Protagonist Report 2 03/01/18

Sandy Hobbs and David Main

In Protagonist Report 1 (2016), we presented the outcome of applying the analysis of the principal protagonist (PP) to 18 of the 42 FN movies included by Cornwell and Hobbs in their comparison of noir and non-noir films. Having now analysed the remaining 24 FN movies, we can present our results for the whole Cornwell and Hobbs FN sample.

Identification of a film’s PP is in most cases straightforward. In Report 1 we mentioned some exceptions to easy identification of the PP and the further films we have now analysed have thrown up some minor problems too.

For instance, two films which might initially appear to be about two equally treated characters so that there would be a potential to have two PP in the same film requires some further consideration to assign the PP . In Gun Crazy, these two are the roles played by Peggy Cummins and Jon Dall. The two characters die together at the end. However, the film begins with the Dall character as a child stealing a gun. Throughout their joint enterprises, JD repeatedly expresses doubts, which indicates a greater emphasis on his character than on the relatively single-minded PC. Using this information results in there only being one PP in Gun Crazy, Jon Dall.

On-screen text at the beginning of They Live by Night refers to “this boy” and “this girl”, referring to “their story”. This suggests two equal protagonists. However, the narrative follows the “boy” (Farley Grainger) in far more detail from the early scene where the gang members leave the injured FG behind when they are on the run until the final scene in which he is shot and dies, so again a single rather than double PP is assigned to the film.

Male or Female Protagonists

The additional cases show the same bias towards a male PP as the previously sample noted.
In total 39 of the 42 PP are male and 3 are female. (


Overwhelmingly a film’s PP is from the United States. The exception is the Charlton Heston role as a Mexican in Touch of Evil.

Job or Status

The most common single male occupation is Private Investigator (n: 7). There are several occupations associated with law enforcement: Police (n: 3), State Attorney (n: 1), Assistant District Attorney (n: 2), Treasury Agent (n: 1). Other, jobs are Journalist (n; 3), Writer (n: 2), Civil Engineer (n; 1) and Cashier (n: 1). Status rather than job describes the two ex-servicemen, previously Officers, and the escaped convict. There are no clearly Blue Collar jobs. An exception may be Nightmare Alley, where the PP rises and falls going from menial “carnie” to stage spiritualist and ultimately to carnival Geek. There are two professional gamblers. The two boxers have working class backgrounds, something which is emphasized in Body and Soul. There are, however, several petty criminals or career criminals (n: 6). The one male PP child (The Window) is in a working class family. The small number of female PPs have varied roles ranging from Entrepreneur (Mildred Pierce) to Secretary (Phantom Lady) to house bound Invalid (Sorry, Wrong Number).


A substantial number of the male PPs are unmarried . Of those other PPs who are married, several lose their wives early in the narrative. This may be contrasted with a male P being happy with his wife at the end, as for example in The Set-up.
The category “married” is probably too general. Nightmare Alley’s PP is unmarried at the outset, and is then forced to marry a relatively “innocent” young woman whom he has seduced.

Relationship with Opposite Sex

We shall confine our analysis here to the 38 adult males as there are too few female PPs to justify generalization. Film Noir is frequently characterized as having women in Femmes Fatales roles. To explore this we need some sort of provisional definition of a Femme Fatale. Two aspects seem crucial. First, the FF character is found sexually attractive by the PP. Secondly, the FF character leads the PP into harmful situations (though not necessarily “fatal” to him). It may also be appropriate to consider the FF’s motivation: Is she intentionally harming the PP? Some female roles fit the two-part pattern neatly. For example, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Jean Simmons in Angel Face, Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy. However, there are also sexually attractive females who do not cause the PP harm. For example, Gene Tierney playing the eponymous Laura, Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place. These should be seen alongside female characters who positively assist the PP. For example, Lauren Bacall in Dark Passage, Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner.

Condition at the end?

Writing about Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, Serena Bramble (2017) states that:

In the original ending, Dixon kills Laurel in the heat of their climactic argument, turning the woman he loves into the cadaver he ‘s often written about in his scripts. It was a moment of self-awareness on Ray’s part that completely transcended both the conventions of film noir and the Production Code, where Laurel lives but her relationship to Dix is dead.

It is questionable whether it is meaningful to talk of the “conventions” of American film noir, since filmmakers of the time were not aware of the concept.

However, even if “conventions” is interpreted simply as meaning what in practice was the norm, the statement is misleading. In how many FN did the PP kill the woman with whom he was in love? In Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray kills Barbara Stanwyck. In Conflict, Humphrey Bogart has killed his wife, although he was in love with another woman. Beyond that it is hard to see in our sample any evidence of a convention that would have had Humphrey Bogart killing Gloria Grahame. Perhaps a more general “convention” is what Bramble had in mind, such as the hero guilty of a capital offence or harming the lover rather than killing her. However, analysis of our sample suggests that there is no “typical” noir ending.

In 7 cases the PP is dead or dying. Other clearly sad endings include being disgraced (The File on Thelma Jordon) and mentally deranged (Scarlet Street). In contrasted we found 18 PPs happy at the end and a further 6 at least satisfied with events. The ending of Kiss Me, Deadly we regard as ambiguous but it is not the only film in the sample which we found could not be simply classified. For example, Humphrey Bogart as the PP in The Maltese Falcon is happy to have got himself out of trouble with the police but regrets having to turn over his lover to them.

Other issues:

Next Step: We intend to extend the analysis to all 63 films scoring 10-12 in the Cornwell and Hobbs study, reported in Defining Film Noir.

Analysis of Female Protagonists: Because our method of analysis found an overwhelming majority of PPs to be male, the role of female characters has been discussed largely from the point of view of these male PPs It is probably appropriate to add to our procedure an analysis of the main female character in those films where the PP is male

Analysis of Visual Style: Critics often refer to the FN as having a distinctive type of cinematography. Although this may arise from the time period, 1949s and 1950s, rather than a particular kind of film, it is something which is worth exploring systematically. However, we have not found in any of the relevant literature much guidance as to how this might be undertaken.

Changes Over Time: Cornwell and Hobbs in the data reported in the section Noir and Non-Noir in this web-site, broke their sample into six three-blocks, running from 1941 to 1958. However, they did not explore differences between these time blocks. It might be illumination to review our analyses with such time differences added .

Degrees of Noir: Borde and Chaumeton categorized films as FN and other such as Gangster and Melodrama (which were seen as having some features in common with FN). This approach also adopted by Silver and Ward in an Appendix. We are doubtful of the usefulness of this approach. FN refers to a number of distinctive features which may appear to different extents in particular films. This would do away with these categories and allow films to be described in terms of the amount of “noirishness”, i.e how many noir features are present


Bramble, Serena (2017) The flicker in her eyes, Sight & Sound, 27: 12, 44-46.