Imagine the painter’s studio: canvas and easel, a settee where a model might pose, windows to let in plenty of light. In all, a placid and genteel scene. What could be further from the back alleys, night clubs and police stations that most often comprise the shadowy world of film noir?
Yet, because art is thought to spring from the recesses of the personality, and therefore carries the suggestion of subconscious desires and repressed longings — the very subject of so much noir — art and artists have often been the focus of such movies. Examples abound across the classic era: music in Deception (1946), ballet in The Red Shoes (1948), playwriting in Sudden Fear (1952). Just as interesting are the sizable number of films that feature scenes and stories built around the idealized portraits of women.
In noir, portraiture can set the mood or represent a character’s mental state in much the same way as do the genre’s innovative visuals of high-contrast black and white lighting, wide shots and arresting camera angles. Consider the scene in The Dark Corner (1946) when wealthy art collector Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) shows off an Italian Renaissance painting he owns. He stores it in a bank-like vault, protectively draped as well, and those who see it remark on how much the figure in the piece resembles his (much younger) wife Mari (Cathy Downs).
“The resemblance isn’t purely accident,” Cathcart says. He admits he wed Mari because she looked like the woman in the painting. “When I met her, it was if I’d always known her. And wanted her.” Cathcart’s psychology is laid bare. Mari is simply another object in his collection, to be guarded with a stultifying possessiveness. It eventually drives him to murder.
The painter in noir often walks hand-in-hand with obsession. James Corbin (Francis Lederer) in The Madonna’s Secret (1946) has made a career painting the same woman over and over. His singular pursuit has left him friendless and isolated. His sole companion is his elderly mother with whom he shares a sprawling Manhattan townhouse.
A newspaper theatre critic John Earl (Edward Ashley), viewing one of Corbin’s works, recognizes the woman but doesn’t recall her name. The question of her identity nags at him, and he decides to find out who she is. Yet, when he finally meets Helen North (Linda Stirling), it’s evident the portrait is of someone else. That woman turns out to be Corbin’s former fiancée, drowned some years ago under mysterious circumstances.
Suspiciously, after romance blooms between Corbin and Helen, and her image replaces that of his fiancée in the latest work, she is soon discovered floating in the river. Only a few weeks later, a second woman Corbin paints (a wealthy heiress played by Gail Patrick) also turns up as a water-logged corpse. Earl is convinced Corbin is a murderer. “He kills for inspiration. His very genius depends on the taking of human life.”
Enough unknowns surround Corbin that the film never definitively settles on his innocence or guilt. But despite a lack of evidence, what really pushes belief in the latter is the fact that he’s a painter, and of women to boot. There’s just something deviant about the whole enterprise. Equating genius and psychopathy — both mysterious states of the brain — seems natural and perfectly logical in noir film.
Fritz Lang directed a pair of movies in which portraits of women provide glimpses into the subconscious fears and desires of men.
Woman in the Window (1944) begins with two friends of Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) chiding him for staring at the portrait of a woman in a shop window next door to their club. “She’s our dream girl,” says one (Edmond Breon), obviously familiar with the painting. “Well, it’s an extraordinary portrait,” Wanley replies. “Extraordinary woman too, I bet,” adds the other friend (Raymond Massey). The obvious question is: How would they know?
Over dinner, the men get to talking about departed youth, being middle-aged and what it might be like to meet that woman in the window. The conversation touches something in Wanley. Fueled by nostalgia and alcohol, he wanders back to the portrait once he’s bid his friends goodnight. As chance would have it, the model happens past at the same time. Alice (Joan Bennett) says she makes it a practice to come around every now and then to watch people’s reactions to the painting.
They quickly establish a friendly rapport and head off for a nightcap. Afterwards, the married Wanley accompanies Alice to her apartment, ostensibly so he can view other paintings of her. Instead of one more dalliance before the final retreat into old age, Wanley soon learns his fantasies have lured him into the male nightmare of the emasculating woman.
Scarlet Street (1945), Lang’s follow-up to Woman in the Window, shimmers like a ghostly half-image of its predecessor.
Robinson plays Christopher Cross, a meek and hen-pecked department store cashier whose only refuge is a painting hobby. Returning home following a dispiriting party held in his honor for 25 years of tireless service, he witnesses Kitty (Joan Bennett) being slapped around by boyfriend/pimp Johnny (Dan Duryea).
The tipsily-brave Cross intervenes and stuns Johnny with a swing from his umbrella. Like Woman in the Window, Cross and Kitty find a nearby bar for a drink, but — in this case — Kitty plays the naif to distract Cross from calling the police. When Cross tells Kitty he’s a painter, she assumes he’s famous, or at least rich. Cross doesn’t correct her. He’d rather see Kitty again than take a chance his real life would put her off.
As their relationship develops — Kitty and Johnny scheme to milk the artist of his supposed fortune — Cross tells Kitty painting for him is like falling in love. “Every painting, if it’s any good, is a love affair.”
Later, after Cross uses embezzled money to install Kitty in an apartment that also doubles as his studio, she sells some of his work under her name. The pieces create a sensation among local collectors and gallery owners. Instead of becoming angry, Cross rejoices in their “shared” success. He then paints Kitty’s “self-portrait” for an upcoming exhibition. It’s his most successful piece; his “love affair.”
It also exposes the depth of Cross’s self-deception. Rather than a hapless city girl, the depicted woman more resembles a deity of fate, night-eyed and beautiful, but gazing out at the viewer with bald indifference. Cross’ subconscious recognizes something he doesn’t.
The moment calls to mind another portrait introduced earlier in Scarlet Street, that of the first husband of Cross’s wife. A drab, photo-like rendering, Cross declares it “mud,” and that it lacks imagination. If he’d only listened to himself. Stepping back from the canvas mid-work while painting Kitty, a more self-intuitive man might’ve fled into the night. Cross’s need for love and intimacy blinds him to her true nature.
Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) is perhaps the most definitive film noir about the way longings and fantasies transferred into a portrait wreak havoc on a viewer. In this case, the picture is of the eponymous character, recently murdered in her own apartment. When the painting first appears in the film’s narrative, dandyish Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) comments that even though the artist was in love with her, “he never captured her vibrancy, her warmth.”
In a lengthy flashback smacking of nostalgia and self-praise, Lydecker then relates how he mentored a strong-willed, inquisitive girl named Laura into the independent and cosmopolitan woman she became; a verbal painting — in short, the idealized beauty of the portrait, and like most art in film noir, reflecting a person’s drives and inventions rather than reality.
Dana Andrews as the detective Mark McPherson also falls under the painting’s spell. Of necessity, he must search Laura’s home for clues, but he returns to the crime scene so often it prompts Lydecker to wonder, “Have you sublet this apartment? You’re here often enough to pay rent.”
McPherson’s investigation does seem spurred by more than the mystery of Laura’s death. There’s the sense his hardboiled exterior shelters a lonely man. Legitimately, he opens Laura’s mail and reads her diary, but he takes other liberties in her flat that seem unprofessional, if not creepily invasive. He fixes himself drinks from the bar. At one point, he fondles what appears to be an undergarment. And in his pacing of the apartment, he always circles back to stare at Laura’s portrait.
That’s not all. It’s revealed McPherson has actually put in a bid to buy the painting!
Lydecker chides him, “You better watch it, McPherson, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”
Halfway through the film, when Laura (Gene Tierney) suddenly appears alive and well — the victim believed to be her was a different woman — the painting suddenly becomes a character in its own right. In fact, it has completely overshadowed the real Laura in the minds of the film’s male characters. This is demonstrated during Laura’s first moments on screen. She is posed beneath the portrait in such a way her own likeness dwarfs her as if it was a carven megalith.
With Laura’s return, the difference between person and portrait conjures all sorts of trouble. It upends the taciturn and normally unflappable McPherson. (One can only guess the reveries he entertained about Laura, so addled by fantasies of her image that he spends an evening drinking himself into a stupor at its feet.) Conceding that Laura might not be the equal of his dream protégé, Lydecker grows ever more manipulative and controlling of her.
The gap between the imagined Laura of the painting and the Laura of the real world also sets in motion the film’s murderous climax.
Watching these movies now, viewers might object to their shades of Bluebeard and Pygmalion, their privilege of the male gaze, which sequesters women into certain and limiting identities as narrow as a framed painting — wife, mother, sexual conquest. Yet, film noir is all about questioning assumptions, and several of such films that feature portraits of women do nothing less. They are strongest when the women refuse to conform to the fantasies of their male beholders.
Events in The Dark Corner spin out of control because Mari Cathcart wants an identity other than as an objet d’art. Laura escapes Lydecker’s thrall; she stares down McPherson during an interrogation. And in the previously unmentioned Vertigo, when dangerously obsessed Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) attempts to remake Judy (Kim Novak) into the double of Madeleine Elster (also Kim Novak), who in turn based her appearance on a woman in a painting, Judy asks him, “Couldn’t you like me, just me, the way I am?” The film’s ultimate tragedy is that Judy’s acquiescence to Scottie breaks her as a person and leads to her death.
Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.