Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan
Scarlett Johansson is an alien. I first noticed her as the gawky teenaged misfit in Ghost World then as the object of Billy Bob Thornton’s chaste affections in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Of late her programme of world domination has involved a brief creative partnership with Woody Allen, a number of odd bathroom mirror selfies, a spunky anti-Paltrow fixture in the superhero maxi-franchise The Avengers and interminable and politically suspect adverts for SodaStream. And yet in the midst of the busy vortex of a career that is in danger of spiralling into the celebrity stratosphere, there are still these playful excursions into art-house territory. Earlier this year she voiced Samantha – taking over from Samantha Morton – in Spike Jonze’s Her, a silky Siri whose initial PA/best friend with booty call benefits becomes the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s metrosexual affections. The flimsy elevator pitch premise is imbued with something more, partly because of the shift of focus in the third act to Johansson’s rapidly developing persona. In a coy joke, Samantha begins as a happy female slave – a Jeeves to Phoenix’s Bertie – but as she learns and communes with her own kind this intimacy, which a star of Johansson’s magnitude trades in, is superseded by the altitude she is soaring. This trajectory could be matched by an audience member who recalls her best friend role in Ghost World but now sadly recognises her unattainable ascension in the current culture.
If Jonze’s film is a more-in-sadness-than-anger meditation on the revenge of ineffable female glamour, then Under the Skin features a nightmare retelling of the same star quality. Here Johansson is a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van searching for young men who will not be missed. The cold and unattractive grit of the setting and the impenetrable accents contrast with Johansson’s apparently vulnerable slumming. Playing against her glamour, she adopts a BBC Radio One English rather than utterly other-worldly American and sports a fur coat and a mop of dark brown hair. And yet she is warm and inviting, friendly, unthreatening and fatally attractive. It is once trapped that she can apply her mesmerizing charm, tempting her victims to their doom.
In his first film in a decade, Jonathan Glazer has produced a darkly fascinating work of art. A Roegish trip, the film is an intense abstract horror story. Time and again our sympathy for and fascination of Johansson are manipulated and provoked. Even as we are aware of her antagonistic role and essential vicious otherness, we can’t help but feel for her as she falls over in the street, or is bustled into a nightclub. She is – after all – Scarlett Johansson. She is the misogynist’s wet dream: a bewitching femme fatale, a destroyer of young men, venereal disease made flesh, a prick tease whose ultimate punishment fulfils an atavistic nastiness the film doesn’t shy away from. Sexiness is the opposite of sex, becoming, like Oscar Wilde’s cigarette, the perfect pleasure by being utterly unsatisfying (and incapable of satisfaction).
And yet as Glazer’s underrated Birth explored the obsidian angles of a woman grieving, so Under the Skin escapes the vegetarian parable of the original novel and becomes an utterly beguiling retracing of the word glamour back to its witchy origins.
A dizzying, dazzling affair at times, bearing witness to Steven Soderbergh’s craftsmanship, Side Effects might be compelling in the heat of the moment but, like a bad drug, it’s a quick fix that leaves you all the more frustrated afterwards.
Emily (Rooney Mara) should be nothing but happy since her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison after a four-year sentence for insider trading. And she tries to be, duly swallowing every pill her friends, family and doctors recommend, but she can’t help feeling down: Martin’s return has brought back her long-suppressed depression, which soon pushes her to hurt not just herself but those around her. When after a long sleep on a new antidepressant she finds her husband stabbed to death, she can’t seem to remember a thing. Suddenly all eyes are on her psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribed the medication and emerges as the outlaw in a mix of pharmaceutical cover-up story, conventional psycho-thriller, unpredictable plot twists and wayward solutions.
Emily’s subtle transformation from the troubled loving wife to diabolical femme fatale is a little rocky, but a confident cast and their director largely keep the film aloft: it’s another genre exercise for Soderbergh that he has managed to pull off with the help of his Hollywood friends to entertaining, if ultimately rather underwhelming, effect.
Writers: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt
Based on the novel by: Vera Caspary
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
The opening credits in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir roll over an oil painting of a beautiful woman; this is Laura, but as the story begins, she has already been found murdered. ‘I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,’ says Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in a voice-over, as the camera pans around his museum-like apartment, lingering on luxurious objects collected by the wealthy society figure, who delights in excoriating Manhattanites in his newspaper column and radio show. We soon learn that Laura has been shot in the face at close range, right in the doorway to her apartment, and Waldo is one of Lieutenant Mark McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) chief suspects.
So is Shelby (Vincent Price in an early role), something of a once wealthy playboy, now fallen on hard times. We discover through flashbacks, as their stories are recounted to McPherson, that the two men were engaged in a tussle for Laura’s affections. Lydecker ‘discovered’ Laura (played by the beautiful Gene Tierney), helping to further both her career and her climb up New York’s social ladder. So enamoured of his own status, Lydecker struggles to understand how Laura could fall prey to Shelby’s charms, failing to see the appeal in being with a younger, more attractive man (who also appears to have a lot to hide, including a love affair with Laura’s wealthy aunt).
This is film noir set in the rarefied milieu of the elite, rather than in the mean streets below the glittering penthouses. They eat out at the legendary Algonquin, not at seedy diners. Their world is beyond McPherson’s reach; his only chance at coming close to a woman as refined and elegant as Laura is through the - possibly distorted - imaginings of Lydecker and Shelby. Lydecker (who is given many of the film’s best lines, his caustic wit one of its highlights) in fact reprimands the detective when he crassly refers to Laura as a ‘dame’. For all of her success - she rises to the top of the advertising world, even hiring Shelby when he’s down on his luck - Laura is neither vamp nor moll, leaving McPherson and the audience to puzzle over her true character. What is clear is that McPherson finds himself seduced by the idea of Laura; and, in a terrific plot twist, it’s left to the audience to decide whether his desire for her, and with it his need to solve the case, is merely a fantasy, or something more real.
Always lingering beneath the genteel surface is the shocking brutality of the violent murder; Preminger makes the blistering case that the rich elite are capable of any crime if it means getting what they want. All of this makes Laura a thrilling, absorbing and original example of the genre; it’s also beautifully shot, pure escapist entertainment. It dates from a cinematic era when two characters could still fall in and out of love seemingly overnight, and when plots could be full of holes (common in the genre) without critics deriding the film as unrealistic. Despite some of the all-too-human mistakes that she makes, Laura is also a strong, independent and desirable woman, and an unusual, almost accidental femme fatale.
Cast: Zahary Baharov, Tanya Ilieva, Vladimir Penev
Moth (Zahary Baharov), a would-be boxer and full-time loser, emerges from prison in the 60s, having missed out on most of his youth and a communist coup in 1944, serving time for a murder he didn’t commit, having taken the fall to protect his lover Ada (Tanya Ilieva) and their unborn child. He is barely out of the prison doors when he is abducted by army thugs and taken to be tortured by Slug (Vladimir Penev), once a small-time con man, now a commissar in the new hierarchy, hell-bent on finding a diamond that went missing after that murder decades ago…
Bulgarian neo-noir, anybody? Javor Gardev’s Zift makes no bones about the fact that it’s running on familiar rails. Ada’s femme fatale status is flagged up immediately when she is given the teenage nickname Mantis, and reinforced for those who haven’t got it yet when she reappears under the stage name Gilda in a slinky black number singing a tune that Rita Hayworth would find familiar. Moth is, of course, fatally drawn to his old flame. He seems to be smart enough to deliver the dry, world-weary voice-over, but not smart enough to avoid trouble, getting into the wrong car, falling into Slug’s traps. He spends the second half of the film as a dead man walking (with obvious nods to 1950’s D.O.A.) and the rain-sodden graveyard finale seems so inevitable that it feels oddly flat when it actually happens.
So Gardev, heavily assisted by screenwriter Vladislav Todorov and D.P. Emil Hristov, is serving us a very familiar brew, plot-wise, but, as if to compensate, goes mad on the decoration and delivery. Zift is full of inventive camera work and artful monochrome compositions. Moth staggers around in a sharp leather jacket and white shirt combo when he’s not naked and tattooed, his shaven scalp looking decidedly anachronistic for the 1960s (though various flashbacks tell us this is saving us from a coiffure that looks like a cheap carpet). His story is continually interrupted with grainy cutaways that illustrate other tales and ideas. What would be tense sequences in other films are undercut here by deliberately OTT touches, so an escape from Slug’s torturers results in Moth sliding on his arse through a Turkish bath full of screaming naked women chasing a glass eyeball. Elsewhere, it’s self-consciously cool in a way that reminded me of Europa-era von Trier and other art-house darlings of 20 years back, seeming to take place in its own hermetically sealed nightmare world. Well, either that or Bulgaria is a lot freakier than I think we all imagined. The clock is striking 17, 18, 19, and there are dwarf women selling insects in jars at flea markets in the woods, fart-lighting grave-diggers and creepy grinning nurses; everybody at a hospital seems compelled to tell stories of horror or embarrassment, and most of the cast seem prone to the kind of gutter philosophising that comes naturally to drunks or men serving hard time.
Zift comes to life in prison flashbacks and fever dream hallucinations, in its grotesques and non-sequiturs, and disappoints when it clambers back to its story. It’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take all this: the off-the-peg plot and go-for-broke stylisation work against any kind of emotional tug. Are we meant to feel anything for these hard-boiled archetypes? Does it matter, when there’s all this neat stuff to look at? Ilieva is pretty damn sexy as Mantis. In a role that’s written as pure male fantasy, she manages to suggest that there’s more going on behind those eyes than Moth will ever comprehend. Baharov gives good lug as Moth, whose hangdog fatalism means that he never seems all that concerned by his own damnation. The whole thing is engaging and off-kilter and a little unsatisfying. It’s worth watching for those odd moments of Bulgarian business, but you can’t help wishing that all this invention and craft had been festooned around a story that needed telling.
‘I want things,’ says Laurie Starr, anti-heroine of cult film noir Gun Crazy (1950). ‘A lot of things. Big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts… a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.’
She delivers these lines matter-of-factly, between putting on her stockings and part-challenging, part-seducing her new husband into joining her on a series of robberies [SPOILER] that will end in death for them both [END OF SPOILER]. The quote is frequently cited to demonstrate her near-psychotic acquisitiveness, her ruthless nature, her lust for power and skill for manipulating luckless partner Bart Tare, played by John Dall. But not only is her desire destined to be unfulfilled, it is also oddly unconvincing, spoken as if it’s what is expected of her, like much of the character’s minimal dialogue. Laurie never really gets any of her ‘things’; material gain from the couple’s crime spree is fleeting, and the guy isn’t up to much either. One senses that she knows this from the start, but cannot articulate the power of desire for desire’s sake; cannot admit to how much the violent process of satisfying that desire excites her.
Instead, Laurie Starr’s most memorable moments are non-verbal: flashes of action and intent from the mobile, expressive face and body of British actress Peggy Cummins, then in her early 20s - more tomboy than vamp, and exuberantly transported by action, violence and transgression, however hard her words might strive for conventionality. As the couple drive away from the scene of the film’s most celebrated heist, Cummins turns and faces the camera; as she sees the clear road behind them, her face blooms with pleasure, breaking into an impish and breathless grin. She wears the same cowgirl outfit in which we first glimpsed her performing a sexually charged shooting routine. Whether on a carnival stage or fleeing a bank job, she is rarely at ease. While Laurie shares some traits of classic noir women - not least a certain pragmatism and survival instinct - she is not presented as a femme fatale. She has none of the 40s temptress’s constructed mystique, nor her corresponding, closely styled appearance; her changeable moods and impulsive actions suggest that she is most of all a mystery to herself.
Frances Morgan will be discussing Gun Crazy‘s Laurie Starr and other femmes fatales with Nicola Woodham and host Virginie Sélavy on Resonance 104.4 FM on Friday 17 February, 5-5:30pm.
If Laurie Starr is an atypical noir heroine, Gun Crazy is no ordinary noir. Although it is directed by Joseph H. Lewis, best known for the classic The Big Combo (1955), and employs some of the severe angles, expressionist close-ups and shadowy pursuit scenes associated with the genre, it sometimes feels not like a noir at all. Gun Crazy is a film about modern sex, violence and poverty, but much of it has the slightly dreamlike, archetypal quality of a fable; its tone is at once ambiguous and highly moral. It offers some tantalising commentary on a lost, young underclass in post-war America, but never really dips beneath the surface. It chooses for its hero a man who seems reluctant to exist at all. Gun Crazy‘s most urgent and well-realised theme is one that, by necessity, remains heavily coded: that of transgressive, violent sexuality and fetishism.
The film begins as a teenage Bart is caught stealing a gun. In the court scene that follows, his sister and friends explain that while the kid loves guns, he is not violent - a fact demonstrated in a flashback in which Bart refuses to shoot at a mountain lion. Guns are objects of power for this disenfranchised, parentless young boy, but he is not a killer. When we meet Bart again in adulthood, he is a colourless, law-abiding character, whose slight melancholy and air of displacement are well realised in John Dall’s lanky frame and awkward smile. That smile becomes a charged, canine grin the night he and his friends enter a carnival tent to watch Miss Annie Laurie Starr’s performance, the climax of which is a shooting competition with an audience member. Of course, Bart volunteers, and narrowly wins, but this rather predictable sequence bursts into life thanks to the couple’s extraordinary chemistry. The play of heavily coded signals between the two - Bart’s triumphant smile; Laurie’s swaggering walk towards the target; the hits and the misses of both characters’ guns - sets up the power relationships they will play out as a couple. As an establishment of the erotic vocabulary of two fetishists, it is hard to beat, and is all the more effective for its air of secrecy: everyone in the room sees their attraction, but only Bart and Laurie seem to understand exactly its true nature. Like many deviant sexualities, it is both highly theatrical and very personal, and it is not surprising that Bart’s next step is to join the carnival himself.
Gun Crazy‘s slightly soporific atmosphere is only stirred up when it focuses on the two lead characters’ gun fetish. In an echo of both sexual role play and the characters’ carnival days, Bart and Laurie carry out a series of robberies in disguise. But there are no safety words for these scenarios, and the logical progression of their fantasy into the real-life trauma of murder and a fugitive lifestyle takes its toll on Bart’s already shaky sense of reality: ‘Sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. I wake up sometimes and it’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.’ All Laurie can offer back is that she is real - which only serves to reinforce the lack of escape routes for them both. Later, after agreeing to separate after their last big heist (to avoid suspicion), they are unable to do so, turning their respective getaway cars around in a scene that is both highly camp and deeply sad. While the added back story ostensibly casts Bart as the lead, there seems no doubt in Lewis’s direction that they are in it together, whether that’s as star-crossed lovers or as victims of a shared delusion.
And yet the film’s alternate title was Deadly Is the Female, and many reviews of the film still cast Laurie as a deliciously wicked character, the driving force of evil, a violent woman whose already dangerous sexuality is exacerbated by the weaponry that she carries. But even if we accept such readings as dated, indicative of paranoid male fantasies of powerful women, and recognise the transgressive fun to be had in such stereotypes, it is a shame that sympathetic takes on Laurie are still rare. More understanding is reserved for her husband, a man who feels emasculated in a post-war society. Bart’s passion for shooting ‘things, not people’, while clearly in sexual thrall to a violent woman through whom he kills vicariously, is cited as evidence - in the film, at least - that he is inherently harmless, and blameless, when in fact it is close to sinister.
If Bart is emasculated, Laurie is even more so, yet she takes action, again and again. The film’s timing is crucial. Following the Second World War, women who had enjoyed a measure of power during the 1940s - and seen themselves reflected in strong film portrayals by Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell - began to fade once more from public life, which was echoed in the cinema in what Susan Faludi calls ‘the image of womanhood surrendered… Strong women displaced by good girls’ (in Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women). There is something both exciting and poignant in the way Cummins’s character inhabits her femininity and pushes against its constrictions at a time when the idea of femininity was undergoing a re-evaluation from active back to passive. In the film’s most action-packed and erotic sequences, Laurie moves and dresses in a masculine way: she is most capable in a cowboy outfit; at her best when running, driving, fucking and doing. When she dons a black dress and opulent fur for a last, romantic night out, it is moments before she’s on the run again, the fur dropped in a puddle, the high heels skidding on the pavement. It’s a direct contrast to the film’s last successful heist, in which she poses as a secretary. Dressed for practicality in trousers and flats, she is reprimanded by the head of the typing pool for her inappropriate office wear. ‘I hope to see you in a skirt tomorrow,’ says the manager, only to be gunned down by her typist minutes later. While Laurie demands ‘action’ from Bart, putting the onus on her male partner to take her where she wants to go, it is clear she has the will and resources to do it herself. As feminist critics of film noir have often stated, it is the agency of heroines such as Laurie Starr that makes such pleasurable viewing for women: just the very sight of a woman who acts, viewed separately from what those actions might be, is undeniably thrilling. [SPOILER] Laurie is eventually shot, not by the police, but by Bart himself, to prevent her killing his childhood friend. This jolting reminder that the male world is paramount is a response to the fact that, at her best (worst?) Laurie really does appear to pose a threat to that world. [END OF SPOILER]
Of course, Bart ends up dead beside her, the two slumped in the misty rushes like shot ducks. Both of them have been powerless from the start, as they move through the empty, tawdry settings of small towns, cheap rooms, fairgrounds and Vegas weddings. What’s striking, though, is Laurie’s commitment to turning this life around, however doomed the outcome. It’s tempting to imagine a parallel with the pragmatic, Poverty Row origins of the low-budget film itself, and in the odd, never fully realised career of Peggy Cummins herself, whose brief stint in Hollywood would end just a year later. She plays Laurie with an instinctive fierceness that a more A-list, experienced actress might have toned down; her accent, which swings from received pronunciation to an American drawl, marks her out as an outsider. Whatever big things Peggy Cummins was chasing, the unbridled, angry glee she brings to Laurie Starr suggests that, for the 30 days it took to make Gun Crazy, she managed to tap into the darkest essence of her character’s desires, in the process delivering one of the best power femme performances of the B-movie era.