Killer Dames

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She’s the husky-voiced dame with the killer legs and inscrutable eyes; a chill beauty who hands out sex like candy but takes money and life like a slot machine; an enigma wrapped in furs and jewels and an unspoken past who gives away no secrets. She’s the Femme Fatale, and she’s the subject of New York City’s Film Forum’s retrospective, Femmes Noirs: Hollywood’s Dangerous Dames, beginning July 18 and continuing for three weeks through August 7, 2014. Programmed by Repertory Programmer Bruce Goldstein, Femmes Noirs features some of film noir’s deadliest ladies, dazzling us in shimmery black-and-white or occasionally entrancing us in color, in some of the darkest crime thrillers from Hollywood’s golden age and beyond. It’s a must-see series: a blast of ice-cold cinema in the heat of summer; a survey of some of noir’s most important directors, actors, and, especially, actresses; and a look at some of the coolest and cruelest Fatales who ever parked a pistol next to the tube of lipstick in a purse.

Film Forum’s series opens with a pair of golden-age 1940s noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce (July 18-19), featuring two quintessentially noir anti-heroines, Lana Turner and Joan Crawford; and closes with a week-long viewing of the film that set the noir template: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (August 1-7), in which blonde-wigged Barbara Stanwyck lures Fred MacMurray into a morass of murder, deceit, and greed, and winds up in an ambiguous does-she-or-doesn’t-she-love-him ending. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is the Fatale of our dark dreams: the enticingly rotten core from whence springs the double and triple crosses, duplicitous graspings at money and power, and cold-blooded manipulations that make up noir’s shady world. In between these iconic movies Goldstein has programmed a wicked mix of such classics as Murder, My Sweet, with Claire Trevor as the swellest little gal who ever stuck a gun in a guy’s ribs (July 25); poverty-row masterpieces like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (July 27), featuring the magnificent Ann Savage in a performance etched in splashes of acid; and spicy little B’s like Tension (July 29), starring the great, unsung Audrey Totter as a coolly sluttish Fatale who slinks on screen accompanied by a saxophone’s sleazy wail.

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Not all noirs and their deadly dames need come from the Fatal Forties, however. Also in the series are a pair of 1980s ‘neo-noirs’ (July 30): Body Heat, starring smoky-voiced Kathleen Turner in a Double Indemnity retelling that lays out bare the earlier film’s erotic hints; and the aptly named Fatal Attraction, wherein career-woman Glenn Close brings the Fatale into the feminist age. Including these films demonstrates how the Fatale is not limited to a particular decade or film-making system, but can reflect different times through her shape-shifting self. As earlier noirs came out of a post-world-war era of emotional letdown and unease, these two later ones, with their more explicit look at the delights and dangers of dirty sex, claim the Reagan Eighties, a time of reignited Cold War tensions, Wall Street flamboyance, middle-class diminishment, and the burgeoning fear of AIDS, as fertile noir territory. Balancing out these post-modern noirs is a film that could be considered proto-noir, the 1927 silent classic Pandora’s Box (July 21, a one-time showing with live music played by Steve Sterner). A blend of German expressionism and Roaring Twenties decadence, the film’s emblematic Fatale, Lulu, played by Louise Brooks as a giddily amoral vamp, is the prototype for all casually cruel, heedlessly seductive women who ever brought a good man to his ruin.

So what in these films defines the Fatale, this cinematic Dark Lady who lies coiled like a lamia at noir’s bleak heart? She’s the genre’s most striking character–and, as played by a stunningly beautiful blonde or brunette, she’s hard to miss–yet also its most unfathomable. Her purring sexuality entices while remaining aloof; and her hard, sleek glamour is part of an alluringly mysterious demeanor that reeks of repressed wishes. The Fatale’s attraction is that of the illicit; her sex appeal is based as much on fear as on lust. Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity knows that Barbara Stanwyck is bad news the moment her anklet-bound figure first rivets his eyes, but she’s a disturbance he avidly pursues. Nor is Robert Mitchum’s weary detective from Out of the Past (July 21-22) deterred from plunging into an affair with Jane Greer’s errant gangster’s girlfriend, even though he knows she may have blasted a hole in said gangster Kirk Douglas. Cool, calculating, and in control, the noir woman is cinema’s Sphinx: the unexplored landscape that can’t be mapped, the deceptive vortex that sucks the noir hero into chaos and destruction. That the protagonist is drawn to her, in spite of her lethal aspect, marks her as the ultimate signifier of Desire as Death Wish.

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Desire, in all forms, may be what links these movies in Film Forum’s series: desire for status, money, the good life, and for the Fatale herself. Often the story revolves around an out-of-his-depth male caught up in a mad passion for his dark lady, all for naught: “I didn’t get the money,” MacMurray muses in Double Indemnity, “and I didn’t get the woman.” MacMurray at least has an idea of what he’s getting into. Family man Dick Powell, on the other hand, thinks he’s merely dallying with Lizabeth Scott in in Pitfall (July 28)—that is, until he’s spied on, beaten up, and even forced to commit murder. Never was a mere fling so costly. What unites these two men, as well as contented householder Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction and henpecked Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street (July 24), is what might be called the civilized man’s discontent: the boredom of a safe, repetitive life. (MacMurray and Powell even work for insurance companies, businesses that depend on predictability and established patterns.) It’s no coincidence that noir’s heyday was from the late 1940s through the 1950s, when post-war American culture emphasized a return to normalcy: wife and kids, a long-term job, a nice house in the suburbs, and two weeks at the seaside once a year. But then stepping in with her slingback shoes to roil such deep pools of complacency is the Fatale, disrupting the expected and shattering the routine. Her promise is one of excitement, even if it’s the kind that teeters on the abyss.

Desire works both ways, and the series’s programming juxtaposes male pursuit with female obsession. Both Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven (July 20-21) and Jean Simmons in Angel Face (July 22) ruthlessly strip the field of any rivals for their men’s affections, Tierney even striking at sibling bonds to get what she wants. Death itself is just another useful tactic for these dames to keep a hold. Perhaps no other Fatale embraces obsession so frenziedly as does criminally inclined Peggy Cummins in Joseph Lewis’s great, manic Gun Crazy (July 27), in which she and smitten spouse John Dall literally cannot drive their cars away from each other. Cummins and Dall’s love is so all-encompassing it achieves a hellish transcendence: hunted like animals, the pair are driven to hide out in a swamp, where steaming fog and vegetation bind and isolate them in their own private inferno—a vision of oblivion in which only these two, in their consuming mutual desire, can exist. As Rita Hayworth observes in Gilda (July 23), the Fatale and her mate tend to be stinkers. Innocent bystanders should keep their distance.

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Yet the Fatale’s desire can also be simple. Usually she wants money, usually someone else’s. Whether it’s a $60,000 blackmail payoff accidentally tossed into the back seat of Lizabeth Scott’s car in Too Late For Tears (July 31), or the jewel-encrusted, incalculably valuable statue of The Maltese Falcon (July 25) as Mary Astor’s object of desire, or a sizable cut of a racetrack robbery’s takings lusted after by Marie Windsor in The Killing (July 26), the Fatale will do what’s necessary to get the greenbacks, no matter how many bodies need to fall. A measure of the Fatale’s success can be seen in the number of dead men trailing her deadly wake. Indeed, much of the plot of The Killers (July 23) is Edmond O’Brien tracking those deceased unfortunates who crossed Ava Gardner’s path.  A variant of P.T. Barnum’s maxim could be applied to noir’s oft-noted fatalism: there’s always a sucker willing to be fooled and fleeced. And the Fatale is always there to find him.

But the Fatale’s desire for dough (and plenty of it) can represent more than gold-digging with murder on the side. It means independence and equality in a man’s world, success in a post-war capitalist society that pressured women to give up war-time jobs to returning soldiers and retire into the nursery and kitchen. Joan Crawford’s role as Mildred Pierce (July 18-19; 31) amplified her 1930s working-girl-up-from-the-slums parts in a noir plot that has Mildred rising by her own ankle-strapped-shoed ambition from waitress to business owner to socialite, with a couple of husbands shed along the way. Barbara Stanwyck actually runs her own town in The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (July 31), proudly showing once-and-future boyfriend Van Heflin how she’s increased productivity and improved workers’ lives, while covertly prodding wimpy D.A. spouse Kirk Douglas to cover up her transgressions. And while besotted John Garfield can’t take his eyes off white-clad Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, she keeps hers fixed on the greasy spoon she owns, aiming to turn it into a fancy restaurant with or without his help. It’s in this mix of economic enterprise and feminine wiles that the Fatale is at her most charmingly subversive—the liberated female ego that knows no line not to cross.

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Embedded as she is in noir cinema, the Fatale may seem a product of modernity, a fevered crystallization of 20th-century urban male anxiety. Yet as an archetype she’s been portrayed throughout human history; her origins could be rooted in Lilith, the original dangerous dame who desired, then deserted a hapless man. But in a series focused on the Fatale in film, it’s her sinuously cinematic image that informs the genre and draws our eyes—toward such deliciously perverse ladies as Joan Bennett’s amorous tramp Lazylegs in Scarlet Street, wrapped in a transparent mackintosh like a poison lollypop in cellophane; or Rita Hayworth wriggling through a mock striptease in Gilda and kissing Orson Welles in front of an undulating squid in The Lady From Shanghai (July 24); or the bursting ripeness of Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (July 22), a rare Technicolor noir, where she’s a lusciously soft and pink Venus Fly Trap—as sweet as candy and just as sticky.

As embodied in such actresses, the Fatale is cinema’s ultimate Bad Girl; and while the Production Code and audience expectations stipulate that she be punished for her sins, it’s still her sins we want to watch (that she’s allowed to get so far in her destructive schemes—and that we enjoy that destruction—indicates how deeply she reflects our own hidden yen for lawlessness). Fixed as her image is in our psyches, yet elusive of our attempts to contain her, the Fatale demands we react to her—she reaches beyond the screen’s two dimensions and lodges her delectably heartless self in the mind’s labyrinth, wherein reside our darkest desires. And for three weeks at the Film Forum, we can indulge these dark desires to their guiltily pleasurable full.

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Please click here for a complete schedule of Film Forum’s Femmes Noirs: Hollywood’s Dangerous Dames.

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