UN VOYAGE DANS LES TENEBRES: Week 8 – Mid(century) Evil Woman

Most of the time it’s easy to kick back and enjoy an old movie for its story, its performances, and – as often happens in the case of film noir – its distinctive look. But sometimes, like when you’ve been sitting isolated for over fourteen months and you’ve been forced to watch one major political party do everything in its power – question a legitimate election, wreak havoc on state voting rights, interfere with a national census, as so on – in an effort to maintain a social status quo that should’ve been chucked out centuries ago . . . on occasions like these you find yourself pondering just what the creators of these old movies were going for, and it becomes impossible not to look at passe ideas through a modern lens. 

Take the femme fatale – please! (Bah dah bump!) She is actually not a genre mainstay, but when she appears . . . what is she? According to the dictionary, your average ff is “an attractive and seductive woman, especially one who is likely to cause distress or disaster to a man who becomes involved with her.” Bear in mind that the femme fatale is 100% a male construct. She exists to contrast with the “good girl” – the wife, mother, sweet girlfriend, who exists solely to cater to her husband/son/boyfriend’s needs, and who is also totally dreamed up in the minds of men. 

Bad bad girl

You can tell the ff in a film from certain qualities that make her stand off from the rest: she’s sexier, she’s livelier, she’s more interesting, she’s usually played by a bigger star than the good girl is (unless the good girl gets to go undercover as a bad girl, as in Phantom Lady.) She preys on a good man’s weakness or a weak man’s badness. When she comes upon a strong good man, she is the weakness. Sometimes, her own kryptonite is the bad guy, who makes her melt even when he slugs her (Scarlet Street); but just as often (Double Indemnity, Out of the Past), it makes no difference if the man is a saint of a snake – the ff chews them up and spits them out! You can that dame by that gleam in her eyes when the men are fighting over her.)  

The femme fatale usually dies or goes to prison in the end because the Hays Code would have it no other way, but not before she has caused immense distress and disaster to the main guy. He might survive or he might not; this often depends on the ratio between goodness and weakness within the fellow, and it also matters what misdeeds the man committed in the name of “love.” (I put love in quotations to distinguish it from the love a man feels for the good girl – less feverish, less shiny, less passionate, but it leads to home, children, and quiet bliss.

Ginger, the Golddigger

The whole problem with the femme fatale is that, criminal or sociopathic as she may be in these male-constructed tales, she represents something else: the rage men felt at a post-Depression/post-WWII nation where women’s roles expanded out of the home. As long a wives and daughters took jobs to support the stymied efforts of the head of the family to provide, all was well. However, a woman wasn’t supposed to like the sense of purpose and self-worth that a job – or any sort of life outside of the family – gave her. 

Take Ginger Rogers – please! (Bah dah bump!) I love Rogers of the 1930’s, both as the raucously sexual chorine of the Busby Berkeley movies and as the straightforward beauty who could give Fred Astaire as good as she got. The Fred and Ginger movies were never about him conquering her; rather, they charted a mutual progression between two people who had to move away the blinders to see how perfectly matched they were (instead of simply noting how beautifully they moved together and considering the matter proven.)

But then, in 1940, along comes Kitty Foyle and the taming of Ginger Rogers. The film focuses on not her individual success as a working girl but on the choice she must make between the Rich Guy and the Right Guy. The synopsis on Wikipedia ends with this: “When she decides to marry Mark rather than Wyn, her life takes a new and more promising course.” Of course, Mark is a doctor, so Kitty’s not going to starve. How fortunate, however, that she will be taken away from the working world, a place where she has risen to become almost a junior partner for a well-known couturier, but never mind that!

Ginger, the Good Girl (Kitty Foyle)

The dream for women forced into work by the Crash and then by the War was to finally have their Johnny come marching home . . . and to have a nice roast all ready for him. But some women liked to work. Some women even toyed with the idea of putting off marriage until they had finished a higher education and some satisfying employment. And lo! some women wanted to have it all!! And this did not sit well with the men who had been fighting for a return to the good old days. Rather than beat their ungrateful wives (well, some of them beat their wives) they poured their invective into art – and the femme fatale blossomed in the films of the 40’s and 50’s. 

This is why neo-noir feels so different to me, coming as it did out of the liberated 80’s. The women played by Kathleen Turner (in Body Heat) and Sharon Stone (in Basic Instinct) are easily smarter and better than all the venal men in heat surrounding them, that it becomes impossible to look at them as we were meant to look at Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner. Moreover, it becomes harder these days to simply accept Phyllis Dietrichson or Cora Smith as the smoking guns that made weak men crumble before dying (deservedly) at these same men’s hands. And that is where I find myself as I ponder this week’s two noir class films.

Last time I made two things clear: the films we would be watching this week both starred Burt Lancaster, and one of them advocated for prison reform. 

That was before I watched the movies. 

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Brute Force is about men in prison, and like so many “big house” movies before and after it, the institution these prisoners find themselves in is a poisonous one. The first image we get is of two cars passing each other in the prison yard: one contains the corpse of a prisoner, and other contains Joe Collins (Lancaster), just returned from a stint in solitary for concealing a knife. Except Joe was framed by another prisoner named Wilson, acting at the behest of sadistic Captain of the Guards, Munsey (Hume Cronyn). That’s what Munsey does: provokes the prisoners and turns them against each other to provide himself with opportunities to punish, torture and wield control over the men. 

Munsey’s techniques are opposed by the warden and the prison doctor (Art Smith). But the powers-that-be are clearly behind Munsey, leaving the warden weak and fretful and the doctor alcoholic. The whole concept of prison as a system of rehabilitation and prisoners as fellow humans has been lost. Consequently, Joe Collins sees no possible hope than to make a break from this inescapable prison, and he recruits his fellow cellmates and a few others for his daring plan. 

If any of this sounds like the stuff of every prison film, well, it mostly is, but at least it’s beautifully acted, directed by Jules Dassin (yet another fine director whose career was cut short by the Hollywood blacklist, although Dassin at least fled to Europe and made equally fine movies there), and expertly shot by William H. Daniels, personal cinematographer for Greta Garbo. The camera work is exemplary, with tracking shots of the prisoners jammed six to a cell and angles revealing the danger that lurks around every corner of a building that is both vast and claustrophobic.

The men of R17: Jack Overman, John Hoyt, Whit Bissell, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster

But something’s off here: a few of my classmates commented on the fact that they had worked in prisons and never met a group of saints like the guys who inhabit cell R17. Sure, some guys turn stool pigeon for Munsey in the vain hopes of attaining parole, the only alternative way to death of getting out of there. But most of the prisoners at Westgate Prison operate under a system of shared honor and friendship. Nobody preys upon anybody else; instead, they turn their hatred on the stoolies, exacting brutal vengeance to combat the brute force of Munsey’s methods. 

And the guys in R17 love each other especially, which is a good thing since the six of them are jammed into a cell the size of my bathroom. They open up to each other, sharing their dreams, their fears, and the stories of the women they have loved, always to their detriment. They have placed a calendar with the face of a beautiful woman hanging on the wall, her features vague enough that she could stand for any of their girls. (The woman was painted by John Decker, the same artist who created the fascinating paintings in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street.) At the last minute, Dassin decided to add flashbacks for most of the guys to bring some beauty into the picture by letting us meet the cellmate’s girls.

Publicity still: Yvonne de Carlo, Ella Raines, and Ann Blyth

And what girls they are! Joe probably has the best of the bunch: his wife (Ann Blyth) is dying of cancer and refuses to get treatment until Joe can be with her. Then there’s Soldier (Howard Duff), who stole food to give to his Italian sweetheart (Yvonne de Carlo) and then took the rap when she killed her despicable father who was trying to rat on this despised Yankee G.I.; Spencer (John Hoyt) who places too much trust in the classy looking dame (Anita Colby) sitting at the casino table next to him; and, most heartbreakingly, Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) who would do anything to provide his ungrateful wife (Ella Raines) with some luxury. 

Most of these women are rotten, and the demands of the one “good girl,” Joe’s wife, are what prompts him to instigate this doomed escape attempt. The film is extraordinarily violent, and this actually saves it from feeling unremittingly bleak – at least, until the end, when the doctor, while bandaging up a wounded detainee, shakes his head and ponders how any of the dead prisoners could have hoped to escape. He stands and faces a window, the bars covering his face, and mutters, “Nobody escapes from here.” 

Hume Cronyn drives Whit Bissell to a desperate act

This feels very much like a post-war film: the prison under Munsey’s instruction has become a Fascist state – even his cap and uniform resemble that of a member of the SS. That the men suffer at the hands of this brutal enemy for crimes committed at the behest of a woman underscores the emotional upheaval felt by returning soldiers and repeated as a moral again and again in films like these. It’s a classic lesson in noir

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Criss Cross (1949) was meant to be our main film of our final class, but Elliot located something he thinks is really special, and so he shoved this one into the “bonus film” slot for this week. I am looking forward to this new film because anything that replaces a movie like Criss Cross has to be special. This is our second look at the direction of Robert Siodmak after Phantom Lady, and he has teamed with cinematographer Franz Planer to deliver another visually evocative film. The story, based on a novel by Don Tracy, is far more realistic than the Cornell Woolrich-adapted Lady, but on the surface it certainly depicts the typical relationship found in these movies between a “decent” guy and some very bad people. 

Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, who left L.A. after his marriage to Anna (Yvonne de Carlo again, this time a star!) falls apart. But he just can’t leave her alone, so he comes home to his parents’ apartment and starts to haunt the places that he and Anna used to frequent. Pretty quickly he runs into her again at their favorite bar/dance club, and something is rekindled. Matters are complicated by the fact that Anna is already on a date – with a gangster. And since that gangster, Slim Dundee, is played by noir stalwart Dan Duryea, you know that Steve is in for trouble. 

With Slim, Anna gets furs . . . and fists . . .

The film has everything you could hope for in film noir: a good guy and a bad guy battling it out for the love of a woman who doesn’t deserve either of them; a strong contrast presented between the folks representing the hero’s good nature (his parents, kid brother with cute girlfriend, the wise bartender) and the bad (a delightful assortment of goons working with the gangster); the good man driven to commit crimes for the love of that rotten ff, followed by the bad man reluctantly teaming up with the good man (although Slim just wants the money); a grand series of double- and triple-crosses that earn the film its title; a big flashback; a big, beautifully filmed and very violent heist; a protagonist who is so self-aware that he narrates his own Fate (with a capital F . . . for Fatalism). 

Throughout our class discussion, the Zoom chat was alive with people commenting on de Carlo’s Anna: “Typical femme fatale!” they cried. And sure, they’re right . . . but even so. I found myself examining Anna through this – dare I say it, “woke”? – lens, and I saw her differently. Our first view of her is on the dance floor, where her samba (with an uncredited Tony Curtis) is vibrant and sexual. That’s exactly what the members of the band are trying to evoke, and Anna embraces that vibe with total abandon. As Steve gazes steadfastly at her from the doorway, he is warring with himself over two powerful feelings: the natural instinct to run and embrace her, and the warning his mother just gave him that Anna was always the wrong woman for him. 

. . . . while with Steve she gets – well, Burt (but no bliss)

She certainly was, but not because she is bad and Steve is good. Anna is that rare breed in 1949: a woman who would gladly embrace domestic bliss, so long as it doesn’t tamp down her natural instinct to have, and be, fun. She pushes back against the idea that happiness needs to be muted and proper; she craves excitement. Moreover, she doesn’t hold grudges, so as Steve makes the decision to turn away, she spots him and pulls him back to her table (sitting him in the chair where her date has been seated). Their moments of reminiscence before Slim returns to his girl feel so realistic: Steve is awkward, but Anna is happy. It’s not like she’s unrealistic. She remembers the fighting, but she also remembers the delicious making up afterward; it was, she claims, her favorite part of their relationship. 

Twenty minutes more into the film, and Anna makes her choice. We could interpret her actions as a woman who played two men against each other so that, like Jane Greer in Out of the Past, she could watch them duke it out. Or maybe, as Steve accuses, she went for the money. However, we can’t blame all of this on Anna. Steve has pretty much behaved like a jerk, constantly reminding Anna that everyone in his life thinks he’s too good for her, constantly moping about how wrong his renewed attraction feels, how bad it would be for him if they got back together. 

The truth of the matter is that, even though Slim ends up beating Anna and treating her shamelessly, Steve also wants total control over “his woman.” We see this echoed in an early, played-for-laughs moment after dinner in his parents’ apartment. Steve is relaxing on the sofa and turns to see his younger brother (Richard Long) pin his girlfriend to the door and laughingly demand a kiss. When she shakes her head in refusal, he raises his hand to strike her. She smiles – because she’s in on this joke – and submits to his affections. Through it all, Steve watches and smiles, thinking how perfect this sort of relationship could be for him. 

But it’s not what Anna wants. She wants a meeting of bodies and souls, minus the neurotic badinage, just passion and fun equally shared by two equal partners. She can’t get it from Steve or Slim, but Steve’s tragic flaw is his assumption that she is more turned on by the violence of Slim’s approach (he literally whips her in private), and so he throws his moral high ground away and plots an armored car heist with the gangster. 

Their plan is conceived in an abandoned apartment in the old Bunker Hill district of L.A., with the Angels Flight funicular running outside the window. Slim forces Anna to sit, bored and tense, as they finalize their heist, and at one moment when Steve and Anna are alone, she bemoans the fact that she ever saw Steve again. I suppose, in 1949, audiences could dismiss her regret as specious, but I think she had higher hopes that time and distance would make a stronger man out of Steve. 

In the end, you could interpret Anna’s actions as the typical betrayal by a femme fatale who thinks only of herself. I think it’s something different: Anna is exactly where she promised Steve she would be, rather than absconding to Mexico where she could compare her suitcase full of money with that of Kathie Moffat. It’s Steve who has spoiled everything, trusting the wrong person and setting up himself and Anna for Slim’s revenge. As she packs up the dough and tells Steve she’s getting out alone, what I saw on her face was not apathy, sociopathy, or evil. I saw a disappointed woman contemplating the bitter wreck her ex-husband had become. I saw the regret she felt that she had ever hailed Steve at the bar and invited him back to her table. Anna is the equal of Steve here: they have both realized that you can’t go home again.

Death as a work of art

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Next week, an extraordinary double bill! One is dark enough to satisfy the geek in all of us, while in the other, well, as Christie once said, “They do it with mirrors!”