Noir Thumb

Called ‘film noir’s version of the common cold’ by writer Lee Server, amnesia has been a mainstay in the noir tradition since its inception, and is as integral a part of the noir identity as the chain-smoking, fedora-clad hardboiled detective and the dangerously sexual femme fatale.1 Much like how the roles of the detective and femme fatale evolved with the emergence of neo-noir in the latter half of the twentieth century, the narrative function of amnesia flourished and pushed noir’s themes into postmodern territories. Shutter Island (Scorsese, 2010) and Memento (Nolan, 2000) are two auteur-directed neo-noirs that redeploy and redefine amnesia and its wider dramatic implications. This Reflection assesses how these two amnesia-noirs refashion the rhetoric of traumatic memory defects in relation to their placement within the noir institution, and in response to Freudian psychoanalytic concepts and the trauma theories of Cathy Caruth and her peers. Furthermore, this essay offers a wider discussion on the distinction between the narrative employment of amnesia in traditional film noir and contemporary revisionist neo-noirs.

Before an analysis of how Shutter Island and Memento respond to the tenets of the noir genre can be conducted, noir must first be defined and its conventional employment of memory tropes discussed. Rich summarises the popular conception of noir:

[In film noir] heroes tend to be cynical, tough, and overwhelmed by sinister forces beyond their control. Stylistically, film noir is distinguished by its stark chiaroscuro cinematography, influenced in part by German expressionism […]. Films are shot in black and white, lit for night, favor [sic] oblique camera angles and obsessive use of shadows, and, most importantly, take place in a city. Film noir tries to make sense of the complexities and anxieties of the postwar urban experience by exploring the rotten underside of the American city, the place where the American dream goes to die.2

Yet, as Park explains, there is widespread confusion ‘about what exactly [film noir] is.’3 Dickos acknowledges that there is a critical dispute about ‘what makes a film a film noir and whether such films can be considered to constitute a genre […] or whether they instead merely display a certain [intergeneric] cinematic style.’4 Durgnat echoes this by stating that ‘noir could signify an attitude, or a cycle, or a subgenre, or a tonality.’5 Rich notes that the French critics Borde and Chaumenton’s popularisation of the phrase ‘panorama du film noir americain’ in 1955 confines the film noir to the ‘series of American films made during World War II and in the years following, punctuated by violence and pervaded with a profound sense of dread and moral uncertainties’ (p. 8). However, Dixon believes that noir’s ‘concerns of hopelessness, failure, deceit, and betrayal are in many ways more prescient in the twenty-first century than they were at their inception.’6 Settling this debate is perhaps beyond the jurisdiction of this Reflection, but through all of these arguments there is the tacit agreement that there is a certain dark, oppressive, disillusioned strain running through a certain strand of post-war American cinema, and for the sake of this argument, these films will be deemed ‘classic noir’, to differentiate them from the contemporary cycle of neo­­-noirs—a distinction that will become important in the latter stages of this argument.7

With regards to classic noir’s arsenal of memory tropes, Mayer and McDonnell point to the body of ‘several film noirs made just after World War II that feature returned servicemen suffering from traumatic amnesia’ which includes films like Somewhere in the Night (Mankiewicz, 1946), The Crooked Way (Florey, 1949), Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945), and High Wall (Bernhardt, 1947).8 However, whilst it may ostensibly appear that there is a distinct visual and thematic coherence amongst these films, in truth, their representations of amnesia and its effects and thematic implications are scattered and multifarious. Unlike, say, the Classical Hollywood Western, in which filmmakers worked within an entrenched ‘semantic/syntactic’ identity, wherein a set of widely acknowledged iconographies and ideologies synergised to produce recognisable and replicable narratives and themes, these classic amnesia-noirs, whilst converging in some vital areas, do not wholly promote a single unified truth or philosophy.9

Veteran George Taylor (John Hodiak) wakes up from a coma with no memory at the beginning of Somewhere in the Night. His quest to reclaim his identity mirrors that of the many soldiers returning home after World War II who found great difficulty in adjusting to a peaceful domestic existence.

In Somewhere in the Night and The Crooked Way, the protagonists are, as suggested above, returning soldiers who have lost their memories after being injured in combat. Upon their return to the States, George Taylor and Eddie Rice (the amnesiac-protagonists of Somewhere in the Night and The Crooked Way, respectively) attempt to reclaim their previous identities and Mayer and McDonnell state that these ‘plots […] were more extreme versions of the general idea of the need for readjustment to postwar U.S. life by all ex-servicemen’ (p. 388). This search for identity is ‘a typical noir task’ (ibid.), and as their quests reach their termini, Taylor and Rice uncover that before the war they were actually called Larry Cravat and Eddie Riccardi and were involved in criminal activities and both are now wanted for murder. Therefore, the search for the self is intertwined with the need to prove one’s innocence. Amnesia, then, could be considered a manifestation of national guilt for participating in a horrific war and developing the A-bomb, with these narratives focusing on the processing of that guilt. However, these deep thematic readings are not overtly expressed in these narratives; they are, instead, part of their ‘unspoken ideolog[ies]’.10

Where Somewhere in the Night and The Crooked Way present permanent amnesia as resulting from physical injury—Rice has irremovable shrapnel in his brain and Taylor was caught in a grenade blast—Spellbound and High Wall deal with psychological trauma and amnesia as a reversible mental defect. Dickos suggests that the emergence of psychoanalysis in mainstream cinema ‘coincided with, and was encouraged by, the great influx of European scientists, intellectuals, and artists and writers of all kinds who emigrated to America between the wars, especially after Hitler’s rise in Germany made it increasingly troublesome to work, or even remain, in Europe’ (p. 182). In these films, we see a rudimentary engagement with Freudian ideas of trauma and hysteria, with memories being repressed from consciousness and expressing themselves through dreams—as in Spellbound’s famous surreal sequence designed by Salvador Dalí (see video below)—or through hypnosis, as in High Wall.

However, these films ignore sexuality as ‘a principal part in the pathogenesis of hysteria [...] and as a motive for “defence”—that is, for repressing ideas from consciousness.’11 Amnesia does not necessarily stem from physical war traumas either. Spellbound’s protagonist Ballantyne is a war veteran, but his amnesia instead stems from a guilt complex stemming from his childhood, when he accidentally caused his brother’s death. In High Wall, the brain-damaged Kenet’s amnesia is caused partly by a war injury like Taylor and Rice, but he is eventually able to reclaim his memories through psychotherapy and surgery—Taylor and Rice, by contrast, cannot.

Thus, we can begin to see classic noir’s disunity in its conception of amnesia. Chopra-Gant believes that these two psychiatry-noirs tackle the ‘fundamental question about masculine identity—about what it meant to be a man—that accompanied the movement of men from the relative certainty afforded by the military environment to the less regimented arena of postwar civilian life.’12 Abbott confirms this by saying that these films examine ‘the troubled and troubling consolidation of white masculinity in pre— and post—World War II American culture.’13 So, while Spellbound and High Wall to a certain extent incorporate Somewhere in the Night and The Crooked Way’s themes of misplaced personal guilt and the protagonist’s wrongful accusation of murder—standard noir tropes that transcend these amnesia-noirs and can be found throughout classic noir as a whole—their modus operandi differs in that they use amnesia to represent post-war emasculation. Taylor and Rice are emasculated to some degree by their amnesias, as it makes them vulnerable to manipulation by their respective femme fatales, but the issue of threatened masculinity is much stronger in Spellbound and High Wall in which we see a reversal of the typical gendered roles of male psychoanalyst and female hysteric. Here the emasculated man must rely on female ingenuity and intervention in order to process their psychoses. Much like how the hysterical women in Breuer and Freud’s Studies on Hysteria reflect, as Thurschwell believes, the contemporary woman’s frustration at ‘the expected tasks of nineteenth century womanhood’, so does the male amnesiac noir protagonist embody the anxieties of violent men re-assimilating into a domestic, civilian society.14 Chopra-Gant suggests that, because of this and noir’s fluid semantics and syntactics, noir is not a genre as such, but a ‘zeitgeist as the spirit of the age’ (p. 11), as it provided a counterpoint to the misplaced, optimistic ‘mood of the musicals, comedies and romances that were such significant popular film genres those years’ (p. 4).

Reversed gender roles in High Wall emphasise the emasculation of returning soldiers. Pictured here are the male hysteric, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor), and female analyst, Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter).

Perhaps the problem with categorising film noir as a genre is that it is a retroactive label assigned by critics; Mayer and McDonnell explain that classic noir is, ‘in essence, a discursive critical construction that has evolved over time’ (p. 5). Consequently, writes Conrad, ‘the filmmakers of the classic period didn’t have access to that expression and couldn’t have understood or grasped entirely the meaning or shape of the movement to which they were contributing.’15 On the other hand, neo-noir filmmakers like Scorsese and Nolan ‘are quite aware of the meaning of noir and are quite consciously working within the noir framework and adding to the noir canon’ (ibid.). Williams states that neo-noir filmmakers are ‘generically “knowing” in their quotation of the styles and themes of 1940s and 1950s film noir.’16 Therefore, in the neo-noir, we see a greater emphasis placed on mental defects arising from trauma and guilt, and a more intricate analysis of the resultant problems concerning identity. Indeed, in Shutter Island and Memento, memory problems—which serve a somewhat ancillary function in classic noir as they are usually employed as simple narrative devices to engender an investigative plot—are brought to the fore and their implications are explored in greater depth.

This movement toward a more self-reflexive style of filmmaking is quite typical when a genre is in the latter stages of its life-span. If neo-noir is to be considered not an isolated genre in itself but a progression of the classic noir style,  we can then consider it noir’s ‘baroque (or “mannerist” or “self-reflexive”) stage, when the form and its embellishments are accented to the point where they themselves become the “substance” or “content” of the work’ (Schatz, p. 38). Classic noir is, by contrast, the ‘experimental stage, during which [the genre’s] conventions are isolated and established’ (ibid., p. 37). This, to some degree, explains the disunity within the classic noir—filmmakers were unwittingly offering up a cornucopia of thematic and stylistic schemata to a genre that did not exist yet; because the form had not yet been established, they did not know they were working within a genre. Classic noir should, then, not be confused with Schatz’s ‘classic stage, in which the [genre’s] conventions reach their “equilibrium” and are mutually understood by artist and audience’ (ibid.). Artist and audience in the classic noir period did not, until Borde and Chaumenton’s categorisation of the film noir in 1955 at least, consciously acknowledge noir’s generic conventions. Similarly, neo­-noir should not be confused with Schatz’s classic stage either. Yes, the generic conventions are understood by both the artist and audience, but in the neo-noir, with its self-reflexive engagement with noir tropes, ‘we no longer look through the form, […] rather we look at the form itself to examine and appreciate its structure and its cultural appeal’ (ibid., p. 38).

This ‘progression from transparency to opacity—from straightforward storytelling to self-conscious formalism’ (ibid.) is emblematic of films in a genre’s post-classical stage. Therefore, neo-noir’s appropriation of classic noir’s ‘generic conventions, which […] were components of [its] unspoken ideology, […] [into] the central thematic elements of the [neo-noir] narrative’ (ibid., p. 40) is more in tune with Schatz’s ideas of late-genre mannerism. Therefore, noir is unique in that it does not rigidly adhere to Schatz’s experimental—classical—refinement—baroque model of genre development, but Schatz admits that ‘not all genres complete that cycle or necessarily follow such a progression’ (ibid.).

Scorsese’s self-reflexive engagement with noir iconographies in Shutter Island

In Shutter Island, Scorsese consciously invokes classic noir through his mise-en-scène. The story, set in 1954, centres on Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall who has been brought to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island to find a missing patient, Rachel Solando, and unofficially confront another, Andrew Laeddis, who caused the death of his wife. Teddy is dressed in the typical hardboiled detective regalia—suit, trenchcoat, fedora—and the sanatorium locale places Shutter Island firmly within the classic noir tradition of Spellbound and High Wall. Further engagement with the noir ethos is exhibited through the investigative narrative, the protagonist’s paranoia (Teddy believes that Ashecliffe is a secret government facility conducting inhumane experiments on its patients à la Dachau and Auschwitz), and the fact that Teddy is a traumatised World War II veteran.

However, Shutter Island’s most significantly noirish aspect is Teddy’s mental illness. At the film’s climax, Dr Cawley reveals to Teddy that he has been a patient at Ashecliffe for two years, that he murdered his mentally ill wife after she drowned their three children, that his name is actually Andrew Laeddis and the grotesque Laeddis character he believes killed his wife is really a defense mechanism that has allowed him to divorce himself from his guilt, and that he has created an elaborate delusional fantasy in which he is a still a valiant U.S. Marshall, not a murderer.

‘Teddy’’s amnesia, unlike Ballantyne’s and Kenet’s, is coupled with false memories. In the case of Frau Emmy Von N., Breuer and Freud mention the presence of ‘a paramnesia [which] enabled her to link the anxiety she was conscious of with […] [an abstract] idea’ (p. 67). Breuer and Freud state that ‘her consciousness did not present her with the real cause of her anxiety’ (ibid.). In Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud defines paramnesia as ‘false recollection […] motivated by repression’, and he goes on to mention that often this ‘suppression succeeds without any functional disturbance, or, we can justly say, without any symptom.’17 In reference to Dora, Freud explains that ‘paramnesias, formed secondarily so as to fill in those gaps [left by amnesias] […] [can] completely conceal the presence of amnesias.’18 Considering this, we can begin to draw a delineation between classic noir and neo-noir’s treatments of memory defects.

In classic noir, amnesiacs are generally cognisant of their memory loss; their traumatic or guilt-induced loss of memory manifests as an identifiable deficiency—trauma is not sublimated through false memories, but is instead contained within an inaccessible portion of memory. In Shutter Island, amnesia is masked by paramnesia. Laeddis has no idea he is suffering from memory problems because his trauma is articulated through false recollections in which he is dissociated from the guilt of his crime; essentially, in Shutter Island, ‘the story of the real trauma is replaced by the story of [an] ideal event’—that ideal event being that ‘Teddy’ is a victimised, innocent party, not the man who murdered his wife.19

The Machinist (Anderson, 2004), another neo­-noir, features a similar narrative in which the protagonist, Trevor Reznik, accidentally kills a child and represses this traumatic memory within an insomnia-induced amnesia. This amnesia is, like Laeddis’, twinned with hallucinatory delusions wherein he is tormented by a physically deformed incarnation of his guilt, a freakish man who calls himself Ivan. Reznik and Laeddis’ neuroses result from their inability to translate their horrific memories into what Caruth terms a ‘“narrative memory” that is integrated into a complete story of the past.’20 Because, in van der Kolk and van der Hart’s words, their ‘existing meaning schemes […] [are] entirely unable to accommodate frightening experiences […] the memory of these experiences […] [is] stored differently and not available for retrieval under normal conditions: it becomes dissociated from conscious awareness and voluntary control.’21 Therefore, this ‘experience cannot be organized [sic] on a linguistic level, […] [and] this failure to arrange the memory in words and symbols leaves it to be organized on a somatosensory or iconic level: as somatic sensations, behavioural reenactments, nightmares, […] flashbacks’ (ibid., p. 172) and, in Laeddis and Reznik’s cases, delusionary hallucinations.

Hallucinatory deformed projections of guilt in Shutter Island (top) and The Machinist (bottom).

Trauma constantly creeps through involuntarily even though they spend ‘their waking lives [….] not thinking of it.’22 Conversely, Ballantyne and Kenet are consciously fixated, to use a Freudian term, on their memory loss and actively seek to rectify it. Admittedly, Ballantyne does suffer from traumatic nightmares, but Hitchcock’s representation of his dreams do not coincide with the Freudian traumatic nightmare which, ‘undistorted by repression or unconscious wish, […] seems to point directly to an event’ (Caruth, ‘Introduction’, p. 152). Ballantyne’s nightmare is a surreal landscape of obtuse iconography that Dr Petersen has to creatively interpret. Scorsese’s representation of the traumatic nightmare, whilst not entirely denotative, is more in tune with Freud’s idea. In his recurring dreams, Laeddis is confronted by his blood-soaked daughter, who chastises him for not saving her from his wife. Laeddis does not consciously recognise her because he has repressed all memories of his children. But, through his dreams, and eventually waking nightmares as his anti-psychotic medication wears off, her presence ‘repeatedly bring[s] […] [him] back into the situation of [his] accident’ and is evidence for ‘the traumatic experience […] constantly forcing itself upon [him]’ (Freud, Pleasure Principle, p. 7). Ballantyne and Kenet, on the other hand, are relatively nonplussed about their traumatic pasts in their waking lives; it is only when they are made to concentrate on trying to reclaim those memories that they become distressed.

Shutter Island and The Machinist’s representations of trauma are no more or less ‘realistic’ than Spellbound or High Wall’s—they all tend to exaggerate symptoms and invent new ones for dramatic effects—but we can see here how neo-noir engages with a more disturbing traumatic neurosis that, more or less, synchronises with accepted psychoanalytic theories. Moreover, it becomes apparent how the neo-noir foregrounds traumatic neuroses and places the protagonist’s inability to process their trauma as its narratives’ primary thrust; in Spellbound and High Wall, and classic noir as a whole, amnesia is subordinated under more ‘important’ narrative threads of romance and procedural investigation.

The neo-noir sublimation of traumatic memories through false recollections can also be found in Memento, albeit under a slightly different guise. Leonard’s memory condition is unique among the noir canon because he has anterograde amnesia, which is essentially a reversal of the kind of retrograde amnesia discussed so far; Leonard has a continuous set of memories right up until the incident that caused his brain damage, but from that point forth he cannot make any new memories. Therefore, Leonard, unlike Laeddis, has some form of uninterrupted narrative memory; as Smith explains, Leonard ‘has a linear series of conscious memories with only one gap, that produced by the assault, […] he makes new memories, which connect onto his old series and are then forgotten.’23 However, this narrative memory is tainted by falsification. Leonard believes that a man named John G. broke into his house, raped and murdered his wife Catherine, and then attacked him, thus causing his condition. Leonard is able to understand his condition because, before the incident, he was an insurance claims investigator and one job saw him assess the case of Sammy Jankis, who had exactly the same memory problem. Leonard wrongly doubted the veracity of Jankis’ condition and rejected Jankis’ diabetic wife’s application for compensation, which, in turn, made her question whether he really had a memory problem at all. To test this, she had Jankis continuously inject her with insulin until she overdosed and died; Jankis, whose memory reset every few minutes, had no idea that he was killing her.

'Remember Sammy Jankis'. Leonard believes the tattoo is an instruction to himself to use the Sammy Jankis myth as a lesson in how to cope with his condition; in reality, it's a cue that, through repetition, distorts his narrative memory.

‘Remember Sammy Jankis’. Leonard believes the tattoo is an instruction to himself to use the Sammy Jankis myth as a lesson in how to cope with his condition; in reality, it’s a cue that, through repetition, distorts his narrative memory.

This is what Leonard believes, and he continuously retells the story of Sammy Jankis to others in order to make them understand his own condition and its credibility goes unquestioned until the climax where Teddy reveals that Jankis was a con-man without a wife, that Catherine survived the assault, that she was diabetic, and that Leonard accidentally killed her. Through the repetition of his Sammy Jankis fantasy, Leonard, through self-conditioning, was able to implant a false narrative memory into his psyche in which, like Laeddis, he is a victim and avenger, rather than the murderer himself. As Smith explains, ‘Leonard has apparently transposed elements of his past with the past of Sammy Jankis, […] in effect, he has projected his own memories onto Sammy and invented false ones for himself’ (ibid. p. 40); all references to Catherine’s diabetes in his narrative memories before the accident have been eliminated, or rather, repressed and put beyond the reach of consciousness.

Therefore, we can identify a trend within the neo-noir, in which the classic noir type of traumatic amnesia is augmented by invented memories and delusional fantasies that displace culpability and guilt from the self, instead placing it on an abstracted distortion of the self, which for the sake of the argument will be deemed the ‘doppelgänger’. In Shutter Island and The Machinist, the grotesque doppelgänger torments the protagonist, first by committing murder, then by haunting their dreams and waking nightmares. In Memento, the doppelgänger is further removed, an object to be derided and learnt from. The essential difference between the doppelgänger in Memento and Shutter Island/The Machinist mirrors the difference between repression and dissociation:

Repression [in Memento] reflects a vertically layered model of the mind: what is repressed is pushed downward into the unconscious. The subject no longer has access it. Only symbolic, indirect indications would point to its […] existence. Dissociation [in Shutter Island/The Machinist] reflects a horizontally layered model of mind: when a subject does not remember a trauma, its “memory” is contained in an alternate stream of consciousness which […] dominate[s] consciousness.

(van der Kolk and van der Hart, p. 168)

In all three cases, however, the doppelgänger is revealed to be the self, and this revelation causes significant distress. It is at this juncture that the neo-noirs diverge. In The Machinist, once Reznik is made aware of his crime, he hands himself to the police, echoing the classic noir Black Angel (Neill, 1946) where the protagonist kills his ex-wife in a drunken stupor and subsequently forgets it, only to have the memory resurface at the end of the narrative. In The Machinist and Black Angel, the emergence of traumatic memories into narrative memory, whilst painful, is ultimately cathartic.

Shutter Island and Memento offer a more pessimistic outlook. In Shutter Island, Dr Cawley’s elaborate role play, in which Laeddis is allowed to pursue his paranoid investigation into Ashecliffe to its implausible conclusion, is an unconventional attempt at the kind of ‘talking cure’ (Breuer and Freud, p.31) Dr Petersen employs so successfully with Ballantyne in Spellbound. It is Cawley’s hope that once Laeddis sees how impossible his delusional quest is, it will function as a ‘restitutio ad integrum’ (van der Kolk and van der Hart, p. 162) and return Laeddis to sanity. Cawley is indeed successful, but instead of accepting his true identity, Laeddis allows Cawley to believe that he has once again regressed into his Teddy Daniels persona so that he will be lobotomised and spared the knowledge of the truth. As Laeddis cryptically says at the denouement, ‘this place makes me wonder, […] which would be worse: to live as a monster or to die as a good man?’ (02:09:13).

Given the nature of Leonard’s condition and Memento’s anachronic construction, Teddy’s revelation at the end of the syuzhet operates slightly differently in that it retroactively edifies the beginning of the film (the fabula’s chronological end) instead of leading directly to a conclusion. Traumatic memories are again brought to light, and Leonard, like Laeddis, does not want to accept them. Before his memory lapses, Leonard makes a note to himself warning of Teddy’s ‘lies’ and plants evidence that will make future-Leonard—with no memories of this incident—believe that Teddy is John G. so that he will murder him. ‘Do I lie to myself to be happy?’ Leonard asks himself in the voice-over narration, before ominously adding, ‘in your case Teddy, yes I will’ (01:48:23).

Thus, we can start to piece together a hypothesis on the difference between classic noir and neo-noir. Grainge states that ‘if concerns with history, community and tradition govern the former, a preoccupation with fantasy, subjectivity and fabrication inform[s] the latter.’24 Because the paramnesiac neo-noir protagonist-narrator ‘cannot […] tell what “really happened” in the story world, [neo-noir] tend[s] to have as one of [its] major themes the question as to whether “objective truth” is easily accessible.’25 Objective truth in classic noir should not necessarily be taken for granted, but classic noir’s use of trauma-induced amnesia as a narrative device is not typically employed to make the audience doubt the veracity of onscreen events; instead, its function, as elaborated earlier, is to represent the emasculation of returning veterans and their troublesome placement in a domesticated post-war community. Memory defects in neo-noir, by contrast, are used, in Brown’s words, to ‘challenge a traditional humanist understanding of the world, and […] suggest, somehow, that human identity is not fixed and/or stable.’26 In fact, Brown’s exploration of identity crises in posthumanist neo-noir cinema is worth quoting in full:

These films can be deemed posthumanist for they suggest by terms that we have no physical reality, that physical reality is an illusion, that the world in which we thought we played such a key role is in fact a simulation and/or that our “identity” is uniquely mental and not physical. By divorcing mind from body, these films undermine a traditional, “humanist” understanding of our position in the world/universe, and reveal that what we think we know about ourself [sic] is in fact unstable/illusory. As such, many of these films rely upon “twists” and final “revelations” in order to reinforce the shattering of humanist illusions that the films portray.

(Brown, p. 69)

Brown’s notion about mental identity invokes Locke’s concept of psychological continuity as defining identity, and Smith argues that Memento and Shutter Island’s crises of identity stem from the fact there is ‘fusion […] [in] that two conscious series of memories might be combined’ (p. 38). Leonard and Laeddis’ identities are problematic because they project their ‘former memories onto another person and create false ones for [themselves]’ (ibid., p. 43). There is no single strand of continuity in either’s memories, as Locke would suggest; instead they are gestalt entities. These films ‘ask us to abandon [Locke’s] notion that personal identity is transitive, that our memories must be true, but also that such identity is not static or unified’ (ibid., p. 38). Shutter Island and Memento can then be, in Ferenz’s view at least, regarded as ‘textbook case[s] of psychological constructivism [….] [because the protagonists] actively construct [their] memories according to [their] situation[s] […], just as [they choose] to ignore certain facts about [their] past[s]’ (p. 274). Essentially, neo-noir asks ‘is objectivity accessible, or is it obfuscated, distorted, and finally perverted by the autopoietic organism?’ (ibid., p. 275). In classic noir, amnesia is a manifestation of an external, cultural force imposing a crisis of identity on the self; in neo-noir, amnesia is self-constructed as a means to redefine an ideal identity and disassociate the self from guilt. Or, more simply, the classic noir amnesiac seeks to reclaim the past; the neo-noir protagonist seeks to remove themselves from it. As Abrams explains:

[In neo-noir] everything takes place in relation to the self: the self is the detective, the self is the villain, and all the clues exist solely within his own mind. Sure, there was some of this in classic noir […] in the form of early amnesia noirs, but it hardly defined the genre, […] not like it does today.27

In classic noir, the amnesiac protagonist’s quest to recover his memory is ultimately tied to the resolution of an external narrative conflict. For example, in Spellbound, the key to proving Murchison’s guilt in Edwardes’ murder is locked in Ballatyne’s amnesia. Neo-noir, by contrast, is more of an inward journey, and locked in amnesia are unsettling truths the self would prefer to be left forgotten. Abrams’ explanation for this generic restructuring—‘the postmodern conditions of cultural flux and centrifugal space in the second half of the twentieth century […] forced the individual subject to the forefront of culture and, ultimately, to the forefront of the neo-noir’ (ibid.)—coincides with Schatz’s concept of late-genre deconstructive mannerism, in which a genre’s ancillary components are reconstructed into the new narrative’s primary thrust.

Memento, Shutter Island, and The Machinist are by no means the only neo-noirs that centre on issues of memory and identity. Blade Runner (Scott, 1981) features replicants, humanistic robots designed to be indistinguishable from the real thing, implanted with false memories in order to trick them into believing that they are human. Likewise, The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999) and Dark City (Proyas, 1998) present similar scenarios in which malicious external forces—sentient machines in The Matrix and the Strangers in Dark City—enslave humankind through the creation of elaborate synthetic realities and, once more, the narratives are centred on issues with memory. Dark City’s John Murdoch wakes up at the beginning of the film with a classic noir type of amnesia, which is revealed to be a result of the Strangers’ interventions, and Neo in The Matrix falsely believes that he has lived an entire life in the machines’ constructed world and a significant element of his character arc is his coming to terms with the trauma of having that reality destroyed and incorporating this trauma into his narrative memory.

Throughout the neo-noir, there is a constant refrain of the solipsistic uncertainty about the reality of perception and the truth of memory. Therefore, neo-noir engages with Baudrillard’s postmodern anxieties about the presence of a hyper-real simulacrum that Baudrillard, quoted by Pawlett, believes ‘hides the truth’s non-existence, […] [by] concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.’28 Classic noir’s concern about societal identity has thus been replaced by neo-noir’s philosophical, postmodern questions about the fundamental essences of memory, identity, and perception.

Truth in perception? Scorsese purposefully plays with continuity errors, seen here with the glass that disappears and reappears with a different volume of water in different shots, to implant the notion that what we are seeing might not necessarily be real.

Memento and Shutter Island achieve this hyper-real simulacrum through their highly subjective, restricted narratives in which we are given a reason to doubt the truthfulness of the diegetic realm—through Scorsese’s jarring jump cuts and intentional continuity errors in Shutter Island (note the scene where Laeddis interrogates one of the patients and she asks for a glass of water, pictured above) and Nolan’s use of two conflicting flashbacks in Memento, one where Leonard pinches Catherine’s thigh playfully and one where he injects her with insulin.

Which is real?

These two films advance the standard noir tropes of uncertainty and ambiguity to such a degree that the spectator cannot, even through repeat viewings, construct an absolute and unequivocal account of their events. Laeddis may actually be Teddy Daniels and Ashecliffe may indeed be making super-soldiers; likewise, it is entirely possible that Leonard did not kill his wife and Teddy is just manipulating him as we have seen him do throughout the fabula by making him kill drug dealers. Spicer believes that, because Memento and Shutter Island ‘radically revise and reconstruct the elements of film noir in order to pose deeper questions about the nature of existence […] [they] both can be justifiably be called meta-noirs, […] [exploring as they do] the complex and fraught nature of memory and the problems of identity, demonstrating the powerful undercurrent of existentialism that runs throughout the whole development of film noir.’29



  1. Elisabeth Vincentelli, ‘Walter Mosley goes the Mickey Spillane route’, Los Angeles Times (19 January 2008) <> [accessed 4 June 2012] para. 5 of 10. []
  2. Nathaniel Rich, San Francisco Noir (New York: Little Bookroom, 2005), p. 8. []
  3. William Park, What is Film Noir? (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2011), p. 2. []
  4. Andrew Dickos, Street With No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), p. 1. []
  5. Raymond Durgnat, ‘Genre Populism and Social Realism’, Film Comment, 11.4 (1975), 20-29 (p. 21). []
  6. Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 1. []
  7. Gene D. Phillips, Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir (Lanham, Toronto, and Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2012), p. ix. []
  8. Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell, Encyclopedia of Film Noir (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 2007), p. 114. []
  9. Rick Altman, ‘A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre’ in Film Genre Reader III, ed. by Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 27-41 (p. 34). []
  10. Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System (London: McGraw-Hill, 1981), p. 40. []
  11. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria, trans. and ed. by James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2000), p. xxix. []
  12. Mike Chopra-Gant, Hollywood Genres and Postwar America: Masculinity, Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006), p. 96. []
  13. Megan E. Abbott, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), p. 5. []
  14. Pamela Thurschwell, Sigmund Freud (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 18. []
  15. Mark T. Conrad, ‘Introduction’ in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, ed. by Mark T. Conrad (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 1-6 (p. 2). []
  16. Linda Ruth Williams, ‘Neo-Noir and Erotic Thrillers’ in Contemporary American Cinema, ed. by Linda Ruth Williams and Michael Hammond (London: McGraw-Hill, 2006), 358-362 (p. 358). []
  17. Sigmund Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. and ed. by James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966), pp. 6-7. []
  18. Sigmund Freud, ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905)’, in Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. by Philip Rieff (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 1-103 (p. 17). []
  19. Cathy Caruth, Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 29. []
  20. Cathy Caruth, ‘Recapturing the Past: Introduction’ in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. by Cathy Caruth (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995), 151-157 (p. 153). []
  21. Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart, ‘The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma’ in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, 158-182 (p. 160). []
  22. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. and ed. by James Strachey (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961), p. 7. []
  23. Basil Smith, ‘John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento’ in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, 35-46 (p. 41). []
  24. Paul Grainge, ‘Introduction: Memory and Popular Film’ in Memory and Popular Film, ed. by Paul Grainge (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003), 1-20 (p. 9). []
  25. Volker Ferenz, ‘Mementos of Contemporary American Cinema: Identifying and Responding to the Unreliable Narrator in the Movie Theater’ in Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, ed. by Warren Buckland (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), 257-285 (p. 274). []
  26. William Brown, ‘Man Without a Movie Camera—Movies Without Men: Towards a Posthumanist Cinema?’ in Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, 66-85 (p. 68). []
  27. Jerold J. Abrams, ‘Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema’ in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, 7-20 (p. 9). []
  28. William Pawlett, ‘Simulacra + Simulacrum’ in The Baudrillard Dictionary, ed. by Richard G. Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 196-198 (pp. 196-198). []
  29. Andrew Spicer, ‘Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero’ in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, 47-63 (p. 61). []
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