They were hotter than acetylene torches in hell, sex kittens before Bardot or Barbarella….Who will pick up the mantle today?
Imagine you are a young man in the 1950s. Every day from dawn till dark you soak in a Jacuzzi of magazines, newspaper, and TV imagery: mothers in aprons worrying about which laxative to uncork their constipated children; housewives weeping like Glenn Beck over burning the dinner; females urged to sterilize their vaginal musk with a swipe or two of Lysol; hausfraus spanked for buying “flat, stale” coffee instead of Chase & Sanborn’s. Infantile and naïve, these images of women were no de-sexed distortion of real life drawn by Mad Men but a true reflection of the cultural barbed-wire border beyond which good girls didn’t escape. Women were becoming productive vessels at head-spinning rates, wedding at a younger age than they had in decades as the median age of marriage for women dropped in the 1950s from 21.5 to 20.4. The more wedding rings that went on, the more their IQs were meant to drop until they wouldn’t even dream of finding anything wrong with the way Better Homes and Gardens magazine celebrated First Lady Mamie Eisenhower for not trying to “become an intellectual.”
But those cultural prisons proved to be confining for men in some ways, too. It’s OK for the mother of your children to be as sexless as Barbie dolls – but after they’ve wiped the runny noses or changed the soiled diapers, where’s the fun? You were the king, yes – but your kingdom was Pleasantville. You couldn’t even sublimate your phallic desires in the mainstream silver screen or the idiot box. I mean, Doris Day? Loretta Young? Jane Wyman? Lucille Ball? Can you imagine one of them doing a lap dance? They were cheerful, not concupiscent. Even Donna Reed, who you wanted to lick like an all-day sucker in From Here to Eternity, was as spayed as stray cat from the animal shelter for her eponymous TV show.
They were the superego, the hall monitor, the stop sign telling you “No!” They were about as spicy as the lime Jell-O cottage cheese salad the good girls served you for dinner after having a good cry over the burned meat loaf and the latest update about Johnny’s blocked bowels. Sex with them promised to be bland as a bloody Mary without Tabasco sauce or a gin and tonic where the gin canceled its appearance.
There was an escape hatch, though, an exit from all this banality. It was the bad dames in the “bad” movies. Especially film noir. Here, in el cheapo flicks freed from the burden of redeeming or inspirational messages, men could find the girls of their wet dreams. Girls who were poked with the frequency of bowling balls. Woman who had more rides than Roy Roger’s saddle. Femmes like the waifish, pistol-stroking Annie Laurie Starr (played by Peggy Cummins) in Gun Crazy, goading her patsy paramour Bart Tare to man up and rob banks with her. Annie was 100 mph in a “Slow Children” zone, with the kind of mortal sin-provoking sexuality that should come with its own warning sign like one of those auto alarms that announce, “Please step away from the car now.”
The American ideal of the girl next door was no more exciting than the ”It’s a Small World After All” ride at Disneyland. Woman like Annie in Gun Crazy and Vera (essayed by Ann Savage) in Detour, though, were just insane enough to be interesting and full of wild-card moves. Vera is what your id would look like if you gave it a gift card to the Extreme Restraints web site. Attractive, if not cardiac-arrest gorgeous, her appeal was more of an emotional intensity that could have given Edith Piaf a run for her money. Both Cummins and Savage dialed the crazy up to 11, the way Glenn Close would tap into nutso-ness years later with the depth of an oil drill in Fatal Attraction. Intensity and insanity would have appealed immensely next to the room-temperature women of the bland big screen whose emotional goal was to be as steady as the bubble in a carpenter’s level.
In Gun Crazy and Detour, the women do in the flesh what the Devil has always done in spirit: tempt men to do what they wanted to all along, or at least what they were now too weak to resist. Annie unleashed Bret’s long-held fetish for firearms while Vera honeytraps nickel-and-dimer Al Roberts into impersonating a dead man to grab an inheritance. The women became enablers of men’s weakest parts of themselves. They want to go bad in a way conventional cinema would never let them. The women became the psychological trigger the men needed, because deep down they know they don’t want to live by the Ten Commandments or at least the city ordinances. Inside them lurked a bad seed and the women were their personal Miracle-Gro.
Of course, there was sex. Because it always comes down to sex. Next to noir’s femmes, tamestream women were as tasty as waxed fruit compared to a Georgia peach. Can you imagine performing the Rusty Bike Pump position on Jane Wyman in Father Knows Best? But the temptresses in noir made bendy straws of their men. Case in point: There was nobody like Robert Mitchum. Cobras paid him for lessons in coiled menace. He had the sleepy-eyed lust/violence only James Gandolfini could play one-on-one with. The way Mitchum broke the egg over Polly Bergen in Cape Fear was one of the great metaphorical money shots of all time. In Night of the Hunter, psychopathy oozed out of him like the guts in a stepped-on cockroach. His portrayals in The Yakuza and The Friends of Eddie Coyle had the desperation of an ice cube in hell. Yet in Out of the Past, the menacing, cocky Mitchum met his match in Jane Greer’s Kathie. “The Woman with the Mona Lisa smile” has him set on Permanent Erection. The nirvana between Greer’s legs entices Mitchum’s Jeff to betray a mob boss and eventually suicide-drive his car into a police roadblock.
Gloria Graham was hotter than acetylene torch in hell, a sex kitten before Bardot or Barbarella. Perverse in life as she was on celluloid (she was notorious for her affair with her 13-year-old stepson, who she later married when he was more legally approachable), Graham had hips that seem to be custom made for hula-hooping in The Big Heat, Sudden Fear, Odds Against Tomorrow, In a Lonely Place, and Crossfire. Her tart temptress Debby Marsh in The Big Heat has a satin-soft voice that charms then lures crook and cop alike, while her pout, directed at Robert Ryan’s bank robber in Odds Against Tomorrow, somehow communicates her bra was probably already unhooked for him. And in Sudden Fear, she looks at other people’s money the way John D. Rockefeller looked at other people’s oil.
Who will pick up their mantle today? LA Confidential, Training Day, Memento, Drive, Heist, et al, are all steeped in testosterone, with women in atom-size parts or who glow with damaged goodness like Mary in Renaissance paintings. Sin City, for one, veers between Jessica Alba’s sweet victim and the gun-toting and sword-swinging Rosario Dawson and Devon Aoki, respectively, but no one really survives by a combo platter of sex, wits, and deceptive weakness. With milestones like Roe v. Wade, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, Sally Ride, Sandra Day O’Connor, and the U.S. military removing the ban against women serving in combat positions, et al, the times caught up with the surface powerlessness of these women who resorted to hormones to win the way lawyers do Supreme Court decisions. Instead, we have empowered cooperate lawyer Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton – educated, likely upper middle class, ruthless, but devoid of personality other than neurosis.
Was The Last Seduction’s Linda Fiorentino the final femme fatale? Dark as Poe’s raven, slim as a stiletto, her Bridget Gregory played with men with the practiced ease of Jim Henson playing with Muppets. She seduced/removed males who got in in her way as if working out a story problem. Like Cummins and Graham and Greer, any amenable vulnerability was a LeBron-James-worthy head fake. In the nearly 30 years since The Last Seduction, Fiorentino has emerged as the Platonic ideal against which all conniving, debauched villainesses of future noirs might be measured and found wanting.
Why mourn what many might consider to be a sexist, cliché formula? After all, the femme fatale was the trollop half of the Madonna/whore equation, an imprisoning binary even a Houdini couldn’t wiggle out. But from Anne Savage to Gloria Graham, they thrived in an era of “female containment”: In the 1950s, married women had an average of 3.2 children before they reached their late twenties; banks could refuse to issue a credit card to an unmarried or even a married woman; the Boston marathon didn’t allow women runners until 1971; airlines often forcibly retired its female attendants between the ages of 32 and 35 because they were too “long in the tooth” by then; Harvard didn’t fully offer sex-blind admissions until 1977; a Pitney Bowes ad for its postage meters asked “Is it always illegal to kill a woman?” If men were afraid of the femme fatale, then good. As Niccolo Machiavelli said, “It is far safer to be feared than loved.”
These women were the smoking gun you look for at a crime scene. They were the cookies that the Dark Side offered. And they did it with an energy that should be measured in megatons. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, when something reaches a certain level of intensity, it achieves the status of art. In their archness, in their badass-ness, these skirts and sweet things achieved that distinction, becoming as feminine on the outside as Botticelli’s Venus and as dead on the inside as O’Keeffe’s cow skulls. But the succubus as we knew it is as extinct as the wooly mammoth. Rest in peace Vera, Annie Laurie Starr, Kathie, Debby Marsh, Bridget Gregory, and may you all hold the devil in the palm of your grasping hand.
Charles Pappas is the author of It’s a Bitter Little World: The Smartest, Toughest, Nastiest Quotes from Film Noir (a revised edition is forthcoming).