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6 Gilda, The Killers and the Meaning of the Letter

6 Gilda, The Killers and the Meaning of the Letter

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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

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


the way in which the future affects the present through the structure of


This orientation towards the future is played out through dialogue,

soundtrack and cinematography in Gilda’s introduction to the film. The

scene, I suggest, provides a number of what Jeffrey Mehlman would

call “floating signifiers”, which is to say signifiers without signifieds.122

Indeed, before the suturing movement of the point de capiton, this is

the condition of all signifiers; they can be arranged in the uncertain signification of a half-finished sentence—the indeterminacy I invoked to

describe Double Indemnity—but they do not signify until they are tied to

a signified through the chain’s punctuation. The floating signifiers in this

scene from Gilda are the “canary” discussed by Johnny and Mundson, the

acousmatic voice singing “Put the Blame on Mame”, and finally the empty

frame before Gilda appears.123 My point, therefore, is that Hayworth’s

appearance on screen is the point de capiton constituting these signifiers as

a meaningful chain. Her movement into the frame visually represents the

movement of metaphor—the moment the signifier crosses the bar and, as

Lacan says, “stuffs the signified”—revealing the signification of the term

“canary” and constituting a de-acousmatisation of the voice.124 I would

suggest that the empty frame anticipates its being filled, the signifier its

retroactive signification, the voice its de-acousmatisation. This is the logical time of the anticipation of future certainty: retroactive determination,

as Lacan notes, is “announced in the future perfect tense”.125 The point

de capiton ensures an articulation in the future anterior; it ensures that,

in the preceding shot, the voice will have been Gilda’s, the canary will

have referred to her, and finally that the empty frame will have been a

close-up of her face. This circular temporality, I should note, is evoked

by Schrader’s description of “the over-riding noir theme: a passion for the

past and present, but also a fear of the future”.126 Schrader thus suggests

what I would characterise as the interdependence of past, present and

future found in noir and the structure of the language; in Gilda, Johnny

remarks ironically, “I’m all future and no past”. I would say that Johnny

and Gilda are, in the present, subject to future determinations of their

past: for them, the future is all past. There is, in this sense, no future in

film noir, because all it entails is a return to (or of ) the past. There is only

a gesture towards it: what Edelman calls futurity.127


Out of the Past

This futurity, I argue, is the raison d’être of Siodmak’s The Killers. With

its flashback narrative, it does in fact present a metaleptic structure similar to Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd. and D.O.A.: it is, I should note, a

common—but not defining—feature of noir. However, what I suggest

is particularly interesting about The Killers is its status as adaptation. It

is well known that the film is based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story

of the same name. In fact, the whole first scene—the hoods in the diner

and the execution of the Swede—is a reasonably faithful rendering of

Hemingway. But, being a short story, that is where it ends: with the

enigma of the Swede’s passivity, with the question of why a man would

wait for his own death. Siodmak’s film constructs a narrative to answer

that question. Therefore, if the short story is Hemingway’s famous “one

eighth of the iceberg”, then I could say that Siodmak’s project constitutes

a full glaciography, determined to map the contours of the other seven

eighths. The entire contribution of the scriptwriters—John Huston,

Richard Brooks and Anthony Veiller—is the retroactive determination of

this single sequence. This sequence—the Hemingway story—seems then

to anticipate its future signification. To explore this condition, it will be

necessary for me to introduce Lacan’s notion of the letter, or at least one

version of it.

Concomitant with Lacan’s three interdependent orders Real, Symbolic

and Imaginary are the three dimensions of language: letter, signifier and

signified. Signifiers, we should remember, are the differential elements

of Symbolic structure and signifieds their Imaginary products. The letter then is a Real of language.128 Lacan states that “[b]y letter I designate

the material [support] that concrete discourse borrows from language”.129

With recourse to the “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”, I could say

that it is this materiality of the letter that distinguishes it; as a crumpled

and discarded epistle, it suggests a signifier that has no signification. It is

in this sense a letter in purely formal terms. In Edgar Allan Poe’s story,

neither the details of the contents nor the sender of the letter are given:

it is its form as a letter that is important. As material substratum, the

letter remains the same throughout the story; it persists as an unchanging dimension of the Real in language. Furthermore, Lacan states that

the materiality of the letter is “singular”, that it will not allow partition,

and so—I suggest—it becomes clear that the letter takes on a dimension

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


comparable to the smallest unit of language: the phoneme.130 The letter

is materialised by, but not equated with, printed characters as the written

equivalent of the phoneme. It is therefore a formal unit; it is the signifier

considered in isolation, before it enters into the combinatorial system

and structures signification.

Already present in the scene from Gilda that I mentioned above, the

letter is the free-floating, “pure signifier” before it joins the signifying

chain.131 It is the signifier before it has acquired a linguistic value, in the

sense of being inscribed in the differential system of the Symbolic. The

indeterminate support of language, it cannot signify but it anticipates

its future signification. To formalise this notion in Lacanian algebra, the

letter is S1 disconnected from S2. Following Declerq and Verhaeghe, I

suggest that it should be written as “S1…” to signal its incompleteness.132

The letter becomes a signifier only when connected to S2: without S2, S1

has no status. This structure grants the letter a meaning it did not have

at the outset.133 Signifiers do not signify anything considered separately

from the signification they generate; the letter, I could say, thus constitutes a dimension of meaninglessness inherent to the process of meaning-­

making. Freud identified this signifier without signification in his case

studies. For instance, with the Rat Man, Freud tracked the fragment

rat as it circulated in the unconscious to form “verbal bridges” between

the signifiers Ratten, Raten, Spielratte, heiraten.134 Identifying with rats

(Ratten) as a child, his “rat complex” incorporated the idea of instalments

or repayments (Raten), which was associated with his father, a gambler

(Spielratte), and the idea of getting married (heiraten) to his fiancée. The

meaningless fragment connects the signifiers through a metonymic/metaphoric process, joining together what Fink calls these “purloined letters”

to form a signifying chain in which meaning insists not at any given

point but along its entire length.135

In relation to Siodmak’s film, I suggest that the Hemingway short story

is just such a letter: a floating signifier—S1…—that anticipates its determination by a future signifier—S2—which will engage it in the differential

Symbolic system (the film’s story) and begin the process of signification.

Siodmak’s endeavour, the quest to give meaning to Swede’s enigma, is this

very S2. It is the same future-oriented aspect of the S1 which produces

the insistence on meaning I identified in Gilda. The letter—S1…—is the


Out of the Past

element responsible for the dimension of futurity in language: Edelman

insists, “this ellipsis itself should be understood as the defining mark of

futurism”.136 In Siodmak’s The Killers, this ellipsis—the defining mark of

futurism—is the Swede, his enigmatic stare as he waits passively to meet

death. Moreover, I would note that this ellipsis is in fact repeated at the

level of dialogue: the Swede confesses, “I did something wrong…once”;

the emphatic silence breaks up his sentence between words. The signifying chain here yearns for its completion; the signifier “once”, however,

is no point de capiton. It brings no meaning to his statement; the chain

remains palpably incomplete. The meaning of this scene remains entirely

unclear. It is this mystery that drives the plot: it demands an explanation.

Swede’s confession, his death, and his silk handkerchief constitute the S1

in need of explanation: they impel Reardon to reconstruct Swede’s history, to produce the S2 constituted by the revelations of the rest of the

film. As I suggested before, meaning thus comes to the scene retroactively

through the structure of its relation to the rest of the film.

The letter is thus the anticipatory element of language, and the structure of the signifying chain its retroactive determinant. The relationship between the two allows meaning to be produced in both linguistic

constructions and the narrative constructions of film noir. The relation

between past, present and future in noir is, I suggest, therefore comparable to the structures of Nachträglichkeit and the point de capiton in psychoanalysis. Furthermore, the interdependence of what I have identified

as the vectors of diachrony and synchrony constitutes both the temporality of Lacan’s Symbolic order and the noir narratives of Double Indemnity

and The Killers. Having introduced the concept of the letter—the Real of

language—it will now be necessary for me to explore the function of the

Real more generally in relation to Symbolic structure. While my project

does not aim for a theory of subjectivity per se, Lacanian formulations of

the Subject in relation to structure will be instructive in further understanding the constitution of film noir. In the next chapter, I will make the

transition from the structure of s(A)—the signification of the Other—to

S(A)—the signifier of the lack in the Other—or the point at which the

Symbolic order is found to be lacking, in order to investigate the numerous contradictions encompassed in the formation of noir. Further to this,

I will use Miller’s suggestion that the Subject is “the possibility of one

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


signifier more” to interrogate the apparent lack of boundaries to this critical category and the enduring possibility of adding “one film more”.137


1. The material qualities of noir films are clearly important: the image and

soundtracks have, of course, been analysed in detail to present defining

features of a noir “style” (cf. Place and Peterson below). This is, however,

but one way to “define” noir among a number of logics I will investigate in

this project. My main focus in terms of film analysis will be on narrative,

but again this should not be taken as implying a particular and overall definition of noir (except perhaps as far as a specific narrative technique I

might call “retroactive noir”, although it is not limited strictly to noir

films). My aim is not, as I have made clear, to return to a psychoanalytic

semiology of the image but to identify certain narrative structures that can

be understood in such terms.

2. See Raymond Durgnat, “Paint It Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir

(1970)”, in FNR, 37, and Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir (1972)”, in FNR,


3.Naremore suggests further expanding the initial group to include The

Woman in the Window (1944), described at the time by Jacques Bourgeois

in his article, “La Tragédie policier”, Révue du Cinéma 2 (1946): 70–72, as

a “bourgeois tragedy”. The film was, however, subsequently re-inscribed as

noir: itself an instance of retroactive transformation (Naremore, MTN,


4. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to

the American Style, 3rd ed. (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1992), 1n1.

The Série Noire, of course, published translations of many of the literary

sources of the classic American film noir.

5.Nino Frank, “A New Kind of Police Drama: The Criminal Adventure

(1946)”, trans. Silver, in FNR2, 15, 18.

6.Jean-Pierre Chartier, “Americans Are Also Making Noir Films (1946)”,

trans. Silver, in FNR2, 21, 23.

7. Retrospectively, of course, I could say that this intervention can be seen as

more in medias res, arriving before classic film noir’s “demise” in 1958.

8. Borde and Chaumeton, Panorama, 1, 2.


Out of the Past

9. Borde and Chaumeton themselves retroactively modify their Panorama in

the 1979 edition, adding Kiss Me Deadly (1955) as the terminal point of

their series and introducing a new group of “noir” films that had emerged

in the 1960s and 1970s.

10. Ginette Vincendeau, “Noir Is Also a French Word: The French Antecedents

of Film Noir”, in MBFN, 49.

11.Charles O’Brien, “Film Noir in France: Before the Liberation”, Iris 21

(1996): 7–20.

12.Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, Hollywood in the Forties (London:

A. Zwemmer Ltd., 1968), 19–35.

13.James Damico, “Film Noir: A Modest Proposal (1978)”, in FNR, 101;

Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir (New York: Da Capo Press,

1983), 72.

14. Durgnat, “Paint”, 38, 37.

15. Robert Porfirio, “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir (1974)”,

in FNR, 80.

16.Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir

(1974)”, in FNR, 65–75.

17. See Chap. 7 for an examination of the interdependence of film criticism

and production in (neo-)noir exemplified by Schrader.

18.David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger, The Classical

Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York:

Columbia UP, 1985), 75; Telotte, Voices, 3.

19.Naremore, MTN, 11.

20.Elsaesser, WCA, 420–444.

21. Vernet, “FNED”, 26.

22.Gilbert Cohen-Séat, Essai sur les principes d’une philosophie du cinéma

(Paris: PUF, 1946), 57.

23. In light of the Lacanian structural linguistic theory below, in which I will

discuss both “filmic” and “cinematic” signifiers—in Cohen-­Séat’s sense of

these terms—the relationship between the two could perhaps be understood by analogy with the structure ­denotation/connotation. The connotative units of one system form the denotative elements of a second system,

and thus filmic signifiers such as the sound, image, performance, etc. of a

film provide the basis for a critical analysis whose discourse produces a

cinematic signifier such as “noir”.

24. This is in contrast to Krutnik’s In a Lonely Street or Kaplan’s Women in Film

Noir. My aim here is not to diminish or reject the wealth of gender-related

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


work on noir; indeed, considerations of structure and gender are as inseparable in film noir as they are in Lacanian theory. Rather, my aim is to take

psychoanalytic enquiry in a new direction, carrying forth with it some of

the valuable insights such work has granted. See, for example, Doane’s

discussion of Gilda below.

25.See Jean Laplanche, “Notes on Afterwardsness”, trans. John Fletcher, in

Essays on Otherness, ed. Fletcher (London: Routledge, 1999), 263.

26. Sigmund Freud, “Project for a Scientific Psychology”, SE I, 356, original


27. Laplanche compares this model to a time bomb (“Notes”, 261).

28. Freud, “The Aetiology of Hysteria”, SE III, 212.

29. Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria, SE II, 7.

30. Freud, “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis”, SE XVII, 45n, 109.

31. Ibid., 54, 103n.

32. Lee Edelman, “Seeing Things: Representations, the Scene of Surveillance,

and the Spectacle of Gay Male Sex”, in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay

Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (London: Routledge, 1991), 100.

33. Freud, SE XVII, 54, 60.

34. Indeed, Lacan himself claims the honour in “Position of the Unconscious”,

reminding us that he was “the first to extract [Nachträglichkeit] from

Freud’s texts” (“Position of the Unconscious”, in Écrits, 711).

35.Lacan, S1, 13.

36. Ibid., 190, 191.

37. From a meta-psychological perspective, we should not overlook the role of

the drive in the structure of deferred action; however, what I will be theorising is the historical process rather than the biographical one. I nonetheless base my Lacanian account of the former on the latter and so must

acknowledge those things perhaps obscured by my shift in register.

38. Laplanche, “Notes”, 260.

39.Lacan, S1, 12.

40. Malcolm Bowie, Lacan (London: Fontana Press, 1991), 189.

41.Lacan, S3, 262–263.

42. Ibid., 267.

43. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and

Albert Sechehaye, trans. Roy Harris (London: Duckworth, 1983), 110.

44. Ibid., 88.

45. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans.

Felicity Baker (London: Routledge, 1987), 37.


Out of the Past

46.Lacan, S3, 119.

47. Lacan, “Instance”, 417.

48.Lacan, S3, 261, 119.

49. Lacan, “Instance”, 419.

50.Lacan, S3, 262. This is not an “anchoring” but a “knotting” of signifiers:

see Chap. 7.

51. “The signifier doesn’t just provide an envelope, a receptacle for meaning. It

polarises it, structures it, brings it into existence” (Lacan, S3, 260). This is

the synchronic structure of the point de capiton, which Lacan states is the

structure of metaphor. See below.

52.Žižek, SOI, 56.

53. Lacan, “Subversion”, 681.

54. Ibid., 682.

55. Ibid., 682. The signifying chain is therefore inscribed in the possibility of


56. Lacan, “Instance”, 419.

57.Lacan, “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty”, in

Écrits, 171.

58. See Roman Jakobson, “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles”, in Modern

Criticism and Theory: A Reader, 2nd ed., ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood

(Harlow: Longman, 2000), 56–60. In this light, I can note an interesting

etymological subtlety to Strachey’s “deferred action”; it also contains a

sense of the Latin ferre, “to carry”, and by extension the Greek pherein from

whence comes “metaphor” and so “to carry meaning across”. I suggest that

where Lacan finds the structure of metaphor in Freud’s Nachträglichkeit, it

does therefore echo in Strachey’s formulation, which otherwise would

stand in opposition to it.

59. Lacan, “Instance”, 429.

60.Lacan, S5, 33 (all translations my own unless otherwise stated).

61. Lacan, “Subversion”, 682.

62.Lacan, S3, 267.

63. Jacques-Alain Miller suggests that the production of meaning is “constituted … as a repression” (“Suture [Elements of the Logic of the Signifier]”,

trans. Jacqueline Rose, Screen 18, no. 4 [1977]: 25).

64. Lacan, “Instance”, 429.

65. Ibid., 419.

66. Vernet, “FNED”, 1.

67. For example, in the documentary The RKO Story (1987), Edward Dmytryk

professes to having been unaware of the term “film noir”; furthermore, my

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


perusal of the archives of The New  York Times, The LA Times and The

Washington Post show that “film noir” was not employed until the 1970s

(see the next chapter as well as my comments on Robert Aldrich and Borde

and Chaumeton’s Panorama).

68. Borde and Chaumeton, Panorama, 40.

69.Naremore, MTN, 15.

70.Vernet, “FNED”, 2; Richard Maltby, “The Politics of the Maladjusted

Text”, in MBFN, 39.

71. Mark Jancovich, “‘Thrills and Chills’: Horror, the Woman’s Film, and the

Origins of Film Noir”, New Review of Film and Television Studies 7, no. 2

(2009): 164; “Shadows and Bogeymen: Horror, Stylization and the

Critical Reception of Orson Welles during the 1940s”, Participations:

Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 6, no. 1 (2009): 40, 43.

72.Lloyd Shearer, “Crime Certainly Pays on the Screen (1945)”, in FNR2,


73.Naremore, MTN, 17.

74. Durgnat, “Paint”, 37.

75.Siegfried Kracauer, “Hollywood’s Terror Films: Do They Reflect an

American State of Mind?”, Commentary 2, no. 2 (1945): 132.

76.Lacan, S3, 267, 268.

77.Naremore, MTN, 17.

78. Borde and Chaumeton, Panorama, 161–163.

79.Naremore, MTN, 5, 11.

80. William Park, What is Film Noir? (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2011), 4, 5.

81.Žižek, SOI, 124–126. See the next chapter.

82. Borde and Chaumeton, Panorama, 45, 56.

83.Naremore, MTN, 6, 10.

84. Borde and Chaumeton, Panorama, 3.

85. See Žižek, SOI, 87.

86. Borde and Chaumeton, Panorama, 116.

87. Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood (London: Routledge, 2000), 154.

88. Fink, “The Real Cause of Repetition”, in Reading Seminar XI: Lacan’s Four

Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Richard Feldstein et  al.

(Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), 223.

89.It is, moreover, this repetition/substitution that—apropos of my discussion of the point de capiton in this chapter—allowed films as diverse as

Laura and The Maltese Falcon to be called “noir” in the first place.

90. Fink, “Real Cause”, 224.

91.Naremore, MTN, 13.


Out of the Past

92. Borde and Chaumeton, Panorama, 34.

93. Vernet, “FNED”, 6.

94.Lacan, S3, 268.

95. Considering a film in this way, I am tempted to designate this juxtaposition the “death drive version” of the narrative (i.e., the shortest distance

between two points).

96. Indeed, Richard Dyer suggests noir is characterised by an “endemic epistemological uncertainty” (The Culture of Queers [London: Routledge, 2002],


97. See Lacan, “Subversion”, 681, 684.

98. Designating the S and S` of the Elementary Cell as S1 and S2 follows the

post-Lacanian practice of translating these signifiers into the Lacanian

algebra (cf. Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely [Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press, 2004], 114).

99. Lacan, “Instance”, 423.

100. It is interesting to note, however, that this is not, in fact, the final scene of

the film: see the next chapter.

101. That a comparable narrative structure could be found in, say, Citizen Kane

requires consideration: given that the film also shares significant formal

properties with noir (particularly Toland’s cinematography), could we say

then that Welles’s film is also a “film noir”? The answer, of course, is no and

it is indeed not commonly considered as such. Instead, I suggest, this

points to the wider applicability of my narratological analysis here: the

Lacanian structure I have identified is not limited to noir alone. As I will

explain below, to an extent all narratives depend upon retroactivity.

102. Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality

(London: Verso, 2005), 32.

103. I could say that this is suggested by the difference between “effect” as a

noun and a verb: the latter—as in, “to effect a change”—situates “effect”

on the side of the cause.

104. See Edelman, “Seeing Things”, 95.

105. The topology of the Möbius strip is instructive: the paradox here is that it

is difficult to render the relation of cause and effect involved in the production of meaning in language through the linear restrictions of the written word. A certain Möbius “twist” is effected by the intervention of the

point de capiton that transforms signifier into signified. In the sentence, the

cause (punctuation) is situated at this twist; it produces an effect (meaning) at a point logically anterior but chronologically posterior to itself.

106. This metalepsis might seem confusing: if we begin at the end, does that

not take retroactivity out of play? If we have Neff’s confession, for exam-

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