To what extent is Film Noir a form of male melodrama?

In order to engage with this question, first it is necessary to propose working definitions of film noir and of male melodrama.

Although film writers cannot agree on how film noir should be defined or whether it is a discrete genre, a ‘movement’, or a visual style, there is general agreement that the classic films noirs are American crime films of various kinds produced, roughly, from the early 1940s to the late 1950s.

Krutnik regards ‘tough’ thrillers - directly or indirectly derived from ‘hard boiled’ fiction, and centred on a male hero’s investigation or commission of a crime - as the core of what he terms the ‘noir phenomenon’, which contributed to more general transformations in the normative conventions of Hollywood cinema in the 1940s. He sets out the key characteristics that coalesced for the first time in these films: chiaroscuro visual styling, an implied questioning of the values of post war American society, illicit or exotic sexuality and its associated obsessions, a tendency to represent character in psychological terms. (Krutnik: pp.X-Xii, 24)

In everyday use the term melodrama is used to describe a work characterised by sensational action and exaggerated emotion. In relation to film, melodrama is usually associated with the generic category of ‘woman’s-picture’, in which issues of the traditional domain of women - family, home, romance, motherhood, female identity and desire – are placed to the fore.

There may not be a generally accepted definition of male melodrama, but it seems reasonable to argue that essentially it is melodrama about problems besetting masculine identity and meaning. In a filmic context this could involve the testing of a male protagonist by various forms of challenge, obstruction and delay which the narrative places in front of him. What is being tested is (any combination of) his ingenuity, physical courage, integrity, sexual prowess or ability to maintain his position in society. Also, for the emotional aspect to be present, through the narrative, style and actors’ performances the audience needs to be able to feel for and identify with the protagonist and his predicament or the conditions he finds himself in. One might expect to find such elements as male mid-life crisis or dissatisfaction with routine of family life, obsession with glamorous woman blinding the victim to the associated dangers, blackmail of a sexual nature, using a business position as a front for illegal activities, threats to cherished professional reputation, and, in films made in the 1940s or 1950s, fear of exposure as a homosexual.

Helpfully, Florence Jacobowitz (Cameron: pp.152-153) identifies common ground between noir and melodrama, arguing that both are concerned with struggles against constriction and entrapment, whether it be within the family or in relation to the demands of gender ideals. Many films noirs deal with male protagonists’ fears of not living up to expectations of domination, power and achievement that are central to masculinity. Masochistic tendencies of punishment and self-denial are present in both genres - in melodrama the resultant violent feelings may be directed inwardly and expressed emotionally, in noir directed outwardly and expressed physically.

This is reinforced by Deborah Thomas who, in looking at noir using the techniques of psychoanalysis, observes that it is about a range of containments and controls, both real and metaphorical: such as the laying of traps, the holding back of secrets, the containment of men (and women) within marriage and stereotypes. Thomas claims that these themes are linked to noir’s primary concern with the emotional and physical defences and anxieties of its men, who find themselves caught between impossible alternatives and often seem ill at ease when trying to be ‘men’ in conventional terms (being tough, successful, chasing women, - or respectable and happily married). (Cameron: pp.79-80)

So there is no shortage of indicators of male melodrama in film noir as a whole, but probably some categories have more than others. In the remainder of this essay I will consider this using Krutnik’s useful subdivision of classic films noirs (based on how the hero is positioned in relation to the enigma)(Krutnik: p.86), briefly examining some notable individual films from each category. Finally, I will draw conclusions from this evidence.

In investigative thrillers the hero is often a professional detective who seeks to restore order and affirm himself as an idealised figure of masculine potency and invulnerability by exposing and countering a criminal conspiracy (e.g. The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, The Big Sleep, Kiss Me Deadly)

In The Big Sleep (1946) the professionalism of Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is on the line as he struggles to resolve problems and uncertainties arising from the (famously labyrinthine) plot in such a way as to protect his client, General Sternwood: Carmen’s deviance, Vivian’s deceptiveness, and the role of Eddie Mars, ultimately revealed as the master villain. But in Michael Walker’s analysis there is a parallel issue: ‘is Marlowe able to purge himself of his obsession with the noir world and commit himself to Vivian (Lauren Bacall) as heroine? Having discovered Geiger dead and Carmen in a drugged state in Geiger’s house, Marlowe becomes obsessed with the house and what went on there, and Walker goes on to suggest that this arouses a bisexual side to Marlowe that had hitherto been suppressed by a sexual lifestyle of casual encounters with women (as exemplified by his dalliance with the bookshop girl). (Cameron: p.197)

As Edward Gallafent points out, by the mid ‘50s the private eye film noir had moved on, especially in terms of how the hero could be presented and the quality of his relations with women (Cameron: p.240) – as illustrated by Kiss Me Deadly (1955), adapted from a Mickey Spillane novel. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is a divorce case specialist and consequently not well equipped for his quest in tracking down what eventually proves to an atomic device, which is essentially a mission of revenge for the killing of Christina, whom he encounters by chance and is unable to protect. His relationship with Velda his girlfriend/ secretary is unconventional and strained, and she has little faith in his abilities. He is duped by Lily, the femme fatale, and ultimately does not solve the enigma or defeat the villain.

In both these films the usual narrative construction for a detective film is evident: a sequence of interviews between the private eye and witnesses or potential suspects which lead, after a string of false clues and mistaken judgements, to a final surprising revelation. They can be considered as male melodramas because the male protagonist dominates the action and his abilities are subject to a series of extreme tests throughout the plot. But there is only a limited correlation, since it is not easy to sympathise with the hero, who displays almost no emotion, and the narrative offers relatively little to help us understand what he is thinking or feeling, beyond being driven to resolve the enigma.

Unlike the investigative thriller, male suspense thrillers feature heroes who are personally implicated in the crime. They may be falsely accused of murder, as in Dark Corner, Out Of The Past, and The Blue Dahlia. Films in which the hero is not himself certain of his part in a murder by virtue of amnesia include Crack Up, The High Wall, and Black Angel. Or the hero may be wrongly imprisoned for murder while the investigation is carried out on his behalf, as in Stranger On The Third Floor and Phantom Lady. Another variant is where the hero’s investigation serves as an attempt to avenge a wronged or murdered loved one, and in effect taking the law into his own hands because of inadequacies of the legal system eg Cornered, Dead Reckoning.

In suspense thrillers the hero often knows less than the spectator, or the criminals and the police, about the enigma and through most of the narrative he is frustrated in his attempts to establish any mastery over the disruptions it engenders. Sometimes there is uncertainty as to whether a resolution is possible at all; ‘tough’ controlled masculinity becomes an ideal which is unattainable or difficult to achieve and maintain. Krutnik takes this further, arguing that ‘the hero’s quest for self definition may serve as a cover story for the articulation of fantasies which are less easily sanctioned and consolidated within conventional codifications of the masculine.’ (Krutnik: p.132)

In Out Of The Past (1947) Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) is an ‘hard-boiled’ private eye who is hired by racketeer Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to retrieve his mistress Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), who has shot and wounded him and absconded with a large sum of money. Jeff subsequently finds and falls in love with Kathie and they go into hiding. Sterling’s ex-partner discovers and tries to blackmail them but Kathie kills him and leaves Jeff to deal with the aftermath. Jeff adopts a new identity as a small town garage owner but is spotted and summoned to see Sterling, where he finds he and Kathie are together again. Whit offers to forget about the past if Jeff does another job for him, but it turns out this is a device to frame him for the murder of Sterling’s lawyer, and it ends with Kathie shooting both Sterling and Jeff, before she herself is killed by the police.

Out Of The Past has an archetypal ‘tough’ protagonist but in contrast to, say, The Big Sleep, there are more narrative themes and the relationships between characters are drawn in greater detail, and open to more interpretation. Krutnik contends that although Kathie disrupts Jeff’s attempt to achieve a position of mastery and knowledge, the underlying cause of the disruption is the unstable nature of masculine identity and sexuality and the tensions and contradictions that creates. (Krutnik: p.113) Jeff’s masochistic obsession for Kathie causes him to ignore his responsibilities as detective and to underestimate her double-dealing and ruthlessness, ultimately leading to his downfall and death. This film has many elements of male melodrama: Tim Dirks describes it as ‘one of the greatest multi-layered film noirs of all time’ and ‘a definitive flashback film of melodramatic doom’. (Greatest Films website: entry on Out of the Past)

In the criminal adventure thriller the hero, usually aided by a woman, becomes engaged in either a wilful or accidental transgression of the law, and has to face the consequences – examples include The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Lady from Shanghai, The Killers and Double Indemnity.

In Double Indemnity (1944) an insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a glamorous, shrewd and predatory housewife, plot the brutal murder of her husband to collect substantial accident insurance they have jointly arranged. But the suspicions of claims adjuster Keyes (Edward G Robinson) puts strains on their relationship and both plan double-crosses, which leads to them shooting each other in a memorable final scene set in a classic noir darkened room setting.

Parker Tyler sees the film as a fragmentation of male identity. (as described by Jonathan Buchsbaum in Cameron: pp.90-92.) Neff’s entire manner before the murder is one of sexual confidence and potency, yet afterwards he makes every effort to avoid Phyllis. Tyler’s view is that Neff’s fear of Keyes, which leads him to falter and abandon the scheme, is not justified by evidence from the plot. Neff knows his business and has every reason to think that his story and alibi are strong. Tyler says it must be driven by a need to prove the absence of passive homosexuality, resulting from Keyes sensing Neff’s difficulty with women and his associated invitation for Neff to change jobs and join him in his office. Neff’s sexual bravado is a façade, and ultimately he must turn on Phyllis in the fear that she will expose his sexual inadequacy. This is reinforced by Neff’s courting of the stepdaughter Lola, who represents a complete opposite to Phyllis, offering Neff an idealised glimpse of a romantic relationship unspoilt by the demands of sexuality.

So Double Indemnity has a mixed-up male protagonist whose passion for a provocative and dangerous woman destroys his previously well-ordered mundane life and propels him into a maze of crime and punishment. Stanwyck’s character broke new ground; as Hirsch reports: ‘her performance created a sensation, never before in American films had a female character been presented as so devoid of softening, feminine touches, and never before had death and sex been linked so explicitly and powerfully.’ (Hirsch: p.7)) As Hirsh also notes, some of the most effective noirs, perhaps the darkest and most unsettling, involve protagonists who are not tough detectives or hardened criminals but ‘steady likeable fellows who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, tricked by a twist of fate, seduced by the promise of sex or the chance to make quick illegal money’ (Hirsch: p.12) In effect, Neff gets trapped in a situation of his own making and this exposes aspects of his personality and sexuality which, while not manifest in the narrative, are just under the surface and easily accessible to the spectator. This is definitely a form of male melodrama.


For The Lady from Shanghai (1948) Orson Welles served as director, producer, screenwriter and star (playing Michael O’Hara), with his then estranged wife Rita Hayworth portraying Elsa Bannister, an evil, scheming temptress. The film has imaginative touches and excellent visual effects, but is hard to follow, suffering from having been ‘much cut and rearranged; this thriller was obviously left too much in Welles’ hands and then just as unfairly taken out of them…’, (Halliwell: p.619)and from an unconvincing performance by Welles. In addition, Welles is notorious for his lack of interest in developing female characters beyond stereotypes, the narrative here suggesting that Elsa’s allure is such as to absolve men who succumb of any responsibility for their own actions, and his direction of Hayworth immobilising her into a series of sculptured poses.

Looking beyond these inadequacies, Andrew Britton says that the film ‘portrays heterosexuality as a Byzantine labyrinth into which men are lured by the deceptive but irresistible promise of a culpably glamorous woman who, with malice aforethought, uses her victim’s desire first to exploit him and then to destroy him’ (Cameron: p.216), and Kaplan argues that ‘the final scene of the film, which takes place in a Crazy House in a fairground, is a fitting metaphor for O’Hara’s entire experience of being the ‘fall guy’ for the mad rich people who used him for their crazed greedy desires.’ (Kaplan: p.198)

Taken on these terms, The Lady From Shanghai qualifies as a male melodrama, but not a very satisfying one, it being impossible to pin down the hero, who at different times is presented as a naïve Irish sailor, a idealistic political activist, and possibly a crusading journalist, but with nothing in the narrative to explain these contradictions.

In all these films femmes fatales tend to be a greater threat to the hero than his male opponents and are held to blame for the hero’s lapse, but their motivation is usually not explored, their deviant actions apparently being beyond rational explanation. While these characters are often very memorable, as Hirsch notes, American films ‘have seldom been able to portray women as intelligent, independent and strong willed, without either turning them into monsters, as in noir, or else marrying them off in the last reel.’(Hirsch: p.20) This tends to strengthen the impression that films noirs are first and foremost stories about male characters and masculinity.

It is pertinent to look at two more films usually regarded as classic noirs, but which are clearly not tough thrillers and so do not fit into Krutnik’s categorisation.

In a Lonely Place (1950) is interesting because it stars Humphrey Bogart, who before this had been strongly associated with tough detectives who keep their cool and (more or less) kept control of events. But here he plays Dix(on) Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter accused of killing a young woman, and presumed guilty because of his erratic behaviour. His temperamental explosions even alienate Lauren (Gloria Grahame), the woman who provided his alibi and falls in love with him. Dix can be seen as a tortured male romantic aware of the contradictions in his personality, but Bogarts’s character is frightening not so much because of his volatility or capacity for violence, as his almost complete blindness to the impact of his actions on others and how they see him. According to Hirsch, his tantrums frighten her to the point where she begins to suspect he is guilty, even when she knows better. (Hirsch: p.151)

The ending is sad and oddly unresolved, with Dix and Laurel more or less back where they were at the start, their flawed romance having given them only partial and temporary satisfaction. Hirsch observes that ‘the lonely place in In a Lonely Place is the isolation enforced on Dixon Steele by his anti social behaviour – he is ostracized by the force of his own anger…’ (Hirsch: p.195).

In A Lonely Place qualifies as a noir because of its general mood of dislocation and bleakness, and an absence of uplifting themes or moralistic conclusions, (These are characteristics described by Hirsh in his chapter on ‘Noir Stylistics (Hirsch: p.72)) but it differs from the films examined so far because, as VF Perkins suggests in his insightful essay on the film, ‘above plot it promotes character and both psychological and social portraiture, using the suspicion of a murder as a pressure to dramatise the course of a romance from the discovery of love to its disintegration.’ (Cameron: p.223) Unsurprisingly then, Krutnik describes the film as ‘a drama of masculine loneliness – a “male melodrama”’ (Krutnik: p.199)

Mildred Pierce (1945) is a hybrid, with a womans-picture narrative (Mildred’s story, in flashback) and its conventional mise-en-scène, set within the framework of a crime/ detective story, presented in a contrasting dark, nightmarish style typical of noir.

Mildred (Joan Crawford) is a hard-working, long-suffering mother with a spoiled, mean-spirited, snobbish, unloving daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). She breaks with a weak husband and sets up a successful restaurant chain to fulfil Veda’s expensive tastes. In the process she gets involved with Monte, a dissolute playboy, who is seen to be shot dead in the first scene. As Pam Cook notes, the absence of the reverse shot which would reveal the murderer encourages the audience to believe that Mildred is the culprit, especially when, in true noir heroine style, she tries to set up someone else, apparently to protect herself, using her sexuality as bait. (Kaplan: p.73) In the end it is revealed that the killer is Veda, furious with Monte for not wanting to marry her after they have had an affair while he is married to Mildred.

Mildred Pierce is legitimately regarded as a noir, but in having a female protagonist and a mother-daughter relationship at its heart, is clearly not a male melodrama.

Overall my conclusion is that the core types of films noirs discussed in this essay (apart from obvious exceptions like Mildred Pierce) can certainly be considered as a form of male melodrama, in accordance with my definition of that concept. (Krutnik is doubtful that other types of film should attract the noir label, but he outlines other related categories that can be regarded as alternatives to and transmutations of the ‘hard boiled’ forms of thriller – the espionage thriller, the period crime thriller, the rogue cop thriller, the gangster film, the social-problem crime film, etc. (Krutnik: p188 et seq) These types of film are not considered in this essay.) Further, in considering the ‘to what extent’ part of the question, that a scoring system could be developed involving the assessment of the prominence of various key themes or elements (including those within my working definition above) in order to place individual films within a male melodrama sliding-scale. This is too big a task for this essay, but in general terms the more personally involved the protagonist is with the crime, the more intractable and inter-related the problems he encounters and the more difficulty he has in resolving them, and the more the film provides insights into his feelings and motivations, the higher up the scale a film will be. So for example, as a male melodrama The Maltese Falcon would not rate highly, the hero easily dealing with everything thrown at him but with little information offered to understand what sort of person he is, in marked contrast to In A Lonely Place and Out of the Past.


Britton, A: The Lady from Shanghai essay in Cameron, J (ed) (1992) The Movie Book Of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista

Buchsbaum, J: Tame Wolves and Phoney Claims essay in Cameron, J (ed) (1992) The Movie Book Of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista

Cook, P: Duplicity in Mildred Pierce essay in Kaplan, E A (ed) (1998) Women in Film Noir, London: BFI

Dirks, T Out Of The Past review and narrative on Greatest Films website extracted 22/4/03

Gallafent, E: Kiss Me, Deadly essay in Cameron, J (ed) (1992) The Movie Book Of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista

Halliwells Film Guide, Eighth Edition (1991), London: Harper Collins

Hirsch, F (1981) The Dark Side Of The Street, London, London: Barnes

Kaplan, E A: The Dark Continent of Film Noir essay in Kaplan, E A (ed) (1998) Women in Film Noir, London: BFI

Krutnik, F (1991) In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, London: Routledge

Perkins, V F: In A Lonely Place essay in Cameron, J (ed) (1992) The Movie Book Of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista

Walker, M: Film Noir, Introduction essay in Cameron, J (ed) (1992) The Movie Book Of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista

Walker, M: The Big Sleep essay in Cameron, J (ed) (1992) The Movie Book Of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista







© David Gearing, 2003