Dangerous Women and the Abject in the Noir Thriller

Emma Whiting, Lancaster University


During the course of the thirties, forties and fifties, the rise in popularity of both the literary and cinematic noir thriller also gave rise to what Lee Horsley refers to as an ‘increased centrality of the female figure.’1 The manifestations of this figure have been condensed into two ‘archetypes’ by Janey Place, ‘[t]he dark lady, the spider woman’ and ‘her sister (or alter ego), the virgin, the mother, the innocent, the redeemer’.2 While, of the two, the figure of the femme fatale is the one most commonly associated with ‘danger’, both archetypes pervade noir as a threat to the stability of male identity and the sense of a unified masculine self. As Horsley posits, in the noir thriller, women are ‘crucial to the hero’s struggles and perhaps his central problem, contributing to his sense of an unstable world and the failure of masculine desire.’3

The specific source of this anxiety is often concluded to be the threat women pose to the phallocentric culture of masculine dominance. However, this does not seem to provide an adequate explanation for the threat posed by submissive, loyal women such as Rose in Brighton Rock or Edna in Blonde on a Street Corner. These women, unlike their ‘sisters’, perpetuate the patriarchal hierarchy, willingly subordinating themselves and yet still their male counterparts feel an imperative need to escape. Noir fiction therefore suggests an innate fear of women that is rooted much deeper in the psyche than social constructs and which is, by implication, particularly open to psychological analysis. Freudian theory was certainly ‘in the air’ during the period of the noir thriller’s predominance and I intend to use a psychoanalytical approach as a route into the causes of noir males’ anxiety concerning women, specifically using Kristevan theories of subjectivity and, in particular, of abjection.

According to Kristeva, prior to gaining subjectivity (or, in Lacanian terms, entering the Symbolic order), the subject exists in a space dominated by drives and energy. Kristeva has given the term chora to denote this space which she defines as a ‘non-expressive totality formed by the drives and their stases in a motality that is as full of movement as it is regulated.’4 This regulation is defined by Kristeva as a mediation of social-symbolic law which is assumed through the mother’s body, ‘the ordering principle of the semiotic chora’.5 The chora constitutes a place of plenitude in which all desires are fulfilled by the mother’s body. Within this symbiotic mother-child dyad (analogous to the Lacanian Imaginary) ‘each strives to fill the impossible lack in/of the other. The I truly is an other.’6 There is no separation between self and mother and thus none between self and other, subject and object. The mother is ‘an object conceived to be located in internal or psychical reality.’7

According to Kristeva, the break from the mother is instigated whilst the subject is still in this symbiosis. Here, Kristeva suggests that the subject begins to ‘jettison’ part of itself in order to constitute a subjectivity autonomous from the other, a process she defines as ‘abjection.’ Occurring during the Imaginary mother-child dyad, this jettisoned other takes the form of the mother so that, as Kristeva asserts, ‘[t]he abject confronts us […] with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her […constituting] a reluctant struggle against what, having been the mother, will turn into an abject. Repelling, rejecting; repelling itself, rejecting itself. Ab-jecting.’8  The maternal body is consequently ‘coded’ abject and the semiotic chora becomes the ‘object of primary repression.

This initial move toward expulsion of the (m)other is consolidated by that which Kristeva terms the ‘thetic break’ which consists first of the Mirror Stage during which the subject perceives and identifies with its spectral image, thus enabling itself to realise an other external to itself. Following this and finalising the separation is ‘castration’, the point at which the subject is completely severed from the maternal body and its perceived wholeness and unity and becomes a differentiated subject constituted by lack. Indeed, according to Lacan (quoted and qualified by Toril Moi) ‘The sentence ‘I am’ could therefore best be translated as ‘I am that which I am not.’[…] The speaking subject only comes into existence because of the repression of the desire for the lost mother.’9

This final ‘coming into existence’ (castration) is facilitated by the intervention of the father and constitutes the Oedipal crisis at which point the incest prohibition is also introduced in order to maintain separation from the mother and re-direct desire from the mother to the Symbolic phallus which has become what Noëlle McAfee refers to as the ‘ultimate signifier’,10 the signifier of wholeness. In the Imaginary, the mother, as the ‘receptacle and guarantor of demands,’ embodies the phallus as it is with her that we are undifferentiated and whole.11  However, in the Symbolic, where subjects are founded in lack, the phallus is desired by all but can be possessed by none. Instead, in this realm where the Law of the Father (internalised by the subject as super-ego) dominates, the phallus becomes ‘fictively’ linked to the penis and, by implication, men in order to imply ‘women’s lack and men’s plenitude’12 and thus create for men an arena in which they can, albeit falsely, assume a masculine wholeness and authority over women. For men, adherence to this regime is maintained through a constant threat of castration which now becomes the destruction of the (fictive) masculine wholeness.

Whilst lack may be denied by men, it nevertheless constitutes all individuals, male and female. It dictates that the subject is in a perpetual state of want which, according to Kristeva, is inherent to abjection, this latter being ‘the recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded.’ Abjection, the desire to fill the lack and retrieve the ‘lost’ archaic mother, is therefore a constant threat to which the subject is always vulnerable. Its latent presence in the consciousness is manifested as an oscillation between a desire to return to the chora and an anxiety concerning the ensuing disintegration of one’s subjectivity; a collapse of the differentiated ‘I’. Consequently, the borders between self and other are, as McAfee posits, ‘paradoxically continuously threatened and maintained.’13 It is necessary to threaten the boundaries in order to reinforce them. However, to transgress utterly would lead to a place where ‘the subject, fluctuating between inside and outside, pleasure and pain, word and deed, would find death, along with nirvana.’14 Abjection is then a repulsive yet desired place where ‘meaning collapses […] Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A ‘something’ that I do not recognise as a thing.’15

In the course of this essay, I intend to look at the three specific examples of the noir thriller, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Out of the Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur, examining them in terms of the way in which the male characters’ anxieties towards women are articulated through their simultaneous fear of and desire for the abject; the return of the archaic phallic mother.

In Brighton Rock, Pinkie’s disgust for women is often specifically linked to their mouths. He cannot bear to kiss Rose as he ‘was afraid of the mouth – thoughts travel too easily from lip to lip.’16 He marries her to ‘close her mouth. He had to have peace.’ (p. 14) He seems constantly afraid of what may issue from her mouth and of being drawn into it and consumed. His disgust is similarly rooted with regards to Ida who is an especially oral person. She lives ‘from hand to mouth’. It is her laugh by which she is identified and with which her increasingly menacing presence is felt. She is also constantly eating and drinking and her consumption of an éclair is described with great relish: ‘the cream spurted between the large front teeth […] She took another bite and a wedge of cream settled on the plump tongue.’ (p. 144) As with Rose, Pinkie desires to close Ida’s mouth, to stop the perpetual flow of matter from and into it, demanding ‘won’t anybody stop that buer’s mouth?’ (p. 8)

According to Kristeva, ‘orality signifies a boundary of the self’s clean and proper body.’ Food is ‘the oral object(theabject) that sets up archaic relationships between the human being and the other, its mother.’17 It signifies a transgression of the boundary (in this case physically manifested as the mouth), travelling between the external (the other) and the internal (the self). Pinkie’s fear of the female mouths can therefore be routed directly to a fear of both being consumed by the abject, and becoming the abject ‘oral object’, devoured by the ‘wet mouth’ of ‘the huge darkness’. (p. 231) His fear of such a consumption becomes, therefore, ‘the subject’s fear of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into the mother.’18

In Ida’s case, it is not just this overt oral imagery, but also her body itself that creates associations with the maternal chora. Her ‘big breasts’ to which the narrative continually alludes are an explicit allusion to her womanhood and potential motherhood, Hale stating that ‘[y]ou thought of sucking babies when you looked at her.’(p. 7) They seem to be the epicentre of her character and her emotions. When looking at her, Cubitt sees her ‘large friendly bosom’ (p. 160), Hale ‘the confidence of her body’ (p. 7) and for Dallow, her breasts are ‘ready for any secrets.’ (p. 233) This maternal power that she holds over these men is reminiscent of the pre-Oedipal maternal authority, of the phallic mother. Indeed, she possesses her own Law which stands in direct opposition to that of patriarchy: ‘I can manage my own way. I don’t need your police’. (p. 80) Her mantra of ‘Life,’ of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ also directly opposes Pinkie’s ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It is this maternal law that poses the strongest threat to Pinkie, not the police. Her big breasts ‘bearing their carnality frankly down the Old Steyne’, (p. 80) signifying, once again, the engulfment of Pinkie as well as the whole male Symbolic order in the darkness of the abject maternal mouth.

Pinkie’s religious zeal is the way in which he defends himself against this drive towards the abject. Religion is, according to Kristeva, a ritual which enables us to manage the abject, ‘setting up ways to cleanse and purify.’19 As Barbara Creed suggests, ritual is ‘a means by which societies both renew their initial contact with the abject element and then exclude that element. Through ritual, the demarcation lines between human and non-human are drawn up anew and presumably made all the stronger for that process.’20 Ritualised contact with the abject thus enables us to know and simultaneously jettison the abject. In the case of religion, where the abject takes the form of sin, the sin of sex, for example, is ritualised through marriage and thus becomes socially acceptable. Pinkie, however, is surrounded by transgressions of this ritual, the most traumatising of which was seeing his parents’ ‘Saturday night exercise’. (p. 141) Sex has become ‘the game’ which all of his contemporaries are playing. As such, the ritual of marriage becomes equally as abject as the sin it was designed to sublimate. For Pinkie it is ‘ordure on the hands’, (p. 101) a particularly significant analogy as Kristeva highlights excrement as having specifically maternal associations as it links us back to one of the first demonstrations of maternal authority: sphinctal training. Marriage then, for Pinkie, signifies a state of absolute abjection.

However, his defence grows ever weaker and Pinkie becomes less able to resist the pull of abjection drawing him away from his Symbolic differentiated subjectivity. This subjectivity has, in fact, never been entirely stable. His youth is emphasised throughout the text and, as Naomi King observes, the absence of a real name seems to suggest the absence of a fully formed identity.21 He has had no father figure whose authority he can assimilate. Kite is dead and, whilst he imitates his appearance, he cannot fully imitate Kite’s command and the rest of the gang ‘didn’t see how a kid could run the show.’ (p. 53) The only figure with whom he can identify is Colleoni, the ubiquitous patriarch who owns ‘the whole visible world […] the cash registers and policemen and prostitutes, Parliament and the laws which say ‘this is Right and this is Wrong.’’ (p. 65) Pinkie has ambitions to reach these heights, longing for ‘the suite at the Cosmopolitan, the gold cigar-lights, chairs stamped with crowns for a foreigner called Eugeen.’ (p. 134)But Colleoni will not allow Pinkie to enter into his world – the patriarchal realm. He instead poses the constant threat of ‘carving’, of castration. For Pinkie true assimilation into the Symbolic and patriarchal authority is always just beyond his reach, making the pull of the abject pre-Oedipal space, represented by his birth-place, Nelson Place, increasingly dominant.

Rose also comes from Nelson Place, thus consolidating her association with the pre-Oedipal already suggested by her devouring maternal mouth. She comes to represent for Pinkie the plenitude of the maternal chora, corresponding exactly to that which he lacks: ‘He was aware that she belonged to his life, like a room or a chair: she was something which completed him […] what was most evil in him needed her: it couldn’t get along without goodness.’ (p. 126) She is the object to his subject, that which will fulfil all his desires and take away the ‘lack’. She offers the possibility of an undifferentiated self and embodies his repressed need for the archaic mother. When they consummate their ‘marriage’ he feels ‘an invincible energy – he hadn’t lost vitality upstairs, he’d gained it. What he had lost was a fear.’ (p. 182) Succumbing to abjection, he now has nothing to fear. His elation corresponds to that which Kristeva terms ‘jouissance’, the point at which ‘revelation bursts forth’,22 and the self returns to undifferentiation.

However, as Kristeva states, in becoming undifferentiated, ‘[t]he border has become an object. How can I be without border?’23 In other words, the abject, originally neither subject or object but the border between the two has now been made tangible in that Pinkie has become the abject and thus possesses no border between self and other. Destruction of his self therefore becomes inevitable and inescapable. He can do nothing but ‘go on going on’ (p. 203) until he reaches the end where he is engulfed entirely by the darkness that had earlier threatened to devour him. ‘It was as if he’d been withdrawn suddenly by a hand out of any existence – past or present, whipped away in zero – nothing.’ (p. 243) He is utterly ejected from the Symbolic – his being turned into ‘meaninglessness’ so that in becoming abject ‘[i]t is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled.’24

Where Pinkie’s attitude towards women and his own subsequent abjection through contact with them can be perceived as stemming from his association of all women with the maternal and, by implication, the abject, Lou Ford’s attitude in The Killer Inside Me would seem to be rooted in a specific maternal figure which he projects onto all women. Whilst we do not learn of this until quite late in the narrative, it becomes clear that Ford’s early traumatising experience is the basis of his behaviour. Having been repressed, it now manifests itself as his psychosis.

In Lou’s early childhood, following the death of Lou’s mother, the housekeeper, Helène, assumes the position of ‘mother’, in terms of both looking after Lou and Mike and her relationship with Lou’s father. Lou’s sexual relations with her can consequently be interpreted as an Oedipal revolt: he breaks what Elizabeth Grosz terms the ‘pact’ in which the son relinquishes his desire for the mother in exchange for ‘deferred satisfaction with a women of his own.’ When Lou’s father discovers this betrayal, it marks the severance of his Symbolic ties between the two. Lou states that ‘I’d been made to feel that I’d done something that couldn’t ever be forgiven – that would always lie between him and me, the only kin I had. And there wasn’t anything I could do or say that would change things. I had a burden of fear and shame put on me that I could never get shed of.’25 He has transgressed the law of the father and acted upon his desire to return to the archaic mother. He himself has become abject and, as such, must be rejected by the one figure who embodies and is able to confer patriarchal authority and acceptance.

Caught between the Imaginary and the Symbolic orders, Lou represses his betrayal stating that ‘there were things that have to be forgotten if you want to go on living’ (p. 201), that is, living in the Symbolic realm, but he can never truly be part of this realm, he can only feign belonging, having become abject. His whole social persona is based on a ‘pretendsy’ ‘character’ peppered with clichés that are merely hollow sentiments. The cigars he smokes are also an attempt to identify with his father and thus internalise his patriarchal authority but this too is an empty gesture as he dislikes smoking them. As Mark Seltzer posits, the social/symbolic order is, for Lou, a ‘dead signifying chain’ with his behaviour consisting merely of ‘mimetic identification without identity.’26 Unable to find any acceptance or meaning in the Symbolic, Lou’s only interaction with it becomes that of derision. Chester Conway who, like Colleoni, stands at the top of and epitomises the patriarchal hierarchy becomes the object of Lou’s aggression:

The Conways were part of the circle, the town, that ringed me in, the smug ones, the hypocrites, the holier-than-thou guys – all the stinkers I had to face day in and day out. I have to grin and smile and be pleasant to them; and maybe there are people like that anywhere, but when you can’t get away from them, when they keep pushing themselves at you and you can’t get away, never, never, get away… (p. 271)

Whilst ostensibly vengeance for Mike’s death, his murder of Elmer is also a punishment for society’s hypocrisy. He may have transgressed its boundaries but it will not let him go, forcing him to maintain his ‘pretendsy’ character on order to ‘go on living’ and yet refusing to alleviate his state of abjection and integrate him into the Symbolic realm.

Seltzer further asserts that, if Lou’s social/symbolic self is only a simulation, a real self must exist elsewhere:

the real subject, the real of the subject, resides somewhere within, anterior to and apart from its representations or identifications, anterior to and apart from his social being-in-context. On this view, the killer ‘inside me’ is the real identity of the subject, hidden and beneath its ‘merely social’ simulations and identifications.27

Unable to fully integrate himself into the Symbolic order, the ‘terrific pressure’ (p. 270) exerted by this real identity to resurface becomes stronger and stronger. However, interpreting this in the context of the arguments set out above, it would seem more appropriate to posit this anterior self as the Real self (in the Lacanian sense) and thus as the pre-Oedipal abject self that Lou has attempted to repress. Consequently the killer inside Lou is instead an attempt to comprehensively repress this Real self, severing ties with his Oedipal revolt and his submission to maternal authority and retrieving his place in the Symbolic order. The killing is therefore directed at that which signifies the original cause of his abjection, Helène. However, without her being present in person, Lou begins to project her and his imperative need to destroy her onto other women. He states that ‘[s]he was the first woman I’d ever known; she was woman to me; and all womankind bore her face. So I could strike back at any of them, any female, the ones it would be safest to strike at, and it would be the same as striking at her’, (269) and later, that ‘anyone who reminded me of the burden I carried, anyone who did what the first her has done would get killed…Anyone. Amy. Joyce. Any woman who, even for a moment, became her.’(270) For Lou, women have become woman, ‘her’. They are all inextricably linked to his own abjection and the killings present his attempt to expel his abject self. They are, as Seltzer posits, a ‘drive to void interiors, to force interiors to the outside’,28 and thereby force out his abjection.

However, Lou sees his abjection reflected back at him in all the women with whom he comes into contact. There will always be another woman who will become ‘her’ implying that Lou can never entirely expel his abjection. The boundaries between his ‘I’ and his ‘other’ are therefore never stable, signifying, as with Pinkie, a gradual disintegration in Lou’s subjectivity which here is established by the shift in focus of the narrative voice towards the end of the text. Self/subject (‘I’) begins to merge with other/object (‘you’). Like Pinkie, he is descending further and further towards the place of ‘meaninglessness’, of darkness and ultimately of death. As he dies, ‘the room exploded with shots and yells, and I seemed to explode with it, yelling and laughing and…and… Because they hadn’t got the point.’ The point is that, in death, he also finds ‘nirvana’. He may be completely abjected through undifferentiation but there is no more fear. With the final refrain of ‘All of is…all of us…’(p. 286) he is united with his victims; his other. His death is thus ‘the evacuation of self-difference as such.’29

Out of thePast presents another Oedipal triangle with Whit, an apparently omnipotent patriarchal figure like Colleoni and Conway, taking the role of the father; Whit’s woman, Kathie, the mother and Jeff as the child. Jeff is initially happy to submit to the patriarchal hierarchy of which Whit is top and willingly accepts Whit’s mission to find Kathie and return order to the Symbolic triad. Once again, however, the child is tempted into an Oedipal revolt when Jeff, like Lou, betrays the father/son pact and, rather than finding his own woman, takes his father’s. In doing so, he submits to his desire to return to the archaic mother and pre-Oedipal maternal law and relinquishes his supposed possession of masculine phallic power. The active subject we see first at Whit’s then becomes the passive object of Kathie’s manipulations, stating variously that ‘I knew I’d go every night until she turned up and I knew that she knew,’ that ‘Baby, I don’t care,’ and that ‘it was the bottom of the barrel and I scraped it. But I didn’t care. I had her.’30

This extreme romantic attachment and over-idealisation equates to an imaginary return to the maternal chora, the place of plenitude. As Krutnik asserts, ‘[t]he woman is constituted as a source of ‘Imaginary plenitude’, and she becomes invested with an authority that can be validated as superior to the divisions of the phallic regime.’ This ‘self-abnegation’, he suggests, ‘may not lead only to the abandonment of the subject’s narcissistic attachment to his own ego, but it will also run counter to his ‘responsibilities as a man’ in the post-Oedipal cultural order.’31 Through his relationship with Kathie, Jeff abandons his own subjective identity and his allegiance to patriarchy, instead endowing the phallic mother with greater primacy. This would seem to equate to what Slavoj Zizek terms ‘sublimation,’ whereby ‘the sublime object is precisely “an object elevated to the dignity of the Thing,” an ordinary, everyday object that undergoes a kind of transubstantiation and starts to function, in the symbolic economy of the subject, as an embodiment of the impossible Thing.’ (The ‘Thing’ being ‘the Freudian das Ding, the impossible-unattainable substance of enjoyment’ – in this case the archaic mother who fulfils all desires).32

In the context of the film, therefore, Jeff’s sublimation of Kathie elevates and transforms her into the archaic mother that will fulfil all his desires. However, inherent in this transformation is also a drawing closer to abjection. Indeed, in Kristevan terms, the sublime points directly to abjection, the former ensuring the abject is kept under control so that ‘[t]he abject is edged with the sublime’.33 Kristeva defines sublimation as ‘something added that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling. A divergence, an impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy – fascination.’34 Through sublimation, the abject ‘impossible, unattainable substance of enjoyment’, that is, undifferentiation; to both ‘here’ and ‘there’, is transferred to an object able to exist in the Symbolic so that it simultaneously encroaches upon and reinforces the boundaries of the abject. Jeff’s over-idealised romantic attachment to Kathie, the phallic mother, sublimates the inherent abjection she presents, enabling his submission to her to exist within the Symbolic whilst, nevertheless, drawing Jeff towards abjection.

However, Zizek suggests further that the sublime object can paradoxically only exist in shadow ‘as something latent, implicit, evoked’, precisely because it is impossible. Certainly, to take this literally, Kathie seems only to operate in darkness. When first on screen, she comes out of the sun, into the darkness of the bar. She only meets Jeff at night and the scenes with Jeff in San Francisco are shot with very low-key lighting as typically dark and shadowy noir scenes. Once again, as in Brighton Rock, a correlation is presented between darkness and feminine/maternal power. However, once the object emerges from the darkness, ‘as soon as we try to cast away the shadow to reveal the substance, the object itself dissolves; all that remains is the dross of the common object.’35 At Lake Tahoe, shot, significantly, with very high-key lighting, Jeff perceives that Kathie, now out of the sublimating darkness, is not the ‘impossible Thing’. She would not return him to a place of plenitude via a symbiotic mother-child relationship for she did not truly desire him and is now back with the ‘father’. Maternal law has abandoned him and he has already cast himself from paternal law. As Jeff so accurately states, like Lou, he ‘wasn’t anything.’36

Jeff’s decision to settle in Bridgeport seems to be his first attempt to regain his position in the patriarchal Symbolic order. Leighton Grist suggests the large sign on the garage is ‘Jeff’s attempt to achieve narrative male control within the patriarchal environment of Bridgeport.’37 It certainly seems to be a place where the control of the Symbolic is much more stable – men dominate and women are submissive. The lighting is high key, as at Lake Tahoe, indicating that there are no dark maternal powers brewing here. Jeff’s acceptance of Whit’s second mission is an attempt to consolidate his re-entry into the Symbolic. At Meena’s he says ‘that’s why I’m here. I do what I’m told,’ that is, he has learnt his lesson by transgressing Whit’s patriarchal authority and now wants to prove he is worthy of being brought ‘back into the fold.’38 But the mission is a set up, an attempt by Whit to carry out the constant, controlling paternal threat of castration.

It becomes clear that the symbolic order will never accept him and that maternal law (embodied by Kathie) is growing, like Ida Arnold, ever more menacing. When Kathie kills Whit, it establishes her complete usurpation of his phallic power. Significantly, she appears at this point in clothes that are markedly less feminine, almost nun-like. She is de-feminised, de-sexed. She no longer needs to use her body because she’s ‘running the show, don’t forget.’39 As Krutnik suggests, she even assimilates Jeff’s fantasy in Acapulco for her own: ‘I want to go back to Mexico. I want to walk out into the sun again and find you waiting. I want to sit in the same moonlight and tell you all the things I never told you. Till you don’t hate me […] You’re no good for anyone but me.’ With this she affirms once and for all his inability to return to the Symbolic. As with both Pinkie and Lou, his death is the inevitable conclusion to this abjection, presenting the return to a state of utter ‘meaninglessness’ and undifferentiation. Significantly, he dies from a shot to the groin from Kathie, thus completing the castration (literally and metaphorically) of his masculine wholeness.

In this instance, the woman is also destroyed. This can be regarded, as is often suggested, as the necessary Hollywood punishment of the transgressive female, not just because her ‘unnatural phallic power’ suggests a transgression of patriarchal dominance,40 but also because it threatens the boundaries between self and other; subject and object. However, as Place suggests, ‘it is not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous and, above all, exciting sexuality.’41 Despite Kathie’s death, we are not left with a memory of the omnipotence of masculinity, but rather, as with Ida Arnold in Brighton Rock, of its struggle against and ultimate submission to the feminine, maternal agency; the power of the abject.

The pull of the abject is unavoidable. Individuals cannot exist without it for it is against this that one defines what ‘I’ is and is not. Subjects therefore exist in a continuous state of flux, exemplified by Kristeva’s term, sujet en procés, variously interpreted as the subject ‘in process’ or ‘on trial’ but both implying the sense that the subject is never fully formed and stable but is always fluctuating between poles of desire, driven towards and repulsed from the abject which is always already present in the subject. In the context of the noir thriller, this would seem to elide with Krutnik’s observation that noir men have to ‘negotiate conflicting and contradictory positioning of male desire, identity and sexuality and to consolidate masculinity as unified.’42 Pinkie, Lou and Jeff are all clearly subject to these fluctuating and contradictory desires but they all fail to successfully negotiate between them. Returning to Lee Horsley’s statement quoted above, this constitutes the ‘failure of masculine desire’, all three are unable to re-direct their desire from the archaic mother to the Symbolic phallus and thus achieve differentiated subjectivity. Instead, the three men desire and enact a return to the maternal chora where subject merges with object and self with (m)other. Furthermore, they perceive the women who facilitate this return as a source of pre-Oedipal plenitude which also negates any sense of a coherent unified masculinity for, as established above, to do so would require the positioning and subjugation of women as lack. Consequently, it becomes clear that the noir sense of destabilisation and uncertainty surrounding the male identity is certainly due to the threat of the female but, more specifically, her inherent link to the pre-Oedipal maternal which, if submitted to, undermines men’s assumed masculine wholeness and draws them towards undifferentiation. All three protagonists discussed above fail to withstand the pull of this maternal force and thus commence their descent into both the ‘worst horror of all’ (BR p. 247) and ‘nirvana’; death, ‘zero-nothing’, ‘meaninglessness’, abjection.

Copyright © 2005 by Emma Whiting



Cowie, Elizabeth, ‘Film Noir and Women,’ in Shades of Noir, edited by Joan Copjec, (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 121 – 165.

Creed, Barbara, The Monstrous Feminine, (London: Routledge, 1993).

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock, (London: Vintage, 2002).

Grist, Leighton, ‘Out of the Past aka Build My Gallows High,’ in The Movie Book of Film Noir, edited by Ian Cameron, (London: Studio Vista, 1994), pp. 203 – 212.

Grosz, Elizabeth, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, (London: Routledge, 1990).

Horsley, Lee, The Noir Thriller, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001).

King, Naomi, ‘Male Identity and the Threat of the Feminine’, (Lancaster University),  http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Naomi%20King.html, (accessed 28 November 2004).

Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1982).

Krutnik, Frank, In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre and Masculinity, (London: Routledge, 1994).

Lecht, John, Julia Kristeva, (London: Routledge, 1990).

McAfee, Noëlle, Julia Kristeva, (London: Routledge, 2004).

Moi, Toril, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, (London, Methuen, 1985).

Moi, Toril (ed), The Kristeva Reader, (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1993).

Place, Janey, ‘Women in Film Noir’, in Women in Film Noir, edited by Ann E. Kaplan, (London: British Film Institute, 2003), pp. 47 – 80.

Seltzer, Mark, Serial Killers, (New York: Routledge, 1998).

Smith, Anne-Marie, Julia Kristeva: Speaking the Unspeakable, (London: Pluto Press, 1998).

Thomas, Deborah, ‘Psychoanalysis and Film Noir,’ in The Movie Book of Film Noir, edited Ian Cameron, (London: Studio Vista, 1994), pp. 71 – 87.

Thompson, Jim, The Killer Inside Me, in Jim Thompson Omnibus, (London: Picador, 1995), pp. 135 – 286.

Tourneur, Jacques (dir), Out of the Past, (1947).

Zizek, Slavoj, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993).


1 Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001), p. 130.

2 Janey Place, ‘Women in Film Noir,’ in Women in Film Noir, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, (London: British Film Institute, 2003), pp.47 – 80, p. 47.

3 Horsley, The Noir Thriller, p. 130.

4 See Deborah Thomas, ‘Psychoanalysis and Film Noir,’ in The Movie Book of Film Noir, edited Ian Cameron, (London: Studio Vista, 1994), pp. 71 – 87, p. 72.

5 Julia Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language,’ in The Kristeva Reader, edited by Toril Moi, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), pp. 89 – 136, p. 93.

6 Ibid., p. 95. (The semiotic being the pre-verbal realm in which the subject exists prior to the Symbolic. See Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language for further elaboration of this).

7 Grosz, Jacques Lacan, p. 47.

8 Noëlle McAfee, Julia Kristeva, (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 33.

9 Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 13.

10 Ibid., p. 12.

11 Toril Moi, Sexual/textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 99.

12 McAfee, Julia Kristeva, p. 32.

13 Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language,’ in The Kristeva Reader, p. 101.

14 Ibid., p. 30.

15 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 5.

16 McAfee, Julia Kristeva, pp. 49 – 50.

17 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, pp. 63 – 64.

18 Ibid., p. 2.

19 Graham Greene, Brighton Rock, (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 241. All other references to this text will be given parenthetically.

20 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, pp. 75 – 76.

21 Ibid., p. 64.

22 McAfee, Julia Kristeva, p. 49.

23 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine, (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 8.

24 Naomi King, ‘The Noir Thriller: Male Identity and the Threat of the Feminine,’ (Lancaster University), http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Naomi%20King.html, (accessed 28 November 2004).

25 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 9.

26 Ibid., pp. 3.

27 Ibid., p. 3 – 4.

28 Grosz, Jacques Lacan, p. 68.

29 Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, in Jim Thompson Omnibus, (London: Picador, 1995), pp. 135 – 286, p. 269. All other references to this text will be made parenthetically.

30 Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers, (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 163.

31 Ibid., p. 161.

32 Ibid., p. 166.

33 Ibid., p. 168.

34 Jacques Tourneur (dir), Out of the Past, (1947).

35 Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre and Masculinity, (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 83 – 84.

36 Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture, (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993), p. 83.

37 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 11.

38 Ibid., p. 12.

39 Zizek, Looking Awry, p. 84.

40 Tourneur, Out of the Past.

41 Leighton Grist, ‘Out of the Past aka Build My Gallows High,’ in The Movie Book of Film Noir, edited by Ian Cameron, (London: Studio Vista, 1994), pp. 203 – 212, p. 209.

42 Tourneur, Out of the Past.

43 Ibid.

44 Place, ‘Women in Film Noir’, in WomenIn Film Noir, p. 54.

45 Ibid., p. 48.

46 Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, p. 113.