Amnesia is a recurrent theme in 1940’s film noir: Now it’s back in fashion

Emily Blunt in ‘The Girl on the Train’ plays the latest in a string of characters who commit violent acts while suffering memory lapses 

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The Independent Culture

The film adaptation of Paula Hawkins bestselling book The Girl on the Train arrives in cinemas this week with Emily Blunt in the role of miserable, booze-soaked Rachel. She is one of three unreliable female narrators in a whodunnit that recalls the 1940s trend for “amnesia noir” – dark thrillers where neither we nor the protagonist know if they’re the victim or the killer.

The trend for presenting men (usually) as psychologically unstable or injured amnesiacs who aren’t sure if they’ve committed a heinous crime became so common post-war that it is an entire noir sub-genre (see Somewhere in the Night, The Crooked Way, The October Man) – perhaps reflecting the malaise and psychological fallout of the era. Among the best examples is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound, which follows Gregory Peck as an imposter who fears, but cannot remember, if he killed the man he is impersonating. 

Hawkins’s dark novel has been compared repeatedly to Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window for its voyeuristic, cloying darkness. The film transports the action from a suburb of London to a more visually dramatic suburbia on the River Hudson outside of New York. 

Blunt is brilliantly demented as the sad-eyed alcoholic so obsessed with her ex-husband and his new wife and infant that she rides the train past their house needlessly twice a day to peer in at them. Her predilection for booze means she habitually blacks out and loses whole chunks of time – only to be told afterwards of the embarrassing things she done or the violence she’s committed.

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Emily Blunt is brilliant as Rachel, who suffers blackouts and forgets her actions, sometimes embarrassing and at other times, violent

From the horrors of Angel Heart to the sci-fi silliness of Total Recall, Oblivion or the downright ludicrous plot twists in action movies such as Fast and Furious – memory problems have cropped up consistently in Hollywood films as a device for explaining away the most preposterous of situations. There are even a bunch of romcom amnesia films such as 50 First Dates and the Goldie Hawn vehicle Overboard!. Kids’ film Finding Dory sees Dory (Ellen Degeneres), who suffers from short-term memory loss, grasping at recollections of her lost family and embarking on a mission to find them.

But film theorists have long examined the more serious, darker iterations of memory disturbance on screen. “Memory has always been cinema’s obsession. So many characters deal with amnesias and traumas of the past that invade the filmic present. Film has also been a powerful tool of recording, constructing and nourishing actual and mythical national pasts and momentous events. But the connection between film and memory goes beyond the subject matter of individual movies,” says Dr Piotr Cieplak, film lecturer at Brunel University London and author of Death, Image, Memory: the genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath in photography and documentary film.

“Film and memory share something bordering on ontological, something that goes to the very nature of both: they can manipulate and be manipulated by time; they can provide order but also collapse chronology in a way that turns all certainties on their heads. Film has been particularly well-equipped to convey the disturbances of memory, especially trauma. The flashback is a good example. This common symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (although not classified as such until the 1980s) has been consistently employed in cinema since the early 20th century.”

Girl on the Train, and to a lesser extent 2014 thriller Before I Go to Sleep, heralds a return to the truly dark and disturbing days of amnesia noir. In the latter, adapted from SJ Watson’s 2011 bestseller, Nicole Kidman plays Christine, a middle-aged woman who wakes every morning with no memory of her life from her mid-20s onwards. All the short-term memories she develops each day are wiped clean the minute she falls asleep and she must relearn her own story from the moment she awakes.

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Nicole Kidman tries to recover lost memories in ‘Before I Go to Sleep’

In both of the above the amnesiacs are women and their memory weaknesses are exploited by the male characters to reach Gaslight-esque levels of emotional abuse. It is a feature of modern amnesia noir, in contrast to those of the 1940s, that the vast majority of modern films featuring serious memory disturbances as a result of trauma (action movies aside) are female. 

The stylish uncertainty of such a format is undeniably compelling. The sense of dawning realisation just out of reach, that gaping hole where recall should be, is exacerbated by flickering snapshots of images. The red coat Rachel sees in the underpass is the itch that her paranoiac mind cannot slake. It is maddening and intriguing, even when the context is silly (as it frequently is in Before I Go to Sleep). 

But The Girl on the Train is excellent. There’s a good reason 80 million of us worldwide bought Hawkins’s book (nicknamed “the new Gone Girl”) when it came out just 21 months ago and the film, which retains the novel’s airless desperation, is a guaranteed box office hit. The pitiable Rachel admits repeatedly, ashamedly, throughout: “I don’t remember exactly, but I’ve just got this feeling —”

Girl on the Train is in cinemas from 10 October

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