Pretty Poison

August 19, 2014

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I only heard about Pretty Poison (1968) from the NYTimes obituary for the director, Noel Black.  He spoke of it after it flopped and was pulled from the theatres, saying:

“Essentially, we saw it as a story with many comedic elements in a serious framework — a kind of black comedy or existential humor of which ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is a prototype,” he said. “We hoped people would take it on more than one level.”

Let’s just stay at one level, not sure if it’s high or low:  it has one of the strangest femme fatales I have ever seen in film.

Anthony Perkins plays a disturbed parolee named Dennis Pitt, a man who deals with his discomfort with the world by spinning outrageous fantasies, this time about his being a tip-top secret agent.  He spots Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) practicing with her high school marching band, goes to work on her.  She seems to be a sweet, impressionable young girl, and the whole thing seems unbelievably corny and silly for a while, as he flirts with, and then woos her with his dark persona of an international man of mystery.

He has a destructive bent, and he enlists her in his plot to sabotage a local factory.  Sue Ann knows her way around a wrench, big or small, pulls this one out of her blouse, and gets to work.

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They are discovered by a night watchman, and Sue Ann calmly bonks him on the head with her wrench.  He’s not dead, so she pushes him the water and then climbs onto him to drown him.  Ride ’em, cowgirl!

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She explains, it’s easier this way, isn’t it?

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From here on in, we’re in Gun Crazy, Bonnie & Clyde, and yes, Dr. Strangelove territory.  Those crazy kids, but which one is really crazy?  Maybe Anthony Perkins isn’t so typecast here as we thought?

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The blue Sunbeam roadster is a nice touch.  Sue Ann’s toy.

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Nothing for it but to shoot her mother, get married, and make off to Mexico, her idea.  He isn’t quite up to killing Mom, so she does it while he’s sick in the toilet.  Some heavy handed imagery here…

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“Oh Dennis, I feel like we’re already married.  What do people do when they’ve just been married, Dennis?”

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“Oh, uh…I don’t think I can right now…”  No problem, she says.  They’ll just get rid of the body and then skedaddle.

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“Dennis, I’m so hung up on you.  I’ll always love you.”

Yes, I’m quite impressed with your capacity for loving.”

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Senso e Senso

July 5, 2014

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After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.)  Boito was a major figure in the development of  modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years.  From Wikipedia we learn that

The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…

“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents.  In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.

Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman.  She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire.  The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation.  The politics of the era, however,  are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.

In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others.  When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:

That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!

In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt.  She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:

Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.

She does have reservations once in a while:  his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.

The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it.  Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic.  Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship.  I love the bit about tickling her armpit.

I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight.  Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…

Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality.  He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia.  (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.)  The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course.  She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”.  No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.

The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly:  a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion.  “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!”  He does, and Remigio is arrested:  Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:

What happened next, I do not know.  Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.

There’s a fatal woman for you!  But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.

Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission.  Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform.  Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.

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Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.

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Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings.  Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.

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Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film.  In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…

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A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:

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The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!

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Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.

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Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it.  The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place.  Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so:  we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance!  Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.

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The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters.  Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom.  (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it.  I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)

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The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend.  (Nice armpits!)  She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.

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The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.

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Black Angel

March 5, 2014

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With time, it gets harder to locate those old noir films that are really good:  there are a lot of mediocre ones!  So, it’s always a pleasure to stumble on a real find – Black Angel (1946) is one.  The title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story – the angels are all blonde – but don’t let that bother you.  And it starts with a fantastic shot that takes us up off the street and through the window of luxury apartment way up in the sky, but still down in the dirt, of course.

A beautiful singer is murdered; a man, her ex-lover, is seen leaving the apartment.  He is caught and convicted, destined to fry in the chair, but he didn’t do it.  Catherine (June Vincent), his beautiful wife, stands by him, even though she knows he was cheating on her.  She is the model of middle-class suburban virtue.

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Mavis Marlowe, the dead woman, was quite a dish (Constance Dowling), and a real piece of work too.  She was blackmailing a few guys, including the one who is fingered for her death.  He didn’t want his sweetie to know he had been philandering.

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Martin (Dan Duryea), is her husband, obviously estranged.  She won’t give him the time of day.  They used to be a hit singer/songwriter/piano player team.  Catherine enlists Martin in her quest to free her husband, and they present themselves as a nightclub act (she used to sing) to Mr. Marko (Peter Lorre) who might have something to do with Mavis’ death.

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Marko is a sleazy guy, and he was being blackmailed by Mavis too.  With that face, he must have done it.

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He’s no fool, and very suspicious too, but he likes Catherine.  Likes her act, which does great, and likes her, a lot.  He even saves some champagne to share with her for a “special occasion”.  She doesn’t look pleased at what’s coming, but a girl has to do what she can for her hubby on death row, and it might allow her to get into that safe in Marko’s office for some clues.  She’s made quite a transformation from Mrs. Homemaker…

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There are many plot twists in the story, and the ending is a bit contrived, depending on a convenient alcoholic blackout, but it is tremendously entertaining.  All the actors are great.  (Once Catherine gets more interesting so does Vincent’s performance).  They all have things to hide, and the only one who is a straight-shooter turns out to be the criminal.


Let us count the dead men: Johnny Guitar

October 26, 2013


Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray.  Joan Crawford… Man, what else can I say?  This western is unlike any other I know.  Martin Scorsese calls it an opera, and he’s right.  That is the only way to make sense of it – the stagey-ness, the set-pieces, the slow paced emotional confrontations, the melodrama of killing, and the claustrophobic sense that there is no real world outside of what’s going on in the frame right in front of us.  Most of the action takes place in one location in town – Three Unities anyone?

You can read many analyses of this film’s political ‘symbolism’ of lynch mobs representing the contemporary HUAC activities. Or the sexual role reversal – all the men are weaklings:  the women do the heavy lifting.  Or the lesbian barely-subtext:  Vienna (Joan Crawford) as a powerful dominatrix, forcing men to cower, and engaging the adolescent love-hate of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).  Vienna wears tight pants, leather, men’s brightly colored shirts and scarves with jeans, and, at one point, confronts the town’s menfolk bent on hanging her while playing a piano wearing a wedding gown – Emma, repressed harpie wears only black and grey.  Read about that elsewhere – I just want to count the men who die for this masculine femme fatale.

There’s Turkey, the young boy-outlaw who has a sort of crush on Vienna.  He gets caught by a the posse of men in black, and is terrorized into implicating Vienna in a bank robbery he was part of.  That’s cause to hang ’em both!  The men promise him if he just talks, tells the truth, he won’t hang.  He lies, and says Vienna was in on the heist,  They take them both out to hang, but only Turkey dies, screaming protests at his betrayal.  Ah, just a kid.  What does he know?  Johnny Guitar is in hiding and manages to cut the noose rope that’s around Vienna’s pretty neck:  he couldn’t save them both, could he?  It’s actually a pretty brutal portrayal of mob murder.

Then there’s Old Tom (John Carradine).  When Vienna pays off her staff and tells them to scram before the posse comes for them too, he hides and stays.  When he witnesses the mob trying to drag Vienna off to be lynched, he shoots and is shot.  Dying in her arms, Vienna asks him, “Why, why Tom – why didn’t you go like I told you?”  The men in black crowd around – “Look, everyone is looking at me now.  It’s the first time I ever felt important.”  Vienna has that effect on men.

Then there’s the Dancing Kid and his gang, of whom Turkey was one.  Bart tries to make a deal with Emma to turn in the gang, and he kills one of mates when the guy won’t go along with the plan.  After he plants a knife in the man’s back he says, “Some guys just won’t listen.”  Johnny Guitar, an ex-gunman, kills Bart, the only man he kills in the film.  He really is done with shooting – prefers to sing and play.  That leaves The Dancing Kid, leader of the gang, and Vienna’s main squeeze before Johnny blew into town.  Emma shoots him as he rushes to protect Vienna from Emma in the climactic scene.  He dies, a bullet in his forehead, his arms raised, seeking transcendence as he calls out Vienna’s name.

And then there’s Emma herself, shot by Vienna, but she is a woman, albeit one of confused sexual identity.

Vienna’s scheme is to hold onto her property until the railroad comes through, and then sell out for piles of cash.  She’s in good with the railroad management.  Her saloon is burned down, but she still owns the land, so I guess she and Johnny will have a comfortable retirement.


Lady Audley’s Secret and the PRB

October 23, 2013

Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Elizabeth Braddon, is a pot-boiler that was fantastically popular among the Victorians.  (Thanks to that savage reading guy for pointing me to yet another good read.)  The book falls within the genre of “sensation novels,” dealing with explosive forbidden topics, e.g. incest (see A. S. Bayatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, or its great film adaptation, Angels and Insects, for a modern take on this.), madness, murder, adultery, and the like.  I’m not giving much away by saying that Lady Audley’s secret involves madness and murder, sort of…

There’s nothing too surprising or shocking in the plot for a modern reader, except perhaps how anti-climactic the unmasking of Lady Audley turns out to be:  After she is confronted with her crimes, the novel carries on with a lengthy dénouement involving yet more not-too-surprising plot twists.  It was all by way of good fun, nevertheless!

It’s interesting to compare the novel to Wuthering Heights published about fifteen years before:  that could be seen as a sensation novel of a sort, if you accept the Heathcliff-Catherine incest Freudian interpretation.  All the tempestuousness of Lady Audley would barely muss the hair of the demonic and haunted inhabitants of Wuthering Heights!

Lady Audley is a nice example of the Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale.  Here is a passage from the novel that makes that explicit:

If Mr. Holman Hunt could have peeped into the pretty boudoir, I think the picture would have been photographed upon his brain to be reproduced by-and-by upon a bishop’s half-length for the glorification of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood [PRB].  My lady in that half-recumbent attitude, with her elbow resting on one knee, and her perfect chin supported by her hand, the rich folds of drapery falling away in long undulating lines from the exquisite outline of her figure, and the luminous, rose-colored firelight enveloping her in a soft haze, only broken by the golden glitter of her yellow hair—beautiful in herself, but made bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings which adorn the shrine of her loveliness. Drinking-cups of gold and ivory, chiseled by Benvenuto Cellini; cabinets of buhl and porcelain, bearing the cipher of Austrian Marie-Antoinette, amid devices of rosebuds and true-lovers’ knots, birds and butterflies, cupidons and shepherdesses, goddesses, courtiers, cottagers, and milkmaids; statuettes of Parian marble and biscuit china; gilded baskets of hothouse flowers; fantastical caskets of Indian filigree-work; fragile tea-cups of turquoise china, adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier: cabinet pictures and gilded mirrors, shimmering satin and diaphanous lace; all that gold can buy or art devise had been gathered together for the beautification of this quiet chamber in which my lady sat listening to the mourning of the shrill March wind, and the flapping of the ivy leaves against the casements, and looking into the red chasms in the burning coals.

Note the reference to PRB photo-realism, and the emphasis on how female allure is enhanced by the material abundance of the interior.  This is materialist kitsch-decadence at its finest, or worst, depending on your taste and morals.

Lady A feels cursed by her physical beauty because it gave her the means to work her will upon the world, giving rein to the “taint of madness” in her blood, inherited from her mother.  But she makes good use of it, turning it into a powerful witchcraft with which she bedazzles and ensnares her male (always rich, or so she thinks!) prey.  She has a horror of ordinary, pedestrian life, without the richness of ornament to confirm and reflect her splendid female charms.  Exiled to a posh maison de santé (bourgeois euphemism for madhouse) at the end, she shrivels up and dies without an audience with energy for her to feed upon.

Just a note on the authoress – she seems to have been a sympathizer with the South in the Civil War.  So much of the British elite was – that’s where they got their cheap cotton to keep their mills humming.

Let us hope that when Northern Yankeedom has decimated and been decimated, blustering Jonathan may fling himself upon his Southern brother’s breast, forgiving and forgiven.

 Keeping the UK from intervening to help the South was a major diplomatic initiative of the Lincoln administration.

Here’s a gallery of PRB images of women, including a few by William Holman Hunt.


Baby Face

June 12, 2013

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1933. Two versions:  before and after the cut for release.  Needless to say, watch the first one.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a working class urchin, Lily, grown up into a speakeasy prostitute, manged by her brutal dad.  He gets blown sky-high by his malfunctioning still, and after the funeral, Lily goes to see Cragg, one of the customers, but the only man who takes her seriously.  He’s a shoemaker who gets high on Nietzsche, and he fills her head with the idea of The Will to Power.  Her lack of drive disgusts him so he gives her  advice:  “Use men to get the things you want!”

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Lily takes the advice and makes it to New York, sleeping with men all the way to get what she needs and wants.  She does quite well for herself.  Near the peak, she gets a set of books from Cragg, back in Erie, NY.  One of them gets her attention.

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She takes her philosophy seriously, very seriously.  And she puts it into practice too!

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The high point of the film comes when Lily is interrupted with her latest sugar daddy, the president of the bank where she was working.  Her former lover, the vice president, and the prospective son-in-law of the president, can’t stand not having Lily anymore after she jilts him for the big guy.  He knows he’s been replaced, but he doesn’t know by whom.  Look at that dress, one of many outrageous getups she wears!

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He tells her to sit down, “I just like to look at you.”  And more, I bet.

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He runs in, throws Lily aside, barges in, sees the old man…

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…and plugs him.

Left behind in the main room, Lily calmly waits to see the outcome.  She hears the shots, then hears one final shot…

She goes to investigate.  She finds one man…but where’s the shooter?  The following sequence goes on for what seems like quite a while.  It’s silent, and very still.  She moves slowly through the rooms, looking, contemplating…

Pretty nice outfit for police work…but she hasn’t found him yet.  She moves on.

  

There he is…

Still silent, no words…nothing.  It’s eerie, and very powerful.

Slowly she opens the door wider to get a better look, while we just see her bare back, obscuring the view.  The sound gets louder here, as though the bathroom window is open and letting in traffic noise, but I don’t know if that’s intentional, or just a quirk of the old film material.

She shuts the door on the body…

…and we get a very, very long shot of her head, in profile, barely moving.

Finally, she calmly picks up the phone.  “There’s been an accident.  You’d better call the police.”


Lilith Eternal

March 5, 2013


First there was the novel, Nightmare Alley, now available in a new printing from the NYRB.  Then the film, with Helen Walker playing Lilith Ritter, the female psychiatrist with ice water in her veins.  She sucks the life out of Stanton Carlisle, played by Tyrone Power, and throws away his deflated husk of a body.  He descends back into the muck from which he came and finishes as a geek, biting the heads off chickens for a living. It’s a faithful adaptation of the book.
   
Then there was Lilith, the uptight dominatrix psychiatrist of the TV sitcom Cheers, played by Bebe Neuwirth.  She has to be channelling Helen Walker!
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After that, came the comic book adaptation of Nightmare Alley by Spain Rodriguez, published by Fantagraphics.
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Lilith has Bebe’s dark hair…


… and is up-front about her needs…  The toe nail painting is a nice noir reference to Scarlett Street, by Fritz Lang.

And finally, we have the nifty neo-noir, Side Effects, in which Catherine Zeta-Jones , as Victoria Seibert, is definitely channelling all of the above.