A Note on Sylvia Harvey

Here is a small section I had to cut for length purposes from my D.W. Griffith piece in the March/April 2012 Believer Film Issue:

In her pioneering essay “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir,” Sylvia Harvey suggests that the very absence of traditional family arrangements (husband, wife, kids) from many noirs of the 1940s and 50s offered a radical opening, an absence, that allowed a space for the audience to imagine alternatives to the very idea of the family. Even though, Harvey argues, those on the screen who transgressed dominant familial norms of the time (such as the femme fatale) were in fact punished in the end (usually through death, but sometimes through social alienation), the films could not recuperate the subversive absence of the late-capitalist nuclear family.

Harvey’s 1978 essay—in just over 4,000 words—radically reconfigured our understanding of what it meant for a woman to be “punished” in film noir. The prevailing theory at the time was that these films were ideologically conservative (i.e., women were punished for thinking independently, if criminally, and for generating and leading the narrative action of these films). Harvey’s argument was that by the time the femme fatale—who was usually the most dynamic, glamorous, complex woman in the film—was punished, audiences had identified, even in some small way, with her glamorized rebelliousness. In other words, once the femme fatale was inevitably punished—usually by death—it was too late: these films could not fully restore their conservative message. This crack or gap in the films’ ideology was made possible, paradoxically, by the repressive force of the Motion Picture Production Code which, during the classic film noir era, dictated that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.”

Here it is in action, in the final moments of Gun Crazy (1950), as Laurie “must” be destroyed, at around the 8:00-minute mark:

Harvey’s essay was the inspiration for my Believer piece on Griffith’s 1911 short film His Trust, whose nostalgic, status-quo message (good, loyal blacks in the Civil War South would sacrifice all to serve their white masters) is strangely and subtly undercut by the visual (not narrative) suggestion that when loyalty crosses over into love, the very sorts of racial and class boundaries that the film promotes are obliterated.

About Nicholas

Writer. Professor.
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