First impressions, they say, are everything. Take, in this case, Hazel Brooks, who in the 1948 noir Sleep, My Love is first seen as a pair of seemingly-nude legs descending a staircase. As first impressions go, it’s a lulu:
Long-legged ladies have descended cinematic stairs before (Barbara Stanwyck, for starters). But Brooks’s entrance has a peculiar resonance. Was that particular head-on configuration of her body—legs, steps, and, most pertinently, the suggestion of nakedness—an hommage on director Douglas Sirk’s part to Nude Descending a Staircase, Marcel Duchamp’s mechanistic dissection, like fast-frozen streaming water, of a nude torso in motion? Per this Wikipedia article, one of Duchamp’s own influences may have been Edweard Muybridge’s stop-motion study, Woman Walking Downstairs, which depicts an unclothed woman coming down a staircase. I’ve no doubt that Sirk would have been familiar with Duchamp, and he probably knew about Muybridge also. Could that knowledge have played into his staging of Brooks’s entrance?
Brooks isn’t really naked, of course. Such candor wasn’t permitted under the Production Code. She’s definitely dressed; along with sheer stockings she’s clad in a short black ‘teddy’ and is further wrapped in a floor-length, sheer black negligee. She’s not nude, but she’s something better. She’s a goad to the imagination. As you watch her beautiful long legs enter the film frame, as you watch them descend, step by step, their plush, round knees bobbing in a smooth, slow rhythm; followed by the thighs, equally plush and round, equally smooth and dawdling in their rhythm; and all amid a swirl of transparent chiffon, you wonder: what’s coming next?
What comes next, alas, is the knickered cut-off—the teddy’s severe black shorts, sliced right at the crotch line. They’re like the boundary of the cinematic frame, blocking from view any more of those ripe, round protuberances possessed by this enticing creature. Sirk’s camera teases us, letting our eyes climb up those long luscious gams as they come into view, but only so close, so far, only until our eyes hit that teddy bar. What tops those lovely limbs we can only, frustratingly, imagine.
Not that whatever’s left of Hazel Brooks on view will disappoint. She was a sensational, I mean a SENSATIONAL-looking woman, with a face to stop your heart. Tall, lush, and leggy, she stares out at us from a perfectly formed visage that can’t rouse itself to look interested, but dares you to try to make her. And she’s the reason to watch Sleep, My Love. The film is that type of women’s noir in which a devious man plots to do away with a fragile, albeit filthy-rich, heroine for sound economic reasons. Think of Gaslight or So Evil, My Love, films whose stultifyingly proper 19th-century settings can’t disguise the naked lust and greed that impel all film noir.
Sirk’s film moves the story out of its Victorian fustian and updates it to a luxury townhouse in mid-20th-century New York, the city where beautiful living spaces matter. The best habitats are those that ordinary mortals can’t ever afford. But Don Ameche, playing one of those ordinary unaffording louses, is married to Claudette Colbert, one of those ritzy, helpless dames that such noirs require, and is scheming to bump her off so he can take over both her income and her highly desired swanky digs. And then move Brooks in.
And I don’t blame him. Brooks has the looks that might inspire mayhem in the most upright citizens. It’s not that she’s a sexy hot mama. She’s not Jean Harlow, wriggling to get out of her pants for a racy tumble. Brook is as stony as Mount Rushmore; she talks hard, tough, and mean, like cold concrete given a voice. And her meanness shows. Whenever Brooks allows Ameche to kiss her—and it’s always when she allows—she grabs his shoulder like a clawing cat, he grabs her throat as if to choke her. Their love-making is formalized savagery; they would rip each other apart except that each has something the other wants. For Ameche, it’s to possess the ultimate trophy: the classy whore, gorgeous, sexy, aloof, hanging onto your arm for a price, whom you can show off to your envious friends: See what my money can buy! She’s status, pride, an affirmation of attaining the unattainable—all that noir men crave to have, so they can feel like big shots among their sorry peers.
But what Brooks wants is what matters. That’s what’s hot about Brooks—it’s her own desire: not for Ameche (he’s merely a means to an end), but for the good life. You can see it in the gleaming orbs of her eyes. They’re as dry the desert sands when taking in another human being (who’s only a nuisance to be dealt with), but just the thought of material luxury makes them go slightly mad: hot, shiny, and wet with yearning. Brooks wants it ALL: the house, the money, the clothes, the jewels; everything that Colbert has acquired without effort—the charmed, privileged life of the born-to-it well-to-do. She’ll even take her husband, as an afterthought. And she’s fed up with waiting. Her flat, impassive voice, as she expresses her desire—“I want it now; I want her house, her name, her man, and I want them NOW, tonight”—is like chilled venom. It would freeze Lucifer. Crikey, she was good.
Brooks was one of the great, unheralded noir femme fatales of the 1940s. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone as startling, yet as unremarked-on, since I first viewed the great, should-be-better-known Jean Gillie of Decoy. Like Gillie, Brooks is no mere pretty face. She knows what she’s doing in every scene, living them moment by moment, breathing through a character’s very pores. Her eyes react, they move, glitter, shift, they think. And she uses all her equipment to tell you about her character. When she approaches a man, she walks with rolling hips but crossed arms, inviting and rejecting all at once; while out of that doll-like face comes a voice not high-pitched or breathy but a knife-edged purr, hardening like cooled taffy—a bit Mae Westian but without the humor. You sense that she tolerates men and their hot gropings only for the beautiful accessories which are to come after. For Brooks, that matters more. Much, much more.
And the camera loved her. In her first shot in 1947’s Body and Soul, lying serenely on a white couch, her eyes half-closed, her face a perfect oval (she seems to have inspired great first shots), she’s like a beautiful corpse, gone past earthly passions. (Brooks has a similar shot in Arch of Triumph—there as a literal corpse, her angelically perfect map framed like a statue on a tomb.) William Conrad’s hand strokes her hair and face, but you just know, by her rapt, mad expression, that she’s not even aware of him, that he has no more importance than the brush of a gnat’s wing. Only her eyes are active: raging, hungry, desiring eyes.
Brooks plays the film’s “bad girl,” the one who tempts boxer John Garfield away from all that’s true, good, decent, and dull, and she’s the one who WANTS. She wants money, mainly. And to get it she wants champ Garfield, making goo-goo eyes at him when she visits him at his training camp, drawling her words in a deep, slouchy voice; syrup with a slow poison. But behind that curdled voice is a killer. Watching Garfield box in the ring, she’s transported by blood lust, bellowing “Kill Him!” at the top of her lungs, like a Roman cheering on the lions. My own eyes goggled in shock as I watched her, but yet I felt this woman’s excitement, her rage for thrills, her willingness to hit the extremes.
Oddly, in both these films, the actors with whom Brooks really heats up are the unglamorous supporting guys—the meat-and-potato boys, who lack the pretty profiles but supply the drama. In Sleep, My Love Brooks’s character is in cahoots with spectacled George Coulouris, who, as part of Ameche’s plan to drive Colbert bonkers, houses Brooks at his run-down photography business (she’s apparently his model). Brooks can barely tolerate Coulouris’s dry, fussy presence, his constant worrying, and his silly wife; she sneers orders in that dead, icy voice as if he were a busboy (“Calm down, Four-Eyes,” are her first words to him), and flaunts her contempt for this meager man in her very stance, strutting her near-nude body right in front of him. But Coulouris’s significance is in his very lack of reaction; he’s the only man in the film who isn’t aroused by her. The pair are out for the same prize, and they need each other to achieve it. The two actors seem to play off their characters’ mutual hatred: they’re like scorpions waving their pincers but not chancing an attack. With so much at stake, there’s no point wasting their venom on themselves.
And with the beefy Conrad in Body and Soul, Brooks crackles. He plays her ditched boyfriend who keeps trying to get her back, keeps hinting that the good times with Garfield won’t last. “Don’t you ever give up?” she snarls, and her voice suddenly goes dry, drained, and tired. She’s sick of Conrad, but she’s lashed to him like sin to the damned, by their mutual greed for the big fix the champ represents. Conrad slams reality at her: she’s not getting younger, he sneers, she’ll be needing a “new paint job.” Again, Brooks reacts, her eyes lowering swiftly, momentarily stung. Then she recovers; uncoiling to her full height—she’s taller than Conrad—she smiles down at him with a sly, dirty relish. “And I know where to get it,” she snaps. Her voice here is low, quick, with a gleaming cold edge, the swift, cool thrust of an ice pick. She talks fast but she enunciates every word clearly; she means Conrad to hear it, to understand that she’s determined to get it all. And that no small, fat, futile man will get in her way.
Why wasn’t more made of Brooks? Why, after making her mark in two plum roles in A-list films, didn’t she have a bigger career? My god, it’s not that she’s unwatchable. Did she find the work unsatisfactory? Or did the public just not notice? Although at least one studio had planned to make her a star, her filmography is sadly brief: mostly walk-ons and small parts, such as in The Basketball Fix from 1951. She’s light and humorous here (proving she could do more than icebergs), as a gangster’s mistress who dabbles in astrology (“Wait a minute. Trying to figure out when the Moon is gonna square Neptune”). It’s a small role, barely written, but she makes an impact. She’s jolly and relaxed, cracking jokes, enjoying outdoor dining and the sun on her face; I wanted to see more of her. But the film is a poor one, a B-crime drama about sports betting, and it gives Brooks nothing to do. Which is unfortunate, as Brooks could do plenty.
At least Brooks’s life didn’t end in the dregs, as sometimes is the fate with promising starlets. Per IMDB, after her retirement from films Brooks became a successful stills photographer, perhaps finding such work a more preferred outlet for her talents. Having been a stills model herself, she no doubt knew something of the kind of image that can fix the eye while piercing the mind. And perhaps she found more satisfaction in private life. In 1944, at age 19, Brooks has wed MGM’s great art director, the 50-year-old Cedric Gibbons. Their union caused the usual wave of Hollywood snickering, about Besotted Aging Male under the sway of Hot Young Thing. But the marriage seems to have been a success; Brooks stayed with Gibbons until his death in 1960. She then married a doctor and stayed with him until his death in 1999. Brooks herself died in 2002, after devoting many years to charitable work, her film career by then long forgotten.
What could Brooks have done had she gone on? In what ways could she have marked film noir, had she continued in such roles? (I would love to have seen her in Blonde Ice, for instance; its title perfectly captures her allure.) Brooks was no generic vamp, pulled off the standard-noir shelf. Instead, she gave us the grimy insides of these cold, pristine ladies: their hunger and self-absorption, their lethal wants. They’re unique, memorable women, driven by hard, fast desires, each with her own thoughts, history, indeed, her own soul, however bare and paltry that appendage might be. That’s called acting. Everything these women are, Brooks shows us, with her body, voice, and eyes. Those mad, greedy, wanting eyes.
And what Brooks also showed was the purity of noir greed, its clear, consuming obsession. Beneath the blank, gorgeous surfaces of her fatales lies only the great mad chasm of desire—for money, for goods, for furs and jewels and big cars and houses—the empty passion of wanting for the sheer pleasure of it. Brooks gives us the core of the fatal noir woman: emerging from the dark, post-war consumer climate, she’s the bauble created by material lust, the frosting on capitalist culture. She’s the Big Score, which money, and only money, can buy; the thing desired, yet also desire itself.
I wonder, though, if Brooks’s fatales are too fatal for their own good. There’s something too stripped down, too honest, about Brooks in her roles. Maybe she was, a sense, too stark/ers in how she portrayed these hard, flat women on the hard, flat screen. I think we all want a little illusion with our wants, a little sweetness to soften the bitter brew. When in Double Indemnity Stanwyck, her life bleeding slowly away, suddenly bleats out her possible love for MacMurray, we want to think she means at least some of it. She couldn’t be all bad, could she? It’s a way to reassure ourselves about the interface of love and desire—that we are loved for who we are; and that we love others for who they are also. And surely the trappings shouldn’t matter.
But not Brooks. Her fatale is as naked as lust. When she wants, it’s without illusion; and when she offers herself, it’s the same: Take me as I am, or not at all. She could be the essential Maugham anti-heroine: the cold, shallow woman who wants cold, shallow things, and for whom the protagonist will throw away everything and degrade and demean himself, just for a moment of illusory warmth. How much of what Brooks portrays onscreen shows the truth about our own desires, about the desires of others, about the nature of desire? And how much of this naked truth do we really want to see?
Unlike Brooks, it’s not always a pretty picture.