Protagonist Report 1

Sandy Hobbs and David Main, 6 September 2016

We have developed an approach to analyzing FN built around the concept of a Protagonist. The term originates in the Greek word for the leading actor in a drama, but, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, it has come to be used in English to refer to any of the main characters in a narrative. We set out to determine whether it was feasible to describe a role as the principal one, and accordingly employ the term Principal Protagonist (PP), leaving open the possibility that other roles may be treated as Protagonists also. For example, as noted below, we have treated the character played by Van Heflin in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers as the PP, but this does not preclude a later extension of the concept to “Martha Ivers” herself (Barbara Stanwyck).

This is a report on the first 18 films analyzed, which we hope is a large enough sample to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the approach, and allows us to fine tune the defining procedure we are using before further films are included. It is envisaged that the first full sample of FN will be those included by David Cornwell and Sandy Hobbs in their comparison between Noir and Non-Noir films. Meanwhile we present a preliminary analysis based on the following:

The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Big Heat (1953), The Big Sleep (1946), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Conflict (1945), The Dark Corner (1946), Dark Passage (1947), Double indemnity (1944), Gilda (1946), Johnny O’Clock (1947), Key Largo (1948), Lady in the Lake (1947), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Phantom Lady (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Sunset Blvd (1950).

The easiest way of referring to a character is by the name of the actor playing it, in full at first and then employing initials.

An obvious question is how does one determine the PP. In some cases this is straightforward, as when there is a first person narrative (e.g. by Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, by William Holden in Sunset Blvd, and by Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake.

Other cases are more complex, thus requiring other factors to be considered. For instance, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers begins with scenes which feature adolescents versions of three characters later played as adults by Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas. BS and VH share with Lizabeth Scott the star billing in the credits. KD has a lower billing, presumably because this was his first film. After these early scenes, the “present day” narrative begins with VH driving into town and ends with him driving out of town. Just prior to the close, in a key scene KD, having shot BS, shoots himself. This is shown from well outside a window, with VH in the foreground observing. These seem to constitute sufficient grounds for treating VH as the PP.

A second example can be seen in Phantom Lady, in which initially the film appears to establish Alan Curtis as playing the lead role. However, as the story progresses, he becomes inactive and our focus is directed towards his secretary, played by Ella Raines, as she searches for the evidence to clear her boss’s name. As this aspect of the narrative is the major part in both screen time and as the focus of the storytelling within the film, this seems to justify treating her as the PP.

Another tricky case is Gilda. Rita Hayworth has the eponymous role and has the sole above-title billing. However, the narrative starts with Glenn Ford and the action is primarily concerned with his behavior and his perception of situations which would seem to make him the PP rather than Gilda herself

In none of the films considered did we fail to settle on a PP, but the possibility remains open that this will prove difficult in further films to be analyzed.
Having established who we believe was the PP is in any particular film, we considered the character of the protagonist by asking a series of questions about them. The questions and a brief summary of the tallies based on our initial sample are given below:

Questions about the film’s PP

Male or female? Only 2 out of 18 PP are female.

US or other nationality? All 18 PP are American

Job or status? The most common single occupation is Private Investigator (5 out of 18). The female PPs are secretary (Phantom Lady) and housewife-entrepreneur (Mildred Pierce). Where a clear occupation is indicated for non-PI male PPs, they are middle-class, Police Officer (The Big Heat), Civil Engineer (Conflict) Insurance Agent (Double Indemnity), Writer (Sunset Blvd). Two are presented as ex-servicemen, both officers, The Blue Dahlia and Key Largo. There are two professional gamblers (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Johnny O’Clock), two petty criminals (The Asphalt Jungle, Gilda) and one escaped prisoner (Dead Reckoning).

Family relationships. Mildred Pierce stands out as being the sole film considered where the PP has a family which plays a substantial role in the narrative. Most of the other films have PPs without any stated families, the exceptions being three films in which a PP initially has a wife, who is then murdered (The Blue Dahlia, The Big Heat and Conflict)

Relationship to major crime in the narrative. All five PIs are involved in investigating crimes, as are the police officer in The Big Heat and the secretary in Phantom Lady. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, the PP “solves” a crime mystery, but that is not his major activity. Other PPs are themselves involved in committing crimes (The Asphalt Jungle, Conflict, Double Indemnity). Some PPs are suspects, but eventually cleared (e.g. Mildred Pierce, Johnny O’Clock)

Relationship with the opposite sex? Our draft protocol offered the possibility of noting such relationships under three headings: seduced, helped, other. This corresponds roughly to the notion offered in some sources of femmes fatales and good women having important roles. There are cases where male PPs are seduced (Double Indemnity) or nearly seduced (The Maltese Falcon) and also cases of particularly helpful female associates (The Dark Corner, Dead Reckoning). However, what may be missing from our initial proposal is any reference to the uncertainty in the PP’s relations. Several male PPs are uncertain as to the intentions and motives of the main female characters with which they come in contact (e.g. The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon), whereas the duplicity of a female associate gradually emerges in Double Indemnity. These examples all refer to male PPs, the two female PPs are not an adequate basis for generalizing.

Condition at the end? Despite the fact that FN deal with “dark” moral and criminal matters, the most common way for these films to end is a version of the simplistic “they lived happily ever after” – an ending that seems at odds with the general tone of the film in general. In the sample examined the PP ends the film happily with a lover (11 out of 18). The most obviously contrasting endings are when the PP is dead (Sunset Blvd), dying (Double Indemnity, The Asphalt Jungle) or arrested on a capital charge (Conflict). The remaining endings are not “unhappy” but nor are they unequivocally “happy”: the PP turning his guilty lover over to the police (The Maltese Falcon), returns to the police having solved the crime (The Big Heat) and with the possibility open of a romantic relationship with the female lead (Key Largo).

We cannot be sure how representative this first sample is of FN in general. However, in most cases the factors considered seem potentially illuminating and worth pursuing further. However, we propose to refine our analysis of relations between the PP and the opposite sex to take account of the points mentioned above.

Possible additional questions

It may be appropriate to seek quantifiable indicators of key aspects of characters’ personalities, experiences and social relations. For example, does an incident involve a key shift for a character? In Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray’s meeting with Barbara Stanwyck may be regarded as such, since we are offered no indication of his engaging in murderous or other criminal behavior prior to that meeting.

Some films employ distinctive techniques aimed at portraying a character’s experience. A clear example of this is the “first-person” camera position, found throughout Lady in the Lake and in early sequences of Dark Passage. Similarly where a voice-over is from the point of view of a character, as in Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet, this may be considered as putting an emphasis on that character’s experiences. Murder, My Sweet also contains shot depicting loss of consciousness and return to consciousness, again stressing that character’s experiences. In all of these cases, the character in question is the PP. However, this emphasis on the subjective need not be confined to the PP. In The Blue Dahlia, the post-traumatic stress suffered by one of the minor characters, William Bendix, is represented by loud rhythmic beating on the sound track.

It might be considered worthwhile supplementing these considerations of individual psychology with a search for indicators of broader social forces at work. We would argue, however, that precision is required here and would caution against interpretations being imposed without clear justification. Two examples, referring to films in our current sample will show why we see a need for caution.

In Double Indemnity, the PP (Fred MacMurray) and his accomplice in murder and fraud (Barbara Stanwyck) have to conceal their relationship. Needing to meet, they do so in a supermarket. Reynold Humphries (2004, p 231) states that “wittingly or not” the film is “criticising” consumer society. He argues that “The supermarket is the locus classicus of commercialism, the ultimate signifier of the consumer society…” One may ask, if it was the film makers’ intention to portray the supermarket thus, what is done to encourage this interpretation. How will the audience interpret the scenes in the supermarket, as a symbol of consumerism or as a good place for a secret rendezvous?

Pam Cook (1978, page 81) describes the final scene of Mildred Pierce involving the PP thus:

“As Mildred and Bert walk of into the light… they turn their backs on another couple, two women in the classic position of oppression, on their knees, an image of sacrifice which closes the film with a reminder of what women must give up for the sake of the patriarchal order.”

Why are the women on their knees? The screenplay (see LaValley, 1980, p 254) makes it clear when it states “two scrubwomen work on the floor”.

Of these two interpretations of FN scenes, Cook’s seems the more potentially fruitful, if one focuses upon the prosaic aspects of what is seen. References to “sacrifice” and “patriarchal order” seem unnecessary intrusions on the scene as presented. Two women are scrubbing a floor. They are not otherwise involved in the narrative but are highlighted. A simpler way of interpreting their presence is as a reminder of the servile aspects of women’s lives that the PP, Mildred, was seeking to avoid by her actions throughout the film. In contrast, because the supermarket in Double Indemnity has a simpler narrative function, more evidence would be required to justify giving it the significance Humphries proposes.

We would argue that both Cook and Humphries have paid insufficient attention to how an audience is likely to respond to what is shown. What we are attempting to do is to find aspects of FN whose presence or absence in any given case will be relatively uncontroversial and, potentially, could be subjected to some sort of test of verification of their impact on the audience.


Cook, P.. (1978). Duplicity in Mildred Pierce, pp 68-82 in Kaplan, E. A. (Ed.), Women in Film Noir. London: British Film Institute.

Humphries, R. (2004). The politics of crime and the crime of politics: Post-war noir, the liberal consensus and the Hollywood Left, pp 227-245 in Silver, A. and Ursini, J. (Eds.), Film Noir Reader 4. Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight.

LaValley, A. J. (Ed.) (1980). Mildred Pierce. London: University of Wisconsin Press.