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Remaking the Crisis of Masculinity in Hollywood Neo-Noir: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat

Le remake de la crise du masculin dans le néo-noir hollywoodien : le cas de The Postman Always Rings Twice et Body Heat
Cristelle Maury


Cet article s’appuie sur la récente remise en question du consensus critique sur le film noir en tant que lieu de la représentation des « hommes en crise » pour examiner comment la notion d’« anti-héros » issue des théories sur le film noir classique a façonné le contenu de Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan) et de The Postman Always Rings Twice (Bob Rafelson), les remakes de 1981 de Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder 1944) et The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946). Influencés par le contexte intellectuel et esthétique des années 1980 caractérisé par l’« allusionisme » (Carroll, 1982) et la « conscience cinématographique » (Thompson and Bordwell, 2003 [1994]: 517) qui ont favorisé l’enrichissement mutuel entre théorie et pratique cinématographiques, les réalisateurs de films néo-noirs ont produit des films qui sont en fait plus fidèles aux conclusions de la critique que les films noirs classiques ne le sont eux-mêmes. Pour le démontrer, l’article se penche sur les transformations que les deux films noirs originaux ont subies, ainsi que leurs effets, et montre comment les études critiques sur le film noir classique sont mises en pratique dans les remakes néo-noirs.

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  • 1 Shortly followed by Chartier (1946) and Borde and Chaumeton (2002 [1955]).
  • 2 See for example Houseman (1947); Higham and Greenberg (1996 [1968]); McArthur (1972); Karimi (1976) (...)

1From the moment when French critic Nino Frank1 identified film noir as a new trend among crime films to the moment when Paul Schrader acknowledged it as an important cultural phenomenon in 1972, and Silver and Ward established it as a canon in their 1979 encyclopedia, a number of critics until recently, have described the male protagonist as a “man in crisis”, identifying the manipulative femme fatale as the origin of the crisis2. Two films have repeatedly been quoted to illustrate this thesis: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946) since they unfold the same criminal plot based on a deadly love triangle. Famously described by James Damico in his structuralist model, “a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter” plots with “a not-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted” to murder the older husband “to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached” (1996 [1978]:103).

2Canonical film scholarship has tended to assign this crisis to postwar anxiety. As early as 1947, John Houseman argued that film noir reflected the malaise of American society in the wake of the traumatic experience of World War II. His point has since then been taken up by a great number of critics and commentators. Among them, Borde and Chaumeton argued that “the postwar period posed a number of disturbing problems” and concluded that “as a statement on a society, the new series came at just the right moment” (1955:54). Foster Hirsch suggested that “noir registers, in a general way, the country’s sour postwar mood” (1981:17). Frank Krutnik explained that film noir expressed “postwar maladjustement” (1991:57–65). Deborah Thomas noted “a tendency in film noir to dramatize a particular crisis in male identity, […] with special vehemence in the context of a war which made issues alive for many men.” (1992:60) Thomas Schatz mentioned “maladjusted males whose alienation and anxiety clearly invoked the general postwar climate” in films that render “the dark side of the wartime experience” (1997:3). Finally, even some of the major contributors to the feminist collection edited by E. Ann Kaplan, Women in Film Noir in 1978—Pam Cook, Sylvia Harvey, E. Ann Kaplan, Janey Place—situated the underlying cause for the crisis of masculinity in the aftermath of the Second World War, as well as the difficulties of “readjustment” in an upheaved society.

3Richard Maltby denounced this well-established critical trend as “a process of historical distortion which comes about from the practice of generic identification, and has the effect of imposing an artificial ideological homogeneity on Hollywood production.” (1984:41) This critical consensus is indeed questionable. First, it overlooks the legacy of the Great Depression, especially as one of its main sources is hard-boiled literature as I have shown elsewhere (Maury, 2008:95–104). Secondly, the idea that the crisis of masculinity reflects more a desire of the critics than the reality of classical film noir has found its way into a number of studies concerned with the gender politics of film noir. These studies have shown that the femme fatale was after all not so “fatale” (Cowie, 1993; Grossman, 2009, and 2020; Hanson, 2007 and 2010; Martin A., 1998; Spicer, 2002), and the anti-hero not so anti-heroic (Maury 2008, 2008a and 2011).

4In the wake of these studies, this article aims to examine the gender politics of Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (Bob Rafelson), the 1981 neo-noir remakes of Wilder’s and Garnett’s canonical films. I do so within the aesthetic context of “allusionism” (Carroll, 1982)—this “ironic and/or nostalgic reworking of genre [that] was the legacy of American auteurism and the unprecedented awareness of film history that developed among filmmakers and audiences in the 1960s and 1970s” (Verevis, 2006:113), and the socio-political context of the backlash against second wave feminism, of which neo-noir films bear the reactionary marks as Robin Wood (1986:154), Fredric Jameson (1988:19–20), Susan Faludi (1991:126), Foster Hirsch (1999:188), and Delphine Letort (2010:168) have shown.

5I hypothesize that the improper identification of a crisis of masculinity in classical film noir by the early critics, revitalized during the second wave of film noir theorization in the United States, has left its mark on the neo-noir films. Like film noir scholars, neo-noir filmmakers are eager to establish causal links between the flaws of the male protagonist and the socio-historical context. In the same way as the former assigned the masculine crisis to postwar anxieties, the latter are blaming the shortcomings of neo-noir’s “dumb-lug” male protagonists (to borrow Ruby Rich’s language) on what they perceive as the excessive effects of second wave feminism. As Faludi rightly argued about the 1980s, “Hollywood restated and reinforced the backlash thesis: American women were unhappy because they were too free; their liberation had denied them marriage and motherhood” (1991:126). It seems that neo-noir filmmakers are applying Lewis Jacobs’s “reflection theory” (The Rise of the American Film, 1939) to their films, largely utilized by canonic film noir scholars according to Maltby who laments the trend: “Such statements, and such criticism, articulate a Zeitgeist theory of film […] which is based more on critical ingenuity in textual interpretation than on any precise location of movies within the historical circumstances of their production and consumption” (Maltby, 1984:41).

6By representing the dangers of the emancipation of women, they implicitly hold the campaign for women’s equality responsible for nearly every woe besetting them, achieved at the expense of men and of traditional family values. This hypothesis is all the more plausible as the 1980s were marked not only by “movie-consciousness”—that “intense awareness of film history and its continuing influence on contemporary culture” (Thompson and Bordwell, 2003 [1994]:517)—but also by what I would call “film theory consciousness.” My point in this article will be to show that there is an overlap between film theory and film practice visible in neo-noir productions, furthered by the fact that filmmakers and film scholars of the period under review shared a common intellectual background nurtured by the “growth of film cults and college film societies” and the proliferation of cine-clubs in New York during the late 1950s. The example of Paul Schrader, “the figure who most shaped American ideas about noir” (Naremore, 2008:33) illustrates this: he was not only a young screenwriter and director, but also the author of one of the most influential articles on film noir and its visual style. The fact that his article was published in 1972 is another sign that neo-noir films might be “responses to the critical canonization of film noir” (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 1985:78), rather than mere nostalgic pieces, or “the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past” as Jameson stated about Body Heat (1988:18), in a period when film practice and film theory were part of the same intellectual and artistic landscape.

  • 3 A “noir revival” (Hirsch, 1999: 19; Martin R., 1999: 3), a “resurgence” (Doduik and Serre-Etienne, (...)
  • 4 Noel Carroll says that “the language of sixties film connoisseurship and criticism has become assoc (...)

7Yet, to date, most studies have concentrated on showing that neo-noir has been influenced by classical film noir3, and apart from the rapid comments on the links between critical scholarship and the films themselves—Carroll (1981:55), Verevis (2006:117) and Naremore (2008:36)4—there has not been much work done on the cross-fertilization between classical film noir scholarship and the neo-noir productions. I want to argue that neo-noir is more than “a contemporary rendering of the film noir sensibility” (Erikson, 1990:321). It is a critical construct just like canonic film noir scholarship.

8As noted by James Naremore in his preface to the English translation of Borde and Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir américain,

Panorama influenced cineastes of the late twentieth century in almost the same way as Charles Baudelaire’s essays on Edgar Allan Poe influenced the literary world of the late nineteenth century. It gave identity and cachet to scores of pictures that might otherwise have been forgotten and in the process helped to establish what today’s movie industry regards as a fully fledged genre. None of the many writers on film noir after Borde and Chaumeton has not been indebted to their book in some fashion (even if she or he hasn’t read Panorama, which until now has never been completely translated into English), and few works of criticism in any field have had such a seminal effect on both scholars and artists. (Naremore, 2002:vii)

9What Naremore showed about the influence of the French essay is also true of classical film noir scholarship at large. In this article, I will thus examine how scholarship has been shaping the content of the remakes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. To do so, I will examine the transformations that the two original films noirs have undergone and their effects to show the different ways in which film practice and film theory fertilize each other.

Disappearance of the Retrospective Voice-Over Narrator

10The disappearance of the retrospective voice-over narrator is one of the major departures of the remakes from their original sources. Instead of stories of past failures told retrospectively by unreliable first person narrators who blame the women for their own weaknesses, powerlessness, and downfall, the same stories are told in chronological order, from an external point of view that clearly identifies women as the actual source of the downfall of the objectively weak, powerless male protagonists. The reinforcement of the crisis of masculinity is radical since it is no longer a crisis posited by the male protagonist but an objective state of which the male protagonists are not even aware.

11Strangely, most classical film noir critics have failed to take into account the unreliability and subjectivity induced by a first-person point of view. Grounding their analyses solely on the verbal channel of information, and taking the male protagonists’ self-exculpating discourses at face value, they have portrayed the male protagonists as the innocent victims of potent seductresses: Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are commonly quoted as examples of films staging a hero who “lets himself be led astray” (Borde and Chaumeton, 2002 [1955]:12), or who is “infatuated” and “succumbs” to the femme fatale by helping her “work out a complicated scheme” (Higham and Greenberg 1996 [1968]:33). He is also “the ideal patsy… [who] walks a tightrope across a landscape strewn with traps ready to spring at the slightest misstep, the smallest detour” (Hirsch, 1981:13). These scholarly descriptions apply more closely to “the dumb lug” neo-noir protagonists (Rich, 1995) such as Ned Racine and the Frank Chambers of Rafelson’s remake than they do to Walter Neff or the Chambers of Garnett’s original film noir.

  • 5 For this, see Maury 2008.

12However, my point here is not so much to qualify the argument of classical film noir scholars5, as to show that neo-noir filmmakers got hold of these readings and staged a genuine crisis of masculinity, a fact posited by an objective camera in which the spectator believes, given the powerful identification with the camera from which the spectator cannot escape as shown by Christian Metz (1982 [1977]:49).

13In Body Heat, deprived of “the authority of a voice-over” (Tasker, 1998: 127), Ned Racine is too naïve to decipher Matty’s duplicity and manipulative strategies (Letort, 2010:167). It is only at the end of the film that he and the audience simultaneously understand that Matty had chosen him from the outset, precisely because of his reputation as a sloppy lawyer, that she had then staged their “chance” meeting, and made all necessary efforts to be spotted and chased by Ned, to finally seduce and manipulate him into helping her kill her rich husband. This makes her the perfect femme fatale that has actually never existed in classical film noir, as recent scholarship has shown (Grossman, 2009, 2020; Martin A., 1998), and him the perfect anti-hero whose existence in classical film noir has started to be questioned (Maury, 2008 and 2011).

Absence of visual control in Body Heat

14Besides being deprived of “the authority of a voice-over,” Ned Racine is also deprived of any visual control, while remaining the main source of “ocularisation” (Gaudreault and Jost, 1990:129–134), as the first three scenes staging Ned and Matty illustrate. Whether at the beachfront [00:07:05-00:08:00], at Pine Haven Tavern [00:12:12-00:16:16] or at the Walkers’ villa [00:16:16-00:22:31], Matty Walker is systematically the object of Ned’s gaze. However, although the film is in keeping with Laura Mulvey’s theory on the male gaze —“a world ordered by sexual imbalance” where scopophilia reigns, where the man is “the bearer of the look” and the woman “the object of the gaze”—there is a major departure from this theory since the fact that Ned is “the bearer of the look” (1988 [1975]:62) does not render him active. To the contrary, his actions boil down to following Matty’s movements highlighted by the cinematography. In the first scene at the beachfront, a long take tracks Ned Racine’s movements and gives the audience access to his point of view as a womanizer, on the lookout for beautiful women. As he leans on the rail to listen to the jazz band and directs his gaze towards the stage, he sees Matty rise near the center aisle, and walk away to the beat of the intradiegetic jazz music with the rolling gait of a super model in a fashion show. The Mulveyan tropes of “woman as image and man as bearer of the look” and of “woman as spectacle” are used, but they foreground the visual power that Matty exerts over Ned, rather than endowing him with the power of the male gaze. The initial full shot of her suggests that she is on a stage, displaying herself for Ned’s visual pleasure, but it ultimately denies him the power of the male gaze.

15The same strategy is at work when he drives to the Walkers’ villa [00:16:16-00:17:00]. The scene is first seen from Ned’s point of view looking through the windshield as he follows Matty’s Mercedes gliding down the road. The reaction shots indicate how impressed he is by the lavish neighborhood. But when he pulls over and opens the car door, the point of view shifts to an external high-angle tracking shot that literally seizes Ned and implements his entrapment, unbeknownst to him. In the original film, on the contrary, Neff indicates in voice-over that he is aware of his infatuation for Phyllis: “I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she had looked at me, and I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us.” [00:09:01], referring to the alternation of high angle shots and low angle shots of Phyllis respectively from Phyllis’s and Neff’s points of view [00:7:56-00:08:16], suggesting that Phyllis is visually in control.

16This mise en scène ties in with Janey Place’s 1978 study of women in classical film noir and with her description of the heroine as a “spider woman” who is “the visual expression of the source and operation of the sexual woman’s dangerous power” (42). In this chapter from E. Ann Kaplan’s famous collection, Place, referring notably to the heroines of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, argues:

The strength of these women is expressed in the visual style by their dominance in composition, angle, camera movement and lighting. They are overwhelmingly the compositional focus, generally central frame and/or in the foreground, or pulling focus to them in the background. They control camera movement, seeming to direct the camera (and the hero’s gaze, with our own) irresistibly with them as they move (1978:45).

17While in Double Indemnity, the flashback structure and Neff’s voice-over discourse somehow defuse this power since the audience is aware of the subjective point of view of a flawed narrator, this description applies perfectly to Matty. In the beachfront scene, although she is the object of Ned’s predatory gaze, her appearance shifts the balance of power in her favor, revealing her “dominance in composition, angle, camera movement and lighting.” She is clearly the “compositional focus,” “direct[ing] the camera (and the hero’s gaze along with our own) irresistibly with [her] as [she] move[s]” (Place, 1978:45).

18The visual style of this scene is perfectly in keeping with Janey Place’s description in her then very recent chapter on women in film noir (1978). As Kaplan points out in the introduction to her 1998 expanded edition, Place’s work was published in the context of “a new intellectual and scholarly field—institutionalized as cinema studies or film studies [whose] result was that in the 80s, undergraduate and graduate majors were developed in many universities worldwide, and film publications mushroomed.” (1998:2). There is thus every reason to believe that director Lawrence Kasdan had read Place’s chapter: the interactions between Ned and Matty are a point-by-point illustration of her theory. Her goal in writing this chapter was to show that film noir “gives us one of the few periods of film in which women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness from their sexuality.” (Place, 1978:35), thus implicitly (with no reference made to her), responding to, or giving another version of, Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze. Instead of being the active “bearer of the look,” the male protagonist is represented as irresistibly attracted, “mesmerized,” as indicated in Kasdan’s screenplay (1980:7) by the movements of the femme fatale who becomes active, producing “a remarkably potent image of woman” (Place, 1978:36). So, Body Heat is based not only on the descriptions of the anti-hero and the femme fatale and their interactions provided by classical film noir scholars, but it also responds to and comments on feminist film theory of the 1970s.

19The representation of women as active, intelligent and powerful, deriving power from their sexuality affects the representation of men. As Place argues, the refusal of women to be defined “in relation to men” “can be perversely seen (in art, or in life) as an attack on men’s very existence.” (Place, 1978:35) In other words, the representation of a powerful Matty foregrounds Ned’s own powerlessness. This is the very mechanism at work in neo-noir.

Confusion in the source of the audience’s stand-in

20The powerlessness and lack of control of the male anti-hero over the highly sexualized heroine—the crisis of masculinity posited in canonic noir scholarship—is actualized in Body Heat through a deliberate confusion in the source of the audience’s stand-in, achieved through the utilization of jump cuts. In the three scenes analyzed above, the audience is first tricked into believing that they have access to Ned’s point of view, and that the latter controls camera movements, in keeping with Mulvey’s theory. But then, the discontinuous editing makes them aware of the presence of an external point of view that takes the upper hand and exposes Ned’s total absence of control over the telling of the story. Contrary to Double Indemnity where the cinematography systematically backs up the male protagonist’s aural version of the story—as for example when Neff confesses: “But I kept thinking about Phyllis Dietrichson and the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg”—,and the camera confirms his version by revealing a close up of her feet from Neff’s point of view as she goes down the stairs [00:16:07], in Body Heat, the male protagonist is denied a point of view.

21In the first scene, once Ned has noticed Matty and follows her to the beachfront walkway, there is an eyeline match from a very long point of view shot of the stage and the audience from Ned’s perspective to a medium shot of Ned, who remains static, as if he were glued to the rail. The scene then cuts to a tracking shot of Matty standing by the ocean that spectators can assume to be from Ned’s perspective as he walks towards her. However, he appears to the left of the screen, revealing that it was not a point of view shot, but an objective one.

22The same strategy is used during their second date at Pine Haven Tavern [00:12:39-00:12:46]. When Ned enters the lounge, there is a point of view shot of a group of men and an eyeline match on him. The camera then tracks laterally and the spectators are tricked into believing that they have access to Ned’s point of view. However, what we again assume to be Ned’s womanizing gaze, sweeping over the place on the lookout for Matty, turns out to be an external point of view: Ned’s back appears from another direction in the foreground, and the camera finally stops on Matty.

23In these three scenes, the jump cuts create confusion in the audience’s stand-in and result in denying Ned any authority over what is happening. The cinematography suggests that he is the passive victim of the predatory femme fatale. Even if the diegesis feebly deludes the audience into thinking that he is an active womanizer used to chatting women up for hot one-night stands, what prevails is the idea that Ned is totally unaware of the manipulation. He is literally Hirsch’s “ideal patsy” (1981:13). In this way, Body Heat is not so much the remake of Double Indemnity as the literal application of what classical film noir critics have erroneously said about it, based on the subjective voice-over comments of the narrator. Since the voice-over is absent from Body Heat, Ned’s anti-heroism, manifest in “an overcharged sexuality that unmans him” (Williams, 2005:106), acquires the objective status of truth.

24Moreover, jump cuts are also the manifestations of self-consciousness and as such draw attention to the presence of the camera and thereby of the filmmaker, foregrounding the latter as the ultimate decision-maker. Ned Racine is not only a mere puppet in the hands of a manipulative femme fatale, but also a puppet in the hands of the director who, as an artist and a story-teller, as the “grand imagier” (Laffay, 1964:81) renders visible the disempowerment of the male protagonist, and somehow puts the critical discourse about the crisis of masculinity at a distance.

  • 6 “For a couple of weeks she wouldn’t look at me or say a word to me if she could help it. At the end (...)

25Similarly, the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice foregrounds the anti-heroism of the male protagonist much more clearly than the original film noir. Like Body Heat, it does away with the voice-over of the original film noir. However, rather than emphasizing the manipulative powers of the femme fatale, this suppression deprives the male protagonist of his ability to speak altogether. Unlike Garfield’s Frank Chambers, who is very talkative, and articulate in expressing his feelings6, Nicholson’s Chambers is a man of few words, who grunts rather than speaks, and answers in short monosyllables or incomplete sentences. As in the novel, to which Rafelson claims to be closer (Tonguette 2013), this mode of communication highlights the animality of the male protagonist, and suggests his deviant masculinity. Another manifestation of the crisis of masculinity is achieved through the characterization of Frank Chambers as a hobo.

From Historical Hoboism to Noir Anti-Heroism in The Postman Always Rings Twice

26While the hoboism of the male protagonist is described in detail in Cain’s novel, it is reduced to a love of freedom and adventure in Garnett’s film, which completely ignores the harsh realities of the unskilled workers who travelled across America in large numbers in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries in search of work. Rafelson’s remake, on the contrary, renews with this historical figure by focusing on the illegal and dangerous aspects of the hobo lifestyle. In fact, the fictional potential of this historical figure is fully exploited in this film by giving the male protagonist noirish anti-heroic traits. The result is the portrayal of a man in crisis, as extensively described in classical film noir scholarship.

27The various definitions of the hobo offered by historians bear a striking resemblance to film scholars’ descriptions of the classical film noir anti-hero. As a counter-model to the ideal of American masculinity, this famous figure of 19th century history perfectly embodies the crisis of masculinity described by film scholars. Hoboes challenge the values of ambition and success, and their corollaries, self-control, rationality and competitiveness, that underpin what historian Michael Kimmel calls “self-made manhood.” According to Kimmel, hoboes did not fit this model because they were “not only escaping economic dislocation, but running away […] from the settled responsibility of a boring, unpleasant job that such a gender ideal seemed to require” (1997:101). In other words, hoboes rejected the values of the American Dream, which are “closely associated with American ideals of masculinity […] in which success—not only as an American, but also as a man—has been measured in predominantly economic terms” (Arthur, 2003:25).

28The question of lack of ambition has also occupied classical film noir scholars in defining the anti-hero. John Houseman started the trend of describing “today’s hero” as a man who “has no discernible ideal to sustain him—neither ambition, nor loyalty, nor even a lust for wealth” and “whose aspirations ha[ve] so low a ceiling” (1947:162), taken up by Paul Schrader more than twenty years later as “the underside of the American character” (1996 [1972]:53) in his famous “Notes on Film Noir.” In Garnett’s film, while not absent, lack of ambition is barely present. Garfield’s version of the hobo/anti-hero corresponds more to Robert Ray’s “outlaw hero” (1985:59–66) than to either the reality of hoboism or the description of the anti-hero by film scholars. On the contrary, in the remake, the marks of hoboism have been reinforced, so that it is certainly more in keeping with the novel, but above all with classical film noir scholarship, than the original film noir.

29To show this, I will compare the opening scene of Rafelson’s film with Garnett’s film noir, using the novel’s incipit as a reference. The three works open with Chambers’s arrival at the diner, the function of which is to show that he is a hobo. The incipit of the novel and the opening scene of the remake plunge the reader/the audience into a naturalistic description of the daily trials and tribulations of hoboes.

  • 7 They threw me out of a hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, a (...)

30The first paragraph of the novel highlights the fact that he is travelling clandestinely on a hay truck and is treated roughly7 (“they threw me out,” “they pulled me off,” “threw me off”), and lives an unstructured, dissolute life, asleep during the day, awake all night. In the remake, he is similarly depicted as a mysterious and dangerous social outcast living a dangerous life at the margins of society.

31In Garnett’s film, there are notable changes. First, Chambers appears as a law-abiding citizen who is in no danger from hitchhiking since the man who picks him up is none other than the local district attorney with whom he has a friendly parting chat as he gets out of his car.

“Well so long Mister! Thanks for the ride, the free cigarettes, and for not laughing at my theories on life.”
“But you broke off in the middle of a sentence. Why do you keep looking for new places, new people, new ideas?”
“Well, I never liked any job I had. Maybe the next one is the one.”

“Not worried about your future?”
“I got plenty of time for that. Besides… maybe my future starts right now.” [00:01:30-00:02:00]

32Then, the scene takes place in broad daylight. It opens on a frontal close shot of Garfield, bathed in the natural light of the Californian sun. It does not resort to low-key lighting or strange angles. The utilization of these noir tropes is restricted to a few scenes, as in Double Indemnity that opens on a chiaroscuro-lit scene but then rapidly switches to the sunshine-lit flashback. The effect is to play down Chambers’s outlaw persona and to play up his romantic side as a beggar and a dreamer with no sense of reality. He is not a dangerous man. The harsh reality of hoboism described in the novel is entirely eliminated. As such, Garnett’s Chambers is less on the side of the noir anti-hero, and more on that of Ray’s “outlaw hero” who has fled from maturity, distrusts “civilization typically represented by women and marriage” and represents “a romanticizing of the dispossessed” borne out of the “opposition of natural man versus civilized man […] adopted by classical Hollywood” (Ray, 1985:59–60).

33Such moments of high-key lighting in classical film noir have tended to be overlooked by critics who have repeatedly attempted to define it by its noirness. Place and Peterson, for example, contend that “the characteristic film noir moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair and nihilism constitute a world view that is expressed not through the film’s terse, elliptical dialogue, nor through their confusing, often insoluble plots, but ultimately through their remarkable style.” (1996 [1974]:65) Likewise, Paul Kerr, trying to justify exceptions instead of qualifying the darkness of film noir, notes “the defusion and dilution of the B film noir’s unorthodox visual style within the aesthetic of the A film” (1996 [1979]:117).

34Contrary to Garnett’s version, the opening of Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice plays up the outlaw, dangerous side of hoboes, and teems with noir visual tropes in an attempt, typical of remakes according to Thomas Leitch, to provide “additional enjoyment to audiences who recognize their borrowings from their sources” (2002:41). The film fully implements one of the most widespread aesthetic conclusions about film noir: the influence of German Expressionism, whose characteristic is to use visual tropes to convey oppressive atmospheres. Paul Schrader (1972) was the first critic to make that point, which has since been adopted by a large body of scholarship, including Place and Peterson’s study of the noir visual style (1974), and Hirsch’s comprehensive study (1981). According to Schrader, subjective associations between style and mood are formed thanks to low-key lighting: “Hollywood lighting grew darker, characters more corrupt, themes more fatalistic and the tone more hopeless.” (1996 [1972]:53). Accordingly, the strong overtones of danger and dangerousness suggested by the Expressionist use of low-key lighting are in keeping with the historical description of hoboism. This type of lighting also reinforces the anti-heroism identified by classical film noir critics. Bolstering the visual marks of noir, the film opens on a totally black screen, except for one spot of red light on the upper left hand side, five white specks in the middle, and two contiguous slightly bigger white spots of light on the lower right hand side of the screen. This totally abstract shot then finds a realistic anchor thanks to the soundtrack: as Michael Small’s majestic score fades, the sound of footsteps on gravel and of cars passing by can be heard. It is only when a car pulls over that Frank Chambers briefly appears, lit up by the car’s headlights, hitchhiking by the roadside in complete darkness. The only sources of light are the intradiegetic headlights of the passing cars and the incandescent tip of his cigarette. Composition and lighting are a textbook illustration of Place and Peterson’s description of noir’s utilization of low-key lighting to convey a sense of mystery and danger: “[t]he ratio of key to fill light is great, creating areas of high contrast and rich, black shadows [that] carry connotations of the mysterious and the unknown” (1996 [1974]:66). They are also an example of “rich, black sky of a night-for-night shot” (1996 [1974]:71), immersing the audience visually and aurally into the danger involved in the experience of hitchhiking in the pitch dark, the daily routine of hoboes. The composition is also in keeping with their description of the “mise en scène designed to unsettle, jar, and disorient the viewer in correlation with the disorientation felt by the noir heroes. In particular, compositional balance within the frame is often disruptive and unnerving.” (1996 [1974]:68). Instead of a frontal medium close up as in Garnett’s film leaving no room for mystery, Chambers is first filmed in a long shot, briefly lit up by passing headlights, with a huge unlit dark space of the road suggesting mystery and danger. The association between darkness and danger is achieved through the utilization of night-for-night shooting and unbalanced composition in compliance with Place and Peterson’s description of film noir cinematography.

35Aside from suggesting that Chambers is living a dangerous life, the low-key lighting techniques also imply that Chambers is a dangerous man. Night-for-night shots delay seeing Nicholson’s face, as do a series of dorsal shots, early in the morning at the gas station and finally inside the diner. It is only once that he is inside the diner’s “john” that a medium close up reveals his face still plunged in the shadow of the “turned-down brim[]on [his]hat[]”, in keeping with Higham and Greenberg’s formulaic list of film noir motifs (1996 [1968]:28), while he is fumbling for his last half-smoked cigarette, sitting on the toilet. The shadowy delaying creates a sense of mystery typical of, according to Place and Peterson, “the low-key noir style oppos[ing] light and dark, hiding faces, rooms, urban landscapes—and by extension, motivations and true character—in shadow and darkness which carry connotations of the mysterious and the unknown.” (1996 [1974]:66) Mystery, and its correlative, danger, are indeed major ingredients of the noir character according to classical film noir critics who foreground ambiguity and “the uncertain, shifting identities, the essential mysteriousness of personality, of an entire cross-section of noir characters.” (Hirsch, 1981:72) This further chips away at the model of the ideal hero.

36Rafelson thus methodically resorts to all of the elements constituting the “topography of noir” that contain “visual echoes of German Expressionism” with its “use of shadows, [its]muted patterns of chiaroscuro, and [its]settings that comment on the characters” (Hirsch, 1981:8). He utilizes the visual motifs of film noir to portray Chambers as a hobo, as a dropout and as a loser and to reinforce the crisis of masculinity. Overall, the opening of Rafelson’s film looks like a “film school scene” to learn how to utilize low-key lighting to convey a criminal, corrupted, and dangerous atmosphere. While the remake teems with allusions to these famous works of film scholarship, neither the visual style, nor Chambers’s anti-heroic traits are even suggested in the opening scene of the classical film noir.

The Anti-Heroes’ “Overcharged” Sexuality

37Another similarity between hoboes and noir anti-heroes is their unhinged sexuality. As free unattached men, hoboes were seen as posing a threat to women, and were associated with deviant sexuality. Historian Lynne M. Adrian observed that hoboes were “demonized as hypermasculine predators who challenged social conventions and threatened the family” (2003:210). Likewise, film noir critics have been prone to describing the noir male protagonists’ struggles with their sexual urges and the trap of fatal attractions. Yet, these descriptions stem from Cain’s sexually explosive novels rather than from the original films noirs in which the erotic dimension was purely allusive and implicit due to the Hays Code. As the film posters attest, the simple evocation of Cain sufficed to convey eroticism. Even though the erotic dimension of Cain’s novels is toned down in Garnett’s and Wilder’s films, (maintained only off screen), critics have still overstated the eroticism of these films because of Cain’s nefarious reputation. For example, in order to establish the thematic coherence of film noir, Borde and Chaumeton acknowledge the legacy of James Cain’s Double Indemnity (44), stressing the erotic dimension of Wilder’s film: “Here it’s a greedy, exciting woman avid for sexual kicks but almost certainly frigid. The myth of the blonde murderess has just been born.” Similarly, Janey Place highlighted the eroticism of the noir woman: “Visually, film noir is fluid, sensual, extraordinarily expressive, making the sexually expressive woman, which is its dominant image of woman, extremely powerful. It is not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous and, above all, exciting sexuality.” (Place, 1978:36)

38Once again, those considerations more clearly apply to the neo-noir remakes. The transgressive sexuality noted about hoboes by historians and about anti-heroes by classical film noir critics is fully exploited by Kasdan and Rafelson to express the danger represented by “hypermasculine predators” (Adrian, 2003:210).

39Body Heat’s Ned Racine is apparently one of those predators, as the first scene suggests. The film opens on flames burning in the night sky and distant sirens that dissolve into a medium dorsal shot of the naked back and head of Ned Racine staring off at the burning building in the distance from his apartment window, just after casual sex with one of his mistresses. The metaphor of heat and fire that runs through the whole film could not be more explicit. For her part, Matty Walker fits Place’s description of the “sexually dangerous woman” and “Spider woman” (1978:41–42).

40In the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, the erotic danger of sexuality is expressed through animal metaphors whose effect is to intertwine desire and violence and to connote rape as a pleasurable and consensual experience, in compliance with neo-noir’s “propensity for sexing up a classic period original as a hotter softcore product” (Williams, 2005:28). There are numerous erotic scenes foregrounding the animality of desire to show the lack of control of sexual appetites—a sign of lack of manliness according to the followers of the “doctrine of self-control” at work among middle-class American men of the mid-nineteenth century that encouraged them to avoid “the temptation of masturbation [that] would sap their vital energies and leave ‘effeminated’ men’s bodies” and to “harness[…] their energies towards productive activity” (Kimmel, 1996:45–46). Any deviation from this model amounts to representing the crisis of masculinity. It is in this sense that Chambers gives in to his sexual drives and as a result is tamed and domesticated by the woman. In all of the sex scenes, his animality is expressed through his initial physical violence towards Cora that ends up in her taming him. Some verbal and physical fighting and kicking arouse their sexual desire, she finally manages to get the upper hand and turn the tables. She tames him by giving in to his violent assault [00:17:10-00:21:00]. Another scene establishes a parallel between Frank and the house cat. Cora picks up the meowing cat in the staircase, and comes across Frank, seated at the kitchen table. His sensual nature and the presence of his body are foregrounded by his dipping biscuits into a glass of milk and chewing his food noisily [00:22:39-00:23:30]. The rest of the scene imitates the different stages of taming a wild beast: as she bends down to pour some milk for the cat, he gets up and violently “swings his fist up against her leg” (Cain, 2003 [1934]:11). She immediately stops him, and struggling free from his grasp, says softly: “Why do you get that way?” A two-shot displays Frank turned gentle and mellow under her voice, smelling her hair, with a heavy breath, gently stroking her breasts, whispering in her ears and kissing her neck.

41Throughout the film, Chambers is represented as an impulsive, sensual, non-rational man who indulges his sexual appetites, and responds to his physical drives. It sets him apart from civilized men who represent the Western ideal of manhood based on the taming of nature. All of these devices assign him to a deviant and subordinate form of masculinity, thereby showing him to be a man in crisis. Cora’s rhetorical question “What are you, an animal?” [01:27:16] to scold him because he is drinking milk directly out of a bottle is the explicit confirmation of the remake’s intention to foreground the animality of the male protagonist. Like the uncontrollable sexual drive of Body Heat’s protagonist, Chambers’s sexual excesses are the traces of an overcharged sexuality that “unmans him” (Williams, 2005:106).

42Through their untamed, uncontrolled and overcharged sexuality, Hurt’s Ned Racine and Nicholson’s Frank Chambers are sent back to their precarious condition as human beings who control very little contradicting the ideal of constant control attached to manliness.


43In these two remakes, the transformations of the themes and aesthetics of the original films noirs serve to flesh out the anti-heroism of the male protagonist and convey a crisis of masculinity. In doing so, the remakes end up being closer to classical film noir scholarship than their originals.

44What Anne-Françoise Lesuisse has already noted about the critical tendency to overstate the visual noirness of film noir can be transposed to the anti-heroism of the noir protagonist. Taking the example of Higham and Greenberg who, in the first sentence of their book on classical film noir, describe a scene that never existed, Lesuisse points out that by trying to describe and define the atmosphere of film noir, classical film noir scholars have been moving away from the actual films in an attempt to approach the atmosphere and tone of film noir conveyed by its images (Lesuisse 101).

45I would like to take Lesuisse’s point one step further and argue that in its turn, the noir visual style has become an unquestionable trope of neo-noir. Like visual style, anti-heroism has become an indispensable ingredient of neo-noir and an integral part of the representation of male anxieties. This trend, started in the late 1960s in the wake of New Hollywood directors who “rework[ed] established genres and referenc[ed] hallowed classics and directors” (Thompson and Bordwell, 527), was revived in 1981 with the renewed interest in James Cain’s novels, prompting the success of Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and continuing into contemporary noir as Philippa Gates points out: “Even today, when a film explores masculinity in negotiation or crisis, noir elements are often injected into films—whether in isolated moments or wholesale—because they offer an arena for the expression, exploration, and attempted resolution of male anxieties.” (2006:99) Unlike the original films noirs that were so labelled by several French critics, the neo-noir productions were so labelled by the filmmakers and the studios producing them. The latter knowingly decided not only to make genre films, but also to remake famous classics, so that they doubly referred to film history in what Thomas Leitch called their “dance of invocation and denial” typical of the paradoxical rhetoric of “disavowal” in remakes (2002:52). By the early 1980s, noir was no longer a mere “theoretical genre… resulting from an a posteriori critical analysis” but had become a “historical genre resulting from the concerted production of similar texts” as Esquenazi explained, borrowing from Todorov’s classification (2018 [2013]my translation).

46Contrary to classical film noir whose generic affiliation has never been simple, and whose historical periodization, stylistic specificity, narrative coherence and textual features are the object of ongoing debates, neo-noir shares some of the principal concepts guiding the tradition of genre study. It thus accurately and self-consciously corresponds to what is generally understood by the notion of film genre methodically questioned and deconstructed by Rick Altman. It has a “clear, stable identit[y]and borders.” It is also “defined by the film industry and recognized by the mass audience” (Altman, 1999:v).

47The correlation between generic definitions and neo-noir productions can be explained by the fact that the emergence of neo-noir coincided with the period when film noir was being discovered and theorized in the United States, and thus became “one of the dominant intellectual categories of the late twentieth century, operating across the entire cultural arena of art, popular memory, and criticism.” (Naremore, 2008:2) In this context, it is only logical that neo-noir films should contain traces of the contemporary critical reflections on classical noir spearheaded by Schrader, Damico, Higham and Greenberg, Hirsch, Kaplan, Place, Place and Peterson and others. Moreover, noting the evolution of the term “noir” from adjective to noun to explain the long process for a film to “mature into the substantial genre that we know today,” Rick Altman argues that “noir has over the last twenty years [1979–1999] become as much a part of film journalism as biopic, sci-fi and docudrama” (1999:60–61). By 1980, film noir had really become a genre thanks to both its scholarship and its movie-conscious directors, aware of the theses developed in film studies, and who had “acquired a taste for tradition from film school or late-night television” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2003 [1994]:528), along with a taste for film theory to the extent that “once a critical tradition has introduced the term, filmmakers can take their cue from the critics’ very struggle to define it positively.” (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2005 [1985]:78).

48Finally, Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice contain traces of the cultural upheavals of the previous decade: the sexual liberation, white women’s emancipation, the rejection of the breadwinner ideal of the 1950s based on marriage and fatherhood that continued with the counterculture of the 60s and the new psychology of the 70s (Chapman, 1988:234). Frank Chambers and Ned Racine inscribe themselves against the breadwinner model, the former through his hobo lifestyle, the latter as an inveterate womanizer. They illustrate the debates on masculinity taking place at the time, and the contradictions of the postfeminist man described by Benjamin Brabon as “not the signifier for the remasculinisation of contemporary culture—a straightforward rejection of second-wave feminism that can easily be identified as part of the backlash—but, in contrast, an unstable and troubled subject position that is doubly encoded” (Brabon, 2007:57). In other words, these two films are examples of what Sally Robinson describes as:

dominant or master narrative[s] of white male decline in post-sixties America [that have] developed to account for the historical, social and political decentering of what was once considered the normative in American culture. Versions of that narrative can be read in books by historians, film scholars, and sociologists, some of which forward causal arguments, some of which settle for thick description of literary or filmic genres, and some of which place the current state of white masculinity within a larger history of American manhood (2000:2).

49It is not just a mere coincidence if film scholars overstated the anti-heroism of classical film noir protagonists during that period, a time when filmmakers were staging masculinity in crisis in their neo-noir productions. These two neo-noir remakes are thus examples of the conjunction between history and cultural history, between poetics and politics.

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1 Shortly followed by Chartier (1946) and Borde and Chaumeton (2002 [1955]).

2 See for example Houseman (1947); Higham and Greenberg (1996 [1968]); McArthur (1972); Karimi (1976); Porfirio (1976); Damico (1978); Dyer (1978); Gledhill (1978); Hirsch (1981); Schatz (1981); Krutnik (1991); Belton (1994); Hollinger (1996); Maxfield (1996); Muller (1998).

3 A “noir revival” (Hirsch, 1999: 19; Martin R., 1999: 3), a “resurgence” (Doduik and Serre-Etienne, 2005: 32; Letort, 2010: 12), a “re-emergence” (Hanson, 2007: 134) or a metamorphosis of film noir (“avatar du film noir”, Doduik and Serre-Etienne, 2005: 33); a “revisiting of the past” (Guerif, 1979: 320), “a contemporary rendering of the film noir sensibility” (Erikson, 1990: 321); “referring to classic noir narratively or stylistically” (Wager, 2005: 3), “deriv(ing) their inspiration from those earlier films” (Spicer, 2002: 25); “sexual updates on the noir fall guy” (Williams L. R., 2005: 114); “reappropriation of the figure of the anti-hero by investing it with contemporary obsessions” (Garbarz, 1996: 96 my translation).

4 Noel Carroll says that “the language of sixties film connoisseurship and criticism has become associated with certain genres, compositions, lighting styles, plots, and so forth, so that a new film that evokes an old film (genre, lighting style, and so on) refers not only to its own fictional world but also to a web of interrelated ideas previously introduced by film criticism and then recycled as reflections or commentaries on the fictional world of the new film.” (55); Naremore mentions an “almost scholarly self-awareness” (2008: 36); Verevis states that Body Heatreinvent[s] the film noir, plundering a critical genre to promulgate a stylized, industrial cycle of neo-noir” (his italics 117).

5 For this, see Maury 2008.

6 “For a couple of weeks she wouldn’t look at me or say a word to me if she could help it. At the end I felt like a cheap nobody making me crave for a girl that had no use for me.” [00:09:17]; “Right then I should have walked out of that place. I couldn’t make myself do it. She had me licked and she knew it.” [00:28:00]; “I just couldn’t get her out of my mind, it kept nagging me all the time.” [00:44:46].).

7 They threw me out of a hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tijuana, and I was still getting it when they pulled me off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. (Cain, 2002 [1934]: 3).

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Cristelle Maury, « Remaking the Crisis of Masculinity in Hollywood Neo-Noir: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat »Genre en séries [En ligne], 16 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 23 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cristelle Maury

Cristelle Maury is associate professor of English and film studies at Université Toulouse 2 Jean-Jaurès. Her research focuses on classical Hollywood cinema, neo-noir and contemporary film noir through the lens of gender and sexuality studies. She has published several articles on classical film noir and on the links between feminist criticism and cinema. She has recently co-edited Women Who Kill in Film and Series of the Post-Feminist Era (Bloomsbury, 2020). She is currently working on the influence of feminist film theory on film and on independent feminist filmmaking.

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