The femme fatale of film noir has come to be regarded as an expression or symptom of male paranoia about the shifting dynamics of gendered power relations in patriarchal Western culture. This theoretical perspective is influenced by Freudian psychoanalytic theory, which, according to philosopher Paul Ricoeur, is grounded in the “School of Suspicion” because it sees consciousness as false, an illusion shrouding darker, disturbing truths (Ricoeur 33). However, while the femme fatale has become firmly established as a subject of suspicion, her male incarnation, the homme fatal, has generally been overlooked and any research that has been done on the figure to date has attempted to align him with the same latent anxieties as those underpinning the femme fatale. I will explore the validity of this assumption by examining the neo-noir films Mr Brooks (Bruce A. Evans, 2007) and The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2010).
Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner), the eponymous character in Mr Brooks, is a husband, father, extremely wealthy and successful businessman, philanthropist, and Portland Chamber of Commerce man of the year. But this homme fatal character is also a “deadly man” who has a powerful addiction to serial murder. On the one hand Earl enjoys killing immensely, but the rational, logical part of his mind tells him that he should stop before he gets caught. This creates an internal battle which is played out on screen, with these two sides of Earl’s psyche portrayed by two different people: realistic Earl and reckless, indulgent Marshall (William Hurt). In The Killer Inside Me, Deputy Sheriff and homme fatal Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) narrates the tale of how he came to be a brutal and sadistic serial killer, offering a variety of psychoanalytically grounded reasons and excuses for his despicable behaviour that ultimately leave the audience no more enlightened about his state of mind at the end of the film than at the beginning.
I will argue that these figures are problematic within the context of Ricoeur’s theory of suspicion and that the self-reflexive insight and knowledge of Freudian theory depicted by these hommes fatals suggests that the construct cannot be read merely as a male incarnation of the femme fatale. Rather than being a subject or object of paranoid expression, I contend that the homme fatal is instead a catalyst for it.
Psychoanalysis and the School of Suspicion
The premise of Freudian theory is that our consciousness is just the surface of our mental apparatus, and that hidden underneath in the unconscious part of our mind is a vast body of other material such as fears and desires that we have repressed because they are too disturbing for the conscious mind to contend with. Although we are unaware of these buried emotions they still impact upon our lives, surfacing in the form of neurotic symptoms (Freud 357–58). For Freud, the latent content of the psyche can be brought to the fore through psychoanalysis and by accessing and understanding unpalatable truths, the manifest symptoms they create can be alleviated (358). Thus, for Ricoeur psychoanalysis functions as a “demystification of meaning” (32) because it seeks to explain irrational symptoms.
Ricoeur argues that Freud and fellow theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche are “masters of suspicion” (35) because of their common view of consciousness as false, opening the path for critical interpretation as an “exercise of suspicion” (33). However, suspicious interpretation is not just a practice for mental health practitioners and philosophers. It also has an established history as a method for exploring the relationship between socio-cultural anxieties and their expression in film and popular culture. According to literary theorist Rita Felski, the popularity of the use of psychoanalysis to study culture is partly inspired by the deeply ingrained and taken-for-granted nature of Freudian schemata (5), but a suspicious analysis also brings with it a form of substantive pleasure: “a sense of prowess in the exercise of ingenious interpretation, the satisfying economy and elegance of explanatory patterns; the gratifying charge of inciting surprise or admiration in fellow readers” (Felski 18). In film theory psychoanalysis is a well-recognised way of exploring underlying socio-cultural fears and anxieties that manifest on screen through visual and narrative depictions.
The Femme Fatale and Suspicion
The femme fatale of film noir is a popular subject for suspicious interpretation by feminist film scholars including Mary Ann Doane, Elisabeth Bronfen, Pam Cook, and Kate Stables. Her beautiful, powerfully seductive exterior juxtaposed with a cold, cunning, and ruthless interior has earned the femme fatale a reputation as a manifestation of male fears about female sexuality and feminism (Doane 3). As Bronfen asserts: “One could speak of her as a male fantasy, articulating both fascination for the sexually aggressive woman, as well as anxieties about female domination” (106). In classic film noir of the 1940s and 1950s the femme fatale is generally considered to represent a projection of paranoid male fears over increased economic and sexual independence of women generated by World War II (Cook 70). Similarly, in neo-noir productions such as Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) and The Last Seduction (John Dahl, 1994), the femme fatale is seen to function as an expression of anxiety over the postmodern collapse of traditional roles governing sexual difference occasioned by second-wave feminist movements, along with an increased presence of women in the public sphere (Stables 167). For example, in both Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction the femmes fatales are successful businesswomen who are also ruthless killers with an insatiable appetite for sex, wealth, and power.
The Homme Fatal
While the femme fatale has been prowling around the dark alleys of noir, another deadly creature, the homme fatal, has also been skulking in the cinematic landscape. He can be found in early thrillers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 classic Suspicion, George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), Experiment Perilous (Jacques Tourner, 1944), and A Kiss Before Dying (Gerd Oswald, 1956). He can also be located in many neo-noir thrillers including Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1990), Internal Affairs (Mike Figgis, 1990), Guilty as Sin (Sidney Lumet, 1993), In The Cut (Jane Campion, 2003), Twisted (Phillip Kaufman, 2004), Taking Lives (J.D. Caruso, 2004), as well as Mr Brooks and The Killer Inside Me.
One of the few scholars to examine the homme fatal from a psychoanalytic perspective is Margaret Cohen. In her paper “The ‘Homme Fatal,’ the Phallic Father, and the New Man” Cohen explores breakdown of gender divisions to emerge in neo-noir thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw a popular movement towards films featuring a female investigator pitted against a deadly male (for example, Internal Affairs, Blue Steel, and Guilty as Sin). Focusing on Internal Affairs, Cohen contends that corrupt cop and homme fatal Dennis Peck (Richard Gere) is a “larger-than-life alternative to the femme fatale” (113). Like the deadly woman, Peck has no morals, he is obsessed with power and wealth, and has no qualms about employing his sex appeal or collapsing sexual intimacy into business in order to get what he wants (Cohen 115–16). According to Cohen, just as the femme fatale is a manifestation of male paranoia about social transformations of gendered power, Internal Affairs crystallises male anxieties about the transformations in gender roles and the place of the new man in 1980s and 1990s postmodern culture (114).
However, while hommes fatals such as Dennis Peck can be aligned with the femme fatale as a subject or object of psychoanalytic interpretation regarding repressed fears, other hommes fatals subvert such an analysis through their predisposed insight into psychoanalytic theory and suspicious interpretation. Aside from the films Mr Brooks and The Killer Inside Me, which I will explore in detail in the coming section, the hommes fatals in Gaslight and Experiment Perilous display a knowledge of Freudian theory, using it to convince their female victims that they are insane, and in Taking Lives the homme fatal uses his psychological prowess to fool a female FBI behavioural specialist assigned to profile him. The psychoanalytical insight depicted by these deadly men is something the femme fatale is not ordinarily privy to (with the exception of Catherine Trammell [Sharon Stone] in Basic Instinct, who has a degree in psychology). This suggests that the homme fatal is not simply a male incarnation of the female archetype, but rather a figure with a certain insight into latent socio-cultural anxieties who deliberately sabotages suspicious interpretation.
Pleasure, Subversion, and the Homme Fatal
Part of the pleasure of a suspicious analysis of a text is that it allows the critical theorist to act as a detective—“solving mysteries, nailing down answers, piecing together a coherent narrative, explaining away ambiguity through interpretation of clues” (Felski 13). However, in The Killer Inside Me, homme fatal Lou Ford subverts this process, using his knowledge of psychoanalysis in a way that prevents him from being subject to suspicious interpretation. In her paper on the source text from which Winterbottom’s film was adapted, “Being’s Wound: (Un) Explaining Evil in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me,” literary theorist Dorothy Clark argues that “if Lou Ford provides a Grand Narrative, it is one in which he uses the appearance/reality outer/inner world motif to pitch to us a too-apparent Freudian psychoanalytic explanation for his actions” (54). A suspicious reading of The Killer Inside Me is disrupted and subverted by Lou’s employment of a psychoanalytic model to explain what he calls “the sickness.” By offering up a rational explanation for his otherwise irrational behaviour and grounding it in suspicion, Lou continually constructs and then deconstructs the narrative in such a way that it “conceals rather than reveals, continually eluding containment and definition” (Clark 59). According to Clark (51), what distinguishes The Killer Inside Me from the standard detective narrative is that rather than progressing from a state of enigma to one of knowledge, the story eludes knowledge, becoming increasingly complex and uncertain.
Although Clark’s discussion focuses on the hard-boiled novel by Jim Thompson (1952), her observations about the character of Lou Ford are equally relevant to the 2010 neo-noir cinematic remake, which is a direct adaptation of the original novel. (Many classic films noir are reworkings of hard-boiled novels. For example, director Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film The Lady in the Lake was based on a novel originally written in 1943 by Raymond Chandler.) In the film The Killer Inside Me, as in the novel, Lou pragmatically detaches himself from his behaviour, and his dialogue creates a continuous state of puzzlement and perplexity that constantly undermines any attempt at understanding through interpretation.
In Mr Brooks, any effort at a suspicious reading is equally well thwarted, but the strategy employed is the polar opposite to that used in The Killer Inside Me. In a more conventional “whodunit” narrative structure, Brooks, known as the “thumbprint killer,” might be presented as a mystery. The audience might be provided with the same clues and limited insights that Detective Atwood (Demi Moore) is given, embarking on the same journey of reconstruction, conjecture, and interpretation that she does. A picture might gradually emerge about the killer: his motivations, his rationale, what his fetishes and weak points are, and ultimately, who he is.
Instead, the audience is presented not only with the identity of the killer, but the inner-most workings of his mind. According to psychoanalytic theorists, the psychical mechanism that cuts off unpleasant repressed material, blocking it from entering and disrupting the consciousness, is the ego. For Freud, the ego responds to the external world and is grounded in common sense, control, planning, and intellectual rationale (“Ego & Id” 363). However, the repressed can still communicate with the ego through the id. The psychical id is where the powerful pleasure principle reigns unrestricted; it is the primitive, infantile part of the mind in which immediate satisfaction is all that counts, despite the ego’s best attempts to “bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies” (Freud, “Ego & Id” 363). For Freud, the psyche also contains a third element—the super-ego, a portion of the ego that sets itself over the rest of the ego, creating a tension that is felt consciously as a sense of guilt (Freud, “Ego & Super-Ego” 374). It is a part of Earl’s psyche that only surfaces when he realises that his daughter may have inherited the same killing impulses as him.
In Mr Brooks, Marshall represents Earl’s id. He is like an evil clown, set up in opposition to the controlled, methodical, and sensible Earl, whose primary concern is that he might get caught. All Marshall wants to do is have “fun.” With pleasure his sole preoccupation, much of the film centres on the various levels of conflict between Earl and Marshall. Sometimes they are like best friends, laughing together, united in their pursuit of pleasure; at other times, when Earl tries to ignore Marshall or control him by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (without revealing the nature of his own addiction), it becomes a battle of wills, with Marshall trying to undermine, goad, and torment Earl into giving in to his impulses. Early in the film Marshall’s persistence pays off when Earl breaks his two-year drought and surrenders to Marshall, indulging in the pure ecstasy of murder. Here, the play between the two characters clearly represents the psychical interaction between the ego and the id.
This interplay provides the audience with seemingly transparent insight into the latent mechanisms of Earl’s psyche, eluding enigma entirely and jumping straight into knowledge of the most intimate kind. One cannot speculate about Earl’s latent thoughts because they are there, laid bare on the screen. Further, Earl makes no apologies for his behaviour. He kills because he likes and enjoys it, period, a fact that Marshall is continually reminding him of. His desire to stop is motivated only by the logical, rational, common sense part of his psyche, his ego.
Despite the two different approaches to the subject of the killer inside them, both Earl and Lou manage to successfully subvert a suspicious analysis and with it the pleasure to be found in such an investigation. Lou does so by playing games with the audience’s assumptions that there is an underlying reason for his behaviour, expending a great deal of energy providing psychoanalytically grounded excuses for it: he is the victim of childhood sexual trauma, a victim of elemental human passion, he has dementia praecox, he has paranoid schizophrenia, he wants revenge, he is a flower misplaced and wrongly labelled a weed, or perhaps he is just cold-blooded and as smart as hell (Clark 46–49). Mr Brooks, on the other hand, cuts right through all the diversionary tactics and gets straight to the core of what really motivates Earl—a raw instinctual desire for pleasure.
In feminist film theory (and Western culture in general) suspicious interpretation has become a deeply ingrained and almost taken-for-granted way of understanding meaning. Part of the popularity of a suspicious analysis is the pleasure readers/viewers/critics find in the mystery-solving process of interpretation and the chance to act as detective. However, the neo-noir thrillers Mr Brooks and The Killer Inside Me exhibit a self-reflexive insight into Freudian theory, the school of suspicion, and the assumptions that accompany it, using that knowledge to deliberately subvert the opportunity for suspicious analysis. Lou plays guessing games with the audience’s desire to solve the riddle of his psyche, generating his own pleasure in the process. In Mr Brooks the audience is denied the opportunity for speculation when it comes to Earl’s mind because the innermost workings of it are laid bare for all to see, leaving no room for interpretation. The only pleasure to be had is Earl’s—the raw and brutal pleasure of killing. In patriarchal Western society the femme fatale is considered to be symptomatic of male paranoia surrounding the breakdown of gender difference and power relations. While, as Cohen suggests, this may also be true of the homme fatal, the figure’s propensity to undermine understanding through psychoanalysis suggests that as a male manifestation of male paranoia the construct of the homme fatal is an insightful catalyst of fear rather than a subject or object of it.
A Kiss Before Dying. Dir. Gerd Oswald, 1956.
Blue Steel. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1990.
Bronfen, Elisabeth. “Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire.” New Literary History. 35.1 (2004): 103–16.
Clark, Dorothy. “Being’s Wound: (Un) Explaining Evil in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.” The Journal of Popular Culture. 42.1 (2009): 49–65.
Cohen, Margaret. “The ‘Homme Fatal,’ the Phallic Father, and the New Man.” Cultural Critique. 23 (1992–93): 111–36.
Copjec, Joan. Shades of Noir: A Reader. New York: Verso, 1993.
Doane, Mary Ann. Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Experiment Perilous. Dir. Jacques Tourner. RKO, 1944.
Felski, Rita. “Suspicious Minds.” Poetics Today. 32.2 (2011) 215–34.
Freud, Sigmund. On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works. London: Penguin, 1991.
Gaslight. Dir. George Cukor. MGM, 1944.
Guilty as Sin. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Hollywood Pictures, 1993.
Internal Affairs. Dir. Mike Figgis. Paramount Pictures, 1990.
In The Cut. Dir. Jane Campion. Screen Gems / Columbia Pictures, 2003.
Killer Inside Me, The. Dir. Michael Winterbottom. Icon, 2010.
Mr Brooks. Dir. Bruce A. Evans. Metro – Goldwyn – Mayer, 2007.
Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970.
Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2002.
Suspicion. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. RKO, 1941.
Taking Lives. Dir. D. J. Caruso. Warner Brothers, 2004.
Thompson, Jim. The Killer Inside Me. London: Orion, 2006.