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Noir and Masculinity

The Changing Roles of Men

in Post-War Film Noir

The American definition of masculinity has changed greatly in the

20th century. At the turn of the 20th century, it was defined by a shared

cultural identity that stressed a white, middle-class, frontier-era mythology of

America that was built on societal ideals of individualism and self-reliance.

At the end of the century that shared cultural identity has become fractured

and is now defined by conflicting racial, ethnic, sexual and societal norms. For

most of the century this had been a gradual metamorphosis in the societal

role of the American male but World War II brought about that massive

societal change quickly. The popular culture of the time, especially the moody

film noir thrillers of the 1940's and 1950's, recorded that change.

In the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo a young American aviator

tells his friends about his expectations returning home after the victory in

World War II. "When it's all over, just think, being able to settle down and

never be in doubt about anything."1 The typical World War II veteran was

optimistic that victory abroad would return him to his proper role and place

in society. The war had ended decades of economic stagnation, and winning

on the battlefield renewed a lost faith in his masculine identity. It dispelled,

for a time, the fears and inadequacies that he had lived through as a child of

the Great Depression. He yearned to return to his traditional American role as

the unchallenged benefactor; giving aid to those at home and at work.

It was a heroic ideal that hadn't existed in America since the turn of the
century. Women and minorities had continued to carve themselves new

niches in the wartime economy and would not return to what was considered

their proper place before World War II. The veteran may have wished to

return to the America of his grandfather's day, but the post-war landscape he

would grow to inhabit, was colder, and far more cynical than he had ever


A growing paranoia fueled by the hysteria of the Cold War, and the

vague unhappiness that suburban life would bring, would taint the

effervescent postwar climate. Though made only three years after Thirty

Seconds Over Tokyo, Edward Dymytrick's 1947 film Crossfire seems like

generations have passed in between the two films. It gives us a portrait, not of

the idyllic of the earlier film, but an America as violent and untrustworthy as

the environment the G.I. encountered in Europe during the War. The

protagonist of Crossfire is Jeff Mitchell, a conflicted and apathetic marine who

epitomized this new post-war attitude, "A guy like me after the war hates

himself because he's scared to get going again."2 In the film a violent bigot

and fellow marine played by Robert Ryan frame Mitchell for the murder of a

Jewish character in the film. The film tackles the controversial issues of anti-

Semitism and institutional racism and criticizes an America still enraptured

with itself from its victory overseas. Crossfire reflects the uneasy transition

that veterans made to civilian society and captures the darkly cynical mood

that permeated beneath the surface of post-war America. It is one of the finest

examples of postwar film noir.

It was a year before Crossfire was released that French film critic Nino
Frank coined the term film noir to describe what he perceived as a current

trend within Hollywood wartime cinema.3 These "dark films" were filled

with characters whose ambitions and passionate obsessions rule their lives

and lead them to committ either moral or ethical transgressions that they are

invariably punished for at the end of the movie. Often noir films have a

message warning the audience not to overstep their societal obligations and

maintain their moral fiber.

Janey Place, in her feminist reinterpretation of the films, states that

"film noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art."4 She focuses on the

interpretation of female roles and stereotypes in film noir and how they

reflect the changing male attitudes towards women. A similar interpretation

needs to be done, according to new scholarship available in men's studies, to

show the active progression of male roles during the century and the specific

masculine preoccupation's that post-war popular culture reflected. The film

noir hero is an archetype of post-war American masculinity.

The important element of film noir is that it follows a finite life cycle

with a tangible has a beginning, middle and end. It reflects a period of

American life that begins primarily with the end of the Great Depression, is

in no small way connected with the impressions of World War II, and ends

with the burgeoning social and political revolutions of the 1960's. Paul

Schrader, a noted film historian and screenwriter, pinpoints this period as

having starting with The Maltese Falcon (1941), then reaching its pinnacle

with Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and ends with the superb epitaph Touch of Evil

(1958).5 If we were to examine these three very different films from varying
historical periods of the noir life-cycle, and examine them according to the

changing masculine and feminine roles in general society, a clearer picture of

the process by which culture affects change in society, and is then effected by it


The Maltese Falcon is generally regarded as the starting point of film

noir. While it is ostensibly about private investigator Sam Spade's very

personal search for the killer of his partner Miles Archer the tale quickly finds

him embroiled in a search for the priceless, jeweled encrusted artifact that the

title refers to. This "black bird" is sought out by a group of deadly eccentrics

who test Spade's personal, ethical and moral code. It is his masculinity that is

ultimately threatened.

The film, which was released in 1941, and the novel, which was

released in 1930, are both indicative of the progressive, social and political

ideals of the 1930's and early 1940's, and also the changing face of American


Certain factors would influence the collective psychology of American

men at the turn of the century. When World War I ended in 1917, and the

American soldier returned home as a confident victor, few people realized

the ramifications of that victory. Ernest Hemingway, like other writers of the

"Lost Generation", knew altogether too well of the veterans' conflicted inner

psyche. Hemingway had left for Europe, during the early days of the war, in

part to search for an arena to test his manhood. Even then the American

male had considered modern life contrary to the principles by which men had
traditionally won their adult masculinity. War was still considered the

ultimate testing ground. Hemingway, like many others, would return deeply

scarred from his experiences on the front. In his short story, "Soldier's

Home," he writes of a protagonist that "returns [home] only to feel suffocated

in civilian life and tries to disengage from the world, to live alone without

consequences."6 This mirrored his own internal struggle in readjusting to

civilian life and illustrated a similar disaffection that other WWII veterans

would face.

Increased economic competition in the next decade would affect the

dominant masculine ideal in America. The 1920's saw blacks and immigrants

entering the workforce in greater numbers. This gave rise to an orchestrated

campaign fueled by scathing newspaper rhetoric that called for legislation to

curb the inroads of blacks and immigrants in the workforce.

The more severe racial epithets were expressed in terms of gender

slander. Blacks and immigrants were depicted as either "feminized and effete

or wildly savage hyper masculine beasts."7 It was an instinctual attack on the masculinity

of others in the hopes that it would relieve collective fears

or recapture lost masculinity in a small way. This backlash culminated in

"the Immigration Act of 1924, which passed after bitter controversy and

significantly reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the nation."8

This would be the most important reaction to the diminished role of

American masculinity and would be seen repeated often throughout the

coming decades. The next perceived threat would be American women. As

black and immigrant men were "feminized" to remove their perceived threat

to American masculinity, women were also placed in a similar category

because of their own equally important economic gains.

By 1920 about one half of the college students and one-third of all

employed Americans were women.9 Their entry into the American

workforce would coincide with other unprecedented cultural ripple effects,

including the Great Depression in 1929, that would and severely damage the

traditional American masculine ideal.

On Friday, October 28, 1929 the U.S. Stock Exchange suffered one of the

greatest economic disasters of the 20th century. By the following Monday, U.S.

securities would lose 26 billion dollars in value.10 Between 1929 and 1932 the

income of the average American family was reduced by 40%, from $2,300 to

$1,500.11 Women were blamed for causing the Great Depression and

continuing the protracted economic decline by staying in the workforce.

Author Norman Cousins held a popular opinion held that massive

unemployment could be eliminated if women returned to the home and

men went about their traditional role as breadwinners. He proposed to simply

"fire the women . . .and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief

rolls. No Depression!"12

American men, who were accustomed to their role as unquestioned

economic provider for their families, began to feel their reduced leadership

role as head of the American family. As a result, many men sought solace in

the comfortable familial environment of the home and their own, often

neglected, fatherhood:
"The workplace was too unreliable. . . to enable men to prove

their manhood; in fact it eroded their authority at home. Many men

returned. . . in the hope that by raising their sons to be successful

men they could themselves achieve some sense of masculine


The upbringing of these children, that would one day grow to fight in

World War II, would be effected by the changing masculine preoccupations of

their fathers and the manner in which they would pass on their changing

masculine roles to their sons.

In a traditional sense American men defined their masculinity by the

achievement of social or financial success as determined by exterior sources

like society, employment, and family. After the Great Depression, masculinity

was "redefined away from achievement in the public sphere and reconceived

as the exterior manifestation of a certain inner sense of oneself."15 and

determined by acquired traits from infancy and early development.

This change in the acquisition of masculinity, from exterior to interior

methodologies, is important. The next decade in the study of American

masculinity would follow this developmental process in the male sex-role

identity. The adult sense of masculine "normalcy" is approached with the

idea that it can be passed on to the next generation as if it were considered an

immunity or an acquired trait.

During the 1930's "having the sex-appropriate traits, attitudes and

interests that psychologically 'validate' or 'reaffirm' their biological sex

manifests this new ideal of adult masculinity."15 Parents requested a

separation of the sexes in schools because they believed that masculine traits

were being corrupted by the influences of female teachers. It led to nationwide

testing of children to distinguish the varying levels of masculinity and

femininity in a child.

Masculinity /Femininity Tests were used as barometers to determined

the acceptable social levels of opposing traits in male and females. Certain

physical attributes and behaviors are used in these tests to distinguish "real

men" from not only women but also from the physical traits of effeminate

men. This new ideal of masculinity is dependent on the idea that if

heterosexual men are different from women, and homosexual men are

different from heterosexual men, that women and homosexual men are

different in the same way from heterosexual men. Also, the traits that

homosexual men and women share can be measured and guarded against by

heterosexual men.

In a sense, American masculinity was now defined by what it wasn't

rather than what it was, and like a dual edged Sword of Damocles, American

masculinity during the 1930's is used to pass judgement on others as it also

does on itself.

The Maltese Falcon is a work purely of this time in American history

and reflects the direct preoccupations that American readers had at the end of

the 1920's and early 1930's.Written in 1930 by the American crime novelist

Dashiell Hammett it is, like many of Hammet's other crime novels, a

response to the genteel and mannered British mystery novels of Arthur

Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. These purely American mysteries were

direct and forceful, featuring masculine detective heroes that prove and

define themselves by their ability to overcome the dangers that the narrative

places in front of them. In referring to an early Hammett novel Red Harvest

James Naremore states that:

"Sometimes the heroes toughness is exaggerated to the point of

burlesque: at one point in Red Harvest (1929), [he] spends all night

drinking gin with a blond floozy, takes a cold bath, and has a fight

with a killer . . .and without any benefit of another cold bath, he

captures an escaped convict and solves a murder mystery that has

baffled the police for years."16

Hammett's protagonists were often loners with a strict moral code that

may or may not be tied to a definite social order or common morality and this

philosophy is very much in tune with the modern internally based

identification of masculinity. Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, is a loner

who walks the mean streets of San Francisco and transcends the societal

mores of the conventional society that he dislikes and the criminal society

that he often admires. At the end of film, when faced with a rather difficult

decision to turn the killer in or not, Spade decries:

"When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something

about it. . . it's bad for business to let the killer get away with it. Bad

all around. Bad for every detective everywhere."17

This world view is based on strict ideals of a working society and the

individuals' responsibility to make it work, especially when considered after

the effects of the Great Depression society itself and its institutions seemed no

longer to work. Spade seems to be saying that it is the individual and not

society who is ultimately responsible for the success and even the failure of

the society in which The Maltese Falcon was written.

The most important theme discussed in The Maltese Falcon is the

recurring trial of masculinity that Sam Spade endures and it is typical of the

popular mystery and detective fiction of the time. These stories usually


"The presentation of an exotic milieu of crime and corruption; a

representation of characters who scorn the regimentation of

'conformist society'; a sequence of scenes structured around

principles of masculine testing where the hero defines himself

through the conflict with various sets of adversaries (criminals,


In Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon, Spade seeks to prove his

own masculine professionalism by outwitting his criminal adversaries and by

triumphing over the dangers presented by the story's feminine presence;

represented in the abstract by many of the supporting characters in the story.

Spade serves as the reader's proxie who offers, through the sheer force of his

personality, a means to recapture lost masculinity.

John Huston's 1941 adaptation of the tale is indicative of the popular

culture of the 1940's. The Maltese Falcon reflects the general unease that often

hangs between masculine and feminine gender roles. The film reflects the

manner in which American men were being acculturated at the time and is

clearly contemptuous of not only women but effeminate men. Other groups

that did not fit in with the narrow white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-

class and heterosexual definition of American masculinity were also scorned.

In it Sam Spade is confronted with three male antagonists that reflect

the dominant societal challenge to the masculine ideal. The character Joel

Cairo, a stylish fop played by Peter Lorre in the movie, is one of three rather

repulsive homosexual images. Cairo is a distinctively perfumed European-

Continental stereotype who is enthralled with wealth and decadent in his

tastes. Sidney Greenstreet's character Gutman is a large man of esteemed

refinements, who is also engorged with the corruptions he keeps; one of

which is his personal bodyguard Wilmer. Wilmer is a violent but naive

character, a bodyguard in more than name, and in the novel characterized as

ìimplicitly a homosexual. In the movie, Wilmer is referred to, "as 'sonny',

'boy' and 'kid', and Bogart derisively calls him a 'gunsel."19

The term "gunsel" has an apt meaning for the topic, especially by

tracing its transformation in usage. Since about 1915 the "gunsel" had been

used to describe a passive sodomite, especially a young or inexperienced

companion. From the mid 1920's it gradually came to mean a sneaky or

disreputable person of any kind. By the 1930's it meant a petty gangster or

hoodlum.20 This progression of the term denotes the venom in which

homosexual stereotypes were portrayed in popular culture.

Spade outwits these "lesser" men and defines his own masculine

persona by disarming both Cairo and Wilmer of their weapons, which is

clearly phallic gesture, and outsmarts Gutman's master plan to seize the

valuable "black bird" for himself. The falcon turns out to be a worthless piece

of lead, but that isn't important for the impact of the story. The Maltese

Falcon is resolved by the trials that Sam Spade meets. He is defined by all that

he rejects, whether it is wealth, decadence or frailty. He even rejects love

when it conflicts with that moral direction.

The female character's in The Maltese Falcon are important. As in

most film noirs they they help define Sam Spade, since is often defines

himself by his relationship to them. Miles Archers' widow, with whom

Spade has been having an affair all along, is the mother-like figure who seeks

to marry and save the male protagonist from himself. As comforting as her

role may seem she is the most threatening female figure of them all. She

comes to Spade after her husband's death and offers him stability and security

and he rejects her advances because she threatens his independence and self-

reliance: two ideals that are fuled by his masculine libido.

A professional barrier keeps Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perrine

apart. Spade protects and shelters her but never makes any sexual advances to

because he realizes that no relationship with her could flourish and again she

would stifle his masculine independence. Effie is the female noir archetype of

the pure and virginal woman.

In her guise as Miss Wonderly, as she is known in her first scene with
Sam Spade, or as the habitual liar Brigid O'Shaunessy, Mary Astor plays one

of the film noirs primary "femme-fatales" or fatal woman. The femme fatale

tempts the hero with romance and the sexual freedom of youth, which offers

a manner to placate his masculine independence and libido, but her own

savage sexuality usually destroys the film noir protagonist, although Sam

Spade is another man altogether.

"We may find ourselves admiring her for she is indeed powerful,

dangerously so from a male point of view. And her power and

intelligence, though presented in terms of her destructive potential,

are always fueled by her sexuality."21

Brigit is smart and conniving, and usually able to manipulate events to

suit her needs, but in this case is no match for either her own long neglected

emotions, as she develops romantic yearnings for Sam Spade.

Often these images of feminity are perceived as demeaning to women.

In film noir the only female that suffers the penalty in the end is the sexually

active femme-fatale. These women are actually quite strong and independent

and one of the first instances, in popular film, where women are empowered

by their control over the weak male protagonists. Her power would grow

throughout the decade as feminine status in society would grow. The female

in film noir begins to take on the traditionally masculine role and becomes

the instigator. Men in film noir would tend to gravitate toward the

traditional feminine of the victim.

The typical film noir protagonist is usually "isolated either physically

or mentally, from his surroundings and is often foredoomed and aware of his

ultimate fate, he faces it with stoic determination."22 He is usually "between

the ages of twenty-five and fifty . . . the time is 1940 to the present, with a

special concentration on the years 1945-1958."23 Any study of wartime

America and post-war American masculinity in film noir needs to follow the

progression in the male protagonist from hero to victim, or from the

traditionally masculine to feminine role.

Even though The Maltese Falcon is cited as having started the film

noir cycle, Sam Spade is not the prototypical noir hero. Humphrey Bogart's

Sam Spade has not yet lost his moral compass and is still the epitome of the

Depression era image of masculinity. A more typical representation of the

film noir protagonist is Walter Neff, the amoral insurance agent who

conspires to kill his lover's husband in Double Indemnity, or Joe Gillis, the

failed Hollywood screenwriter who is captured like a fly in amber by the

decadent leanings and easy money of silent screen star Norma Desmond in

Sunset Boulevard. They are both typical stereotypes of the later noir male

protagonists. Neff betrays his trusting employer and Gillis betrays Desmond

for a younger woman. Both movies are told by them wry flashbacks, Gillis or

Nefff being either dead or dying, and reminder of where their indiscretions

have led them: trapped by circumstances or their own varying levels of

ambition. Compared to Sam Spade, Neff and Gillis would foreshadow the

changes in American masculinity that would see in the ensuing decades

influenced by massive societal change.

After the bombing of Pear Harbor, American society would no longer

be the same. World War II would define the popular culture of the ensuing

decades. After years of depression and war, the American public was buoyed

by a newfound confidence that winning the war brought. The per capita

income had doubled from $1231 to $2390 per year from 1939 through 1945.24

To add to that figure the national unemployment rate maintained at a

relatively steady low of about 4.5% average during the same period, and more

shocking was that it had dropped "from a pre-World War II average of

around 20% unemployment."25 The growing economic windfall raised the

public's confidence further and it was this assuredness that brought about the

drastic societal changes that would follow in the ensuing decade. Americans

accumulated an astounding $29 billion of savings in six years during the war,

up from $2.6 billion in 1939.26 This created a boom in numerous levels of

postwar American society.

Construction increased significantly during the decade as, "housing

starts never fell under 1.3 million annually, except once, for the remainder of

the 1950's."7 The federal government was able to create and fund new public

works projects that helped build roads that connected the inner cities to the

growing mass of suburban tract homes that veterans were buying. Secondly,

the G.I. Bill was passed that would impart a series of low interest home loans

to fund the reconstruction of cities and suburbs and a comprehensive

education fund that would educate the workforce. 28 Veterans were

hardworking, family oriented and quick to take advantage of these social

programs that encouraged them to invest in themselves and their

The ultimate barometer of that prosperity was seen in the postwar

bedroom. The ensuing decade demonstrated one of the largest post-war

population booms in history. As a result, "1.12 million babies were born in

1946 and grew every year but one until a peak was reached in 1957 when the

birth rate reached 1.837 million."29 The veteran of World War II who

returned after years abroad and remade his society to work in the orderly

fashion that he had grown accustomed to. He had faith in the technology,

prosperity and the inevitability of progress.

As much as the popular culture reflected that bright and optimistic

reflection of the American psyche it also reflected a darker image of America.

Despite the economic and social gains, the popular mood was often downbeat.

In the decade of the 1950's people were afraid of the enemy and the bomb and

even those that had supplied the enemy with the bomb.

The eras' most popular author was Mickey Spillane. He was very much

in tune with the zeitgeist of society, and much like Sam Spade was to the late

1930's and early 1940's, his Mike Hammer would be to the popular culture of

the early 1950's. Hammer's investigations were fueled by unadulterated rage

and paranoia, and livened up by the titillation of his pneumatically endowed

"lust" interests. Spillane wrote novels long on sex and violence and short on

logic and perspective, since the only correct perspective is Hammer's. The

villains are ineffective figures, as are the police and any other authority

figure, neither one capable of withstanding the gale force that is Mike

Hammer. The character clearly touched a nerve in the public. He was a perfect

foil for Spillane's readers and their collective anger and fear that revolved
around women, who were the primary villains in Spillane's fiction, and

more vehemently the Communists.

The Cold War began as soon as the Soviet Union expanded its borders

into Germany after the fall of Hitler in 1945. It was only four years later, when

the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb that they were actually taken

seriously as a threat to American dominance in the 20th century. It was two

years later that Americans would hold somebody personably responsible for

the Cold War. In 1951 Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were tried, convicted and

in 1953 executed for treason; having sold top-secret documents to the

Russians regarding the United States nuclear program. 30 The general mood

was shattered further by the effect of the Korean War between 1950-1953. The

prolonged fighting gave fuel to the domestic paranoia of the Red Scare.

The HUAC committee hearings, which had begun shortly after the

war, and continued throughout much of the 1950's, sought to weed out

Communist influences in society. Hollywood films would become a primary

target for their rhetoric. Edward Dymytrick's, who directed the 1947 film

Crossfire, was tried shortly after the release of the film, in front of the

congressional hearing, and like other "members of the "Hollywood Ten' [was]

imprisoned for contempt of Congress."31 The fear Communism would lead

to other purges in government of suspected Communists that, whether true

or not, "during the period 1947-1956. . .there were 2,700 dismissals and 12,000

resignations of government employees."32

The difference, between a pre-war thriller like The Maltese Falcon and

a nuclear age-noir like Kiss Me Deadly, would be enormous and primarily in

their differing portrayals of the ideal masculine protagonist. Mike Hammer in

Kiss Me Deadly and Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon are as different as the

times in which they "lived":

"Premeditated murder has given way to spontaneous sadism;

individual paranoia to general anarchy; the prospect of a lifetime's

jail sentence to the numbing terror of nuclear holocaust."33

Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer was characteristic of both the changes

in the ideal of masculinity and its portrayal in post-war popular culture. In

Joseph Pleck's theory of the changing roles of masculinity and femininity,

"World War II caused a temporary reversal in the long term historical decline

of the traditional male role and of the shorter-term, more specific crises of the

depression."34 The economy was righted and men returned from the war

having experienced a camaraderie that was seen as almost a return to the

traditional American ideal of masculinity. Still they returned to a landscape

greatly changed.

The 1950's also saw theories of masculine role development that added

meaning to established theories of Masculine/Feminine. Two important

theories were added that allowed researchers to study the levels of

masculinity versus femininity in a test subject. The first was Identification,

which dealt with the causes or developmental origin of abnormal

masculine/feminine traits. Developmental problems in men were caused by

too close of an attachment with their mothers as young boys. Women did not

have these developmental problems because early bonding with their

mothers only enhanced their sex-role typing.35 Soon after, Hypermasculinity

would hold that "exaggerated, extreme masculine behavior was a defense

against the male's unconscious feminine identification." 36 Either one of the

changing fixations of post-war theorists could easily have influenced

Spillane's Mike Hammer.

In 1955 Robert Aldritch directed his version of Mickey Spillane's 1952

novel Kiss Me Deadly. Written at the height of the Cold War, and in the

middle of the Korean War, the novel holds to a different cultural standard

than Aldritch's movie, though only three years separate them in time.

Aldritch brought his own highly critical approach to the story by commenting

on the highly conservative nature of the 1950's.

In the movie Mike Hammer is a much different character than the

rage-filled Neanderthal of the novel. In his screenplay A.I. Bezerrides places

the primary criticism of Hammer in the hands of the films' female characters

and gives us an ongoing commentary into Spillane's excessively violent

protagonist. Hammer, in fact isn't so much a a heroic private investigator but

a sleazy "bedroom dick."37 Mike Hammer is described as being a bit shallow

and egocentric, as typified particularly by his choice of cars. Christina, who is

murdered at the beginning of the movie, tells him shortly before, "You're

one of those self-indulgent males who thinks of nothing else but his clothes,

his car, his stuff."38

When Hammer comes out of an apparent coma in the Aldritch film he

remarks to Velda his faithful secretary, "You're never around when I need
you." She quips back, "You never need me when your around."39 Again this

is Bezzarides' plain contempt for the material and a response to the

individualistic nature of the Spillane hero and the callousness with which he

uses people; especially those closest to him.

As Bezzarides describes him, "he looks rather like a cross between

Spillane's character and a Playboy male."40 A jet-set man's man who has time

for a martini and a cigar, but little time for the drudgery of domestic life. It is

precisely during this time that Hugh Hefner is creating a scandal with the

publication of Playboy magazine in 1953 and Hammer reflects this primary

change in American masculinity in the middle of the 1950's. The stereotype

of the modern man had changed greatly in the ensuing years between

Spillane's depiction and Aldritch's of the main Mike Hammer.

Aldritch's portrayal of the female characters is also different in the

film. The assumption in the book, along with the particulars of the film noir

genre, is that Hammer's secretary Velda is in the same vein as Spade's Effie

Perrine. Like Effie, Velda is the virginal love interest for the roving

masculine protagonist. In Velda however, by all indications from Spillane

work, the virginal woman more than holds her own as a competent private

investigator in her own right. She in fact comes off as one of the only other

finely realized characters in Spillane's one-person narratives. In Aldritch's

film Velda is something else entirely. She is somewhat of a kept women,

used primarily in entrapment schemes on the unsuspecting husbands or

wives of his clients, or a prostitute by any modern sense of the word.

Gaby Rodgers, who plays the primary femme-fatale in Kiss Me Deadly

is also used differently. She is more than willing to use force of violence to get
her way. The "iconography of violence (primarily guns) is a specific symbol of

her 'unnatural' phallic power."41 It is a testament to the changing roles of

women that allows us into the subtext and explains how they are perceived by

the patriarchal establishment in film.

Much of the meaning of the movie lies squarely in the plot. Kiss Me

Deadly begins as a search for the killers of the beautiful and intelligent

Christina that Mike Hammer befriends at the beginning of the novel. Where

movie and novel differ is in the antagonists. In the novel, Hammer's search

leads him to her ties to the Mafia and stolen drugs hidden that were she had

hidden away in a box. Because of "censorship restrictions against drugs in

movies"42 the box in Aldritch's film becomes, what Hammer refers to as, the

ìgreat-whatsitî- an unstable amount of radioactive material stolen from the

Manhattan Project. The antagonists of the movie are greedy Americans

willing to sell nuclear material on the open market to the highest bidder. The

movie ends with a nuclear meltdown and the supposed death of everyone

involved. It is a testament to the changes that have occurred in society

between The Maltese Falcon and Kiss Me Deadly. The "great-whatsit"

becomes almost an allegorical symbol of the inherent nihilism of the age. In

14 years, Sam Spade's search for justice as a had lost all meaning with the

threat of nuclear anhilation hovering over society's collective head.

Kiss Me Deadly is a clear commentary on the climate of fear and

resentment that many people shared living in the 1950's. This disparity of

vision, between novel and film, shows a great change between just three

short years in the 1950's and opens the door for more radical discourse to

follow. Robert Crumb, the noted 1960's counter-culture cartoonist, summed it

up best when he referred to the 1950's of his youth as a:

"Big false front that was just so dreary and depressing. O.K. they [his

parents] grew up in the depression and they went through the War

and they wanted this thing that was so tight and unthreatening and

flat and they wanted a dull lifestyle. Perry Como and this Ozzie &

Harriet shell that we grew up in. The whole thing had this creepy,

nightmarish quality to it."43

It was this creepy and nightmarish quality that would seep through,

not only the work of Robert Aldritch, but also in that of Orson Welle's in his

Touch of Evil. It was filmed in the twilight of Welles' Hollywood career and

in the twilight hours of a California summer in a Venice, California that was

masquerading as a corrupt Mexican border town.

As Orson Welles staggers to his death at the end of the film, his

enigmatic partner Tanya underscores the moment by rendering him with an

equally biting epitaph. "He was some kind of man."44 Welles plays Hank

Quinlan, a corrupt American detective, who lives in that Mexican border

town and running schemes that create a web of intrigue and corruption that

envelopes everyone in the movie. He is grossly obese, with a half-chewed

cigar constantly in place, and cuts an imposing figure despite his pronounced

limp. He is a fallen man, torn by not only the murder of his wife but his

inability to find and convict her killers. Though he is the villain of the

movie, who antagonizes Charlton Heston's Mexican narcotics officer Mike

Vargas, Welles' Quinlan becomes the protagonist of this as in any other

Welles movie. Quinlan's fall from grace in the movie signified the end of the

classic film noir protagonist and gave the genre a worthy epitaph.

This, Welle's last American movie was a squalid crime movie that

tapped into the seediness that lay just below the surface of late 1950's

American society. In late 1956, when a 29 year old New York student, named

Herbert Stumpel, testified to Congress of his complicity in rigging the game

show Twenty-One it created a scandal that rocked a nation that had grown to

trust anything that television had to offer.45

As the Eisenhower era was coming to a close the society was also

rocked by numerous positive changes. The Civil Rights movement would

begin in earnest on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her

bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. It led to a boycott, by "30-40,000 bus riders

out of a total black population of 50,000" 46that would eventually break the

color barrier in the deep South. It would bring Martin Luther King onto the

national stage. The Kinsey Report, which was published in 1948, would

herald an entirely new classification of modern sexuality, not only for men

but also for women. He established a scientific basis of male sexuality that was

not limited to an "either/or" classification. As Kinsey put it, men were not

limited to homosexuality or heterosexuality, but most fell somewhere

inbetween. 47 This would slowly spark the beginnings of a Sexual

Revolution, and in part influence other political and social reforms that

would lead to the beginnings of the feminist movement and gay-rights


By the time Orson Welles' 1958 film Touch of Evil was released, the era
of the classic noir thriller would be over. Touch of Evil reflected the changing

society and 1950's era view of masculinity The "crack-pot sheriff who

dominates [Touch of Evil] is a direct descendent of the Sam Spade character in

The Maltese Falcon . . .[whose] cool outsiders view of the criminal scene is

replaced by the agitated viewpoint of [Frank Quinlan] who dominates.48 The

heroic ideal that Hammet so eloquently wrote about in Red Harvest, and was

put to film in John Huston's adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was brought

to its logical conclusion in lieu of the massive changes that four decades

brought. The noir cycle runs in a direct line from the investigator of 1941 to

the criminal of 1958.

Although Touch of Evil ended the cycle, its influences would be great.

Every few years a revival of the film noir "genre" would appear and these

new would use some of the same themes and many of the images and

archetypes that the classic noirs used. In Robert Altman's 1973 film The Long

Goodbye, which was a fractured parody of Raymond Chandler's classic novel

or Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown, which was screenwriter Robert

Towne's criticism of Watergate era America, or even Quentin Tarantino's

Pulp Fiction in 1995, were self-conscious reworkings of noir iconography.

This self-referential nature of the new noir films being made is what

distinguishes them from the classic noirs. The cultural underpinnings that

held film noir together no longer existed. The genre had fulfilled its role,

which was "to create the specific malaise and to drive home a social criticism

of the United States."49 and specifically of classic American masculinity and

Touch of Evil confirm its end. As Joe Jackson so eloquently put in his song, "Real Men":
Take your mind back-I don't know when. Sometime when it always

se be just us and them. Girls that wore pink and girls that wore blue.

Boys that always grew up better men than me and you. What's a

man now-what's a man mean?"50

The song brings up the hidden cultural nostalgia for "simpler times" of

the 1950's and the nostalgia that often revolves around these outmoded

masculine and feminine role models. It also confronts these stereotypes with

some pointed imagery. Jackson seems to be saying that we may often want to return to a

simpler time when roles were more clearly defined, but with that clarity of

purpose can often spring dangerous consequences. Any nostalgia that is

referred to culturally fails to take into account the general trend of American

masculinity. Societal mores and gender roles were changing long before

World War II. Only the degree of change was affected.

1. Michael Kimmell, Manhood in America, (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 223.

2. Edward Dymytrick, Crossfire, 86m., (Los Angeles: United Artists, 1947)

3 Frank Krutnick , In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity,

(London: Routledge Ltd., 1991), 42, 15

4Janey Place, "Women In Film Noir," in E. Ann Kaplan, ed., Women in Film

Noir, (London:British Film Institute, 1998), 47.

5Paul Schrader, "Notes On Film Noir", in James Naremore, More Than

Night :Film Noir in its Contexts , (Berkley, Ca.: University of California

Press,1998), 33.

6Kimmell, Manhood in America, 192.

7Ibid., 195.

8 Ibid., 194.

9 Ibid., 192.

10 "Time Out Of Mind: A Chronology of our Modern Times", Internet

Document, 1993.

11 Bettye Sutton, "American Cultural History: 1930 - 1939", (Kingwood

College Library: Internet Document).

12 Kimmell, Manhood in America, 199

13 Ibid.., 201

14 Ibid.., 206

15 Joseph H. Pleck , "The Theory of Male Sex-Role Identity: Its Rise And Fall,

1936 to the Present", in Harry Brod, ed., The Making of Masculinities: The

New Men's Studies, (Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin Inc. , 1987), 21

16 James Naremore, More than the Night: Film Noir And Its Contexts,

(Berkley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1998), 49

17John Huston, The Maltese Falcon, 100m., (Los Angeles: Warner


18 Krutnick, In A Lonely Street, 40

19 Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, (New

York: Harper & Row, Publishers Inc., 1987), 46

20Ibid., 47.

21 Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere Iin the Night: Film Noir And The

American City, (New York: Henry Holt and Comany, Inc., 1997), 2.
22 Ibid.

23 Bruce Crowther, Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror, (New York: The

Continuum Publishing Company,1989), 10

24 William J. O'Neill, American High: The Years of Confidence, (New York: The

Free Press,1986), 1

25 Christopher, Somewhere in the Night, 21

26 O'Neill, American High, 1

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., 17

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid. 160

31 Ibid. 123

32 Ibid. 162

33 Christopher, Somewhere in the Night, 21

34 Joseph H. Pleck , "The Theory of Male Sex-Role Identity: Its Rise And Fall,

1936 to the Present", in Harry Brod, ed., The Making of Masculinities : the New

Men's Studies, (Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin Inc. ,1987), 27

35 Ibid., 31


37 Robert Aldritch, Kiss Me Deadly, 105m., (Los Angeles: United Artists,1955)

38 Ibid.


40 Naremore, More than the Night, 153

41Place, "Women In Film Noir," 65.

42 Naremore, More than the Night, 165

43 Terry Zwigoff, Crumb, 105m., (Los Angeles: United Artists, 1996) ?

44 Orson Welles, Touch Of Evil, 108m., (Los Angeles: Universal ,1958)

45 "Time Out Of Mind: A Chronology of our Modern Times", Internet

Document, 1993.


47 O'Neill, American High,

48 Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1981),

49 Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen, 372

50 Joe Jackson, "Real Men",


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