Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Dead Perfection

leavehertoheavenposterIt seems fitting that Gene Tierney should share a “birthday” with Technicolor.

Engineer Herbert Kalmus incorporated the company that would become synonymous with lush cinematic entertainment on November 19, 1915, exactly 5 years before little Gene Eliza made her entrance into the world.

Technicolor loved Gene Tierney, showcasing not only her enchanted, flowerlike beauty but also the currents of thought and passion pulsing behind that exquisite mask.

Vincent Price called Tierney “our most underrated actress,” and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven abundantly supports the claim.

Playing a psychopathically possessive wife, Tierney delivered arguably her greatest performance in this Technicolor outlier—a modern psychological thriller made in an era when the costly color process was often reserved for musicals and period films. This paradoxical Technicolor noir gives us the chance to see the 1940s in a color palette of taupes, eggshell blues, and amber-browns instead of the remote elegance of grayscale.

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I can hardly think of a more underplayed, chilling portrayal of evil on film than Tierney’s Ellen Berent. She wells up with crystal tears of self-pity at the slightest perceived encroachment on her territory. Yet, in the face of other people’s pain, she exhibits the hard composure of a porcelain doll.

Tierney wields that soft, unnaturally smoke-lowered voice of hers to do as much damage as possible. Notice how it catches slightly at the ends of sentences, making an inconsequential remark sound like both a proposition and a threat.

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And those eyes. Eyes the color of water. Fickle eyes. Eyes that send one thumbing through a dictionary for underused words like verdigris and eau-de-nil.

Eyes that sparkle like empty fishbowls when she gapes in incomprehension at the meanness rising from within her, at the difference that cuts her off from normal human feelings. Icy eyes that balance her fiery red lips. Eyes that tell the truth when those lips lie.

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Evil Under the Sun

Tierney’s incarnation of wickedness forms the centerpiece of Leave Her to Heaven’s cruel, vaguely surreal beauty. The film’s toxic glow, its peculiar brand of unreality, contrasts with the studio-set whimsy and pageantry of color musicals or period dramas. Sequences shot on location in Leave Her to Heaven present us with a world that bears no marks of expressionist gloom yet fills us with foreboding. As Martin Scorsese notes in his Personal Journey Through American Cinema series, “This was a lost paradise, its beauty ravished by the heroine’s perversity.” The film’s universe, like its protagonist, basks in sunny indifference to human suffering.

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Commenting on the oppressive ambiance of Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said he wanted to give his film the menacing aspect that a commonplace room would suddenly assume if you knew there was a corpse behind the closet door.

Leon Shamroy’s pellucid Technicolor cinematography for Leave Her to Heaven accomplishes something similar. Its uncanny perfection signals to the audience that something is very awry. No corpse behind the door, though. Just a succubus at the breakfast table, wearing blood-red lipstick applied so crisply that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s tattooed on.

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The movie’s interiors suffocate you with their chic, premeditated quaintness—down to seafoam sofa cushions and potted cacti and bibelots you only notice on repeat viewings—as though the characters had invaded a decorating magazine layout.

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Outside, vines cling caressingly to trellises and columns. Flowers grow in harmonious bunches clearly arranged by God’s florist. Cerulean skies, complete with Magritte-wallpaper clouds, choke the frame, overshadowing the characters with backdrops of blue ether and picture-postcard mountains. Wide spaces become perversely claustrophobic in their unremitting prettiness.

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It’s how I imagine the world would look if you knew you were going to die soon: agonizingly alive, sadistically radiant, a world laughing at you because you have to leave it. A world that has you right where it wants you. The air shimmers with irony.

Blue Gazes

Ellen’s nature emerges through 3 key scenes, connected by the dominance of teal blue and the act of looking or exchanging glances.

From the first, Leave Her to Heaven defines Ellen by her aggressive gaze. When Richard spots Ellen reading his novel on the train, he looks her over and likes what he sees. When she drops her book, he picks it up, hands it to her—and attracts her even more fixed attention. As Richard lights a cigarette, Ellen stares at him.

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In the film, Ellen’s gaze makes Richard curious and mildly uncomfortable. In Ben Ames Williams’s source material, however, Richard grows downright angry, initiating and losing a staring contest with her. Although that reaction isn’t present in the film, it reveals the extent to which Ellen’s scrutiny threatens her future husband by reversing the traditional one-way structure of the male gaze.

He looks at her as an embodiment of his fantasy—a moment later, he’ll recite grandiloquent prose from his own novel to describe her—yet he quails when she returns his look and sees in him (we come to find out) an updated version of her fantasy object: her father.

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The cinematography and editing emphasize the unsettling persistence of Ellen’s stare. We get four, yes, four shots of her—oddly immobile against the dancing, arid landscape seen through the train car windows—just looking at Richard. Deliberately awkward and protracted, this series of shots forces the audience into Richard’s position, making up excuses for this odd, gorgeous girl. As the seconds add up, we’re desperately trying to rehabilitate the “meet cute” from its creepiness.

The train car’s color scheme accentuates these jeux de regards. The teal walls and deep blue-green curtains match the color of Tierney’s eyes. This is no coincidence. The entire decor amplifies the power of Ellen’s gaze, as though the setting were an extension of her, almost a huge eyeball, an apparatus for looking.

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To quote Nietzsche’s gift to psychological thrillers, when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back. In Leave Her to Heaven, when you gaze at the female fantasy object, she gazes back—and you become her fantasy object.

The close-ups of Tierney do serve the actress up for the movie spectator’s gaze. Nevertheless, I’ve seen this with an audience, and, believe me, the focus on gazing and looking jolts the viewers, chastens them, and makes them wary, tainting the vision and reducing our pleasure to nervous titters in the dark.

Still Waters

The film’s most famous sequence, the drowning of Danny, derives its horrific impact from its refusal to look horrific or include the signifiers of doom that films have trained us to expect.

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The soaring Alfred Newman score makes no comment on the heinous crime. The quality of light doesn’t change to telegraph a major shift in Ellen’s trajectory—from thought to act, from jealous wife to murderess. Tierney doesn’t jubilate in her triumph. She sits emanating darkness, her pale eyes piercing through her tinted shades.

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As in the train car, blue-greens overwhelm the color palette: the bright grayish-blue sky, the deep green pine forests in background, and the glimmering, saturated navy-teal waters. When she whirls off her terrycloth robe to jump in and “save” Danny, Ellen reveals an aquamarine bathing suit. These colors tend to calm and soothe; they suggest refreshing coolness and peace. The shock of Ellen’s sin alarms us all the more amidst this consonance of blue and teal shades.

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Again, eyes and the act of looking take on central importance. We can identify the precise moment when Ellen decides to eliminate Danny through the way her eyes narrow in a medium close-up. The pristine mountains and sky shine behind her, as though tacitly condoning what she’s about to do.

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As Danny struggles, burbles, and cries out for help, the act of gazing holds power over life and death. By casting herself as a spectator in the drowning that she’s effectively staged, Ellen tries to dissociate from her guilt. She puts on sunglasses, perhaps as a shield against the ugliness of her actions, but we can still see her light eyes peering out in anticipation (especially spooky on the big screen).

We watch her watch Danny die. And through the act of watching and consuming the beauty of images we symbolically share in her wickedness. Our bond with Ellen (a most unlikely heroine) rests on a surfeit of visual splendor. Feast your eyes, the film seems to tempt us, and be seduced.

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Dressed to Kill

Ellen escalates to the next level of violence by throwing herself down a flight of stairs, inflicting injury to her own body in order to kill her unborn child.

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In the previous scene, Ellen bemoans how pregnancy has changed her appearance, looking at herself in a bedroom mirror. We can see Ellen. We can see the glass of the mirror. But we cannot see her reflection, as though she, like a vampire, doesn’t have one.

Shortly thereafter, she seizes on the idea to stage her fall. Rushing to her closet, she carefully selects her costume for this performance, an alluring blue lace peignoir.

vlcsnap-2015-11-19-16h43m25s233 After a dissolve, Ellen is looking in the same bedroom mirror as before—but this time all we see is the reflection, not Ellen. She glides towards the mirror like a phantom and the camera glides in step with her. She dabs perfume on the curve of her neck and retouches her lipstick.

Although this shot doesn’t completely synch with Ellen’s POV (it stays in place as she moves away), it aligns the viewer with her perspective. It appears as though the spectator were standing in front of the mirror; she is our reflection.

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Tierney floats down the hallway in the icy blue nightdress, just a few shades lighter than the cornflower blue wallpaper all around her. These restful shades of blue, the swirling, gently suspenseful music, and Tierney’s slow progress to the edge of the stairs imbue the scene with an inappropriately dreamy, romantic vibe.

Just as the drowning took place against a background of idyllic sparkling waters and the wholesome outdoors, this crime toys with our emotions by contextualizing an act of brutality within a gauzy, delicate domestic setting.

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When Ellen steps to the top of the stairs, the camera moves from her to the staircase and the long drop, as though guided by her thoughts. Ellen pauses, digging one silk shoe under the ragged carpet to lend realism to her plunge.

She looks up; for me, this close-up represents the zenith of her beauty in the film, all eyelashes and cheekbones and lipstick. Since we haven’t seen this angle of her before, the shot strikes us as the face of a stranger, almost diabolical in its intensity.

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We get a POV shot of the bottom of the stairs, again strengthening our association with Ellen’s perspective, then another close-up of Ellen. As her nerve and excitement mounts, her eyes widen until a tiny spark of malice gleams there.

The foot steps into nowhere, and we hear a scream. Ellen lies at the foot of the stairs, her unconscious figure fragile and sad, like a lily snapped off its stalk. The images won’t relinquish their willful loveliness. The yawning disconnect between hideous deeds and onscreen perfection stays strong.

The viewer has witnessed all the scheming behind this tragedy concocted by Ellen, yet we can’t escape the aesthetic victory she’s masterminded—carefully costuming and choreographing her murderous leap.

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Leave Her to Heaven was a smash hit for 20th Century Fox in 1945, and it resonates with an encouragingly large audience today. When I post a picture, a GIF, or an observation related to the film, it often goes haywire. Why? Because we love pretty surfaces? Because we’re attracted to the dysfunction underneath them? Both? Or because the film itself asks those questions, confronting us with our allegiance to aesthetics over morality?

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I would argue that the enduring popularity of Leave Her to Heaven comes from its challenges to viewers and their gazes. This Technicolor noir interrogates the sinister beauty that reels us in, noting how we make excuses for beauty and for our own appetites for beauty. The film suggests that even the act of being caught looking at things you ought not to want to see contains a frisson of forbidden delight.

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Most of all, Leave Her to Heaven eschews easy answers and reassurance. It offers no pop Freudian jargon to assuage our fears over Ellen’s crimes and neatly pinpoint the etiology of her jealousy. It shows how people ignore blatant danger signs because of love and fear and loyalty. It illuminates a world of blinding beauty where evil can break loose at any moment. A world very much like our own, in fact.

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This post is part of the Gene Tierney Blogathon hosted by The Ellie Badge! Click the banner below to check out all of the other entries!

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Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 23

Phantom Lady is the story of a good girl who pretends to be a femme fatale. She does it all for a noble cause, to save the life of an innocent man, but she scares herself by just how well she pretends.

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The underrated Ella Raines stars as Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman, a dogged secretary who launches her own criminal investigation when the boss she secretly loves is convicted of murder. Although the film’s title, Phantom Lady, ostensibly refers to the condemned man’s elusive alibi—a strange, sad woman who vanished without a trace—it could equally apply to Kansas, a lucid and luminous avenging angel.

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Cameraman Elwood Bredell (of The Killers and The Unsuspected) frequently bathes Kanas in an eerie, ethereal glow, a beam that seems to have chosen her and left those around her in darkness. For instance, as Kansas waits for hours at the end of a bar (in order to scare a lying witness into telling the truth), we see her as a tiny Edward Hopper-esque figure wrapped in an aura that separates her from the somber interior. She is the ghost at the banquet.

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However, not to be locked into a single mode, Bredell’s lighting explores and caresses the curves of Raines’s face and neck the way a philosopher lovingly appreciates a moral dilemma from all sides.

During the film’s visual climax, a delirious, disorienting sequence in a seedy jazz club, Bredell dazzles us with a fever pitch of chiaroscuro, sometimes blackening Kansas into a silhouette, sometimes illuminating only part of her, sometimes turning her face into a grinning grotesque. As Kansas goes undercover, her fragmented identity shows in the arresting quicksilver shifts of lighting that play over her face.

Consider this exquisite shot, in which the stark top-lighting transforms Kansas’s appearance in a matter of seconds, as she comes out of the “eclipse” created by the brim of her hat, then partially back into it. She acquires the tantalizing mutability of the moon, waxing and waning.

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In this underworld setting, the shadows add to Kansas’s camouflage, sculpting her into a different person: the daring ‘hep kitten’ who hangs out in a hole-in-the-wall club to seduce a manic drummer. As Kansas looks at herself in a mirror, overlaid by a lattice of shadings from her veil, you get the feeling that, for a moment, she forgot who she was. She thought she was looking at somebody else—only that somebody else was her.

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Siodmak’s dreamlike thriller suggest that the good girl and the bad girl, those cherished noir tropes, are not binaries, but parallel universes. Hellbent on saving her man, Kansas causes at least two men’s deaths, narrowly escapes death under the wheels of an elevated train, almost spends the night with a scuzzy drummer, and grows rather fond of a charming killer.

Perhaps Phantom Lady‘s focus on the fluidity of a woman’s identity—and on the difficult choices she has to make while pursuing her goal with fierce determination—was intensified by the film’s producer: Joan Harrison, a lady who navigated the danger-fraught boy’s club of Hollywood with panache and brilliance.

Alas, Phantom Lady brushes the darkness of its heroine under the rug before the last act. The movie wraps up prettily and conveniently, as if afraid to ponder the implications of Carol’s journey into night.

Yet, thanks to Bredell’s haunting low-key cinematography and Rains’s performance, maybe we feel the precariousness of any good girl’s goodness all the same. Maybe we realize that the women who keep the universe in balance must walk a tightrope of light over a chasm of nightmares.

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John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 23

From Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies (1995):

“In the old two-strip Technicolor… the color blue couldn’t be reproduced, but now the three-strip process covered the entire spectrum. Extra-wide cameras could expose three negatives simultaneously, each recording one of the primary colors. This is Gene Tierney, an angel face with the darkest of hearts. Leave Her to Heaven was a fascinating hybrid: a film noir in color….

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“Now, you have to remember that color was rarely used for contemporary drama then. It was more associated with period pieces and musicals. John Stahl’s direction and Leon Shamroy’s cinematography conjured up an unsettling super-realist vision. This was a lost paradise, its beauty ravished by the heroine’s perversity. Rather than encourage realism, the Technicolor palette went even further and added flamboyance to the melodrama.”

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John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 22

The Asphalt Jungle throbs with adrenaline, yes, but with something else, too: regret. I’m thinking specifically of the bouncy yet melancholy scene in which Doc takes a fatal break from his getaway and sits among teenagers, watching a sweater-clad nymphet shimmy and shake to jukebox tunes played on his nickel.

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The jubilant jazz and the ignorant bliss of the youngsters accentuate Doc’s old age and his sense of loss—from the years spent in prison, yes, but mostly just from the implacable passage of time.

Doc insists to his driver, “We have time,” although the sad gleam in his eyes tells us he knows that’s a lie. He’s referring to a specific schedule, but the comment could apply more broadly to the inevitability of death and decline that hangs over the film—never more wistfully than in the jukebox scene. Indeed, Huston visually makes the connection between the girl and Doc’s doom: after she gyrates away from a window, the audience can see the police peering through the Venetian blinds, waiting for their quarry.

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In another poignant (if creepy) shot, the bobby-soxer dream girl dances right past the camera, revealing Doc’s spellbound, pathetic face as her swinging hips move out of the frame. Next, waving her dance partner away, she wiggles from across the room right into the camera; her undulating torso nearly fills the frame. The dynamism of that girl’s body—the optimism it implies and the hopelessness of Doc ever engaging with it as only a young man could—slaps the audience with agonizing obviousness.

But just as age craves youth, youth craves wealth. We get to listen to the jukebox nymphet precociously nag her boyfriends about their lack of means: “Nickels he’s complaining about. What a spender! Sure he wants a date. He always wants a date. And where do we go? A third-run movie!” As she chides the boys, Doc listens in close-up, wearing the hint of a knowing smile. Then we see the girl among her companions, continuing her complaint.

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Here Huston frames her from an awkward, slightly high angle, not really Doc’s point-of-view. The angle—working in conjunction with the low-key lighting, oddly moody for the portrayal of bright-eyed teenager—is just off-kilter enough to give us a sense of comic distance. The downward gaze enhances the bitter irony of the girl’s cajoling: the same desire for things, for little pleasures, drove Doc and his compadres to crime.

Who knows? Maybe this nice girl’s nice longings will tempt her and her nice boyfriends to not-so-nice deeds in order to obtain the money for the nice things they want. Or maybe they’ll just settle down and spend the rest of their lives consumed by the honest wants and needs that become the substance of most people’s pallid lives.

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The mildly kinky voyeuristic vibe of the scene also illustrates how adroitly noir connected sex and crime—even in a seemingly innocuous exchange. Raymond Borde and Edmond Chaumeton’s Panorama of American Film Noir:

“In its way of playing with official censorship, this eroticism [in noir] recalls the elaboration of the dream, according to Freud: instead of showing forbidden realities, one introduces seemingly neutral elements that will evoke them through association or symbolism. Thus dance is immemorial transposition of the sex act itself. But then the thriller has occasionally succeeded in employing such trite analogy with finesse. There are the ‘poses’ struck by Gilda or the frenzied whirling of the bobby-soxer in The Asphalt Jungle.”

Road Rage: Ann Savage in Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

When Ann Savage’s Vera shoots you a look, it leaves exit wounds.

Her fourth-wall-shattering stare into the camera—which seems to represent Al Roberts’s point-of-view—flies at the audience like an accusation, a castrating return of the male gaze. Or like a handful of rusty nails. Take your pick.

After she’s sat there so still against the blur of the landscape through Roberts’s voice-over monologue, that slow turn of her head is almost uncanny.

She knows you’re judging her, audience. And she is pissed.

I won’t print exactly what I think Vera’s saying with that look. Suffice to say, Vera can cuss with a glance. With a full-on glare, she hurls a fine and fragrant assortment of expletives.

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From the moment Vera gets into Roberts’s (stolen) car, we know she means trouble—yet there’s something engaging and, dare I say, appealing in her attitude, her gritty, run-down antagonism. Her incandescent rage imbues her with a proto-punk allure.

Roberts opens the dialogue in neutral mode: “How far you goin’?” Vera spits the question back at him—the exact same words, now a dare. “How far you goin’?” She growls.

Ulmer presents this key exchange simply; the camera on the hood of the car shows the faces of both actors. However, whereas Roberts glances over at Vera when he delivers his line, she stares fixedly forward, a greasy strand of hair flapping over her face (like a Veronica Lake hairdo saturated in lard). Only after she’s spoken does Vera give Roberts a blast of her blowtorch-like side eye.

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From there Vera’s rage hijacks the movie, twisting it from a tale of destiny and lost love into a weirdly cathartic hostage situation. After we’ve spent half the movie with mopey loser Roberts, Vera’s rabid eyes and hardboiled ultimatums deliver giddy and surprising delights.

Her sulfuric personality hits the audience like an injection of something they don’t carry at your local drugstore. She energizes the viewer, stinging him into caring more than he thought he could about a little PRC cheapie. Or maybe I should say the female viewer? Because I’d argue that Vera is a derailed vengeance fantasy for the put-upon broads of the world.

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Now, I realize that Edgar Ulmer personally loved the weak, self-defeating, Chopin-playing, Fate-blaming Roberts character and wanted us to sympathize with him. But who says spectators have to cooperate?

And, furthermore, who says that a movie can’t be more complex and unstable in meaning than its director intended? Not me, that’s for sure. I never trust an auteur anyway.

We don’t find out what private hell Vera’s running away from or why she’s so damn angry. However, the smarmy shyster who picks up Rogers gives us a strong hint when he implies that giving Vera a lift entitled him to certain… rights. Rights which Vera challenged by taking a claw-ful of flesh out of the slimy driver’s hand.

This assault and defense has a creepy parallel in Ann Savage’s life. Once, when frequent co-star Tom Neal was trying to impress some friends of his who visited him on the set of an earlier film, Neal leaned in towards Savage, as if to say something, and stuck his tongue in her ear. Being the tough gal she was, Savage hauled off and slapped him. Quite hard, bless her. One can imagine that the incident added to the glee with which Savage persecutes Neal onscreen in Detour.

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It’s as though all the anger and outrage that women have allowed to fester for millennia had condensed into a tiny nuclear core inside Vera, ready to explode Big Bang-like and bring the curtain down on the universe as we know it.

You get the feeling that Vera’s bottled up so much rage in her life that she could probably sell it as perfume—Eau So Pissed.

Ann Savage plays Vera as a grunge fury, a filthy, greedy, feral, voracious, violent dame. She’s every man’s nightmare—a bad girl who behaves like a bad guy, who seems to have appropriated all the vices of the men she’s encountered.

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Consider her tipsy, freshly-bathed come-ons to Roberts, echoing the kind of sleazy talk she’s probably been on the receiving end of many times. Vera wants power in every sense. Heck, even her hair hogs the screen space, blocking Roberts as they quarrel in the diner parking lot. As Savage explained about the character, “She is mean. She wants to be boss. She’s a real B-I-T-C-H.”

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During an era that fetishized both domesticity and radiant glamour, Vera doesn’t cleanly fit into either of the patterns set out for her (then again, one could debate whether she does anything cleanly). She’s certainly not wife/mother material, nor is she a desirable bombshell in the femme fatale mold. Through Vera, Detour satirizes both roles for women and the social norms that go with them. It’s not hard to recognize Vera’s suffocating, guilty bond with Roberts as a parody of marriage.

And, even when Vera’s all dolled up, nearly everything about her, from her blatant barking of orders to the way she daubs powder all over her face, clashes with the cool passive aggression of noir sirens like Kathie Moffats and Kitty Collins. Angry though they may be, some improbable code of ladylike behavior (or perhaps tragic apathy) constrains them from rebelling outright.

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Because she fails to conform to either of society’s options for her, Vera lives on the margins of society. Our first glimpses of Vera reinforce her position as an outsider—she’s a speck through a windshield, then a hooker-like figure on the side of the frame as Roberts pumps gas.

Her status as a hitchhiker, not particularly odd these days, would have shocked audiences in the 1940s. As Ann Savage remembered, “Women never hitchhiked rides. It was unheard of. Only the hobos did that, the men.” In other words, lowly though her existence is, Vera dwells in an undeniably male-dominated world and a largely untamed space.

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I consider Vera to be noir’s most subversive femme fatale, a repellent yet magnetic calamity of a woman whose unfettered ferocity makes us realize just how conventional so many other bad girls really were.

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Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 20

I like to think of The Night of the Hunter as what would have happened if D.W. Griffith’s soul had been called back across the Stygian waters of the underworld to direct a film noir. It’s that unreal, that beautiful.

If you’ve seen it, I hope you love it as much as I do. And if you haven’t seen it, what the hell are you doing reading this? Go watch the movie already.

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Here’s what François Truffaut had to say about the film in 1956 (three years before he made his own very different masterpiece about a kid on the run):

“Such a screenplay is not of the sort that launches the career of a Hollywood director, and it’s a safe bet that this film, which scorns the most basic commercial norms, will be Charles Laughton’s only experiment as a director, which is a shame. A shame, yes, because in spite of its conflicts of style, The Night of the Hunter is a film of rich inventiveness that seems like a lurid news story as told by children…. Charles Laughton doesn’t hesitate to run some red lights and knock over a few policemen in this unique film that makes us love experimental cinema when it experiments and cinema of discovery when it discovers.”

(Quote from Les Films de ma vie.)

Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 19

Orson Welles on Rita Hayworth’s performance in The Lady from Shanghai:

“Rita’s awfully good in it…. At the time, people didn’t even notice—she was too famous as a cover girl. Oh, the French loved her. But then the French do not automatically assume that if a girl is beautiful it follows that she’s a lousy actress.”

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(Quote from This Is Orson Welles, 193)