Ben Tyler’s Out of the Past: Lacan and Film Noir forms a “Borromean Knot” of Lacanian film theory, Freudian psychoanalysis, and film noir, which makes for an occasionally tangled text. Although Out of the Past is at times obtusely worded and densely theoretical, it boils down to something comprehensible and unpretentious: the retroactive formation of noir film. This is not necessarily a new theory, Ian Brookes, and other critics Tyler introduces, also address this debate about “origins”. In Film Noir: A Critical Introduction, Brookes poses, “Do we study the films called noir as noir? That is, do we study them according to the critical apparatus hoisted onto them retrospectively?”1 Tyler’s centralising question diverges from this after verifying and accepting the retrospective nature of noir; instead, the inquiry becomes, “What contribution can Lacanian psychoanalysis make to the study of the cinematic signifier ‘noir’?” (p. 16) Tyler’s text goes beyond historiography (noir’s often-claimed origins in German expressionism, American hard-boiled crime fiction, or French poetic realism) to engage in a complex and eventually illuminating dialectic with the theories of Jacques Lacan, a variety of film critics, and, at its best, the noir films themselves. The sections of the text are organised around Lacan’s Symbolic (the retroactive quality of noir), the Real (the nonexistence of noir or noir as an open set), and the Imaginary (a masculine, or closed ontology, that attempts to limit which films qualify for the genre’s canon). Finally, the Borromean knot, as opposed to tying up loose ends, examines loose ends in key films such as Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) and The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941).

It is important to remember Tyler’s opening lines: “This project begins as an act of mourning. For a lost cinematic past.” (p. 1) What follows then is not simply analysis and applied theory, but a sort of resurrection that opens the noir genre (debates about noir as a genre put aside) to new possible avenues of engagement via Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. In Chapter One, the rising popularity of psychoanalysis in America during the historical timeframe frequently associated with film noir in the 1940s and 50s, and its application to WWII veterans who form a significant facet of noir film, are mentioned, although not investigated in detail. Tyler is primarily making a case for Lacan’s theories, which he believes have been excluded from contemporary film-philosophy. Utilising Lacan’s Écrits, works by Slavoj Žižek, and Marc Vernet’s “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom”,2 Tyler seeks to re-invigorate noir through Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Lacan and Film Noir

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946)

Chapter two connects “noir” and Lacan’s point de capiton (where the signified and signifier become joined and stable), specifically relating the theory of language and the retroactive function to each other. Tyler delves into the history that many scholars, critics, and professors use as the groundwork for noir studies. He examines the roles of Nino Frank, Raymond Borde, and Etienne Chaumeton in naming and identifying “noir”. Then, in lieu of attempting to redefine the genre of noir, Tyler explores the dynamics of noir criticism that looks back in order to define noir and imbue it with meaning. This retroactivity is where film connects to psychoanalysis. Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit (“afterwardness”) is applied, using the famous case of the Wolf Man, where the patient’s anxiety-dream of white wolves sitting in a tree leads to a “retroactive understanding of the primal scene” (p. 40), which Freud later determines is due to a trauma in the patient’s childhood. Freud’s Nachträglichkeit is then linked to the concept of après-coup (or “after-blow”) where only in retrospect can such dreams be understood. The trauma of the originating primal scene becomes repressed, yet it is still the origin for all symptoms, such as nightmares, i.e. the past in the present and future. This retroactive function is how Hollywood and film critics identified or created the category of noir through the distance of time, providing meaning and boundaries, styles and subjects, that noir did not initially possess. Using James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, along with Lacanian film theory, Tyler demonstrates that “in the context of Lacanian point de capiton […] there is nothing that links them all except the signifier “noir.” (p. 54)3 While this does reveal the term “noir” as the primary signifier of the genre, as opposed to any tangible or consistent similarity to all noir films, it misses an opportunity to examine noir, or attempts at its definition, as also being a primal scene, arising from trauma. Although Tyler’s text is not about history as much as historiography, some discussion of World War II, or national/international attempts to make sense of the trauma in terms of art or critical definition, may have enhanced the analysis of the primal scene and subsequent nightmare.

Lacan and Film Noir

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1946)

However, this retroactivity is addressed in film, particularly the retroactive narrative structure of films such as Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1946), The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946), D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1946), and Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). Despite dubious beliefs in the boundaries of the noir genre, Tyler sticks to the heavy-hitters of film noir in his analysis, though he is limited in that he selects flashback films that start at the end, where the final scene gives meaning to the beginning. He uses Double Indemnity as a prime example. Integrating commentary from Vernet, Tyler examines the “set-up” and “the black hole or enigma” (p.60), where the set-up is the promise of a story while the black hole is a violent interruption of the story’s structure. In this sense, Walter Neff and Joe Gillis are “always-already dead men.” (p. 63) Similarly, Gilda is used to prove the theory of signification: “Hayworth’s appearance on screen is the point de capiton giving meaning to the signifiers in the chain: Johnny and Mundson discussing the canary, the off-screen singing.” (p. 65) In Gilda there is likewise a strong thread of retroactivity since, for Johnny and Gilda, everything in their present and future is based on their shared past.

Tyler’s first “Interlude” in Part II is a noteworthy effort since Lacan’s Real cannot be encountered in print; however, this is precisely what Tyler attempts to do. Using Vernet to enhance, or make possible, an analysis of the Real in film noir, Tyler charts the trauma, or the peace that is suddenly broken, in a cinematic structure. In this case, the strangulation of Mr. Dietrichson in Double Indemnity becomes an instance of tuchè (a fleeting or chance encounter with the Real) that occurs as a trauma on an unprepared psyche. Freud’s Schreck (fright) is then also tied to Vernet’s “black hole”, so that trauma becomes a “question of narration for Freud and Lacan.” (p. 85) The Real, or trauma as sudden violence, destabilises the narrative, but remains an essential aspect, as well as an expectation, for viewers of noir films.

Lacan and Film Noir

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Chapter Four, “Film Noir Doesn’t Exist: Impossibility, Definition and the Point of Failure,” illustrates that the Real, or the traumatic event, is a point if failure for the Symbolic order as it creates a hole in the signifying chain. In one sense this chapter goes for the jugular of mainstream noir analysis, debunking origins in German expressionism and hard-boiled fiction, then demonstrating that the “historiography of noir is permeable – even flawed.” (p. 98) The directors and writers themselves help to prove this point as most, like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, insisted they did not knowingly or consciously work in the noir style, “therefore […] it is only the signifier “film noir” that supports the identity of the object ‘film noir.’” (p. 111) In particular, Tyler takes issue with Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopaedic Reference to the American Style, arguing that encyclopaedic texts (especially ones assuming nationality) on noir should adopt the notion of aussi, or “also,” as a signifier for a lack of structure within a genre that is “open.”4 Utilising Lacan’s theory of feminine structure to further appreciate the nature of noir, Tyler associates noir with “woman” (p. 120) in that woman is an open set in the Symbolic order, while the male is a closed set. Thus film noir doesn’t exist because it is “not all.” That is, the category has penetrable boundaries and, much like “woman”, noir is an open set and continues to grow. For example, arguments can legitimately be made for the inclusion of Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), Shakespeare’s Macbeth or video games like L. A. Noire to continue expanding the genre. Moreover, the films themselves show the openness of noir. Tyler uses the example of Double Indemnity where Neff’s execution in the gas chamber is not shown in the final cut, so that “the signifying chain must always be open to the possibility of the next signifier” (p. 131), or in this case, the next scene.

Chapter Five starts with Naremore’s image of the film noir shelf, or what is included on the shelf, which Tyler shadows with a debate on the boundaries in noir, employing Lacan’s theory of masculine logic. This logic, not based on sexual difference, is applied to Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), which is often omitted from the set of noir, yet still maintains significance within the genre. Here, Tyler claims that the question “What is noir?” constitutes a masculine topology or “masculine logic of exclusion” (p. 159) that determines what films do not belong on the metaphorical shelf. These imaginary boundaries are held up by a number of critics, some of whom express doubt about the boundaries, yet still toe the line. For example, Andrew Dickos in Street with No Name recognises the complications of claiming that the visual style of noir comes solely from German expressionism, yet he maintains the point along with many other noir scholars.5 Since critics establish significance and connection between films, providing “cinematic meaning” (p. 173), this habit of maintaining a masculine logic is troubling. The interpretation of a select few can hold a great deal of weight in the field of film studies, and while Tyler’s text arguably makes him one of these influential critics, his overall contribution to the current dialogue on noir is consistently about openings and questions.

The second interlude works with Lacan’s “Borromean knot,” or “a three-ringed chain onto which he attempted to map his entire meta-psychological project.” (p. 197) Tyler gathers together the strands of his previous analysis and uses them to examine the loose ends of noir films. Once again, instead of closure, or the masculine closed set, Tyler offers an opening, using The Maltese Falcon and Gilda as examples of films where the point de capiton provides an opening, not a closing. Gilda is ultimately determined to be a good woman and, in the end, she gets Johnny. However, Tyler considers this a “sutured narrative” (p. 159) in that it seems closed, but is in fact open or unresolved due to so many unanswered questions. Similarly, in The Maltese Falcon, it seems that Sam Spade brings closure to the story, yet this is not the case since the falcon, which elicits so much desire, is never found.

Lacan and Film Noir

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

Chapter Seven provides further analysis of The Maltese Falcon, using Lacan’s interpretation of the phallus as the “square root of minus one.” (p. 209) Tyler then extends this metaphor to The Maltese Falcon, claiming that the MacGuffin, or statue, is a fake, just as the square root of minus one does not really exist, yet becomes possible in the sense that there would be no film without this meaningless object (comparable to the phallus). As a result, the falcon’s meaninglessness ironically provides meaning for the film “like the Lacanian letter.” (p. 217) Even though Lacan did not necessarily take the algebraic equation seriously, Tyler applies enough mathematical language to make readers want to knock back a few of Spade’s scotches, or maybe even a Mickey Finn delivered by the crafty Gutman. In due course, the falcon becomes the phallus – it becomes nothing, promising meaning and providing none.

In fact, Tyler points out how everyone in The Maltese Falcon, including Spade, lies and deceives, which connects to the notion of fiction. Tyler writes, “The concept of fiction – or the lie treated as if it were true – is crucial to psychoanalysis” (p. 222), which benefits from a narrative. In Tyler’s text, fiction (or a lie) is also an inextricable part of film noir, since film noir does not exist. Indeed, noir is the MacGuffin, an “empty name” (p. 235) made emptier in Tyler’s subsequent discussion of neo-noir. Charting noir’s revival in the 1960s, then highlighting aspects from each ensuing decade (such as “irony” in the 1990s), Tyler argues, “Neo-noir, I propose, is a case of Hollywood turning to its own past in order both to repeat and transform what is found there and carry it forward.” (p. 236) In this way, not only do critical essays and texts establish film noir as a genre from the present to the past, but so does neo-noir. Citing, not without admiration, the critical and creative work of Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese, Tyler establishes how each adds significantly to the discourse on noir while sustaining it as a master signifier.

In the conclusion to Out of the Past, Tyler states that without psychoanalysis we are doomed to repeat the past. This title connects obviously to Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 film, where Jeff Bailey/Markham (Robert Mitchum) cannot escape his past, which catches up to him in the form of Kathie Moffat’s (Jane Greer) bullet. Unfortunately, even though this film possesses a wonderful example of retroactive narrative structure in noir, it is almost completely ignored in Tyler’s text. While this may be disappointing for fans of the film, Tyler’s main point remains constant: Lacanian psychoanalysis will help us “out of the past,” offering new possibilities to the “well-established field” (p. 261) of noir.

Ben Tyrer, Out of the Past: Lacan and Film Noir (The Palgrave Lacan Series) (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Endnotes

  1. Ian Brookes, Film Noir: A Critical Introduction (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 1.
  2. Marc Vernet, “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom”, in Joan Copjec (ed.), Shades of Noir: A Reader (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 1-31.
  3. See James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
  4. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir: An Encyclopaedic Reference to the American Style (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1992).
  5. Andrew Dickos, Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002).