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6 Gilda, The Killers and the Meaning of the Letter
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
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,
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
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 : 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-