Before Essie Fox turned her hand to writing, she worked as an illustrator, designing cards, wrapping paper and decorative ceramics. Always keen on the quirks of the past, her first three novels were Victorian Gothic, but her fourth, The Last Days of Leda Grey, steps into the Edwardian era and the world of silent film. She also explores the ‘facts, fancies and fabrications’ of history on her blogs The Virtual Victorian and The Eclectic Edwardian. The research for her latest novel has informed her choice of a filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
Having just come up for air after writing my latest novel set during the dawn of cinema, I know at once who I would choose as my flickering alter ego on screen – and that is Theda Bara.
Although most critics perceive Ken Russell’s career as having declined irretrievably by the 1980s, the latter half of the decade saw him produce three extraordinary films. All three works are inspired by 19th-century authors, and marry their taste for the ornate and Gothic with Russell’s bathetic, sometimes anachronistic touches of broad humour. The films are linked thematically too, by the trinity of woman protagonists that they present. I call this trilogy the female fugue; It’s a fugue in the musical as well as psychological sense, intertwining variations on the theme of female subjectivity seen from a man’s point of view, and an amnesiac discarding of Russell’s Romantic conception of the male anti-hero so prevalent in his 1970s work, now replaced by an errant voyage through three new female identities.
While Gothic (1986) deals with Mary Shelley and the laudanum-drenched night in 1816 when she conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein, Salome’s Last Dance (1988) is an inventive re-working of Wilde’s controversial play about the biblical seductress, staged as a private performance for Wilde himself by the denizens of a brothel. Finally, The Lair of the White Worm (1988) takes the figure of the femme fatale to inhumanly new heights in a joint celebration of Donald McGill sauciness and Hammer Horror stately-home stodge.
Watch the trailer for Gothic:
The browbeating morality of the Hollywood production code demanded a monster far more terrifying to Russell than any animated cadaver; a simpering Mary Shelley who reprimands her hero Baron Frankenstein for daring ‘to play God’. In Gothic Russell attempts an escape from the moralistic cul-de-sac created by films like Bride of Frankenstein, instead focusing on the raw creativity and the carnal debauchery of the Romantic poets. Byron, Shelley and Polidori are raving, drooling scenery-chewing fanatics, and inarticulate for all their verbosity, and Mary’s step-sister Claire seems content merely to be Byron’s plaything.
While Byron postures, proud of his Promethean literary creations, and Shelley celebrates the elemental power of lightning with a naked rooftop ritual, Mary is quietly preoccupied with a genesis of her own. She wants to escape her situation; to flee the drug-addled squalor but also to avoid the domestic drudgery of motherhood. This is also the wish of her creation, Frankenstein, who wants to transcend mortality but recoils in existential terror at the fact that he has created and is responsible for another life.
Salome is, like Mary Shelley, a female in an unwelcoming man’s world. Although she’s the subject of only a handful of verses in the Bible, religious and secular figures alike have zoomed in on the dance of the seven veils, and turned the young princess into an archetype of dangerous female sexuality, who uses her allure to ensure the death of the chaste and principled John the Baptist. Despite Russell’s use of buxom page three girls as Roman concubines, Salome herself is a far less conventional object of male lust. The actress Imogen Millais-Scott was half-blind and recovering from a rare illness, giving Salome the consumptive air of a tragic 19th-century heroine. Her velvet-voiced declamation of Wilde’s sublime lines is undeniably beguiling, certainly irresistible to Stratford Johns’s chubby, ineffectual Herod.
Watch the trailer for Salome’s Last Dance:
Just as Gothic has a modern-day epilogue, so the framing device of the play’s staging allows Russell to develop his theme. Arrested by the police as the play ends, Wilde laments that he should have played John the Baptist himself. However, Russell adds a further touch that blurs the lines as to who the victim is here. We find out that the fate of the chambermaid playing Salome mirrors that of her character; she was killed for real by the brothel owners to create a realistic climax to their performance.
Russell seems horrified by the exploitative callousness of Victorian society, but at the same time he retreats from this theme, making the death seem even more callous because it appears to be tacked on as an afterthought by Russell. ‘Maidservants in Victorian London were two a penny; she’d never be missed,’ is Russell’s only statement about the matter. As Wilde is hauled away by the police for sexual indecency, we are left with the feeling that little has changed since Roman times.
The Lair of the White Worm takes up the themes of gender and class conflict found in the first two films but treats them less seriously. It also makes a link between the savagery of Rome and the 19th-century literary tradition, beginning with archaeologist Angus Flint uncovering a Roman-era temple in the Peak District.
Rugged Angus and Hugh Grant’s lord of the manor are the typical male heroes who have to protect two local girls, with the virginal names Eve and Mary, from the torments inflicted by Lady Sylvia Marsh, the monstrous, vampiric snake-worshipping villain, and clearly Russell’s choice for the real hero of the piece. The heroes are good-natured but unmistakably the sort of naive dullards that populated the quota quickies of Russell’s childhood. The male-dominated Victorian patriarchy threatens her exuberant sexuality (although the film is ostensibly set contemporaneously, it’s a curious time-warp hybrid of past and present that bears little resemblance to 1980s Britain) much like Salome’s, but she is also the closest female character to Russell’s own persona.
Watch the trailer for The Lair of the White Worm:
The film has a tense, coiled atmosphere, in which Russell imbues almost everything with eerie foreboding or sexual potential; a game of snakes and ladders hosepipe becomes both phallic and serpentine, the mouth of a cave becomes vaginal. Lady Marsh has a venomous bite that turns her victims into her slaves, and even momentarily touching the venom has hallucinogenic effects. Although four people come into contact with the stuff, only the Trent girls are given visions; psychotropic and campy visions of Roman soldiers attacking a convent of nuns while a massive rubber snake coils around a crucifix. In an eerie foreshadowing of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released three years later, Eve is revealed through one of these visions to be the reincarnation of one of these early Christians, adding a further layer of counterpoint to this fugue of interlocking female identities.
It’s an original rendering of an old stereotype; the women then have emotive, empathic powers (here taken to the extreme) while the men, although divided by class, have the common-sense practicality needed to outwit the enemy and restore order. The moralistic formula of Hammer-style horror dictates that good must finally triumph over evil, which it does – but only temporarily. Russell permits Lady Sylvia a last mocking laugh, and one that suggests our dashing male heroes are more than just friends.
Priapic, prurient and politically incorrect, Russell’s female fugue is as ambitious as it is irreverent. In each film Russell presents an increasingly complex portrayal of female subjectivities in a patriarchal environment. But changing critical fashions and truncated budgets ensured that the passionate cult followings these films developed would never be matched by critical attention. They stand as Russell’s last burst of frantic, thematically coherent creativity before the wilderness years of the 1990s, a decade Russell later claimed to barely even remember.
Katy Darby’s debut novel, The Whores’ Asylum mixes thrilling high drama with a Gothic sensibility. In the seedy back streets of Oxford in 1887, the close friendship of two worthy men is threatened by the delicious Diana, a woman with a troubled past and a dark future. London-based Darby teaches writing at City University and co-runs the monthly live fiction event Liars’ League. Her filmic Alter Ego is Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction. EITHNE FARRY
‘When women go wrong, men go right after them.’ (Mae West)
If I had to be a film femme fatale, I’d bypass the obvious choices (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct) and squeeze myself into the slinky shoes of Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction (1994). Bridget is quite a piece of work, as is this pitch-black neo-noir crime thriller, an underrated classic if ever there was one. I flirted briefly with the idea of nominating Sean Young’s cool replicant Rachael in Blade Runner – but Rachael, being not quite human, is essentially innocent; and if there’s one thing a femme fatale is, it’s guilty as hell.
Bridget is certainly no innocent: having made off with $700,000 stolen from her crooked husband Clay (Bill Pullman) and gone on the run, she stops off at a bar in Nowheresville, where local boy Mike (Peter Berg) tries to chat her up by telling her he’s hung like a horse. She promptly invites him to sit, sticks her hand down his pants, and says, ‘Let’s see’: now there’s a woman with balls. Soon she decides to rid herself of her annoying ex by manipulating Mike to kill him, then double-crosses Mike too – getting away with the money, and murder, by playing the ‘helpless victim’ card.
Bridget is, unapologetically, a nasty girl. Not conflicted, not confused: just out-and-out bad. She knows it, and uses it to get exactly what she wants. Many femmes fatales, especially in film noir, come to a sticky end because, after all, they’re bad girls, and that’s what happens to them, right? Wrong. In this film Bridget isn’t a plot device, a cardboard villain, or a temptress leading the protagonist astray: she is the protagonist. It’s absolutely her story, and she wins in the end – and we love to watch her do it, leaving broken hearts, cast-off underwear and smoking cigarette butts in her wake.
Few film genres would appear to be so readily associated with a particular style of music as film noir with jazz, the former’s smoky chiaroscuro and louche, simmering sexuality apparently the perfect complement to the bruised sax tones of Private Hell 36 (1954), arranged by Shorty Rogers from Leith Stevens’s score, or the swung high hats of Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). One film in which this normally cool complement heats up into a whirling fury of burning sexual energy is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944).
Though there is not a great deal of music in Phantom Lady, Siodmak preferring to build up his tension through atmospheric use of foley effects and extensive silences, such music as remains is consistently worthy of note. The blustery opening theme by Hans Salter, a former student of Alban Berg, whistles along breezily, lulling us into a false sense of security, before neatly segueing into an arrangement of the song the unknown ‘phantom lady’ herself (played by Fay Helms) will soon select on a jukebox in a lowdown dive bar, ‘I’ll Remember April’. This is Siodmak’s first use of what will become a signature leitmotif in his films for star-crossed encounters, recurring later in Christmas Holiday (1944), The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949), always with much the same connotation. But all this pent-up tension is finally released in one explosive, quasi-orgasmic scene roughly half-way through the picture.
Amateur detective ‘Kansas’ Carol Richman (played by Ella Raines) has dolled herself up as a loose, gum-chewing dame in order to seduce Elisha Cook Jr.’s sleazy drummer. He invites her down to a late night jam session in a basement club, and as the door swings open, the camera zooms in on the horn of Dole Nicolls’s trombone as he blasts out a dolorous bluesy solo. The camera dollies deeper into the room, introducing each leering face of the musicians one by one: former Jimmy Dorsey Band charter member Jimmy Slack, hammering out a delirious boogie-woogie on the piano, Barney Bigard, one-time member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s All-Star Concert Group, shoving his squealing clarinet in Richman’s face, Howard Ramsey (possibly a misspelling of Howard Rumsey, bassist for Stan Kenton) slapping at the high end of the neck of his stand-up bass, and finally Roger Hanson on trumpet. The tight framing, Dutch angles and deep shadows constantly emphasise Richman’s discomfort as the session heats up into a wild hard bop. In the novel on which the film is based, Cornell Woolrich describes the scene as a ‘sort of Dante-esque inferno’.
Then Cook takes the drum stool and with wild, possessed eyes starts hammering out a furious solo, building into a tumult of snare fills and flying cymbals as Richman goads him, her hands grasping towards him as though squeezing the energy out of him. The solo builds with such intensity – and with such thinly disguised sexual innuendo – that the local censor board of Pennsylvania insisted on all its close-ups being cut from screenings in the state.
As David Butler remarks in his study of the film’s music, ‘jazz would seldom be featured so graphically this way again’. IMDB credits the drum solo to the little-known David Coleman. But according to Leonard Maltin – and an unknown poster on YouTube who claims to have discussed the matter with Cook himself – it was really Buddy Rich hammering away on the sticks behind the scenes.
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