks where he tries, and fails, to throw himself under a train. Spiritually exhausted and almost unresisting, Enley is introduced to a hit man, Johnny (Barry Kroeger), who reminds him that if he is killed, his wife and child will be left to fend for themselves. Persuaded, but ashamed at his weakness, Enley tells him where Parkson is staying. He calls Parkson on the telephone and arranges for a rendezvous the following night, ostensibly with Enley, at his small-town railroad station. Enley will not meet Parkson, however, so runs the plan, but Johnny will gun him down before he can make more trouble.
In the morning, Enley finds himself in Pat's apartment and with no memory of what transpired the night before until she reminds him of the agreement made reluctantly with Johnny. Enley determines to foil the plot he has set in motion, heads home, and tells Edith that Parkson, now satisfied, has decided to return to the East. Possessed of her husband's terrible secret, however, Edith finds it difficult to welcome him back into the home, and they spend an anxious evening in a gloomy living room. Enley soon departs, however, after sending her upstairs, for the railroad station where, spotting Parkson, he walks bravely toward him, thinking to warn him off. Enley spots Johnny first and steps in front of his raised gun, taking the bullet meant for Parkson. Johnny attempts to speed away, but Enley jumps on the running board, forcing a crash in which both are killed. Parkson hurries to the scene of the crash, where he is joined by Ann, who speaks the film's closing moral: that Enley has saved him from both death and the need to further a vengeance that, in a world far removed from the struggles and horrors of the war, seems increasingly irrelevant.
Most noir films confirm guilt-ridden protagonists, always revealed at some point to be alienated loners, as forever "in transit" because they prove unable to escape the lawlessness and moral uncertainty of the dark city that is both within and without. Such characters can never transcend who they once were (although they might desire a better world), and thus, they can inhabit only a present that is always the past. In Act of Violence, however, and some similar films of the noir cycle that we might call redemptive, this bitter vision melds, if at times uneasily, with the imagery, values, and themes of melodrama. Such films focus on ultimately moral protagonists who discover that they can in some sense transcend the past, achieving something like a wholeness of self if only in a death that somehow makes amends for their transgressions. Such is the case in Act of Violence. (3) Real solidity, however, takes shape only on the melodramatic margins of the narrative, as Parkson is saved from his obsession with Enley's betrayal (which, Ann says, has continued to poison his life) and is freed to live the life that Enley now cannot. After leaving Pat and Fred behind in the bar where he is tempted to repeat the past precisely, once again betraying a comrade for personal advantage, Enley enters a huge empty tunnel where he is overcome with memories, hearing first the voice of the German office promising his men fair treatment and then the volley of rifle tire as they are massacred. The inner journey back to the past prompts Enley in the present to shout out the warning he had then issued: "Don't doit, Joe!" But this moment of moral (re)awakening can lead nowhere; beyond the tunnel lies the railroad tracks where Enley fails to commit suicide. Later, in a more heroic fashion and to real purpose, he does succeed at killing himself, but neither "passage" through a dangerous trial to a new self leads to a transfiguring happy ending. It seems ironically significant that this final assertion of Enley's real self (the morally upright man sacrificing himself for his comrade) proceeds from the convincingly deceptive performance as "himself" he shows Edith before stealing away to confront Parkson. Even to the very end, Enley is liminal man, inhabiting the permeable border between past and present, between a self he has become and the self he would reclaim.
Act of Violence. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. MGM, 1949.
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Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton. A Panorama of the American Film Noir, 1941-53. Tran. Paul Hammond. San Francisco: City Lights, 2002.
Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount, 1944.
Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.
Leave Her to Heaven. Dir. John M. Stahl. 20th Century Fox, 1945.
Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
Palmer, R. Barton. "'Lounge Time' Reconsidered: Spatial Discontinuity and Temporal Contingency in Out of the Past (1947)." Film Noir Reader 4. Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New Jersey: Limelight Editions, 2004. 53-65.
--. "Moral Man in the Dark City: Film Noir, the Postwar Religious Revival, and The Accused." The Philosophy of Film Noir. Ed. Mark Conard. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2006. 187-206.
Sobchack, Vivian. "Lounge Time: Postwar Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir." Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History. Ed. Nick Browne. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1998. 129-70.
Spariosu, Mikhail I. The Wreath of Wild Olive: Play, Liminality, and the Study of Literature. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1997.
Turner, Victor. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1987.
Undercurrent. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. MGM, 1946.
Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997.
(1) This doubleness, as James Naremore brilliantly demonstrates, also characterizes the viewer's experience with the film's foregrounding of performativity, for the "performances" of Walter and Phyllis as "themselves" are managed by MacMurray and Stanwyck as revealing the strain between the need to adopt one's self as a mask and the powerful force of inner expression ("I am not what I seem to be") that defines the characters' psychological states, See his Acting in the Cinema, chapter 4.
(2) Some of what follows in this discussion is based on material first published in that essay.
(3) I discuss this tradition at some length in "Moral Man in the Dark City: Film Noir, the Postwar Religious Revival, and The Accused."
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|Author:||Palmer, R. Barton|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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