Friday, March 21, 2014

Pure Noir Heroine: Orphan Black in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock

ORPHAN BLACK: While Orphan Black's opening sequence may be considered the quintessential establishment of a contemporary take on the film noir and suspense thriller genres, the noir nods don't stop there. In fact, there's plenty to be said for identifying the show's protagonist—the shifty London-blooded street hustler, Sarah Manning—as a film noir inspired heroine.

"The noir hero is a knight in blood caked armor. He's dirty and he does his best to deny the fact that he's a hero the whole time." — Frank Miller

ORPHAN BLACK: While Orphan Black's opening sequence may be considered the quintessential establishment of a contemporary take on the film noir and suspense thriller genres, the noir nods don't stop there. In fact, there's plenty to be said for identifying the show's protagonist—the shifty London-blooded street hustler, Sarah Manning—as a film noir inspired heroine.

Before we delve any further, a basic grasp of the noir hero should be understood. The noir hero can typically be identified as a brooding, intensely independent (often haunted) badass in a hat who is out to take down a bad guy or solve some intense psychological mystery. The noir hero is fatalistic, cynical, morally ambiguous and irreverent. He is also primarily male and often provided a romantic and/or antagonistic foil in the form of a femme fatale. Film noir's heroes usually do not see themselves as heroes, and only become truly heroic when seen through the story of the suspense thriller (a genre typically defined by the work of Alfred Hitchcock). In these stories, protagonists often must overcome increasingly insurmountable odds, and it is in conquering these odds that an audience may come to respect an otherwise unworthy antihero.

Alain Delon in Le Samourai (1967).
Note the Beth Child's trench coat and grim, pre-Huxley Station glare.
Enter Sarah Manning, with whom we take a whiz-bang trip through the uncertain streets of Generica City. Right off the bat, she is armed with a pink-cased MacGuffin, which patches her into a larger doppelgänger conspiracy that ultimately threatens to swallow her life whole. As her problems compound, the blasé punk is transformed into a mature, committed hero with a surprisingly nuanced personality, who proves her value to the viewer and to the story by staying alive against a truly unfortunate set of odds. It is in this transformation that Sarah Manning falls into the ranks of so many troubled innocent-on-the-run heroes, such as those made iconic in the works of Patricia Highsmith, Robert Ludlum, and Alfred Hitchcock.

Sarah finds herself compressed by space and time, forced to take action or face the consequences of not doing so. Her life is rife with Hitchcockian ultimatums: answer or don't answer the phone, investigate the hotel or don't investigate, play a cop or don't play a cop, do the thing or don't do the thing. Her decisions to do are what propel her forward and move the story along. She is our guide through the adventure, doing the things our better angels would stop us from doing for the sake of common sense. In a series which could be seen in many ways to be inspired by a genre which is largely populated by hard-boiled and independent male protagonists, Sarah Manning becomes a unique noir/suspense thriller heroine on her own terms.

Women in film noir and suspense thriller films typically fall into one of a handful of categories: the manipulative and secretive femme fatale, the sassy shrew, or the generic romantic interest. Evidently, to be a compelling and exciting suspense/action lead, Sarah Manning can adhere strictly to none of those qualities. As a male protagonist, Sarah would have been a Sam (or Jason, or Ethan; something manly and action-oriented) and betwixt chiaroscuro lighting and grim, blunt observations on the crumbling world around him, would have immediately been presented with a female love interest who exists primarily for the purpose of accenting his journey with moral support, possible blackmail, and sex. Having a female heroine could have been problematic for Orphan Black in that rarely is the male character supporting the female character's journey—not to mention rarely are we following a woman's journey through a conspiracy such as this. But, in a clever twist, Orphan Black crafts a homme fatale to compliment Sarah's noir journey and provide intrigue to the larger scheme of the series' mythos.

Is Paul complex and multifaceted? Yes. Is he devious and secretive? Certainly.
Is he sexy? They don't call him Hot Paul on account of a high fever.
To continue the trend in twisting the tropes, Paul uses sex and a stated desire to run away from the madness in a similar way that many female characters in noir films attempt to distract the male protagonist from his quest. However, as is usually the case, sexual wiles and promises of a safer life murmured over pillows are hardly enough to sway a protagonist on a complex journey. When Paul is unmasked as somewhat of a double agent, Sarah, emerging in a hero stance from the chrome Dyad elevator, retains the grim intensity she presented to Olivier when she came to Club Neolution to retrieve Paul, her kidnapped lover.

When considering Sarah in relation to the male characters on Orphan Black, it's easy to casually approach Orphan Black's story as some deliberate attempt at crafting a hero with a vagina in some matriarchal fantasyland. But in reverting Sarah to a stock noir character—which are typically male, we must remember—we find that Orphan Black somehow being a “women's television series” is simply not the case. Sarah fits into the noir world as snugly as handicapped, racing-against-time James Stewart in Rear Window, or fiercely protective, ingenious Jodie Foster in Panic Room.  Additionally, Orphan Black's world, in lieu of any suspect misandry, is host to an array of characters of various social spectrums, but still manages avoid any heavy-handed messages about girl power, gender, or sexual representation.

Guy or girl, you have to admit, the clone club concept is pretty trippy and badass.
Sarah's forward momentum through the events that transpire is fantastic to watch, and inspiring when you think of the tendency for most contemporary films to require some male-character arc to female-character arc ratio in order to maintain story momentum. Unlike the heroes of Fringe or Lost, Sarah has no Peter Bishop or Jack Shephard to travel alongside, unravelling interconnected mysteries. Sarah doesn't have Homeland's Nicholas Brody to become obsessed with, or any other constant male sidekick. Even Felix, Sarah's still-to-be-explored foster brother doesn't seem like a reliable emotional center of orbit, although it is clear and evident that Sarah loves him very much (a rare honor for men in her life). Ultimately, like little John and Pearl in Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, Sarah has nothing and no one to rely on save for her wits and cleverness.

The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Shelley Winters really could have used some rebar at this point.
And indeed, Sarah Manning is clever, as one must be if one is to be trapped in a suspense thriller of one's own making. As author Charles Derry outlines in The Suspense Thriller, innocent-on-the-run protagonists often face the "increased imposition of a chaotic world which challenges them to examine his or her lifestyle and use cunning and intelligence in order to survive." When confronted with an unexpected twist of events, street-wise Sarah Manning thinks on her feet; improvisation is just a soap bottle or German accent away. The noir hero is a improvisational master (or, if not quite a master, then at least decent), as he or she must be to survive the often precarious and complex situations they find themselves in. Amidst dark, slick streets, the noir hero as envisioned by the Hitchcockian suspense thriller must decide whether to traverse the roads with wits or with gunfire, and figure out how to attack the next problem when it's arrived at.

After all, a sense of urgency...

fierce independence...

and a good MacGuffin...

are all the noir hero/heroine really needs out of life.

These tell-tale signs permeate Orphan Black, and are why Sarah Manning can be considered a valid example of a contemporary noir heroine. Wielding the combined charisma and charm of Cary Grant, the irreverent bad-boy danger of Steve McQueen, and the sassy wiles of Lauren Bacall, Sarah Manning is an amalgamation of femme fatales and (neo) noir heroes, classic and contemporary, from Bullitt to Blade Runner, Psycho to Alien, and her story's only just beginning.

Written by: Hafsah
Hafsah is a medium-mannered graphic designer, writer, film buff, and raging root beer enthusiast, in no particular order.
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1 comment :

  1. Love your writing. Love smart women. Love how you make me think. I like root beer too.