I have been dipping into the inky reservoirs of film noir these days, and enjoying myself immensely. This genre has been so well critiqued and appreciated by cineastes, scholars, and pseudo-intellectuals, that I won’t pretend to have anything new to say. Besides that, I am a relative newcomer to this pasture of pop culture. Instead, I will just talk here about a few films that are among my favorites right now, and that share the theme of l’amour fou and the femme fatale.
I’ll start with Gilda, which stars Rita Hayworth, shown above in one of the sexiest vamp scenes in film history. Hayworth was a fabulous dancer (Fred Astaire said she was his favorite partner – did Ginger know that?) and she had great comic talent. The dancing is in evidence in this film, but the comediene is suppressed, although it gives some zing to the repartee between Glen Ford and her. Personally, I can’t really see her as a femme fatale in this movie, although she is certainly a fatal woman for a few characters. She has a heart of gold, she’s not really gone bad – just searching for a way out. She still loves Glen Ford’s character…and there is a happy ending for them. Is that noir? Picky, picky, it’s a wonderful film.
Gilda does her famous one-glove strip tease to excite the jealousy and anger of her one-time boyfriend, Ford, who just can’t get her out of his system. He watches the routine form the casino office, but when she calls for help getting out of her dress after the number – “I’m not very good with zippers…but maybe if I had some help!” Several gentlemen rush to oblige – Ford looses his cool and yanks her offstage. Watch the entire clip here.
And speaking of Fred and Ginger, here they are in a sexy dance clutch in an otherwise absurd film, Flying Down to Rio. Ginger is definitely naughty in this one, unlike her image in the contemporary imagination.
She is a classic femme fatale in this one, Anna, Steve’s former wife whom he cannot…of course…get out of his system. She’s with a hood now, Slim Dundee, but when Steve gets back in town, there’s no keeping them apart, after they hash out old grudges, especially after she shows him how her new boyfriend treats her.
Things go from bad to worse, as they are wont to do in the noir universe, and everything is predetermined, or “in the cards,” as Steve says in the voice-over narration. (Interesting that he can narrate his own story since he is dead…) In the end, cornered, Anna makes clear to Steve that her first priority is her survival, and she tries to wise up Steve, the incurable romantic, to reality as she packs her bags. Too late, they both come to a bad end. The final tableau, shown here in what I think is a studio still, slightly different from the image in the film, is obviously influenced by renaissance depictions of the deposition and pieta. A reverse pieta, befitting noir: the male cradles the female, the good sinner supporting the sinner at heart.
Gun Crazy is the story of Bart and Laurie, two crazy kids, real crazy, who meet cute and go on a spree. Watching these films, with their intense sexual energy, you wonder what they would have been like if they had been made ten or fifteen years later. Well, with Gun Crazy, you need only watch Bonnie & Clyde to know. It owes “Crazy” a big debt for its linking of ecstatic sexuality with deadly gunplay, although not its explicitness.
Here’s the sequence where Bart and Laurie meet. At the carnival shooting demonstration, she walks onstage after the build up, with guns blazing.
Bart is mesmerized, and positively bewitched when she points her gun at him and pulls the trigger…just a blank!
Bart accepts the barker’s challenge to a shooting contest with Laurie, and of course, he wins. That doesn’t usually happen, so Laurie and her manager don’t have the promised $300 prize on hand to give Bart. He accepts her diamond ring as payment, their future union assured.
One of the most fascinating passages in Gun Crazy is during one of their many bank heists. They hijack a large Cadillac from a passing motorist, and use it for the pickup and getaway car. The entire scene – it goes on for minutes – is filmed from the back seat of the car, no cuts! Here are some stills:
Driving to the crime scene…
They pull up to the bank, but a cop appears and lingers. Laurie has to take care of him. She engages him in conversation and lets him handle her gun. She tries to get him to hand her his gun, but no dice. Note – it is all framed by the car window.
The bank alarm goes off, and she knocks him out. Bart can be seen on the left rushing out the door to get to the car.
Home free! Look at that smile on her face.
I am indebted to my friend and noir mentor for pointing me to this snippet of an interview with the director regarding his instructions to the young actors:
I told John, “Your cock’s never been so hard,” and I told Peggy, “You’re a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.” That’s exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn’t have to give them more directions
Below is a still from the ecstatic death scene in Bonnie & Clyde: click on it to see a video clip. I don’t think noir ever demonstrates this sort of pure sensuality in crime and death. The scene’s suspense and power is heightened by the creative and assured editing.
In The Big Combo, we have another classic noir, a hard boiled detective story with some torture, homosexual thugs, and sexual obsession thrown in. Diamond is a police detective obsessed with Susan, a good girl gone bad, and now the moll of the head of the big crime syndicate, Mr. Brown. Brown dresses nattily, and never talks directly to the scum he has to deal with, the police that is. “Tell the man that if he tries to arrest me…Tell this man that if…” Yes, Susan is the femme fatale for Diamond, but for her, the fatal attraction is to Mr. Brown. She is in thrall to him because of his ability to bring her to unspeakable (and unshowable) sexual excitement. This is abundantly evident in the sequence shown below, as Mr. Brown sinks out of the frame, covering her with kisses all the way down.
Finally, Nightmare Alley, the old story of a con man’s swift rise and precipitous fall, fleecing the credulous with his bogus spiritual revelations. I was familiar with the story by way of Spain’s comic book (graphic novel, for you sophisticates) version of the story, and I think that carried me through the too slow build up in the film. But it was worth it to see Helen Walker as Lilith Ritter, the praying mantis style of femme fatale, send the con on a dizzy downward trajectory with a nasty double cross.