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5 Double Indemnity, the Graph of Desire, Metalepsis

5 Double Indemnity, the Graph of Desire, Metalepsis

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2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


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


Out of the Past

called the syuzhet) can, I suggest, be conceived of as the diachronic chain

of signifiers, designated on the Graph of Desire by the vector S→

.S . When

Neff and Phyllis shoot each other at S2, this provides the film with a punctuating mark; it brings into operation the structure of the point de capiton, the retrogressive vector that intersects with the signifying chain. My

argument is thus that the point de capiton constitutes a synchronic intervention at S1 that retroactively determines the meaning of the wounded

man sitting at his desk. The indeterminacy of this first scene is suddenly

fixed by its relation to the second. The first of these intersections, which

Lacan designates A, corresponds in my version to the story of the film

as a synchronic whole: what we could otherwise call the fabula. It is the

structural relation of the elements of the narrative: the locus of the “Law”

of the film, where the articulation of the narrative (i.e., the film as signifying chain) is inscribed.

Neff’s bullet wound is invested with meaning at the second intersection—the instance of the signification of the Other, s(A)—which constitutes a signification producing a signified. This, we can recall, is the

structure of metaphor: what Lacan describes as the “precise point at which

meaning is produced in nonmeaning”.99 The same is true, I should add,

of other noirs that feature such a flashback narrative structure: Sunset

Blvd., D.O.A. and The Killers all feature as part of the syuzhet a later

scene, S2, that retroactively determines their opening sequences, S1. For

example, it is not until Norma shoots Gillis in the penultimate scene of

Sunset Blvd. that it is revealed how a washed-up writer finished facedown

in a faded film star’s swimming pool.100 Indeed, I would insist that other

retroactive movements of noir—filmic and cinematic, in Cohen-Séat’s

sense—could be diagrammed in this way. For example, to recall the creation of the critical category of film noir in the 1940s, I would say that S1

can be considered the Hollywood movies, made and released in America

between 1941 and 1945; S2 is then the point at which the distribution of

these films in France in the summer of 1946 motivated film critics to designate them “noir”. The intersection (A) is the locus of the inscription of

the filmic objects as a chain within the cinematic discourse: the reception

of the films by film critics as big Other. The instance of the signification

of the Other, s(A)—where the meaning of the films is produced retroactively—is engendered by the connection of S1 to S2 through the work of



2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


Frank, Chartier, et al. The vector of the critical signifier “noir” qua point

de capiton intersects the vector of the chain of signifiers constituted by

the American films—first at S2 in 1946 and then retroactively at S1—

where the signification “noir” is produced. I would say that the films thus

become what they always-already appear to have been. To render this

process concretely at the level of the sentence, I could state quite simply:

“Double Indemnity is a film noir”. The structure of Double Indemnity is

therefore the structure of the noir category itself; its retroactive temporality is the temporality of Lacan’s Symbolic order.101

Furthermore, I would argue that the structure of retroaction found

in Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd. and D.O.A. presents a “dead man”

long before he receives his mortal wound, thus suggesting the metaleptic

reversal—an inversion of effect and cause—inherent to retroactivity. The

logic of psychoanalysis is characterised by such metalepsis: for Freud, the

effect often determined its cause. For example, to recall the Wolf Man’s

symptoms, Nachträglichkeit presents what Žižek describes as the “paradox

of trauma qua cause that does not pre-exist its effects but is itself retroactively ‘posited’ by them”. More generally, Freud’s meta-psychology often

depended upon the determination of a cause by its effect: for example,

the speculative journey Freud made from the manifestations of adult sexual relations and practices to the hypothesis of infantile sexuality in the

Three Essays on Sexuality, a movement of return through which, as Žižek

notes, “the cause retroactively becomes what it always-already was”.102

Paradoxically, I suggest, the “cause” becomes the effect of its effects.103

To reiterate, Nachträglichkeit interrupts the forward movement of time.

By insisting upon its retroactive dimension, Freud inscribed metalepsis as

its structuring principle. Logically, I would say that the cause (trauma)

should precede its effects (symptom), but chronologically, the cause is

determined qua cause after the effects (après-coup) because it had no existence qua cause until the movement of return retroactively determined

it as such: chronologically, the effect can be considered therefore to precede the cause.104 And following Lacan’s transcription of Freud’s concept

into structural linguistics, the point de capiton is—equally, though differently, I would say—the inscription of metalepsis in the signifying chain.

Chronologically, the sentence precedes its full stop; its articulation as a

chain of signifiers precedes its determination as a signifying structure.


Out of the Past

Logically, however, if the sentence is considered as a grammatically complete, meaningful articulation, then the “cause” of a sentence is the point

de capiton, the terminal punctuation mark that brings it into existence.

The structure of signification that the point de capiton engenders is the

cause of meaning. The “cause” of the sentence appears after its articulation, and its sense is thus constructed retroactively. With recourse to the

Graph, I could say S2 is the cause of (the meaning of ) S1: the latter had no

meaning until retroactively determined by the former. Chronologically,

then, the sentence qua meaningful construction can emerge only after its

full stop; structurally, the sentence—as an effect of meaning—is posited

retroactively by the point de capiton qua cause. The metalepsis here, I

would add, is subtler; whereas, in the case of trauma, the cause is retroactively posited before the effect, in the structure of the sentence, the cause

comes after the effect—the former retroactively positioning the latter as

its antecedent.105

Moreover, I would argue that this structural relation is suggested by

the kind of temporality involved in noir films such as Double Indemnity.

The flashback is a device that allows such a metaleptic reversal—to present effect before cause—through a non-linear narrative. The examples

are striking: Walter Neff sits down to die in Double Indemnity long before

he is “killed” by Phyllis Dietrichson; Frank Bigelow walks into a San

Francisco police station to report his own murder and then proceeds to

explain how to the baffled detectives in D.O.A.; and Sunset Blvd. takes

the even more extreme step of presenting Joe Gillis face down in a swimming pool, dead, and then having him explain from a narrative afterlife

how Norma Desmond came to shoot him in the back.106 And here I

would suggest Vernet’s reading of the narrative structure of such noirs

and his comments on Double Indemnity in particular can help illuminate

this structure. Vernet identifies two narrative moments: the set-up and

the black hole or enigma. The “set-up” is the promise of a coherent story;

the opening of a film noir offers “a foretaste of what will be the truth:

the final pleasure, the solution of the intrigue”. This corresponds to the

anticipatory vector of the diachronic signifying chain; it is the suggestion

that the narrative will progress in a linear fashion. The “black hole” is a

sudden, violent interruption that manifests “the force of its relation with

the set-up by revealing the gaps and marking out the absences contained

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


within its own movement”.107 To modulate Vernet’s idea towards my

own conceptual framework, I could say that this enigma is a synchronic

intervention into the linear progression of the narrative, which effects a


What is most interesting in this discussion, I suggest, is the relation

between these two narrative moments that Vernet theorises. It is not a

question of which comes first; rather, it is the relationship between these

elements—their juxtaposition—that produces an effect, thus recalling

what I have described as the differential system of signifiers constituting

Symbolic structure. Apropos of Double Indemnity in particular, Vernet

notes, “[a]lthough the set-up is logically speaking the first step in the

development of the narrative, chronologically speaking it does not have

to be the first sequence of the film”.108 The metaleptic inversion here

allows Vernet to emphasise a structural relation between elements. In

terms of the syuzhet, the set-up in Double Indemnity—Neff’s first visit to

the Dietrichson house, which initiates the linear progression of the flashback—is in fact the second scene of the film; the first scene Vernet considers part of the enigma, the second movement of film noir. He articulates

this relation between set-up and enigma in terms of question and answer.

Logically, a question must be asked in order that an answer can be given:

that is the structural relation between the two elements (at the level of

fabula). However, as Double Indemnity shows, a question does not always

chronologically precede its answer. This, I suggest, points to a Lacanian

articulation of the structural relation of logical precedence rather than a

chronological relation; I would argue that Vernet’s structure is not specified in relation to a clock, it is not constructed in terms of chronometric

units. It expresses not a linear progression but the circular narrative of

the film.

Vernet is concerned with the relation between the film’s second scene—

the set-up (S1 qua question) of the linear narrative as Neff first visits the

Dietrichson house—and the first—Neff’s confession—as an aspect of the

violent interruption of the black hole of Phyllis and Neff’s mutual destruction (S2 qua answer). However, I would say that the properly Lacanian

metaleptic inversion relates to the microstructure of this enigma: the relation between the effect of the confession (S1 qua answer) and the murders

as its cause (S2 qua question). Despite these differences, I still suggest that


Out of the Past

Vernet’s theoretical constructions can provide further insight into this

relationship. After Lévi-Strauss, Vernet describes the enigma as “a question without an answer or an answer without a question”. The opening

scene of Double Indemnity provides answers to questions that have not

yet been asked: the Dietrichson case was a murder; the culprit is the man

speaking into the Dictaphone. I would argue that the answers (qua effect)

proffered by the confessions paradoxically ask questions themselves; they

ask a question of meaning, thus constituting a kind of “set-up”, S1, in their

own right. This set-up gestures towards its retroactive determination; it

will be “answered” by S2, the penultimate scene of murder (question qua

cause). This complex double relation of question and answer is therefore

that of cause and effect in what I have identified as the dialectic of anticipation and retroaction. Vernet evokes this structure when he notes, “[i]

t is only with the resolution of the intrigue at the film’s conclusion that

the answer will finally rejoin its question”.109 I suggest that this metaleptic

statement describes the intervention of the point de capiton, the signifier

that transmutes the scene. It is the moment, for example, that a French

signifier transforms a film such as Double Indemnity into a film noir; it

is retroactively constituted as the “answer” to a critical “question” posed

by Frank and Chartier. Moreover, it is the climactic moment of the film,

where the answer (S1) finds its question (S2) as Phyllis’s bullet finds Neff’s

shoulder and Neff’s bullets find her. The effect finally finds its cause and

he slips out of the house to return to the office and make his confession.

Furthermore, I should note that this circular narrative in Double

Indemnity confers a sense of fatalism on the film, a sense which seems to

pervade noir as a whole.110 It is felt all the more keenly in D.O.A., where

it is clear from the outset that Frank Bigelow is a dead man walking. This

inevitability is the product of what I have identified as the metaleptic

reversal involved in the film’s narrative looping, and as it is in film noir, so

is it for Lacan; there is an inevitability inherent to meaning produced by

the structure of the point de capiton. The effect of the signifier is such that,

as Lacan suggests, “all that takes place in the order of language is always

already accomplished”.111 The relation of these first scenes—S1—to their

determination by S2 ensures that the outcome of events will have already

been decided, even though it may seem that other narrative possibilities

are still available; Ed Sikov admits that he “was shocked when he saw

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


[Sunset Blvd.] for the first time” because he did not realise that the corpse

in the opening scene would be Gillis.112 There appears to be a radical

contingency to the progression of the signifying chain, until the moment

the point de capiton intervenes to insist that Gillis, Neff and Bigelow were

always-already dead men. Equally, I would say that the meaning of a sentence appears to always-already have been what the sentence meant; this

is what Miller calls the “circular” temporality of retroaction.113

2.6 G

 ilda, The Killers and the Meaning

of the Letter

This noir fatalism is a recurrent feature of existentialist discourse on the

category, where it contributes to a sense of the meaninglessness of life

as such.114 This threat of nihilism in noir Mark T Conard suggests is

an “American response to the death of God”.115 Gilda, I would argue,

however, appears thoroughly to be concerned with the creation of meaning: its retroactive construction through the effect of one signifier (S2)

on another (S1).116 Of course, any film with an element of mystery presents enigmas, in most cases, later to reveal their meaning, but I would

say that what makes Gilda particularly interesting here is the presence

of questions of meaning at several levels. First, there is the typical noir

intrigue: the enigma of Mundsen’s tungsten monopoly and the fascist

subplot MacGuffin. There is also, I argue, the insistence on enigma

and meaningfulness centred on Gilda: she has to qualify her remarks to

ensure she is understood by her dancing partner, “I am. I mean, I was”,

“I mean New York”; after the dance, Johnny—upset by her flirtations—

warns Gilda, “You can’t talk to men here the way you would at home.

They think you mean it”, to which she replies, “Mean what?”. The theme

continues: after hitting a stranger with her discarded cigarette, Gilda asks

him, “And that means something?”; she even engages in a long discussion

with her maid about the exact meaning of Carnival.117 Moreover, Gilda

delights in the play of meaning and double entendre. Dancing closely

with Johnny, she tells him, “You’re out of practice…dancing I mean. I

could help you get in practice…dancing I mean”. By repeating the phrase


Out of the Past

“dancing I mean” she opens up a potential polysemy, simultaneously suggesting an unspoken meaning of “dancing” while purportedly negating

it.118 Gilda’s double entendre is reduced to single entendre through this

insistence on meaning. Prompted by the repetition, Johnny shows that

he well understands Gilda’s meaning; his angry rejection punctuates her

discourse. It thus functions, I would suggest, as a point de capiton, tying

the meaning of her suggestive signifier to an explicitly sexual signified.

What makes Gilda’s insistence on meaning all the more interesting,

I would say, is her invocation of Freud. After he has described her as

his boss’s dirty laundry, Gilda tells Johnny, “Your thought associations

are very revealing”, insisting, “Any psychiatrist would tell you that means

something”. Deborah Thomas rightly warns against putting too much

emphasis on the overtly psychoanalytic moments in noir because they

can obscure more profound implications.119 However, I would insist that

the accumulation of “meaningful” moments in the film combined with

this reference to the meaningfulness of the symptom necessitates psychoanalytic investigation. Gilda expresses what Frédéric Declerq and Paul

Verhaeghe call “belief ” in the symptom. It is this belief that brings the

analysand to the analyst: the belief that one’s illness has a meaning discoverable through analysis. It is this belief that Raven expresses in This Gun

for Hire when he speaks of “a kind of doctor (…). If you tell your dream,

you don’t have to dream it anymore”. Declerq and Verhaeghe state that

this amounts to belief in “a final signifier, S2, [that will] reveal the ultimate

sense and signification of the S1”.120 This is, I suggest, what Gilda seeks

throughout the film: she insists upon meaning, she believes in meaning.

The final scene—unsatisfactory, especially for a feminist reading such as

Doane’s—surrounds Gilda with meaning; the vanquishing of Mundson

and her reconcilement with Johnny ultimately stabilise her world and

allow the film to end.121 This last scene, I suggest, reveals the meaning

of Gilda’s action—a performance to rouse Johnny—retroactively determining her as a “good girl” after all. Gilda’s performance is what I have

identified as an S1 seeking, waiting for its determination by an S2. This

recalls Lacan’s suggestion that the retroactive production of meaning is

anticipated by the signifier. Gilda’s “misbehaviour” is a signifying chain

ordered in anticipation of signifiers to come; this anticipation expresses

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