In her article “Women in Film Noir” Janey Place states that women characters in noir films are divided into two archetypes: “the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction” and “the virgin, the mother, the innocent, the redeemer.” This essay will examine and interpret the construction of three female characters in three noir films in terms of the visual motifs used in the presentation of the characters' actions and dialogue. The characters examined will be Laura (Gene Tierney) in the film Laura (1944), Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in the film Double Indemnity (1944), and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in the film Out of the Past (1947). Does Place's judgment hold true for these three characters? Can these characters be divided into two archetypes? This essay will show that Laura, Phyllis, and Kathie embody at times both of Place's archetypes—each character changes from innocent virgin to spider woman. And it will be shown how these characterizations are achieved using cinematic techniques. Laura, however, is the only character of the three films to change back to innocent virgin by the end of the narrative.
[...] The two stand side by side as Shelby jokes about his unemployment, and then the camera shifts to focus on Laura—with Shelby in the left foreground out of focus, looking straight ahead off camera. Laura is smoking a cigarette again and eyeing Shelby over and her tone of voice becomes serious and strong as she says, really want a The aggressiveness in her voice and command on the camera's focus suggests that she has ulterior motives for wanting Shelby to work for her; she seems almost wicked and the insinuation is made that she desires Shelby for the reasons that Lydecker later speaks of. [...]
[...] The young male employee's surprised expression suggests he is thinking of a question along the lines of, are you to approach Laura in such a manner?” In this scene and compared to her peers, Laura is presented in a highly dignified manner. Following Lydecker's apology, a montage shows that Laura's relationship with Lydecker flourishes, as does her career—we are shown brief scenes of Laura succeeding at work and socializing at parties. The montage is the point in the film at which Laura first exhibits the “spider woman” traits Place describes: a voiceover by Lydecker states, read my articles to her; the way she listened was more elegant than speech,” while we are shown Lydecker and Laura sitting together. [...]
[...] Phyllis's captivity is again hinted at with the metal anklet, a gift from her wealthy husband and a reminder of her betrothal, which can be viewed as a shackle or collar. We later learn that Phyllis's name is engraved on the anklet—like a dog collar—as she lavishly displays her legs to Neff. These effects portray Phyllis as sexy, magnificent, and mischievous, and yet also somewhat innocent. Ultimately, though, she is shown to be imprisoned in her husband's lavish mansion. All these details are not lost on Neff; he is immediately attracted to her. [...]
[...] In the scene Neff is almost totally visually blocked, and thus symbolically blocked out of the scene, and this camera work establishes Phyllis as the dominant and more calculating character. After this scene Neff is easily persuaded to kill Phyllis's husband in a plot to collect insurance money. A close-up of the solitary Lola—Phyllis's stepdaughter—places us in the Dietrichson house, as Mr. Dietrichson is about to sign the accident insurance policy. The camera pans out to include Phyllis in the shot; she is seated to Lola's left and dressed completely in black. [...]
[...] Rather, the three characters examined here show traits of both the virgin and the spider, and these traits are hinted at with various cinematic techniques and dialogue. Often the woman is first merely portrayed to the male protagonist and the audience as an innocent virgin, and then her spider qualities begin to emerge. While it is true that these initial virgin qualities are merely smokescreen for character Phyllis in Double Indemnity and Kathie in Out of the Past and that these women are ultimately “spiders” and therefore do not actually change, it is also true that [...]
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