I first came to the idea of writing this blog because of a scene in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), an excellent homage to the film noir genre that seamlessly edits Steve Martin into the classic titles of the genre. In one scene Martin makes Burt Lancaster a pick me up of his own recipe (“you need a cup of my Java”) on the set of The Killers (1946). The small kitchen that Martin slips into, behind a curtain, was so well realised that when I came to watch The Killers a few years later I got disoriented: where was the kitchen? Bizarrely, Dead Men changed the scene for me, and I couldn’t shake the thought for the rest of the film. In its immense attention to detail (the score was by Miklos Rozsa of Double Indemnity, and costumes were also Edith Head’s last credit), Dead Men had inserted an extra level of noirish authenticity. As the kitchen is the heart of the home, was it in some way at the heart of the film noir genre?
A story follows many arcs, and can take characters on many journeys. Where these journeys may take characters, and the audience with them, is as unlimited as the writer’s imagination. But more often than not our characters return from these journeys and, invariably, they return to the kitchen. When this story is told in the film noir genre, the kitchen has been turned on its head.
America had gone through the journey of living out a world war. Whether it was men physically returning from the battlefields of Europe, or the home front awaiting their return, America was a changed place and was, as a nation, anxious to see if it could return home to the kitchen. The kitchen was the heart of the nuclear family; a radiated core of motherly care. With the aid of more sophisticated and more affordable gadgetry the mother in the kitchen was marketed as an aspirational role to counter balance the father’s place at work, where a man had earned the right to improve his family’s situation after defending his country. The film noir genre often smashed the finest china at the feet of these gendered norms and fuelled its narratives with the domestic topsy-turvydom that resulted.
A sparse bachelor’s pad makes a common appearance in the film noir genre. The bachelor’s kitchen is presented as a place of compromise and emasculation. There is little association with the bachelor’s kitchen and the independent male; the ‘man’s’ kitchen did not achieve an aspirational status until years later, with the resourcefulness of CC Baxter and his tennis racket/colander in The Apartment (1960)or Harry Palmer’s seductive cooking in The Ipcress File (1965). The only exception that comes to my mind is the men’s men in the form of Mitchum and Bogart; I don’t think either of them prepares food in their films. Instead, the kitchen is reduced to a space fit for function, devoid of mothers. There is no kindness, just a place to get some grub in ya – or a place to mix a drink. The bachelor’s kitchen shows how the life of a man (more often than not) has been reduced to day-to-day living, passing the time in-between meals. In Double Indemnity (1944), we see Walter Neff filling his day with meaningless lonely activities when he isn’t in the office such as getting a beer at a drive-in café, or going bowling. He avoids his kitchen because he knows what awaits him there. He inevitably returns home, and awaits the presence of the films femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson, whereupon they mix drinks in the kitchen and hatch plans to murder her husband. In the light of the living room that they kiss for the first time – signifying the collapse of Neff’s masculine control of the situation – and then move through into the darkness of the kitchen, where Miss Dietrichson begins to get the upper hand. It is an unglamorous kitchen, where the absence of a mother/wife figure is keenly felt. This is a role that Dietrichson fulfils, but in the terms of the femme fatale: a twisted femininity that corrupts Neff’s morality by corrupting the kitchen space.
The kitchen is also used as the light reflection of the criminal underworld. The Big Heat (1953) we see the hero enjoying a happy family life in scenes largely set in the kitchen a domestic bliss that is ruthlessly taken from him when his wife is blown up in a booby-trapped car meant for him. In these kitchen scenes we see a man and wife clear dishes, talk about their hopes and fears, and even get a bit frisky before their idyllic daughter interrupts them so that they will tuck her into bed. The criminal flipside of this is shown in a gangster’s apartment, where the family is replaced by hoodlums and corrupt officials, and the kitchen table is replaced with a poker table. Kitchenware is shown in the form of a coffee pot boiling on a hotplate, but this is only there for a display of unspeakable violence. Lee Marvin’s antagonist throws this coffee over his lover, who is disfigured for life.
The film noir genre of the period was constantly preoccupied with the difficulties of being a man in modern America. It shows masculinity under attack from a lack of employment, loan sharks, and – most significantly – women. In these films the most dangerous women are the ones you would never find in a kitchen. The femme fatale character is the anti-mother figure, and would most likely have gained their heightened social status through their sexual prowess over powerful men; she would leave the kitchen work to a maid.
The most notable film noir that is from the point of view of a woman (along with her own foreboding noirish narration) is Mildred Pierce (1945), which puts a spin on the trope of the woman in the kitchen. Although she is tied to her kitchen, Pierce identifies the culinary skills she holds in the kitchen as a means of achieving her own success. Living within a broken home, Pierce seeks to control her life first by working in a restaurant, and then by making moves to start up her own café and successful franchise. This infraction of domestic norms results in numerous power struggles with men, and ultimately results in murder.
Early in the story she does away with her philandering husband, demanding he leaves the home; she does this within the kitchen whilst cooking over a stove. Whilst inverting the domestic comfort that is expected of the kitchen environment should come with the kitchen environment, the scene also associates Pierce with the power that comes from owning the kitchen space. Monte Beragon is another man who takes part in this power struggle. A socialite, his inherited wealth is diminishing whilst Mildred’s financial situation improves through hard graft. When he doesn’t get his way he talks down to Mildred about her experience with kitchen work, targeting the strongest source of power she has over him. Then there is Wally Fay, whose sexual advances are rebuked throughout the film. His character is mocked in the film’s portrayal, peaking with a scene where Mildred ties an apron on him in the kitchen to help on the opening night of one of her cafes. Although the mantle of ‘femme fatale’ doesn’t fall on her shoulders (that is reserved for her rather nasty daughter Veda), she rocks the accepted forms of femininity to the perceived anxiety of the male characters. Even her ex-husband comes to the opening night of her café to humbly acknowledge that had expected her to fail but is now mostly redundant due to her successes.
It’s safe to say that America was going through changes at the high water mark of the film noir genre. The changes had gone right through from the public to the private, and into the heart of the home. This wasn’t the kitchen that the war had been fought for, but it was the one that you were stuck with… unless you made a play for something different. While waiting for the coffee to brew, husbands and wives across the nation sat at the kitchen table and considered their insurance policies. Straight down the line.