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Excerpt: 'Movie Love In The Fifties'

'Movie Love in the Fifties'

Chapter 1

There's a girl wants to see you," Sam Spade's secretary, Effie, tells him at the beginning of both the novel and the movie of The Maltese Falcon. "Her name's Wonderly." Sam replies by asking if she's a customer. Effie's not sure about that, but she thinks he'll want to see Miss Wonderly in any case: "She's a knockout."

But in John Huston's 1941 movie she's not exactly what you'd expect from Dashiell Hammett's description of her in the novel: "erect and high-breasted, her legs long . . . her full lips . . . brightly red," and so on-or even from Effie's introduction. She is Mary Astor, not Rita Hayworth, and she is no "girl." She is lovely, but more in a genteel, matronly than in a long-legged, high-breasted sort of way. Invincibly ladylike, she could pass for a delegate from the garden club come to ask for a donation. A jaunty little hat sits forward on her face and rises to a point above it; a fur stole is draped over arm and shoulder, her purse held firmly in front of her. But when she sits across from Sam and starts to talk-in close-up-you begin to feel that "knockout" is exactly the right word, after all.

Her real name, as it turns out (though "Wonderly" is certainly an inspired invention) is Brigid O'Shaughnessy. And she establishes early on one of the defining characteristics of the film noir heroine: she is a liar-and in Brigid's case, a virtuoso. Astor makes her falsity so multileveled that it feels almost witty. And so even after they've made love, Bogart's Sam never loses his irony about her-calling her "angel" and "precious" and "my owntrue love"-or his pleasure in her self-performance. He settles into their encounters, sitting back in his chair or leaning against the mantel, like someone watching a curtain go up. She is dazzling, all right-but tough to be in love with: a gambit that Spade finally and successfully refuses. "I haven't led a good life," she confesses to him earlier on. "I've been bad. Worse than you could know." Astor gives us the sense at such moments that Brigid has been worse than even she could know-just as she seems to be lying even when she says she is lying. But then again, as Sam observes, "If you were actually as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere." Looking on the bright side.

In their first scene together in his office, she tells him a phony story about her missing sister, chatting away with bright unseeing eyes, not looking at him, while Bogart measures her with his fierce, sorrowful stare-like a delinquent in love with the music teacher. Whenever she does look at him, he offers a polite business face-which falls, when she looks away again, into the same mournful attentiveness. One thing this generic heroine always demands, both from the hero and from us, is to be watched. From her first entrance-which is almost always memorable in some way.

Often in very obvious ways. Like Ava Gardner, first shown to us in a sexy black gown, singing by a piano in Robert Siodmak's The Killers. Or Joan Bennett, in a plastic raincoat, sitting in a Greenwich Village gutter in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street. In his earlier film with her, The Woman in the Window, she makes an even more extraordinary first appearance: as the subject of an oil painting, on display in an art dealer's window, where it has for some time obsessed Edward G. Robinson, as a respected professor and happily married family man. He is alone one night gazing at it when the woman herself appears-her face reflected in the window glass next to the face in the portrait. And unlike the woman in the portrait, she is smiling at him. The painting is sentimentally sensual, showing its subject in a sort of beseeching attitude, with undraped shoulders, luxuriant black hair, and melting canine eyes. But the woman beside him now seems more avian than canine, with her glittering dark eyes and raven hair encased in a cloche of black feathers. She has a crisp, genial manner and an infectious, side-of-the-mouth smile. She says she likes to look at people looking at her-that's how she happened to spot him-and she invites him for a drink. First to a lounge, then to her posh, mirrored apartment. Where he ends up killing the unnamed man who pays her rent. (She hands him the scissors.)

She is a much lower-class type in Scarlet Street, and the Robinson character is even more naive and unworldly. He first comes on her in the gutter where her sleazy "boyfriend" has knocked her down and left her. Robinson rescues her and takes her to a nearby restaurant. He wants to be sure she gets something to eat. But he is also troubled by her being on the street so late at night when it isn't at all safe. She was just coming from work, she says, as she leans across the table, lights her cigarette from the candle, and looks up at him provocatively. What does she do? he asks, wide-eyed. "Guess!" she says, falling back in her chair and smiling delightedly. He frowns and hesitates. Then it comes to him: "You're an actress!" She is amazed that he knew-the first guess, too.

Walter Neff, on the other hand-Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944)-is a man who does know women, just as he knows "all the angles" or "his way around," or the insurance game, the stuff he sells for a living. And he knows at first meeting what Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is-available, among other things. That is, if you make the right moves, and if you're not afraid of the husband, or of trouble in general. She is standing at the top of the stairs (the housekeeper has let him in), so he has to call up to her to tell her that he is from the "Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company." But the name does catch her attention: "The Pacific All-What?" she asks, stepping forward to see him better. Since she is wearing only a towel, she explains that she's been sunbathing. "No pigeons around, I hope," he says roguishly-fatuously. She doesn't look amused by this, but she does look interested. She tells him she'll be right down.

When she comes downstairs she is in a rather incongruously girlish white frock, and white shoes with high heels and big white pom-poms on the toes-all of it highlighting her platinum-blond hair. She enters the parlor where Neff is waiting and goes past him to the mirror over the fireplace. He's a lot taller than she is, and he looms above her now with a faintly leering assurance. They look at each other in the mirror. "Neff is the name, isn't it?" she says briskly, as she unsheathes her lipstick and raises it to her mouth. "Yes," he says. "Two f's. Like in Philadelphia. You know the story?" "What story?" she says brightly, the words slightly muffled by the lipstick. "The Philadelphia Story," he replies. She looks at him blankly for a moment, then snaps the lipstick shut and turns from the mirror. "Suppose we sit down," she says, "and you tell me about the insurance." She smiles up at him, prettily. "My husband never tells me anything," she says, as she sits.

And in the tall wing-backed chair across from him, she looks very small and suddenly not formidable-until she crosses her long legs with those startling shoes and a chain around one of her ankles. He talks away while she examines a fingernail. He can't resist: "That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson," he says, and asks her what's inscribed on it. She looks down along her legs, slowly and wonderingly, almost as if she'd never quite noticed them before. There is a pause. "Just my name," she says at length, still gazing downward, almost as if she were answering her own question.

But mostly in this scene she offers him a kind of bright, strained encouragement. And Stanwyck makes you feel the enormous weariness behind the brightness, the deep, fatal impatience. She is "a native Californian," Phyllis tells him perkily. "Born right here in Los Angeles!" And the effect is almost as if she had announced that she was a Bruins fan, or a Girl Scouts supporter. You not only don't believe her; you understand something else as well: that she hates Los Angeles. You also understand why she does. Stanwyck's Phyllis is a woman who knows about emptiness, trying to pass for a woman who doesn't. This is a knowledge that none of the men in this movie (of mostly men) seem to have-at least not to the same degree. Not even her nemesis, the shrewd investigator played by Edward G. Robinson.

Phyllis's simmering, steady anger against ordinariness is nearly the most powerful thing in the film's early reels. When you see her playing Chinese checkers with her sweet young daughter-in-law, or performing the routines of wifeliness with her irritable and cloddish husband, you know why she wants to kill them both. You also know when you see her with Neff why she will eventually want to kill him too. Her monstrousness doesn't feel showy or exotic-it doesn't even feel "neurotic," but common and familiar and matter-of-fact, with the desperation just barely showing: "Born right here in Los Angeles!"

As the noir style goes on, into the late forties and beyond, the heroines tend to get more "realistic" and less glamorous. Compare Ava Gardner in Siodmak's The Killers (1946) to Yvonne De Carlo in his Criss Cross (1948). Kitty (Gardner) seems almost as clever as she is lissome and gorgeous, whereas Anna (De Carlo) is something of a bumbler and, while certainly sexy, looks a bit shorter and squatter than probably a femme fatale should, especially in those baggy slacks she wears when she meets the hero at the drugstore. She's also sort of a complainer. For sure, not one of life's winners.

But she can dance-as she does to a samba band at a local nightclub while Burt Lancaster looks on at her. They were married once, and he still hasn't gotten over her. He hadn't really expected to see her there, but he spots her on the crowded dance floor as soon as the music starts. Noir heroes do a lot of this hungry girl-watching, but probably no one else does it with as much youthful nakedness and touching avidity as Lancaster does here: he seems almost to gleam with longing in these close-ups, as he watches Anna dance.

She starts with one of those it's-nothing-to-do-with-me expressions on her face that good dancers often affect. And Siodmak's close-up framing of her-over the shoulder of her barely visible partner (a bit player then called Anthony Curtis)-shows almost nothing below her head and shoulders, implying more of her movement than it actually shows, so that what we're looking at-as she dips, turns, passes, tosses her head, revolves her shoulder, and so forth-is less her dancing than her absorption in it, the concentration of someone who really dances, who becomes almost selfless. And as the musical fever mounts-a flute threnody, rising above the beat of maracas and drums, punctuated by piano fusillades-Siodmak's framing gets tighter and tighter, the cutting between De Carlo, Lancaster, the samba band, more rapid: from De Carlo shaking her shoulders and moving her hands on the air in front of her; to the hunched-over piano player pounding the keys; to De Carlo again, faster and closer; to the pianist's hands; to Lancaster, staring gravely, almost as if he were looking at a death; and so on. And it's hopeless. He's been trying to stay away from her. But at this moment, this otherwise rather frumpish, kvetching, dim-bulb young woman, in her strange combination of abandon and gravity, really seems wondrous. Another Miss Wonderly.

But does she really love him? That's always the question about these heroines-obsessive to the hero, central to the movie. De Carlo's Anna, for example, is willing enough to betray her racketeer husband for love of Lancaster, but not willing to stay with him once the husband catches up with them. Not when she can take the money and run. (She doesn't make it-they are both gunned down by the husband.) It's one of the noir heroine's most invariable features that she is motivated by greed: she is poor and wants to be rich, or else she is rich and wants to be richer. She may inspire romantic dreams, but she doesn't have them herself. Not like he does, anyway. That's one of the advantages she has over him.

But no matter how venal or shallow she may be finally shown to be, it's still somehow the hero's earliest vision of her that defines her for us-the one that made her seem not only irresistible but interesting, endlessly, almost impossibly so. It's part of the underlying bleakness of these movies that that impression of her so often turns out to be an illusion. And yet not-not quite . . . There's no denying she can dance.

In Richard Quine's Pushover (1954), Kim Novak, a gangster's mistress, is the unknowing object of a twenty-four-hour police surveillance from the apartment across her courtyard. The guy behind the binoculars there is an aging, burnt-out cop (Fred MacMurray), for whom the job of looking at her day after day and night after night has become a kind of personal compulsion, no longer just an assignment. Even after they've met and made love, he's eager to get back to that courtyard window-where he can really see her. More or less the way we do, in fact: in a frame and at a distance, and larger than life.

But in other movies this heroine was getting smaller: by the mid-fifties Novak in Pushover seemed almost a throwback. She was too glamorous, too mysterious. And the movies themselves, which had always been pretty literal-minded, were getting even more so. And as the highly stylized sort of noir movie waned, so did the noir heroine, nearly disappearing. Where she did survive, she had become more reasonable, more comprehensible, altogether a more prosaic figure. In the fifties and even before, she became someone who could be either explained or excused, or both. Sometimes, like the hero, she was a victim herself, of some other man-as Lizabeth Scott is in André De Toth's Pitfall (1948). Sometimes-like Stanwyck in Siodmak's The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)-she reforms near the end. But mostly (it was the time of what was called the "psychological" thriller) she was insane: like Laraine Day in John Brahm's The Locket (1946)-or, best of all, Peggy Cummins in Joseph Lewis's Gun Crazy (1950), whose memorable first close-up is preceded by six-shooters (hers) going off in the air above her head, as the ferrety little eyes in the clown-white makeup appear at the bottom of the screen and rise into the frame. You know she's crazy, right away. With Faith Domergue in John Farrow's Where Danger Lives (1950), it takes longer to find out. Domergue is alluring and impenetrable in all the traditional ways for the first half of the movie. But by the second half (more action) she becomes such a coldly observed nutcase that the whole film collapses into unintentional farce. And even the Robert Mitchum hero's attraction to her gets clinically accounted for: by his getting hit on the head earlier on. There's nothing like having things explained.

Copyright 2001 by James Harvey

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James Harvey