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Film Noir: Death, Betrayal and Love
Death, Betrayal and Love
Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to watch some amazing film noirs, “The Killers”, “Sudden Fear” and “The Third Man”. What I saw were three very different but very similar movies. All three were black and white and incorporated the very essential themes and lighting that make a film a noir. One of the main elements of a noir that was very evident in all three films was death. Whether it was the death of the character, death of a beloved or impending death, death was right there around every corner. Along with death there were two other prominent elements in the films and they were various types of betrayal and love. Love isn’t an element that one would think would be prevalent in a noir but it seems that love may be the key theme in noirs. What makes these films so unique yet so very similar are the characters’ reactions to death, betrayal and love.
In all three films death is a major theme and affects each character differently. In “The Third Man” death occurs in the very beginning of the film. “The Swede” is expecting and longing for his death. He is the only one of the three characters who wants his own death to occur. For him death is his release and salvation. To him it is the only thing that will bring him peace. In “Sudden Fear” it isn’t until the end of the film that the character Myra is faced with death. Myra takes a much different approach to death than “The Swede”. She actually wants to live and does what she can to survive. Myra’s husband begins to chase her and tries to kill her by running her down with a car. After giving chase she lucks out and narrowly escapes her own demise. To Myra death wasn’t an option and she wasn’t going to give up on her life like “The Swede” did. In “The Third Man” much like in “The Killers” death was prominent from the beginning. Anna was the lover of Harry who had died in the beginning of the film. With Anna it wasn’t her death that was imminent like with the other two characters. So her perception of death was much different. Anna in a way was in denial of her lover’s death. All three characters faced death but all reacted differently to it. “The Swede” welcomed death, Myra escaped and conquered death and Anna denied death.
“The Swede” and Anna have very similar reactions to various types betrayals throughout the films. “The Swede” first feels he has betrayed himself when he is defeated after a fight and he reacts angrily. After he was told his career was over as a fighter because his knuckles were all broken he became upset and angry and then became wrapped up in the criminal world as a result. Then he falls for a beautiful woman named Kitty while he was involved with another woman but completely ignores his betrayal of her and continues to pursue Kitty. Then he becomes so wrapped up in Kitty that he completely gives up his freedom and claims a stolen item was his when it wasn’t and goes to jail because of it. To his surprise Kitty never once visited him and he felt betrayed as a result. Once he was released he ran into her again while getting involved in a robbery plot and only continued on because of her. Then he is told that the other accomplices were going to betray him by Kitty so he turned the tables and betrayed them by stealing all the money. Once he met up with Kitty at a hotel she in turn steals all the money and leaves him high and dry. It is because of the betrayal that he decides to take his own life and fails. Then after trying to leave his former life behind only to be found by one of his robbery buddies he sits and waits to be killed. Due to the betrayal of Kitty he is willing to sacrifice himself because for him that is the only answer. Much like the reaction of “The Swede”, when Anna was betrayed she reacted violently. When Holly was trying to use her to lure Harry, her lover, out of hiding she became enraged. However, where she differs from “The Swede” is when she finds out that Harry had lied to her when she finds that he has been alive the whole time and she completely dismisses the betrayal. Myra, on the other hand, varies greatly from Anna and “The Swede” in her reaction to betrayal. In the beginning of “Sudden Fear” Myra has the lead actor fired because he is not attractive enough for the role in her play and he reacts to this by stating how Casanova was scared and ugly. She feels that she had betrayed him and then pursues him on the train. When “The Swede” betrayed his love interest by pursuing Kitty he had no regrets at all. In “Sudden Fear” the threat of death and betrayal are all rolled into one plot twist when Myra listens to the recorder and hears her husband and Irene plotting out how to kill her and when to kill her. Her reaction to this betrayal is at first sadness and confusion and then that of vengeance. This is where her reaction is similar to that of “The Swede” when he stole the money back from his accomplices. She in turn plots her revenge on her husband and Irene. She differs greatly from Anna in that she does not forgive her husband of his lies and deceit. She also differs from “The Swede” in that she is unwilling to give up her life due to the betrayal. She is also different from “The Swede” in that she is unable to go through with her plot against Lester and Irene.
Love seems to be one of the main driving forces in all of the noirs that I have seen thus far. “The Swede” seems to be particularly perplexed by love out of the three characters. He falls for a woman and is willing to give everything up for her and did. It was because he loved Kitty that he was willing to go to jail for her. It was because of his love for her that he got involved with the criminals who she was involved with. It was she that told him the lies about how his accomplices were plotting against him and which caused him to betray his friends and steal all of the money from them. This event was also one of the turning points in the story that ultimately led to his demise. Once he stole the money and met up with the Kitty at a hotel she in turn stole the money from him and left him. This betrayal was too much for him to handle and his heart was so broken that he tried to kill himself by jumping out the hotel window only to be saved at the last moment by the maid. After that event “The Swede” was never the same. Once he saw one of his old buddies that he had stolen from he knew it was just a matter of time before they would come to kill him for the money. And because of the betrayal and heartache caused by one woman he was willing to just sit and wait for death to come. In his mind it was the only thing that would free him of the pain. He was so blinded by his love for Kitty and it was that love that drove him to do the things he did. However, once that love was betrayed by her it was too late to take out his pain on her because she had disappeared. So he himself disappeared into another life until he was killed. Anna too was blinded by love. Her love for Harry was unquestioned and undying even after his death in the beginning of the movie. As the movie went along and more and more evidence was being laid out against Harry, Anna saw no wrong in anything he had done. Even after she had found out that he was still alive she didn’t see anything wrong with anything he did. Also when Holly told her how Harry was willing to leave her behind to fend for herself she simply brushed it aside and made excuses for him. She was so blinded by her love for Harry that she was willing to let him get away with murder. She was also so blinded by love that she was willing to do anything for Harry even if it meant her being deported. She was willing to give up her life for him even though Harry seemed not to care at all for her. Myra on the other hand was only blinded by love though the beginning of the movie. Her love for Lester grows and grows until she finally marries him. She is willing to take care of him and give him anything he wants. She even changes her will to make sure he is well taken care of in the event of her death. Once she finds out that his love for her is a lie everything in her world changes. Not only was his love for her a lie but he also plotted to kill her for money. For her it was the ultimate betrayal. She feared for her life but she used her acting skill to push her fears aside and turn the tables on her would be murderers. Her love for her husband faded away and her plot for revenge took over. Out of the three characters Myra was the strongest. She was willing to accept the truth once it was made apparent. “The Swede” wasn’t able to accept the truth at first and then was so torn apart by his love that he sacrificed himself to ease his suffering. Anna was the most delusional out of the three. She wasn’t willing to accept the truth under any circumstances even when the truth was right there in front of her. Right to the very end of the film we see how strong she was in her convictions. Throughout the films we see how love is able to manipulate and drive the characters into doing or not doing things.
Death is a prominent thematic element that makes a film a noir. We see how each character deals with death on various levels and in various ways. We see how death can be a welcomed release like it was for “The Swede” or a driving force for survival like it was for Myra. We also see how death can be denied like how Anna refused to let go of Harry’s memory. We also see how betrayals are able to shake the very core of the characters. “The Swede” was unable to deal with the betrayal of Kitty that he allowed himself to be killed. Anna when betrayed by Holly really didn’t do anything and when she was betrayed by Harry she made up any excuse to make it right for her. When Myra was betrayed by Lester and Irene she utilized her acting skills and exacted her revenge even though she didn’t follow through. There is also the element of love which may actually be the driving force of all noirs. Without love there is no betrayal and there wouldn’t be a story to tell. Love it what makes a noir so appealing. It is what allows the characters to go against their very core like Myra did when she went to kill her husband and set up Irene as the killer. Then she looked into the mirror and realized that she couldn’t go through with it because it went against her very nature. We see how love is able to distort the reality of a character like Anna. She is so in love with Harry that anything he does even it is harming her she forgives and makes excuses to make it right in her world. Finally we see how love is able to drive a character to death like “The Swede” when he tried to kill himself and when he didn’t run when guys came to kill him. Over all there are three themes which make a film a memorable noir and those are death, betrayal and love.
Hellinger, M. (Producer), & Siodmak, R. (Director). (1946). The Killers [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.
Kaufmann, J. (Producer), & Miller, D. (Director). (1952). Sudden Fear [Motion picture]. United States: Joseph Kaufmann Productions.
Reed, C. (Producer), & Reed, C. (Director). (1949). The Third Man [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: London Film Productions.