Here’s a free association game: If we say Film Noir, you say–Double Indemnity? Night and the City? Out of the Past? How about Scarlet Street? Kiss of Death? Murder, My Sweet? The Dark Corner? Force of Evil? Or maybe, Black Angel, Dead Reckoning, The Prowler, The Killing, Detour, Caught, Pitfall, Ruthless, Edge of Doom. Pretty grim-sounding titles, aren’t they? Noir titles, which say something. Titles that, all by themselves, give you a certain dark, despairing feeling, a sense, as Foster Hirsch says in The Dark Side of the Screen, that the world is not a safe place.
Now we’ll give you a noir title: The Locket.
Sorta lacks the same punch, doesn’t it?
RKO’s 1946 release The Locket is an unusual film noir in several ways. Athough its title may come out of Harlequin Romance, the film does share with other noirs a number of tropes we’ve come to expect with noir movies: a convoluted plot (including flashbacks) focusing on a past crime whose repercussions bleed into the present; camera work emphasizing the play of light and shadow and dark, ambiguous spaces; and fate-entrapped characters, which include the classic femme fatale who lures the ‘schnook,’ the out-of-his-depth guy ensnared by her wiles. However, The Locket’s use of these tropes, under John Brahms’ assured direction, makes it significantly different from such classic noirs as those named above. This is not to say that noir films should conform to stereotypical standards of plot or mise-en-scène or characterization, but to point out the depth and richness of the genre, and what can be encompassed within the category.
Although that brings us to the issue of what is noir. Most film references agree as to what noir looks like. Mark Conard sums it up as “claustrophobic settings…awash in deep shadows, the streets are rain swept, it always seems to be night, and the atmosphere is charged and angst-ridden.” Often noir takes place in a criminal underworld, with characters involved in desperate crimes; Hirsch describes “a dark urban world of neurotic entrapment” and “neurotic characters lured into a world of crime.” The cinematography reflects such a world, says Conard, being a “constant opposition of light and shadow,…oblique camera angles, and…disruptive compositional balance of frames and scenes.” Such a dark look is consistent with noir’s murky moral terrain: per Conard, noir reflects an “inversion of traditional values and the corresponding moral ambivalence…; the feeling of alienation, paranoia, and cynicism; the presence of crime and violence”; it generates a sense that “the world is senseless and chaotic.” In essence, noir creates, notes Hirsch, “an image of the American Dream gone bad.”
Central to the grim noir universe is the femme fatale. More than any other character type, the fatale represents noir’s moral alienation. Michael Stephens defines her as sexually voracious, murderous, avaricious, and corrupt, leading men to both moral and physical destruction. She’s the Scarlet Woman, the Spider Lady, the Lamia; she’s Delilah, Jezebel, Lady Macbeth. Often the fatale is noir’s narrative motor, whose greed for wealth and luxury drives the plot; she is, if not the actual criminal, the one who caused the crime to happen; she seduces the patsy into violence; she coolly dispatches any and all who get in her way. Cherchez la femme and you’ll find the fatale. Her domain may not be the dark city streets, but it’s within the dark labyrinth of the mind, where repressed desire lurks. She’s a killer, all right; as P.G. Wodehouse might say, “one of these tough modern thugs, all lipstick and cool, hard, sardonic eyes.” That could describe Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, who, in standard noir fashion, lures sucker Fred MacMurray into a nasty scheme to bump off her hubby for the insurance money. Then she tries to bump MacMurray off. Perhaps Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past summed up the fatale best: when another person insists that no one, not even the movie’s fatale character, is all bad, Mitchum laconically replies, “She comes the closest.”
No one would ever call the femme fatale nice.
But that’s just what everyone in The Locket thinks of Nancy (Laraine Day), the film’s anti-heroine. There’s nothing hard or sardonic about Nancy. She has a sweet, winsome smile (with dimples, à la Shirley Temple), lovely manners, and exquisite taste. Geez, but she’s nice. She may not, in Irving Berlin’s lyric, be “as soft and pink as a nursery,” but she’s the kind of girl whom men want to marry. Certainly well-to-to John (Gene Raymond) does: “I think I’ve always wanted to marry you, Nancy,” he sighs during their posh society wedding that begins the picture. John’s mother approves of her–“I’m happy because he’s found a sensible girl, one who really loves him”–but then, Nancy’s just the sort of girl you bring home to mom. Even the wedding guests are overwhelmed. “Isn’t she nice,” gushes a Sentimental Young Thing. “She’s lucky,” replies a Hard-Boiled Number. The SYT is taken aback. “If you’re nice,” she protests, “you have to be lucky”; “If you’re lucky,” smirks the HBN, “you can afford to be nice.”
Yes, Nancy can afford to be nice. But then, she’s more than nice–she’s perfect. So says John, who introduces Nancy to his wedding guests as the perfect woman. And so says Dr. Harry Blair (Brian Aherne), who shows up at the nuptials unannounced. Blair ought to know; he and Nancy were married for five years. Men really do want to marry Nancy. “She seemed so perfect,” remarks the good doctor, “it was alarming.” But then, Nancy, it turns out, is “a hopelessly twisted personality.” Blair confides this startling information as a warning to John, who, understandably, is shocked to discover the existence of a previous spouse; Nancy apparently neglected to tell him (she then charmingly denies to John that she and Blair were ever married). Invited to tell more, Blair begins the first of the three flashbacks-within-flashbacks for which the film is best known. Blair’s complicated narrative of his marriage leads us into the (second) flashback told to him by Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum), an artist once engaged to Nancy, which further takes us into the (third) flashback told by Nancy herself as she recollects to Clyde a childhood trauma. The plot unpeels layers of the past, all the way back to Nancy’s childhood memories, then doubles-back to Clyde’s narrative and then to Blair’s, before returning to the (film’s) present day of Nancy’s (second) wedding. Think of it like a concentric spiral, spinning backwards to the root of Nancy’s psychopathology and then forward again to the present, while we witness through its convolutions the consequences of Nancy’s aberrant behavior.
As we noted in our entry on Deception, the 1940s were the Age of Freud in Hollywood. Films, particularly noir films, began including psychoanalytic elements in their plots to ‘explain’ murderous misbehavior. In his article on The Locket Julian Petley notes how the film “brings into play the notion of trauma in a broadly Freudian sense–that is, as indicating a highly disturbing childhood experience which has been repressed by the adult consciousness but which nonetheless seriously affects the adult’s personality and actions.” Probably golden-age Hollywood’s most famous example of this notion of repressed experience is Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), in which Gregory Peck’s amnesia is linked to a childhood trauma (conveyed through Salvador Dali’s kitschy designs). Another example is Fritz Lang’s enjoyably preposterous Secret Beyond the Door (1948), in which wife Joan Bennett discovers that hubby Michael Redgrave’s desire to knock her off lies in his childhood trauma. Childhood trauma was quite the nifty narrative tool; once discovered (usually at the climax), all problems are cleared up; kept hidden, it festers, causing misery and blight. That Dr. Blair in The Locket is a psychoanalyst makes his narrative all the more compelling; he, presumably, has the expertise to understand what’s going on with Nancy and help her.
However, The Locket’s narrative upends such a comfortable assumption. The details of Nancy’s youthful trauma are brought up a third of the way through the film. As a child she was accused of stealing, and then of lying about stealing, a locket; the locket’s owner, cruel Mrs. Willis (Katherine Emery), forced Nancy to confess to the crime. Although Nancy vividly describes her ordeal to Clyde, its recollection does not ‘free’ her from criminal behavior. Clyde had earlier discovered Nancy’s theft of a bracelet at a party they attended; he then ‘explains’ Nancy’s kleptomania to her as stemming from this earlier accusation of theft. But Nancy doesn’t stop stealing. She later lifts a valuable diamond pendant from her wealthy employer, Andrew Bonner (Ricardo Cortez), and shoots him when he catches her in the act. When an innocent man is executed for the murder, a despairing Clyde, after reporting these incidents to Blair (now married to Nancy), kills himself. However, Nancy blithely denies to Blair any knowledge of stealing bracelets or pendants; she even denies the locket incident. And Blair believes her. But then, as he admits to John, he was blinded by Nancy’s seeming perfection: “Despite my psychiatric training I was unable to detect the slightest flaw in her–which in itself should have given me pause.”
Yet Nancy remains an elusive criminal. Viewers never witness any of the reported thefts; the camera doesn’t show Nancy actually committing any of her misdeeds. Whatever we know is through another person’s eyes. Clyde first finds the stolen bracelet in Nancy’s purse; at a later event he sees Nancy hurriedly exiting Bonner’s bedroom after he hears a gunshot fired. Blair learns that the hostess at the English country house where he and Nancy spend a weekend is missing a necklace; much later, Blair discovers in a hidden cache the hostess’s necklace and the diamond pendant. Nancy’s reaction, as a stunned Blair holds up the jewelry to her, is typically Nancy–“did you just find it?” she exclaims in her best butter-wouldn’t-melt manner. Only at that moment does Blair realize that Clyde had been telling him the truth. Nancy is not only a liar and thief, but a murderess (responsible for the deaths of three men), who has gotten away with her crimes. But who would suspect such a nice person? As Clyde himself notes, with ironic admiration, Nancy is “quite a girl.”
Conard notes how noir films, in their pessimistic outlook, are frequently about the impossibility of knowing objective truth. More conventional film narratives assume objective knowledge; their goal-oriented characters and plots, as well as high-key lighting and well-lit sets, emphasize balance, clear perspective, and closure. Noir’s style, however, presupposes a morally ambivalent world. The films’ shadowy, low-key lighting and expressionistic design convey a sense of dark subjectivity. The world, and, by extension, its inhabitants, cannot be known or understood. The usually fatalistic plots similarly express a feeling that the individual has no way of knowing the world or controlling his own life. This ‘darkness,’ both visually and narratively, write Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, reflects an interior state, a “metaphor for the condition of the protagonist’s mind.” Such “expressive components,” they add, “compel the viewer…to participate actively in [the] character’s distorted point-of-view.”
The Locket’s use of the flashback emphasizes this noirish lack of objectivity. Almost everything we learn about Nancy is filtered through another person’s telling. Even Nancy’s own recollections may be suspect; “Truth is beyond Nancy,” declares Blair. But the men who speak of Nancy may also be incapable of achieving objective knowledge or truth. One character describes Clyde as “paranoiac” (and she’s a friend!); his possessiveness of Nancy may warp his perception of her actions. Blair may also not perceive clearly; he tells John that he was recently hospitalized for a nervous breakdown (brought on in large part by what he discovered about Nancy). Blair and Clyde’s recollections are thus suspect; in literary terms, they would be untrustworthy narrators. The film inscribes the two men’s uncertain grasp on reality in its mise-en-scène, through its moody lighting scheme and distorted set design (see picture at right). Not until the film’s ending, when we finally see Nancy, as it were, for ourselves, unmediated by other points of view, may we understand something of Nancy’s truth.
Nancy’s own lack of truthfulness, as well as her penchant for helping herself to other people’s jewelry, is associated with her loss of the title object. She recollects to Clyde how, as the housekeeper’s small daughter in the wealthy Willis family, she lived as an outsider amongst wealth and luxury. Her friend Karen, Mrs. Willis’ young daughter, gives her the locket; Mrs. Willis, however, demands it back (the trinket is a family heirloom). But when the locket is lost the next day, Mrs. Willis’ suspicions turn on Nancy. Petley writes that Nancy’s trauma connected to the locket is “out of all proportion to the event which supposedly caused it.” His Freudian analysis interprets its loss as working on mechanisms of displacement and transfer, involving the locket’s phallic symbolism (jewels, Petley point out, are a well-known genital symbol). Mrs. Willis’ taking back the locket is a displaced “drama of castration,” a projection of a much deeper, earlier crisis of female Oedipal castration, in which the hostile mother figure symbolically castrates her daughter. Nancy’s compulsive stealing can be seen as a re-enactment of, and an attempt to master, this prior psychological trauma. At film’s end, Nancy’s recovery of the original locket–John’s mother, it turns out, is Mrs. Willis, who gives Nancy the locket to wear for her wedding–brings on her final crisis.
While an interesting interpretation, Petley’s argument may miss the point. Nancy’s trauma is not due to Mrs. Willis taking back the locket. She’s certainly upset by it, but, as we see, her mother and the other household servants comfort her. The real damage comes the next day, when the locket is lost and Mrs. Willis summons Nancy for questioning. Nancy denies stealing; then her mother appears with the locket, having found it in one of Karen’s dresses, which seems to support Nancy’s denial. An infuriated Mrs. Willis now accuses Nancy of lying; in a brutal scene, she shakes the little girl and screams at her to force a confession (“I’ll show you how to get the truth out of a child,” the woman snarls). Are Nancy’s later thefts really about appropriating jewels that substitute for the locket? If it was jewelry that she wanted, she could have gotten it in other ways (such as the time-honored femme fatale method of marrying a rich man and then bumping him off for his dough). It’s the stealing-and-lying pattern that’s important to Nancy. What triggers her final crisis is not Mrs. Willis’ re-bestowal of the locket, but Nancy right afterwards knocking over a music box that plays a mindless little tune; she had knocked over that same box (playing the same tune) many years earlier, right when Mrs. Willis coerced her to admit theft. The re-played tune brings up, via a nightmarish montage, Nancy’s recollections of both the forced confession and other accusations of theft. So was Nancy innocent of stealing the locket? Her final collapse seems to leave the issue in doubt.
The meaning of The Locket’s actual locket expands beyond an Oedipal/phallic symbol interpretation. It’s central to the film’s doubling motif. Brahm stages the scenes with the child Nancy (Sharyn Moffet) and her friend Karen to present them as doubles. Their first scene together intercuts between paired shots of the two girls waving to each other from behind doors. In another scene the two children entwine their arms round their shoulders, their faces turned to the camera, so they look almost like conjoined twins. Later on, Nancy–who describes her life as a servant’s child as “see[ing] the world through half-opened doors”–peeks behind a door to watch Karen’s birthday party with her other, well-to-do friends. Karen obviously lives a life beyond Nancy’s grasp; the locket, representing Karen’s largesse, by extension doubles for Karen herself. Nancy’s desire for the locket (she promises God she’ll “never ask for anything again”) indicates the depth of her wish to ‘be’ Karen–which happens when the adult Nancy once again receives the locket from Mrs. Willis, who tells her that the locket had belonged to her now-dead daughter. Note how in this scene Nancy stands in front of a large mirror, which ‘doubles’ her in the shot. The locket is the realized wish (in comforting young Nancy, her mother tells her that, “If you want things badly enough, someday you’ll have them”); Nancy has finally entered the world previously closed to her. But a bridesmaid then calls out “Nancy!”–not only recalling Nancy’s true identity but startling her, so she (once more) knocks over the music box that triggers the accusatory chain of memories. Nancy has no right to her assumed, much-desired persona; her emotional and physical collapse returns her, mentally, to her childhood ‘pre-locket’ state.
Nancy’s ‘doubling’ is one of the film’s major themes, as seen in another significant double, the “Cassandra” portrait Clyde paints of her. In Greek mythology, Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, or the ability to ‘see’; however, Clyde paints the portrait with blank eyes. Petley notes that blindness is a common castration symbol and applies it to Nancy’s trauma. But the meaning of blindness can, like that of the locket, be expanded, here to represent the blindness not only of Nancy toward her thefts, but of other characters toward her. Clyde, Blair, and John see her as a ‘perfect’ woman; her real nature lurks, unseen, behind this applied mask of perfection. The portrait at one point even turns into a mask. As Blair, holding the stolen jewelry, stares in shock at Nancy, a close-up of her expressionless face dissolves quickly into a close-up of the Cassandra painting; Nancy’s own eyes gleam briefly through the portrait’s white orbs. Not only the portrait but the figure of Cassandra doubles for Nancy. In the original myth, Apollo gives Cassandra her prophetic power; but then, frustrated in his desire for her, ‘takes back’ his gift by nullifying it, so that no one will ever believe her. Nancy’s locket is a gift ‘taken back,’ and her denial of its theft is disbelieved. Disbelief is constant throughout the film: Mrs. Willis doesn’t believe Nancy; Blair doesn’t believe Clyde (at first); John doesn’t believe Blair. Each man tells the other that he will have to find out the truth about Nancy for himself.
More doubling occurs with the film’s three major male characters (Clyde, Blair, John Willis), whose doubling of each other occurs within the film’s text. Blair lights a cigarette for Clyde, and then John does so for Blair; Clyde, Blair, and John are staged in similar positions (e.g., in front of windows). Moreover, the narrative structures their relations to Nancy as a ‘doubling,’ or repetition, of experience. Clyde, warning Blair of Nancy, says, “[You’re] gonna make all the mistakes I did”; Blair, warning John, says the same thing. Each man views Nancy as the ideal woman, only to become disillusioned with, and then lose her. Their fixation on Nancy keys into what Silver and Ward call a major noir element, obsession–particularly the ‘blindness’ of obsessed noir protagonists, unable “to perceive the dishonesty of the woman with whom they involve themselves.” The quality of obsession, note Silver and Ward, is nostalgic; it symbolizes “psychological reunion with a happier, less complicated life.” Indeed, each man speaks of Nancy as the dream girl he’s ‘known’ all his life: John feels he’s living in a “dream world,” one in which he wanted to marry Nancy “even before I knew [her]”; Clyde says it’s “hard to remember not knowing Nancy,” who’s “the perfect girl the way you always imagined her but never expected to meet”; Blair remarks that he and Nancy were “practically inseparable,” and that with her, his life “was complete.” But, as Silver and Ward indicate, the upshot of obsession is destruction. Each man ends up losing Nancy, at a terrible cost to himself.
So who is Nancy? How can disillusionment with her be so crushing? She may be, in the nostalgic, romanticized (and, yes, Freudian) image that the three men have of her, a mother figure, one who is ‘always’ known, always loved; who, like one’s memories of childhood, exists in a ‘dream’ or imagined state. Her ‘loss,’ when her reality does not live up to this idealized image, is inevitable. Nancy can also be read as the eternal feminine, the desired, unattainable woman, wherein lies her fatal quality. Each man, as Clyde puts it, is “determined to have Nancy if it killed [him]” (unfortunately prophetic for Clyde); Nancy even tells John that she wants him to “want” her. Nancy’s own experience of desiring and losing the locket is reinscribed onto the men who want and lose her; as Nancy is a desiring subject (her mother tells her it’s all right to “want” things), so is she a desired object.
Thus Nancy herself can be read as the Locket, the cyclical object of desire and loss. The film’s narrative is patterned on this repetition of wanting and losing; its very first image, of a car making a U-turn, reifies the concept of doubling back to the starting point and beginning once again. Like the possession of the locket, Nancy is deadly to each man who wants her. Their devastating experiences–Clyde dead, Blair ill, John left brideless at the altar–accord with how Conard defines the noirish sensibility: a loss of belief resulting in a sense that there’s “no transcendent meaning or value to human existence.” And in true noir style The Locket ends, with John bereft, Nancy hauled off to the loony bin, and Mrs. Willis closing a final door, on a decidedly gloomy note.
Not very nice.
Conard, Mark T., “Introduction,” The Philosophy of Film Noir, Mark T. Conard, ed., Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006
———-, “Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir,” in The Philosophy of Film Noir, Mark T. Conard, ed., Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006
Hirsch, Foster, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, DaCapo Press, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1981
Petley, Julian, “The Locket Review,” in Focus on Film, December 1979, #34
Silver, Alain and Ward, Elizabeth, eds., Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, 3rd Edition, Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1979, 1992
Stephens, Michael L., Film Noir: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons, Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995