Added: May 6, 2017 – Last updated: May 6, 2017


Author: Carolyn A. Kelley

Title: Rejected Women in Film Noir

Subtitle: -

Thesis: Ph.D. Thesis, University of Florida

Advisor: Maureen C. Turim

Year: 2011

Pages: 378pp.

Language: English

Keywords: Modern History: 20th Century | American History: U.S. History | Representations: Films / The Blue Gardenia


Link: University of Florida Digital Collections (Free Access)


Abstract: »My dissertation, Rejected Women in Film Noir, brings an innovative approach to a well-studied cycle of films in terms of character type and methodology by concentrating on a female character frequently pictured, but rarely discussed, which I am calling the "rejected woman." Rejected women characters include: the faithful and taken-for-granted "girl Friday," the "B" girl (Noir code for fallen woman) fettered to a bar stool, who is used and discarded by the Noir hero, and the lonely spinster, who has a dull, unglamorous job like bookkeeper or telephone operator. She desires (positive) attention from the noir hero, yet only receives it in a negative form, culminating in either active or passive rejection through dismissal or indifference. This story line of rejection is mirrored in the physical and psychological pain she often endures.
This narrative based "rejection" echoes the formal "rejection" of the character in the mise-en-scène. It relegates her to the background of shots. Frames chop off body parts or objects entangle and entrap her. She often leaves the film in a "rejected" way in that her last appearance on screen is non-eventful. She walks into a darkened abyss, strolls unceremoniously out of frame, or fades out of a frame like a ghost. Reflecting her rejection both discursively and formally within the film‘s diegesis, she has been "rejected" by film scholarship, which has not seen fit to isolate her as a character type or study her sufficiently. My dissertation corrects this oversight. When Film Noir texts highlight women‘s stories, they usually concern the sexually alluring femme fatale or her foil, the fresh-faced pretty virginal home girl. Film scholars have told the femme fatale‘s and the home girl‘s story often and well. They have, however, overlooked the Rejected Woman of Film Noir.
My methodology begins with close filmic readings and broadens to consider a number of ideological questions. I try to avoid a priori applications of ideological assumptions, and instead conduct detailed examinations of filmic textuality. I primarily utilize psychoanalytical film theory anchored in two of Jacques Lacan‘s texts: "The Mirror Stage" essay (1949), and The Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis (Seminar XI) (1964). A profound misunderstanding surrounding the term "the gaze" has caused confusion in derision in film theory discourse. I recommend that we consider Laura Mulvey‘s application of Lacan‘s "Mirror Stage" essay be called "Look Theory," and Jacqueline Rose‘s, Joan Copjec‘s and Todd McGowan‘s application of Lacan‘s Seminar XI lectures be called "Gaze Theory." After describing the reasons why this split is needed, as well as glossing the major points of each of these scholars‘ approaches to Lacan‘s work, I demonstrate how productive both "Look" theory and "Gaze" theory are in examining film generally and Rejected Women of Film Noir specifically.
Some feminist scholars believe Mulvey‘s "prescriptive" approach to film studies is outmoded. In a society still sick with sexism, however, we still need Mulvey‘s prescription. Feminist film theory needs to re-visit critical theoretical feminism and reinvestment in the insights of its pioneers. By reading the rejected woman through Mulvey‘s ground-breaking essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," I show how the rejected woman exists as a paradoxical locus of power. She is antinomic; simultaneously encompassing pain and pleasure, visibility and invisibility, movement and immobility, text and writing instrument. For example, Gaye Dawn in Key Largo appears metaphorically invisible to film‘s male characters (I bend Mulvey‘s language, arguing that rejected women connote a "to-(not)-be-looked-at-ness"). Her invisibility grants her power unavailable to other characters, yet she uses this power solely for the benefit of the Noir hero. Because Key Largo’s male character do not pay attention to her, like they do the home girl Nora, Gaye "becomes" invisible, and therefore, she can approach Rocco, steal his gun, and give it to Frank, which he will use to save his life. Despite risking her life, Gaye gains nothing from this act. She uses the power endowed by her invisibility solely to edify Frank.
Using Lacan‘s "Gaze" theory, I study the way the rejected woman both embodies the gaze and how objects in the film gaze at her. I argue that these gazes register as moments of escape, daydreaming and fantasy (Lacan‘s Imaginary register) as well as moments of pain, trauma and fascination (Lacan‘s Real register). Historically, she functions as the gaze because she reminds us collectively of traumas we may not wish to acknowledge consciously, such as racism and the invention and use of the atomic bomb. Objects in the diegesis gaze at her and tell the stories of her personal traumas (rape, prostitution, and death by horrible physical pain) as well as signify her attempts to create a world where fantasy and imagination provide a respite from her dull, dreary life and help her cope with the rejection she faces, most notably from the Noir hero. For instance, the gaze of an oyster-shaped fountain and a hamburger patty signify the rape and impregnation of Norah in The Blue Gardenia, and the gaze of a fifteen year-old-magazine functions as a refuge of fantasy for Velda (Kiss Me Deadly) who must sell her body for her pimp-like boss, Mike Hammer. In addition, I use Lacan‘s theory of the gaze as mimicry to explain how Yvonne (Casablanca) operates as the gaze in her role as a "travesty" of home girl Ilsa.
Because my project involves close and detailed readings of specific filmic scenes, it focuses on a small selection of Film Noirs: The Maltese Falcon (John Huston 1941), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1942), Key Largo (John Huston 1948), Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak 1949), The Big Heat (Fritz Lang 1953) and The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang 1953), and Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955). I chose films using two criteria: 1) films that particularly are "rejection woman heavy," meaning they contained several examples of this figure, and 2) films that covered the fifteen-year time frame of the Film Noir cycle: 1941–1955. I also include some outliers, focusing on them as precedents that prefigure the Rejected Woman character type, such as Pépé Le Moko (Julien Duvivier 1937) The Letter (William Wyler 1940), and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941).« (Source: Thesis)


  Acknowledgments (p. 4)
  List of Tables (p. 8)
  List of Figures (p. 9)
  Abstract (p. 15)
  Chapter 1. Introduction: Rejected Women in Film Noir (p. 19)
    Nurse One" in Citizen Kane: Characteristics and Prototype of Rejected Women in Film Noir (p. 19)
    Female Character Types in Film Noir (p. 23)
    What is Film Noir? Why Does It Produce Rejected Women Character Types? (p. 29)
      Film Noir is a Cycle (p. 29)
      Film Noir Exists (p. 32)
      Film Noir is July Fifth (p. 36)
    The Films (p. 38)
    Methodology: Three Risks (p. 40)
      Risk One: Renewal of "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (p. 41)
      Risk Two: Repairing the Rift and Renewing Psychoanalytic Film Theory (p. 54)
      Risk Three: The Gaze of Descriptive Movie Group Practices (p. 68)
    Chapters (p. 70)
  Chapter 2. Invisibility of Rejected Women: A "To-(Not)-Be-Looked-at-Ness" (p. 80)
    Invisibility and Agency in Rejected Women (p. 80)
    Invisibility and Sexual Longing in Rejected Women (p. 84)
    Close Readings: Specific Examples of Rejected Women of Film Noir as Invisible (p. 89)
      Gaye Dawn in Key Largo (p. 89)
      Selma Parker in The Big Heat (p. 97)
        At Victory Auto Wrecking (p. 97)
        At Larry‘s apartment (p. 105)
      Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon (p. 107)
      The Lush in Criss Cross (p. 115)
  Chapter 3. Ambivalent Resistance: The Immobile and Written Upon Bodies of Rejected Women (p. 139)
    The Body of the Rejected Woman: Passivity and Ambivalent Resistance (p. 139)
    Immobile Bodies of Rejected Women and the Telephone (p. 141)
      Effie and the Telephone in The Maltese Falcon (p. 141)
      Norah, Crystal and Sally and the Telephone in The Blue Gardenia (p. 143)
        The Blue Gardenia and passivity (p. 143)
        The Blue Gardenia and resistance (p. 157)
    Written-Upon Bodies of Rejected Women in The Big Heat (p. 167)
      Lucy Chapman (p. 171)
      Doris the B-Girl (p. 174)
      Debby Marsh (p. 178)
      Last Shot of The Big Heat (p. 184)
  Chapter 4. The Optic Whiteness of Film Noir and Rejected "Women" of Film Noir (p. 204)
    Mama Ochobee as the Gaze in the Picture (öp. 204)
    The Optic Whiteness of Film Noir (p. 206)
    Othered Persons in Film Noir (p. 213)
    Othered Women In Film Noir (p. 218)
    Othered Men as Rejected "Women" of Film Noir (p. 227)
  Chapter 5. Lacan's Sardine Can in Film Noir: The Object's Gaze and Rejected Women (p. 246)
    Lacan: the Gaze of the Sardine Can and Petit-Jean (p. 246)
    Rejected Women of Film Noir and Encounters with the Lacanian Gaze (p. 248)
    Example One: The Oyster Fountain as Gaze in The Blue Gardenia: Foreshadowing Norah‘s Rape (p. 249)
    Example Two: The Whirlpool as Gaze in The Blue Gardenia: Symbol of Norah‘s Rape (p. 255)
    Example Three: Popping Meat and Mustard as Gaze in The Blue Gardenia (p. 264)
    Example Four: Velda and the Gaze of the Magazine in Kiss Me Deadly (p. 268)
      Summary of the Film (p. 268)
      Analysis of the Magazine as Gaze (p. 270)
    Example Five: The Telephone as Gaze in The Blue Gardenia (p. 278)
  Chapter 6. Rejected Women of Film Noir as the Gaze (p. 292)
    Mimicry and The Gaze (p. 292)
    The Rejected Woman as "Sticking to the Seat" of Film Noir: "Lounge Time" and Abjection (p. 295)
    Examples of Rejected Women as the Gaze (p. 297)
      Yvonne in Casablanca (p. 297)
      The Lush in Criss Cross (p.- 310)
      Velda in Kiss Me Deadly (p. 317)
  Chapter 7. "Spectator, Can't You See We're Burning?" Rejected Women and the Nuclear Bomb (p. 334)
    In the Shadow of the Bomb (p. 334)
    Context: Brief History of Nuclear Bombs (p. 342)
    Rejected Women as Nuclear Bomb (p. 347)
      The Big Heat and Atom Bomb Maidens (p. 347)
      The Blue Gardenia and the Hydrogen Bomb (p. 349)
      Kiss Me Deadly and "The House of My Body" (p. 352)
    Invisibility, Rejected Women, and the Atomic Bomb (p. 357)
    "Spectator, Can‘t You See We‘re Burning? Final Thoughts on Rejected Women in Film Noir (p. 360)
  List of References (p. 369)
  Biographical Sketch (p. 378)

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