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The Eternal Relevance of Film Noir

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

Artwork by Michelle Dong, staff artist

Before unpacking this any further, I would like to provide a disclaimer. Film Noir is a term and idea that we projected onto the past. The term rose to prominence sometime around the 1970s whilst these films were generally produced in the 1940s and 1950s.

So, with that, what is film noir? Or rather, what are the majority of films that come under Film Noir about? Most of these are pessimistic psychological thrillers with usually a detective or private eye as the main character. Another recurring theme is that film noirs generally deal with morally-grey women like Gilda in the film Gilda, and Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.

Most of these films are considered to have been indicative of society at that time. The pessimistic worldview resembles that of youngsters left disillusioned by World War II. Most particularly, the way with which these morally-grey women - femme fatales if you will - have been treated is said to have reflected post-war anxieties of women in the workforce. These criticisms stem from the fact that these women were punished in some way at the end. They are either killed or arrested, and these tales seem to resemble cautionary tales about women having ambition. The ones that do survive are made to feel shame and regret and ultimately end up seeking repentance.

But I believe that this is exactly why Film Noir is so relevant to the world today. With Covid-19, who can deny that people are disillusioned and pessimistic? Who can deny that women are still being oppressed in the workplace, and actually, pretty much everywhere else?

Another lens through which to look at Film Noir is the fact that for the first time, film producers and directors were consciously or subconsciously thinking about the female gaze.

Essentially, the female gaze is what women are portrayed as in the eyes of other women. While the male gaze tends to fetishize women and sees them as more like objects, in the female gaze, women are viewed as human beings.

In World War II, since most men were sent off to fight the war, film producers had to market to the female audience. Because of this, these films also tend to be more empowering depending on how you look at them. Through morally corrupt female characters, the image of ‘the weak, innocent woman’ is shattered, in a departure from the previous mindset that women were not even capable of immoral acts. With the male detective/private eye or protagonist being deceived by the femme fatale, the women are made to be smarter than men. This idea that women and men can be equally corrupt or innocent was refreshing and new for the time. Empowering? Definitely.

The femme fatale seducing the man also acts to confirm the perversion of men. After all, the woman wouldn't be able to gain the upper hand if not for the man’s weakness. This turns into a twisted and unintentional criticism of the male gaze itself.

Indeed, interviews carried out about this very topic prove this. Women were interviewed about femme fatales and their views on them. Most answered that they admired the femme fatale and how she handled situations. These women project themselves onto the femme fatale - is this not empowering?

On the whole, this goes to show that Film Noir is relevant to this day and age on two fronts.

Yes, the whole pessimistic outlook it promotes, in general and in relation to female empowerment, is one that is still relevant. But as noted by the second part that I discussed, Film Noir is also in many ways, progressive.

And this, in a nutshell, is the most relevant part of Film Noir. This is true not just for women but other minority groups. Every day is a flip-flop of progressing forwards and backwards. Every day, they, we, have to face sexism, racism and microaggressions. But every day is also a day of victories, albeit minuscule ones, for oppressed people around the world.


Yaalni is a staff writer at the Incandescent Review. She is a high school student studying in Singapore. She is interested in an array of things, including writing, reading and most things related to the social sciences and humanities.

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