A woman’s place in film noir is evilly clear — she’s the seductress who tempts the man into his own destruction — although often she plays a stronger role as the heroine, a seeker hero of her own, solving a crime on behalf of an imprisoned or incapacitated male.
Even if they are irresistibly destructive, the women of noir are never static symbols of male repression — they’re intelligent, powerful, and overly-sexual . The File on Thelma Jordon is Double Indemnity meets Pitfall — disguised as a well-presented story of marital infidelity. And it has Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, bidding for film noir immortality.
Thelma Jordon is in love with a jewel thief, Tony Laredo.
Indeed — Barbara Stanwyck may lay claim to being the first lady of noir — certainly many have placed her on this pedestal, citing her sound film noir output from the 1940s and 1950s:
Double Indemnity (1944)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Cry Wolf (1947)
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
The File On Thelma Jordan (1950)
No Man of Her Own (1950)
The Furies (1950)
Clash By Night (1952)
Witness to Murder (1954)
Crime of Passion (1957)
By the time noir was dying out at the end of the 1950s, there were a few more female types on display in Hollywood’s films — the sex goddess as typified by Marilyn Monroe — the demure and virtuous wife, as seen in Jane Wyman, and then there were these women which some people describe as ‘professional virgins’ — a la Doris Day.
Like Ronald Reagan, who was then a Democrat, the Republican Corey was interested in politics. He was elected to membership on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild and served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1961 to 1963. As a Republican, he was elected to the City Council in Santa Monica, California, in 1965. He made a bid for the Republican nomination to contest a seat in Congress in 1966, but was defeated in the primary.
Wendell Corey — the male lead in The File on Thelma Jordon — adds little. What can be said of him in fact, other than the phrase ‘prime lumber’ which springs to mind. The File on Thelma Jordon is most definitely Barbara Stanwyck’s film, and this is just as well, as Wendell Corey hasn’t been given anything difficult to do by director Robert Siodmak — there is no acting from Corey, as such, for example.
Barbara Stanwyck features in a few free films on YouTube and if you want to understand what film noir is you can do so best by plonking it back in its natural environment — the movie house of the 1940s and 1950s. If you want to see what the public really wanted in the 1950s, then you should check a few of these out. You’ll find out that Barbara Stanwyck is also star billed in a thing called Cattle Queen of Montana.
She stars in this slush-driven Technicolor-yawnathon with HUAC golden boy, and all round idiot Ronald Reagan. I shouldn’t be so unkind about Reagan, who was maybe a better president than he was an actor, but I care more about movies than I do about party politics. That means I’m more upset about Regan kicking off the House Un-American Activities Committee and destroying artistic integrity in film for decades, than I am about his political policies and half-hearted efforts to start World War 3.
But then there would be no film noir were it not for the Committee and its workings, which had been going on since the 1930s. The File on Thelma Jordon was released in 1950, a good four years before Cattle Queen of Montana galloped on to the wide screens of the world, but those were four terror filled years, more frightening for the population in many ways than our current terror filled years.
How to hold a woman in film noir?
Nowadays the terror is out-with, and in remote places. Between 1947 and the mid-1950s, the terror was within, and since Hollywood informed the US nation the most, Hollywood was the place that was attacked by HUAC. In those years, hundreds of movie workers, including actors, directors, producers, and less well-known men and women, including technicians and many other trades, fled America to escape persecution, usually in the form of unemployment and ostracising.
Not a few of them had already fled Germany and Austria in the 1930s, so this must have seemed doubly painful.
One of the most tangible aspects of The File on Thelma Jordon is the music from Victor Young. The main theme which is first heard over the titles is a fine and sweeping melody that becomes a love theme later. It is one of the composer's most melodic inspirations and gives the early scenes a tender romantic aura, which rather amusingly fails to pay off as things go noirish pretty soon after. There is also a fervent martial theme for the film's terrific set piece as Thelma Jordan is being walked amid a crowd from the Jailhouse to the Courthouse, flanked by press and public, en route to hear the jury's verdict.
I was talking about women in film noir, but in playing Thelma Jordon, Barbara Stanwyck offers some deviation from the traditional film noir femme fatale. She seems quite normal at first, and for much of the action this remains the case, although secretly she is trying to cock-tease the junior District Attorney into the electric chair. A bunch of weird inversions end the film, which culminates in the unfaithful and complicit junior District Attorney using all his legal powers to play a bad lawyer, in an attempt to free the woman he desires.
Then there is a second trial, trial by means of the righteous viewer. Having seen justice fail, it is up to the viewer to conduct the second path to justice, as it unfolds in the last few scenes, with the return of Thelma’s rough gangster boyfriend. At her trial Thelma Jordon becomes a media celebrity too, which is interesting to see on film — the crowds — the cameras — the flash bulbs and the other trappings of 50s fame and fortune, familiar to the film-fans of the day.
Robert Siodmak is the last one left to thank for the highly enjoyable The File on Thelma Jordon. Robert Siodmak may be the greatest of all the noir directors of the period — great only being defined as the quantity of film noir he produced.
Originally from Dresden, Siodmak, along with his brother Curt worked his way into the bustling German film industry of the 1920s. It was a great time — the age of German Expressionism — and Siodmak worked in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s along with other future noir directors, like Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fritz Lang.
Of course, with the unfortunate rise to popularity of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and like many other artists of Jewish descent, Siodmak fled Germany for America, where he made more films, this time under the watchful eye of the surprisingly fascist-friendly HUAC committee.
Richard Rober as Tony Laredo
By Siodmak standards, The File on Thelma Jordon is fairly easy viewing, with none of the deep shadows, shots from above, reflections and flashbacks of many of his other noirs. The epic list of Robert Siodmak’s films noir, includes:
Criss Cross (1949)
The Killers (1946)
Cry of the City (1948)
Phantom Lady (1944)
The Suspect (1944)
The Dark Mirror (1946)
and The Spiral Staircase (1946)
The impetus for all of these dark movies, incidentally, most of which was made in Siodmak’s happy years at Universal (1943 – 1948), was one of the first films he directed in America — the atmospheric although fairly mundane Son of Dracula (1943), which like the films he had made in France while in exile from Nazi Germany, looked good without being very expensive — and this was a useful habit in the era of film noir.
The File on Thelma Jordon is now open for all to see at YouTube. If you’re collecting noir then it’s a must, and although it doesn’t come with hoods, tough talk and shadows, it falls into that more nebulous and yet important category of domestic noirs, which chart the dramatic failure of the post-War male, and revel in his weaknesses and confusion.