Troubled and Twisted (485)

We’re moving on from Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives but I wanted to suggest the the ways that text and the ad hoc genre of domestic noir intersect with the course as a whole.

As we said in class the home is often idealized as a space of intimacy and nurturance– a sanctuary from the stress and low-grade violence of the streets. This view of domesticity maps directly onto the well-established ideology of “separate spheres,” a gendered distinction between public and private that has historically coded the home as feminine and the world of business and politics as its masculine obverse. Yet you’ll recall that in the Manifesto Marx and Engels note one of the key characteristics of capitalist modernity is the tendency for market relations to permeate even the institution of the family. There is no real outside to the demands of capital– its compulsions to compete and exploit.

It’s also important to note that the gothic depends heavily on domesticity for its fictive energies. For example, The Castle of Otranto— considered by many scholars to be the first gothic novel, concerns family relations, inheritance, and an unacknowledged crime from the past that erupts into the present. These themes, or some recombination of them, often provide the narrative materials for domestic noir.

In Leave Her to Heaven (LHTH) Ellen’s incestuous desire for her father finds an object in her husband Dick, a near-lookalike surrogate. This initial distortion of familial affection means that Ellen cannot bear the thought of Dick directing his attention to anyone else, including Danny his younger brother. Ellen’s hunger for his love is out of proportion, a pathological drive that manifests itself with suffocating intensity. As her mother remarks, Ellen “loves too much,” though notably Mrs. Berent’s insistence that “nothing is wrong with” her daughter misses the mark completely. Something is indeed wrong with Ellen, as evidenced by the way she alternates between being needy, coldblooded, and vicious. Those extremes of emotion lead her to watch blankly as Danny drowns in the lake and ultimately to terminate her own pregnancy by throwing herself down a flight of stairs because she fears childbirth will ruin her figure and thus make her less desirable. In a final act of self-annihilating rage she takes poison after posting a letter to the district attorney falsely implicating her sister Ruth as her murderer. Such a sequence of events portray the home as an arena of conflict, corrupted by narcissism and paranoia, where dark appetites and delusions produce a simulacrum of the worst possible version of public space.

Significantly, LHTH locates antagonisms to domesticity in the home itself, a theme repeated in films such as Double Indemnity (Wilder 1944) and House of Strangers (Mankiewicz 1949). In a great many other examples of domestic noir, particularly during the 1950s, threats to the family come from without. In a subgenre of domestic noir, the home invasion story, criminal or psychopathic characters seize control of the domestic space. Sorry, Wrong Number (Litvak 1949), On Dangerous Ground (Ray 1951), Beware, My Lovely (Horner 1952), and Cape Fear (Thompson 1962) all feature a deadly and anarchic figure who transforms the barriers defending the family into the bars of a cage which imprisons it.

A third variation on domestic noir asserts that the catalyst for the derangement of the ideal functioning of family lies with a dissatisfied spouse who strays, encountering dark figures and forces which then breach the home’s defenses. In Pitfall (De Toth 1948), Johnny, an insurance adjuster, meets an attractive young woman during the course of his work and has a fling with her. Though Mona breaks off their affair when she learns that Johnny is married, the bad company she keeps– including the unwanted attention of a violent and obsessive private detective– ultimately intrudes into Johnny’s home, disturbing his domestic arrangements. Whirlpool (Preminger 1949), another Gene Tierney film, tells the story of an anxious and unhappy woman, Ann, who attempts to soothe her unease by stealing jewelry from an upscale department store. Caught by the store detective, she is rescued by a suave charlatan, David Korvo, who tells her he can cure her kleptomania by using hypnosis. Yet all of this is simply a pretext to recruit her in a blackmailing scam that eventually leads to murder.

Finally, the Bluebeard myth forms the basis of a subgenre of domestic noir, one where an homme fatale marries an unsuspecting woman, confines her to the home, and attempts to destroy her. Caught (Ophuls 1949), Secret Beyond the Door (Lang 1948), and Gaslight (Cukor 1944)– among many other films– reiterated the basic outline of this story. The last of these, Gaslight, is also an example of gothic noir. But we’ll have to leave that for another day.

For a much fuller discussion of these ideas see Imogen Sara Smith’s In Lonely Places : Film Noir Beyond the City.