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4 The Noir Category and the Point de Capiton

4 The Noir Category and the Point de Capiton

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Out of the Past



notes that American critics compared The Maltese Falcon to Hitchcock’s

British thrillers of the 1930s and that Wilder suggested with Double

Indemnity that he intended to “out-Hitchcock Hitchcock”.69 On its

release, Gilda was presented as a “romantic melodrama”, and films like

it the industry designated as “Detective-Mystery Melodramas”, “Social

Problem Crime Films” and “Psychological Dramas”.70 Mark Jancovich

even demonstrates a critical tendency to describe certain noir films in the

1940s—and not just those commonly thought of as “Gothic”—in terms

of horror. He notes the categorisation of films such as Double Indemnity

and The Woman in the Window in The New York Times or New York PM

by the affective responses they elicited: the former “plainly designed to

freeze the marrow in the audience’s bones”, and the latter “will give you

the screaming meemies”. Such films were thus explicitly situated in relation to the Universal horrors, such as The Phantom of the Opera (1943) or

The Scarlet Claw (1944), rather than as indications of a newly emerging

tendency that could later be identified as noir. Further to complicate this,

Jancovich elsewhere notes of Orson Welles that—despite what he argues

was a career-long association with horror and the Gothic—Welles’s two

most “obvious” noirs, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil

(1958), were not associated with this tendency in the same way as noirs

such as The Spiral Staircase (1946) or Whirlpool (1949) but were considered “mythic” (Rita Hayworth as “enchantress” rather than spider-­

woman) or a style-over-substance “bag of tricks” (Touch of Evil).71

Hollywood, I would argue, seemed to lack an organising principle for

the array of films now understood as noir. The American critical tradition produced myriad descriptors for the films then emerging. In a

single article, Lloyd Shearer described films noirs such as The Big Sleep

and The Blue Dahlia (1946) as “homicidal films”, “lusty, hard-boiled,

gut-and-gore crime stories”, “movie murder”, and “hard-boiled crime

pictures”.72 The New Yorker described Double Indemnity as “murder melodrama”, the LA Times described it as an “intellectual exercise in crime”;

Newsweek designated Murder, My Sweet a “brass-knuckled thriller”; and

the Hollywood Reporter commented upon Paramount’s “hard-boiled,

kick-em-in the teeth murder cycle”.73 Durgnat notes “the English spoke

only of the ‘tough, cynical Hammett-Chandler thriller’”.74 Moreover,

Kracauer coined a new term—“Hollywood’s terror films”—in an article



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which echoes those reviews Jancovich identifies and rehearsed the argument put forward in From Caligari to Hitler: that films such as Somewhere

in the Night (1946) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943) reflected an American

state of mind.75 I would argue that, while it pre-empted the French critics

by some months, this term lacked a certain resonance—which could be

provided by the suturing power of the point de capiton “noir”—to endure,

to serve as a nodal point for discourse.

It was only with the distance that history had afforded them that, I

would say, Frank and Chartier could look back at the American cinema

of the early 1940s and affix a signifier to what they saw. The French critics conferred upon this proliferation of American signifiers the signification “noir”, thereby connecting a disparate collection of films—such as

The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Lost Weekend—in a signifying

chain and suggesting the possibility of their systematic analysis. They

provided the punctuation necessary to discern the meaning of this chain,

in an instance of what Lacan calls “the transmutation of the situation

through the intervention of the signifier”. This French signifier, I would

argue, therefore intervened as a point de capiton, retroactively conferring

a meaning onto a group of films that they did not originally bear. And so,

while it seemed that a certain tendency in the American cinema had been

discerned before Frank and Chartier gave it a name (the signifier noir), I

suggest that it is the very fact that they did give it a name that conferred

upon this tendency its significance. For Lacan, the point de capiton is the

“point around which all concrete analysis of discourse must operate” and

so the effect of Frank and Chartier’s punctuation could be considered the

constitution of a locus around which a critical discourse on a certain kind

of Hollywood film from the 1940s could function. Here, the signifier

“noir” is what Lacan calls “the point of convergence that enables everything that happens in this discourse to be situated”.76 Furthermore, put

into the context of the corollary between noir and Lacanian structural

linguistics I have suggested, Naremore’s observation that “French writers … were fascinated by the noir metaphor” gains a new resonance.77

The action of their critical point de capiton in fact constituted what I will

also call the “noir metaphor”. Frank and Chartier’s works instantiate the

structure of signification, the production of meaning conferred upon the

group of American films in their application of the signifier “noir”.



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The discourse to which Frank and Chartier gave rise resulted, in the

1950s, in the Panorama of American Film Noir. This impressionistic study

of noir constitutes the category as a body with vague boundaries; the

Panorama lists 21 “core” titles under the heading “Film noirs”, which

include such classics as The Maltese Falcon, Gilda and The Big Sleep. The

listing process is, however, somewhat unorthodox in light of the modern

understanding of noir. Following this central category are a number of

related categories, such as “Criminal psychology” and “Gangsters” encompassing quintessential noirs such as Double Indemnity and The Killers but

also less obvious titles such as The Lost Weekend and Dr. Jekyll and Mr.

Hyde (1941).78 Their method, I would argue, suggests that Borde and

Chaumeton constituted noir through a process of discursive construction, which Naremore describes in terms of a Wittgensteinian notion of a

loose network of “family resemblances” that establish a relation from one

object to the next. He argues that critical categories are formed through

imaginative forms of metaphoric and metonymic association that constitute “networks of relationship”, establishing a corpus characterised by

“complex radial structures, with vague boundaries and a core of influential members at the centre”. To account for the relation between this

category and the signifier “noir”, Naremore invokes Michel Foucault; he

suggests that “the Name of the Genre … functions in the same way as the

Name of the Author”.79 Foucault’s author function is, Naremore notes, a

means of textual classification that establishes and articulates a discourse;

the genre function is then, by extension, the articulation of a cinematic

discourse. Naremore’s project, however, is not a theoretical one, as I highlighted in the Introduction.

Nonetheless, this does not deter William Park’s critique of Naremore

in What is Film Noir?: that the problem with the latter’s study is in fact

too much “French theory”. Park suggests that because Naremore became an

academic when “[s]emiotics and deconstruction ruled the day, and not

to be familiar with Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan, among others,

marked one at the very least as ill-informed”, his approach is muddled by

trendy anti-essentialism, which constitutes a form of “intellectual paranoia”.80 I will address the question of essentialism in Chap. 4, but here I

will note first that Park ignores the fact that his band of French theorists

are mentioned no more than a handful of times in More Than Night (and



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53



Lacan not once) and that—as I relayed in the Introduction—Naremore

himself avows his own concern as being social and cultural history rather

than “theory”. On the contrary, then, I must insist that it is here a case

of not enough “French theory”: the discursive processes Naremore identifies (and Park is so quick to dismiss) can be understood only in terms of

Lacanian principles. Moreover, Naremore’s notion of the “genre function” is richly suggestive and deserves further exploration in its own right

but is not opened up by him to the sustained theorisation of the structure of noir as a cinematic category I aim to pursue. In fact, I would

say Naremore’s account of noir is in tacit accord with the function of

the point de capiton; furthermore, I suggest the latter can illuminate the

(in)consistency of the category Naremore identifies through my psychoanalytic formalisation. Indeed, it is only with such theory that we can

progress beyond Naremore’s conclusions regarding noir: as Žižek notes,

what he calls a “symptomal” reading of a particular discourse—which is

to say, how certain “nodal points” have “quilted” a heterogeneous field:

precisely the gesture which Naremore offers in his reading of noir as a

post facto discursive construction and which I will attempt to theorise in

the rest of this chapter—is not sufficient. Instead, we must aim—according to Žižek—for a reading that recognises how such a field is structured

around a certain kernel of the Real, and to identify this level requires

psychoanalysis.81

For his part, Naremore states that the establishment of the network

of relations from one film object to the next can be considered a form

of chaining. We find this process operative in Borde and Chaumeton’s

Panorama: they note that The Woman in the Window is “related to the

noir series in its chiaroscuro technique” and The Big Sleep by its “sordid

and bizarre details”, but, I would add, these features do not necessarily

relate to all the other films in the chain.82 For example, both films are

indeed “sordid”, but, I suggest, the latter is characterised less by a low-­

key aesthetic than the low-contrast, studio-bound look, and both films

feature a femme fatale, but only the latter a private detective. My argument is therefore that films noirs are related by such localised similarities

rather than a single feature. Naremore recognises this when he notes, “[c]

ertain items … will be connected in different ways and will be utterly

unlike others”. It is clear therefore that Borde and Chaumeton’s films



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noirs are not grouped together solely by virtue of their overt similarities

but rather through a more abstract process of association comparable to

that which Naremore describes. He notes that individual films—such as

The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950)—have little

or nothing specifically in common, “even though both movies have been

called noir”. The category as a whole thus appears radically heterogeneous

and Naremore concludes, “[u]nfortunately, nothing links together all the

things described as noir”.83 However, in the context of the Lacanian point

de capiton, I must insist that there is nothing that links them all except the

signifier “noir”. The process of constituting the category in this manner

can function only underneath the signifier noir; it is my contention that

the consistency of the chain that criticism produces depends upon the

intervention of the signification “noir”. Borde and Chaumeton in fact

suggest this structure when they state that the object of their study “will

be evoked first … by referring to productions the critics have most often

deemed to be ‘film noirs’”.84 For Borde and Chaumeton, as for Lacan, the

signifier dominates; their discourse is determined by the signifier “noir”,

which functions—as I am arguing—as a point de capiton. “Noir” unifies the field of films under consideration, making them part of a structured network of cinematic meaning.85 This construction, I suggest, can

be understood as an instance of the Lacanian play upon “insistence”:

the Latin insistere meaning “to stand upon”, and so the signifier “stands

upon” the category, determining it. I would further note that this insistence is not limited to the category alone. Borde and Chaumeton suggest

that it can in fact determine a filmmaker’s entire oeuvre: “[t]he insurgents in John Huston’s We Were Strangers [(1949)] are part and parcel of

a career that, from The Maltese Falcon to The Asphalt Jungle, is situated

under the sign of noir or noirified film”.86 Everything in the Panorama

must come under this signifier “noir”.

Steve Neale states that “as a concept film noir seeks to homogenise a

set of distinct and heterogeneous phenomena; it thus inevitably generates contradictions, exceptions and anomalies and is doomed, in the end,

to incoherence”.87 I would concur that film noir does indeed appear an

inconsistent grouping yet, I must add, it persists as a critical category.

Here, I suggest Bruce Fink’s commentary on repetition and Heraclitus—

who, of course, suggested that it is not possible to step in the same river



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twice, because the waters keep on flowing—is illuminating. On one level,

Heraclitus is obviously right that it is always changing, but it nonetheless

remains the “same” river. There is repetition because there is a signifier,

although Fink explains that “repetition seems to be something of a misnomer, consisting in the return, not of the same, but of the different—

the return of something else, something other” because the very word

“twice” indicates that something is different: it may be the same object or

place but time has intervened so they are at the very least chronologically

different.88 Like the waters, I would say, noir seems ever changing, made

different with each film, but the category nonetheless remains the same.

What allows these things to be considered the same, I argue, is that

they occur beneath the same signifier: in the current case, “noir”. The

reason both Stranger on the Third Floor and Gilda, for example, can be

considered in some respect the same, despite their manifest differences, is

because they both appear in relation to the same signifier.89 Again, I suggest Fink is here instructive:

[h]eterogeneous things may be equated because one signifier covers all of

them. At this level, repetition thus implies the “return” of something that

would be different the second time but for the signifier. You can only step

in the same river twice because you have a word or name for it—the

“Swanee River”, for example.



Similarly, I would argue that the concept of “noir” returns with every

film to which the signifier is attached, and a commonality is established

between them. The only way in which identity can be attributed is on

the basis of such attachment of a signifier to two different phenomena or

things. This is not, I should emphasise, the Lacanian notion of repetition

proper—which bears upon the Real and will be explored in relation to

tuché and automaton in Chap. 4—instead, Fink offers the term “substitution” to refer to this common usage of “repetition” as a process occurring

under the signifier. Substitution, he states, “establishes an equivalence

between things that are not identical”.90 It is a case of what I would call

“return with difference” that establishes connections between disparate

things. Each film noir is thus a “return with difference” of the idea of



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noir, corroborated by the insistence of the signifier functioning as its

placeholder.

Naremore’s constructionist account of the category, I insist, is utterly

dependent upon the function of the signifier “noir” qua point de capiton.

He states that “[w]e can never know when the first film noir was made”,

citing Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Louis Feuillade’s

Fantômas (1913) as possible contenders.91 In light of the productive function of the point de capiton in discourse, I can, however, suggest that the

first film noir was effectively “made” in the first writings on the category

in 1946 (and made again in 1955). Borde and Chaumeton—quoting

Georges Sadoul—suggest, “The Maltese Falcon creates, in one fell swoop,

the conventions of film noir”.92 The Panorama therefore retroactively posits Huston’s work as the original film noir, the very core of the category

from which the analysis of all its films can proceed. It seems that, like

Minerva’s owl, the Maltese Falcon too spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk: the film (whose narrative is subject to a climactic point de

capiton) and the category to which it contributes both depend upon their

retroactive determination. As I have argued, being a function of the point

de capiton, film noir “thus finds itself to be literally (but also in all senses

of the term) a critical object: invented by French criticism”, as Vernet recognises.93 Indeed, I should note that when the signifier “noir” entered the

Anglo-American tradition in the 1970s, this structure was repeated with

the emergence of neo-noir as I will discuss in Chap. 7. At every instance,

the intervention of the point de capiton constitutes the cinematic category

“noir” and enables its critical discourse; as Lacan states, “[e]verything

radiates out from and is organised around this signifier”.94 To return to

my central thesis here: noir is thus structured by the point de capiton.



2.5 D

 ouble Indemnity, the Graph of Desire,

Metalepsis

The “retroactive transmutation of the scene” is, I have already noted, discernible not only in the cinematic category but also in the filmic objects

that constitute it. The relation between the first and penultimate scenes of



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57



Double Indemnity suggests the metonymic-metaphoric relation between

signifiers and resultant production of the signified that I theorised with

the point de capiton. The film presents a narrative structure in which a

scene at the end of the film gives meaning to a scene at the beginning. My

point here is that the film’s opening sequence—a desperate confession in

a darkened office—cannot be understood until it is brought into connection with a subsequent scene: the murder and attempted murder of the

final flashback.95 There is, I suggest, an indeterminacy to the first scene of

Double Indemnity that evokes Lacan’s dialectic of anticipation and retroaction.96 A man enters a building at night, presumably his workplace. He

appears to be unwell. There is an unspecified stain on his left shoulder.

He speaks into the Dictaphone, “I suppose you’ll call this a confession

when you hear it”: a line which anticipates its own retroactive determination. He announces that he is Walter Neff. He introduces characters

and elements—the Dietrichson case, a murder for which he is responsible—but their meaning is uncertain. He gestures to his shoulder with

the line, “No visible scars, ‘til now that is”, thereby conferring meaning

to the stain, which now becomes a wound. The scene then dissolves into

a flashback. Now, fast-forwarding through the film to arrive at the scene

which finally produces the meaning of this first one, Phyllis Dietrichson

hides a revolver beneath her chair and Neff walks through the door. Their

dialogue retroactively modifies preceding events: “We were talking about

automobile insurance. You were thinking about murder. I was thinking

about that anklet”. Finally, as first Phyllis shoots Neff, and then Neff—

wounded but not dead—kills her, the meaning of that first scene has

been revealed. As he staggers out of the Dietrichson house (presumably

making his way back to the office), the end of the film re-joins its beginning and the full import of Neff’s confession, I argue, can now be understood. The bullets that pierced their bodies are the points that stitch this

scene to the first; the door closing behind Neff here seals the meaning of

his confession back at the office.

This structure of retroaction we can diagram as the Elementary Cell of

the Graph of Desire.97 The first scene of Double Indemnity I would consider a “first signifier”, designated S1; the subsequent scene determining

the first, a “second signifier”, S2.98 The progression of the narrative from

this first scene to the second (as plot, or what the Russian Formalists



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