Movie Love in the Fifties
Da Capo PressCopyright © 2002 James Harvey
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780306811777
"There's a girl wants to see you," Sam Spade's secretary, Effie, tells himat 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 inany case: "She's a knockout."
But in John Huston's 1941 movie she's not exactly what you'd expect fromDashiell Hammett's description of her in the novel: "erect andhigh-breasted, her legs long . . . her full lips . . . brightly red," andso onor 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, matronlythan in a long-legged, high-breasted sort of way. Invincibly ladylike, she couldpass for a delegate from the garden club come to ask for a donation. A jauntylittle hat sits forward on her face and rises to a point above it; a fur stoleis draped over arm and shoulder, her purse held firmly in front of her. But whenshe sits across from Sam and starts to talkin close-upyou begin to feel that"knockout" is exactly the right word, after all.
Her real name, as it turns out (though "Wonderly" is certainly aninspired invention) is Brigid O'Shaughnessy. And she establishes early on one ofthe defining characteristics of the film noir heroine: she is a liarand inBrigid's case, a virtuoso. Astor makes her falsity so multileveled that it feelsalmost witty. And so even after they've made love, Bogart's Sam never loses hisirony about hercalling her "angel" and "precious" and"my own true love"or his pleasure in her self-performance. He settlesinto their encounters, sitting back in his chair or leaning against the mantel,like someone watching a curtain go up. She is dazzling, all rightbut tough tobe in love with: a gambit that Spade finally and successfully refuses. "Ihaven't led a good life," she confesses to him earlier on. "I've beenbad. Worse than you could know." Astor gives us the sense at such momentsthat Brigid has been worse than even she could knowjust as she seems to belying even when she says she is lying. But then again, as Sam observes, "Ifyou were actually as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never getanywhere." Looking on the bright side.
In their first scene together in his office, she tells him a phony story abouther missing sister, chatting away with bright unseeing eyes, not looking at him,while Bogart measures her with his fierce, sorrowful starelike a delinquent inlove with the music teacher. Whenever she does look at him, he offers a politebusiness facewhich falls, when she looks away again, into the same mournfulattentiveness. One thing this generic heroine always demands, both from the heroand from us, is to be watched. From her first entrancewhich is almost alwaysmemorable in some way.
Often in very obvious ways. Like Ava Gardner, first shown to us in a sexy blackgown, singing by a piano in Robert Siodmak's The Killers. Or JoanBennett, in a plastic raincoat, sitting in a Greenwich Village gutter in FritzLang's Scarlet Street. In his earlier film with her, The Woman inthe Window, she makes an even more extraordinary first appearance: as thesubject of an oil painting, on display in an art dealer's window, where it hasfor some time obsessed Edward G. Robinson, as a respected professor and happilymarried family man. He is alone one night gazing at it when the woman herselfappearsher 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 issentimentally sensual, showing its subject in a sort of beseeching attitude,with undraped shoulders, luxuriant black hair, and melting canine eyes. But thewoman beside him now seems more avian than canine, with her glittering dark eyesand raven hair encased in a cloche of black feathers. She has a crisp, genialmanner and an infectious, side-of-the-mouth smile. She says she likes to look atpeople looking at herthat's how she happened to spot himand she invites himfor a drink. First to a lounge, then to her posh, mirrored apartment. Where heends 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 Robinsoncharacter is even more naive and unworldly. He first comes on her in the gutterwhere her sleazy "boyfriend" has knocked her down and left her.Robinson rescues her and takes her to a nearby restaurant. He wants to be sureshe gets something to eat. But he is also troubled by her being on the street solate at night when it isn't at all safe. She was just coming from work, shesays, as she leans across the table, lights her cigarette from the candle, andlooks 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 knewthe first guess, too.
Walter Neff, on the other handFred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's DoubleIndemnity (1944)is a man who does know women, just as he knows "allthe angles" or "his way around," or the insurance game, the stuffhe sells for a living. And he knows at first meeting what Phyllis Dietrichson(Barbara Stanwyck) isavailable, among other things. That is, if you make theright 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 hehas to call up to her to tell her that he is from the "Pacific All-RiskInsurance Company." But the name does catch her attention: "ThePacific All-What?" she asks, stepping forward to see him better. Since sheis wearing only a towel, she explains that she's been sunbathing. "Nopigeons around, I hope," he says roguishlyfatuously. She doesn't lookamused by this, but she does look interested. She tells him she'll be rightdown.
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 toesall of ithighlighting her platinum-blond hair. She enters the parlor where Neff iswaiting and goes past him to the mirror over the fireplace. He's a lot tallerthan she is, and he looms above her now with a faintly leering assurance. Theylook at each other in the mirror. "Neff is the name, isn't it?" shesays briskly, as she unsheathes her lipstick and raises it to her mouth."Yes," he says. "Two f's. Like in Philadelphia. You know thestory?" "What story?" she says brightly, the words slightlymuffled by the lipstick. "The Philadelphia Story," he replies. Shelooks at him blankly for a moment, then snaps the lipstick shut and turns fromthe mirror. "Suppose we sit down," she says, "and you tell meabout the insurance." She smiles up at him, prettily. "My husbandnever tells me anything," she says, as she sits.
And in the tall wing-backed chair across from him, she looks very small andsuddenly not formidableuntil she crosses her long legs with those startlingshoes and a chain around one of her ankles. He talks away while she examines afingernail. 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 looksdown along her legs, slowly and wonderingly, almost as if she'd never quitenoticed them before. There is a pause. "Just my name," she says atlength, still gazing downward, almost as if she were answering her own question.
But mostly in this scene she offers him a kind of bright, strainedencouragement. And Stanwyck makes you feel the enormous weariness behind thebrightness, the deep, fatal impatience. She is "a native Californian,"Phyllis tells him perkily. "Born right here in Los Angeles!" And theeffect is almost as if she had announced that she was a Bruins fan, or a GirlScouts supporter. You not only don't believe her; you understand something elseas 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 awoman who doesn't. This is a knowledge that none of the men in this movie (ofmostly men) seem to haveat 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 mostpowerful thing in the film's early reels. When you see her playing Chinesecheckers with her sweet young daughter-in-law, or performing the routines ofwifeliness with her irritable and cloddish husband, you know why she wants tokill them both. You also know when you see her with Neff why she will eventuallywant to kill him too. Her monstrousness doesn't feel showy or exoticit doesn'teven feel "neurotic," but common and familiar and matter-of-fact, withthe desperation just barely showing: "Born right here in Los Angeles!"
As the noir style goes on, into the late forties and beyond, the heroines tendto get more "realistic" and less glamorous. Compare Ava Gardner inSiodmak's The Killers (1946) to Yvonne De Carlo in his CrissCross (1948). Kitty (Gardner) seems almost as clever as she is lissome andgorgeous, whereas Anna (De Carlo) is something of a bumbler and, while certainlysexy, 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 thedrugstore. She's also sort of a complainer. For sure, not one of life's winners.
But she can danceas she does to a samba band at a local nightclub while BurtLancaster looks on at her. They were married once, and he still hasn't gottenover her. He hadn't really expected to see her there, but he spots her on thecrowded dance floor as soon as the music starts. Noir heroes do a lot of thishungry girl-watching, but probably no one else does it with as much youthfulnakedness and touching avidity as Lancaster does here: he seems almost to gleamwith 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 facethat good dancers often affect. And Siodmak's close-up framing of herover theshoulder of her barely visible partner (a bit player then called AnthonyCurtis)shows almost nothing below her head and shoulders, implying more of hermovement than it actually shows, so that what we're looking atas she dips,turns, passes, tosses her head, revolves her shoulder, and so forthis less herdancing than her absorption in it, the concentration of someone who reallydances, who becomes almost selfless. And as the musical fever mountsa flutethrenody, rising above the beat of maracas and drums, punctuated by pianofusilladesSiodmak's framing gets tighter and tighter, the cutting between DeCarlo, Lancaster, the samba band, more rapid: from De Carlo shaking hershoulders and moving her hands on the air in front of her; to the hunched-overpiano player pounding the keys; to De Carlo again, faster and closer; to thepianist's hands; to Lancaster, staring gravely, almost as if he were looking ata 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 youngwoman, 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 theseheroinesobsessive to the hero, central to the movie. De Carlo's Anna, forexample, is willing enough to betray her racketeer husband for love ofLancaster, but not willing to stay with him once the husband catches up withthem. Not when she can take the money and run. (She doesn't make itthey areboth gunned down by the husband.) It's one of the noir heroine's most invariablefeatures that she is motivated by greed: she is poor and wants to be rich, orelse she is rich and wants to be richer. She may inspire romantic dreams, butshe doesn't have them herself. Not like he does, anyway. That's one of theadvantages she has over him.
But no matter how venal or shallow she may be finally shown to be, it's stillsomehow the hero's earliest vision of her that defines her for usthe one thatmade her seem not only irresistible but interesting, endlessly, almostimpossibly so. It's part of the underlying bleakness of these movies that thatimpression of her so often turns out to be an illusion. And yet notnot quite .. . There's no denying she can dance.
In Richard Quine's Pushover (1954), Kim Novak, a gangster's mistress, isthe unknowing object of a twenty-four-hour police surveillance from theapartment 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 dayand night after night has become a kind of personal compulsion, no longer justan assignment. Even after they've met and made love, he's eager to get back tothat courtyard windowwhere 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 Novakin Pushover seemed almost a throwback. She was too glamorous, toomysterious. And the movies themselves, which had always been prettyliteral-minded, were getting even more so. And as the highly stylized sort ofnoir movie waned, so did the noir heroine, nearly disappearing. Where she didsurvive, she had become more reasonable, more comprehensible, altogether a moreprosaic figure. In the fifties and even before, she became someone who could beeither explained or excused, or both. Sometimes, like the hero, she was a victimherself, of some other manas Lizabeth Scott is in André De Toth'sPitfall (1948). Sometimeslike Stanwyck in Siodmak's The File onThelma Jordon (1950)she reforms near the end. But mostly (it was the timeof what was called the "psychological" thriller) she was insane: likeLaraine Day in John Brahm's The Locket (1946)or, best of all, PeggyCummins in Joseph Lewis's Gun Crazy (1950), whose memorable firstclose-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 thescreen and rise into the frame. You know she's crazy, right away. With FaithDomergue in John Farrow's Where Danger Lives (1950), it takes longer tofind out. Domergue is alluring and impenetrable in all the traditional ways forthe first half of the movie. But by the second half (more action) she becomessuch a coldly observed nutcase that the whole film collapses into unintentionalfarce. And even the Robert Mitchum hero's attraction to her gets clinicallyaccounted for: by his getting hit on the head earlier on. There's nothing likehaving things explained.