We watched A Woman’s Face (1941) last night–a great Crawford melodrama, and a real departure, stylistically, for director Cukor, who tended to do stagy (though wonderful) celebrations of the “Hollywood Two-Shot” like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. Not here. This one is right there with Welles and Huston at the founding of Noir. It’s not all the way there, though. For one thing, the courtroom frame is too clinical–unlike, say, in Mildred Pierce, where the “flashback zone” is even murkier than the items dredged up from it. On the other hand, there’s no such thing as a “pure noir” film. “Noir” isn’t a genre, it’s a set of techniques, all of which aim to elevate a crucial character or two “beyond good and evil”. A lot of noir films are “crime melodramas” (from Double Indemnity to Moonrise), but you can just as easily have noir “weepers” (The Strange Love of Matha Ivers), noir romantic fantasy (the Dieterle duo: Portrait of Jennie and Love Letters), noir westerns (Pursued), noir comedy/drama/fantasies (It’s A Wonderful Life), and even screwball noir, as demonstrated by key–and prescient–scenes in It Happened One Night (chasing Oscar Shapely) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Cooper behind bars). The one thing I would argue that you cannot have is “noir relevance”, at least not the kind of relevance that a person like Alex Dueben would recognize. Why? Hey, it’s because, when you get right down to it, “relevance” is irrelevant.
You will often hear that noir is concerned with “moral ambiguity”, but that’s hogwash my friends. Noir is about radical subjectivity–the confusion is just a symptom. In the best noir-inflected films, we get a character who, for whatever reason, finds him/herself on the outside of the ideological structure known as “society”, looking in; perhaps longing to be a “part of it”, to follow the rules unselfconsciously, but unable to do so. That’s what gives these films their power to fascinate–the noir techniques enable a dramatization of the most thrilling spectacle we can imagine: a human being making an existential/radical choice. The main question in a film noir is never “what are you going to do?”, it’s “what stance will you adopt toward the world, given the knowledge that you cannot ever belong to it?”
Joan Crawford’s horrific childhood scar, in A Woman’s Face, works pretty much the same way that a superhero (or supervillain) origin does in our favourite comics genre. As both Conrad Veidt and Melvyn Douglas point out, the scar enables them to see the “real woman” behind the face. Being set apart in this way enables a character to remain “purely themselves”–they are beyond “nurture”.
This movie is set in Sweden, in 1941. NINETEEN FORTY-ONE. And yet, there is no mention of World War Two. At one point Veidt exlaims: “The world belongs to the devil, Anna. And I know how to serve him, if I could only get the power.”
He’s a fool of course. You don’t “get” that kind of power. It “gets” you. Crawford understands this. Like Emerson, she’s beyond caring whom she “serves”:
Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested,–”But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”
“Goodness” is not a constellation of acts, it’s a disposition of the heart. Epistemology is morality. Ethics is politics. You either love the world (and the beings in it) or you hate it. Film noir and superhero comics convey this psychodrama more effectively than anything since the American Renaissance.