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Arts & Culture

Cinema Junkie Episode 220: Talking noir dames with the Nitrate Diva, Part One

Ida Lupino.jpg
20th Century Fox
A still of Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens in "Road House" (1948). The character provides an example of the self-reliant performer as Cinema Junkie looks beyond the usual suspects of just the femme fatale to explore the diverse array of Noir Dames.

Looking beyond just the usual suspect of the femme fatale to explore the diversity of women in classic Hollywood film noir

Noir-vember continues with a look at Noir Dames with Nora Fiore, The Nitrate Diva.

Women in film noir sometimes get a bad rap. They can be seen as dangerous ice queens only out to get what they want no matter how many people get killed along the way. But they also represented something exciting in terms of screen representation — they were women with agency and they often operated in a man’s world and on equal footing. They might not have been role models but they were riveting and you couldn’t take your eyes off them.

Fiore described the popularity of noir this way: "They're character-driven films about people committing crimes, doing unspeakable things, and if you look at our culture today, crime continues to fascinate us maybe more than ever with all the True Crime podcasts and shows. So it's not a huge surprise that this movement that focused on the dark side of human nature still resonates with us today, is still fascinating. And I just think the quality of these movies continues to speak to us. It's the stories and the archetypes within them, but it's also the way these movies look, the visual beauty of what we're seeing these patterns of light and shadow, and the cinematographers who continue to influence the medium."

Noir has been criticized as being misogynistic and while it is rare to find positive female role models they do showcase some of the strongest actresses of the era and offer some of the most memorable characters.

"I think it's important to recognize that noir allows women to explore the full spectrum of humanity, from the angelic to the demonic, but mostly the shadings in between. And I think it says a lot about our culture that we continue to be so fixated on the femme fatales, on the temptresses when that is not the case in every single noir," Fiore said. "There's this tremendous variety of roles that women can play within film noir because there are good girls, there are bad girls, there are professional women, there are women who are just trying to live off of what they can get from other people in life. There's really so many facets to feminine identity in noir that I wouldn't want to just kind of pigeonhole it as being misogynistic."

Rather than supporting the status quo and the morality of Hollywood's production code noir slyly went about perverting it.

"Classic Hollywood is governed by the production code, which is all about enforcing traditional values and roles," Fiore said, "But noir's project, if anything, was subverting that code and that ideology. So even if the characters are punished in the end, their upheaval and the enjoyment we get from their rebellion, I find that kind of coded. I guess it depends on how you see it. I guess it depends on who's watching what I'm sure some people watch more and say, 'I see it's proof that women are bad,' and I watch it and I go, that was fun. I find something empowering in the way the women are able to drive the drama. And I think Eddie Muller has a great line about this about how women are equally tempted and equally guilty in noir. And there's something empowering about that. They're not in the supporting roles. They're absolutely equal partners in whatever skullduggery is happening."

Femme fatales.jpg
RKO Radio/United Artists
Jane Greer (left) in "Out of the Past" and Lizabeth Scott (right) in "Too Late for Tear" serve up two classic femme fatales of film noir.

There's been a lot of discussion and scholarship about the types of women in noir so we are not breaking any new ground here but we are adding our own perspective and citing our favorite examples beginning with the classic femme fatales of Jane Greer in "Out of the Past" and Lizabeth Scott in "Too Late For Tears," and then looking to character types such as the Self-Reliant Performer in part one of Noir Dames.

Also, listen to the other Noir-vember podcast, Down Noir Alley with TCM Host Eddie Muller. And coming up will be part two of Noir Dames with Fiore returning to discuss about the women you will find on the dark streets of film noir.

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