Dressed to Kill: The Style(s) of Noir’s Bad Girls

avaIf I were to say “femme fatale” to you, what would you picture? Chances are, she’d be wearing something form-fitting and satiny—probably black—and most likely holding a gun or a cigarette. Or both. Veils or furs or tiny fascinator hats might play in there somewhere, if you want to get fancy. But that’s the archetype.

You probably wouldn’t imagine a scrawny blonde with a pixie cut in a bathrobe. Or a grimy drifter chick in a crocheted sweater. Or a fifty-year-old woman in a sunhat and a leopard print lounge ensemble. And yet, the bad girls of classic noir encompass all these shades of boyishness, grittiness, and full-on glamour. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they use their clothes for a definite purpose, be it a stealth attack or a full-on assault.

In one of cinema’s greatest wardrobe scenes, from the noirish Leave Her to Heaven, Ellen, a psychopathically jealous wife, silently browses her closet, looking for the right dressing gown—that she’ll wear when throwing herself down a flight of stairs to kill her unborn child! It’s an extreme example, but clothing, for a femme fatale, offers an outlet for her to direct her own life, to orchestrate the world around her and control the reactions of others. She harnesses the power of her clothes perhaps to win sympathy or to generate attraction, but always to attain her goal.

4 5 1 A lot of characters in movies wear the sort of clothes that an audience expects them to wear. This is a huge generalization, but the costumes of classic Hollywood tend to announce the identity of the wearer, “This is who I am. You know what to expect from me.” The style of a character helps us read her; it introduces us to that person through a kind of sartorial shorthand. Most of the time, those costumes don’t try to draw attention to the fact that they were carefully constructed and selected—except insofar as they are beautiful and worthy of our admiration.

The significance of clothing becomes much more complex when we’re dealing with the deceptive dames of noir. With the truly well-defined femme fatale characters, we the viewers feel that these tough broads actually chose their outfits. We discern an added layer of calculation, of connivance in their clothing choices. The fashions of the femme fatale dare us to decode them, to try to understand why they’re wearing that. What are they after? What are they trying to get by looking that way? Men might explain their strategies in film noir. The women wear theirs.

You are dangerous…

For instance, let’s take one of noir’s best liars—Brigid O’Shaunessy from The Maltese Falcon (costumes by Orry-Kelly). If she has a gift for belying her true nature as a greedy, cold-blooded killer, her clothes are her best accomplices. She fearfully tiptoes into Sam’s office wearing a mountain of fur, thick, bumpy, grandmotherly fox. Her suit doesn’t scream sexy either. On the contrary, it’s rather baggy. And that hat. Has she been shopping Ninotchka’s closet?

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Okay, so I’m being catty, but Brigid’s beauty is certainly subdued by the rather matronly clothes she wears. She’s a natural “knockout” because of her porcelain features, but Mary Astor gives us a much more simmering femme fatale in place of the sizzler that Hammett wrote. And it’s utterly perfect.

I mean, evil women don’t wear big waxy gardenias on their floppy, blouson crepe dresses, do they?

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They don’t smother themselves in pleats and ruffles and tweed. I remember the first time I saw The Maltese Falcon as a young girl I could not bring myself to believe that Brigid killed Archer. And that she was “going over for it.” I gaped in astonishment. Her schoolgirl manner and her many, many pretenses—destroyed and then rebuilt—had me convinced.

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And I would argue that her decidedly un-flashy, quiet, slightly old-fashioned wardrobe as much as promised me that, at heart, she was a good egg. But don’t judge a book by its cover. That feigned modesty was all part of an act. As Sam Spade tells her, “You’re good.” Only as good a liar as her costumes.

Here Kitty, Kitty…

At the other end of the in-your-face sexiness spectrum, we’ve got Kitty from The Killers (costumes by Vera West). The first time we meet the mysterious woman, after quite a bit of screen time spent in the process of “chercher la femme,” she’s hosting a posh soiree for her main squeeze’s business associates (in flashback). Wearing that black dress, with just a single diagonal strap keeping the bustier up, Kitty practically jumps off the screen. She’s a vision. In fact, we see her for the first time from behind, her alabaster shoulders glowing in the candlelight, starkly contrasting with the inky shade of the dress.

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The visibility of her neck and shoulders also conflicts with the ridiculously covered-up outfit worn by Swede’s current girlfriend. Even the most monogamous man on the planet would be tempted.

The dress itself couldn’t be described as tacky. However, the amount of skin she coolly, comfortably displays suggests that this woman, no matter how refined she seems, probably did some gangland finagling to get to this point. The costume hints at the black diamond hardness that Kitty continues to exhibit throughout the film. If she’s partially at the mercy of the men who deign to look at her, well, she’s wise enough to work with their desire to get what she wants.

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We first see Kitty as this perfect china doll, another exquisite possession of Jim Colfax and we recognize her as the inevitable lure of Swede’s destruction. The next time we encounter her, she’s even more posh and ladylike in an ornate hat and a square-neckline day gown.

But after that, the moll beneath the polish shows up. In several flashbacks, we witness Kitty hanging out with the Colfax gang as they plan the payroll heist. In those flashbacks, she wears a simple black skirt, unadorned pumps, and a mannish collared shirt with the sleeves cuffed up or a rustic knit sweater. Not just the glossy mob mistress, this dame likes to be there when things are really happening—and can rock a more casual ensemble.

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Nevertheless, the rather unglamorous clothes she chose still showcase her voluptuous figure and enable her to stir up trouble between the Swede and Colfax as part of her own ‘divide and conquer’ mentality. She’s not one of the boys, but she dresses to demonstrate that, despite the daintiness of her face and body, her fierce determination cannot and should not be underestimated. The woman in these outfits can say, without the slightlest disbelief on the audience’s part, “Touch me and you won’t live ’til morning!”

10 A damsel in dis-dress

One of my absolute favorite things that noir dames do is to let themselves be caught, accidentally on purpose, in a state of undress or disarray. Make no mistake: I don’t believe that true deadly women like Phyllis Dietrichson ever let their guard down, even to sleep. Like sharks, they probably have to move constantly and scheme without cease, or they’d die.

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Oh, my! You just happened to catch me in my vine-patterned, designer beach towel!

So, when a noir dame reveals a little more of herself than she seems to want to, you bet your life, she’s making an opening gambit. The apparent absence of fashion—just wrapping oneself up in a towel or robe—in fact betrays a conscious choice to say, “Look, I have nothing to hide.”

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Most men have two weaknesses: (half-)naked ladies and ladies in trouble. The bad girls of noir innovated by combining the two.

Accessorize, accessorize!

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Sunglasses on a femme fatale serve no normal purpose. Most of the time, they do not protect these dangerous ladies from the sun; they conceal what they’re really thinking. Often, noir sunglasses are worn indoors—most famously by Phyllis Dietrichson in the famous market scenes of Double Indemnity.

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Those almost totally opaque cat eye glasses give her the eeriness of a Death’s Head combined with the suburban garishness of a bored housewife. One gets the feeling that she bought them—like that widow’s hat of hers—just for this occasion. They’re not sunglasses. They’re scheming glasses. Hm, wearing sunglasses to browse the local canned goods. That’s not suspicious, at all.

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Of course, Phyllis has a way with accessories: mourning veils and that “honey of an anklet,” that actually enables Walter to learn her first name. It’s the little intimate details that show that, underneath that garish Martha Washington wig and her often bulgy, padded ’40s style, she’s sexual dynamite.

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When we first catch a glimpse of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, she’s wearing oddly large glasses that catch the glint of the sun. Those great, bulging round lenses endow her with the look of a fearful insect, a preying mantis in seclusion. She continues to wear them while watching Joe read her script. The glasses render her all the more inscrutable as a means, we understand, of concealing her vulnerability.

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Like the many of the most ego-inflated people in the world, Norma quails and withers under the slightest criticism. Her sunglasses don’t keep out the sun; they protect her from the truth. I’d also note that the large, rounded shape of the glasses imbues her with a fusty, outdated air. The shape of her sunglasses wouldn’t have been particularly popular in 1950. But then again, neither were silent movies.

Although I have reservations about calling Leave Her to Heaven a film noir, it does feature one of the most relentless of femmes fatales that I’ve ever encountered and Martin Scorsese has called it a “film noir in color,” so I’m going to go with that. As an insanely jealous sociopath from a well-bred family, the stunningly beautiful Gene Tierney sets about removing any obstacle to the total possession of her husband. In the film’s most chilling scene, she lets her husband’s crippled kid brother drown while she sits calmly in a boat.

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As she fails to move a muscle and watches the little boy flail and scream, the blank darkness of her preppy, otherwise innocuous sunglasses translate the emptiness of her own soul. She’s a void. No matter how pretty her face, behind those vivid eyes, you’d probably look into something as black and glassy as those sunshades.

Noir Economics

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In the dog-eat-dog world of noir, fashion isn’t just a means to an end. It’s an end in its own right. The hard-knocks dames who walk down those mean streets want it all; often born into poverty, noir femmes fatales crave security and luxury: life, liberty, and the pursuit of furs and bling. Margot Shelby of Decoy, played by the rosy but fearsome Jean Gillie, even expounds this philosophy to her boyfriend, who’s reluctant to aid and abet some illegal doings:

“Reality? What do you know about reality? You like the clothes I wear, don’t you? You like to smell the perfume I use. You like that, don’t you? That perfume costs seventy-five dollars a bottle! Seventy-five dollars! That’s as much as you earn in a week sopping up runny noses. A bottle of perfume—that’s our reality.”

Tricked out in lush furs, rich silks, Margot flaunts her swag with the brazenness of a woman born into filth and grime. She occasionally caressing her own jewels, lavishing the affection that she lacks for her fellow man on the cold glitter of those heavy diamond bracelets. Even her shoes sparkle with pave rhinestones and a heavy broach graces her funny cylindrical cap. She lights up the darkness like a firecracker with her over-the-top glamour, even in the most grim and dire of settings.

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Live well and look great or die trying, that’s Margot’s mentality to the very end.

The fashions of noir are underwritten, usually, by crime. The desire for beauty and style propels the women of noir to navigate the underworld and find men whom they can manipulate into giving them the cutting-edge frocks they so crave. Security, money, fashion—they all go hand-in-hand. Take Vera, the psycho chick of Ulmer’s cheapie Detour. When we first see her, her clothes don’t exactly impress us. She sports a black skirt and heels scuffed up by her time spent hitchhiking. We never really learn where she wants to go or where she comes from.

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However, her crocheted cardigan with great big, round buttons that once was white and looks like it was purchased at a department store by a girl who wanted nicer things, but couldn’t really afford them.

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However, no sooner does Vera get her hooks into her fellow drifter and starts spending some of the money he took from a dead man than her true vanity reveals itself. She purchases a chic black gown with a padded peplum skirt and a sparkly brooch (designed by Mona Barry). “Don’t I rate a whistle?” She asks her companion. Clearly, she aspires a certain kind of upper-crust opulence, but can’t rid herself of her vulgar instinct. I mean really, who goes out wearing a torch singer gown in the daytime? Quelle horreur! Once again, the desire for fashionable duds, as well as other material comforts, spurs Vera on to more and more outrageous criminal schemes—and her own destruction. But hey, maybe it was all worth it for one shopping spree in Los Angeles.

Glamazons

Glamour actually comes from an old word for “spell” or “magic.” And each of noir’s wicked sorceresses casts her own kind of spell when it comes to big league glamour.

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Note: if you’re wearing sequins on your skin, your hair, AND your outfit, you had better be nuts, famous, and very, very rich.

Norma Desmond, decorated like a Christmas tree with excessive trinkets, brooches, rings, necklaces, and dress clips, exudes a sense of general decay. She tries too hard. She dazzles, yes, but too much. Just as she wears “a pound of make-up” to go visit the studio, she smothers herself in furs, wraps, and veils.

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And yet, there’s something compelling in her decadence. For the costumes, Edith Head channeled am overripe glamour so archetypal, so Hollywood, so leopard-print-exaggerated, that one cannot help but admire the grotesque splendor of it all. Norma, the moth-eaten goddess, the Miss Havisham of Sunny Roseland, radiates the kind of blinding self-indulgence that made the “crazy Twenties” so much more cool and enigmatic than “all that New Hollywoood trash.”

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When I last watched Out of the Past (costumes by Edward Stevenson), I couldn’t get over how much Kathie Moffat’s style changed over the course of the movie. First, she walks out of the sun in a feminine, square-necked white ensemble—so very put together and unruffled.

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Next, she’s the free spirited beach girl in a peasant dress, her hair soaked by the rain. Maybe she’s not so bad after all? Wrong!

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Once she returns to Whit, her silken dressing gowns, simple bias cut dresses, and fluffy mink wraps show that she’s equally comfortable as the gangland mistress.

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Perhaps more than any other noir woman, Kathie strikes us as a chameleon. She shifts her shape until she finally transforms into the militaristic dame of the conclusion, her hair hidden by a nunnish traveling snood.

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“I never told you I was anything but what I am,” she tells Jeff, but her clothes told us something else entirely.

Pure as the Driven Slush

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White costumes make strikingly misleading choices for femmes fatales. In a recent issue of InStyle, Tom Ford cited the white ensemble worn by Lana Turner’s Cora at the beginning of The Postman Always Rings Twice as one of his favorite film costumes (designed by Irene at M-G-M). The duality of white as innocence and the disguise for guilt really comes across from that first long shot of the erotic woman standing there giggling to herself, then intently applying lipstick. Wordless and self-contained, she almost seems like an apparition, some exotic dream girl in a pin-up costume, a fantasy that materialized just for Frank.

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Honestly, what woman lounges around the house in white bum-hugging shorts, a midriff-revealing top and a turban, for crying out loud? Throughout the film, white enhances her aura of youth, of childishness and yet also seems to be contradicted by her voluptuous figure. I wonder how many good-looking drifters she surprised with the same routine. This is one complicated dame.

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If someone were to ask me which movie character’s wardrobe I would most want to own, I wouldn’t hesitate: Elsa Bannister’s costumes designed by Jean Louis for The Lady from Shanghai. This ethereal femme fatale embraces a varied, but coherent style—she reeks of class and aristocracy, on land, on sea, or in a funhouse. I’m particularly in love with how she pulls off a clingy black bathing suit with a military pea coat and a captain hat. Don’t try that at home!

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But the defining outfit of her character, the one that cements our and Michael O’Hara’s deep and unreasonably stupid love for her is a feminine full-skirted white gown with a sheer collared capelet.

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This dress, shimmering, sparkling in the moonlight, cloaks Rita Hayworth in a seductive modesty. The floaty white transparency of the capelet might make us think for a moment that she’s angel. Elsa Bannister represents the enduring attraction of evil that comes to us in the form of what we most want. As she explains, “One who follows one’s original nature keeps one’s original nature… in the end.” Her beauty and her wistful  romantic costumes just encourage poor lost souls to follow.

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Fashion as a force of nature: Elsa Bannister’s white dress. She floats down the hill to the strains of “Amado Mio,” a clever allusion to Gilda.

I have left out quite a few of my favorite femmes fatales—and written a lot and still not said as much as I had hoped. The next time you crack open your favorite noir, though, I dare you to ask… why did she chose to wear this? What’s her angle? To tantalize? To play a part? To boast about her status? To love? To kill? Or all of the above, perhaps.

This post is part of the Fashion in Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out both Day 1 and Day 2 of this fabulous blog event hosted by The Hollywood Revue!

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Daughter of Horror (1955): In the Shadows

“It stirred my blood and cleansed my libido.” —Preston Sturges on Daughter of Horror

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As I sit down to write this, I want you to know that I’m rubbing my hands together gleefully and cackling like a mad scientist about to unleash some freakish terror upon the world. Because today I’m going to introduce you to one of the weirdest, most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. And I watch Dwain Esper movies for kicks.

Reader, meet Daughter of Horror. She’s the bastard child of Salvador Dali and Ed Wood. Or maybe H. P. Lovecraft and Mickey Spillane. This 1955 avant-garde independent film drags us through the nightmares and misadventures of an androgynous delinquent chick, “the Gamin,” as she ventures from her hotel bedroom to prowl down mazelike streets. Over the course of one night, she’s nearly assaulted by a drunken bum, gets pimped out to a fat man, commits a crime, and slips in and out of many hallucinations. But where can we draw the line between madness and the squalid horrors of reality?

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Directed by the obscure John Parker and written by Z-grade producer/director Bruno Ve Sota (although there’s some debate as to who really deserves artistic credit), this oily, shoestring-cheap horror-noir contains not one line of dialogue. Yep, we’re dealing with a strangely contradictory silent film with a soundtrack. Apart from a few diegetic sounds—essentials like sobs, screams, laughter, and gunshots—you mostly hear a ghoulish atonal score by modernist composer George Antheil, filled with foreboding jazz and the occasional soprano wail.

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And—here’s the real boon—there’s the occasional passage of voice-over narration by none other than Ed McMahon, who intones a menacing, ironic commentary over the violence of the action and the Gamin’s psychotic breaks. From what I understand, the original cut of the film, called Dementia, didn’t have that voice-over, but I like it. Most critics have argued that the narration detracts from the integrity of the film.

I would differ—it’s like a parody of Hollywood’s typically ethereal depiction of schizophrenia or characters who start “hearing voices.” Instead of the ghostly whispers of poetic insanity, the Gamin is haunted by an out-of-control melodramatic TV narration. The voice peppers the film with choice remarks like, “Yes, I am here. The demon that possesses your soul. Wait a bit. I have so much to show you. So much that you are afraid to see.” If I ever start hearing an unseen game show host announcer chiming in to narrate my unconscious, I will know that I’ve finally descended into madness. (I’m expecting that voice any day now.)

The muffled, doom-impregnated ambiance of Daughter of Horror truly escapes words. It digs up a seedy universe that’s at once utterly unreal and much more gritty and recognizable than the sanitized sordidness of most films noirs. Grotesques populate its dark corridors, mutant people who scuttle around in the night, like bedbugs on a cheap mattress.

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The usual mechanisms of character identification grind to a halt. We struggle to form an attachment to the Gamin, since she’s all we have, but she’s inscrutable at best and monstrous at worse. We’re estranged from the Gamin just as she’s estranged from herself. This sense of alienation and neediness, of not being able to relate to the movie in a usual manner, plunges the viewer into a state of ambivalent confusion and unease.

Indeed, whereas film noir tends to lure us in with its smoke-ring glamour, Daughter of Horror keeps us perpetually at an arms length, disgusted but transfixed. It compels us to keep watching out of a balance of sheer unease and shock—from the very beginning, we know, as we do in nightmares, that something bad is going to happen. We’re only partially right. Lots of bad things are going to happen.

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To classify this film as one of Caligari’s children would be to state the obvious; what’s fascinating is how the Gamin fuses the somnambulistic monster, the vile murderer, and the heroine in distress all into one disturbed personality. Freudian overtones also crowd into this dark night of the soul. For instance, the Gamin’s flashback to her ugly childhood with a brutish father and a trampy, self-absorbed mother takes place in a graveyard, no less, which the characters inhabit as though it were their living room.

Although the Gamin’s father died a long time ago, he returns from the grave as a sort of guilt complex incarnate—he appears as a leering patron at a sleazy restaurant and later takes the form of the policeman hunting the Gamin down. Heavy-handed? No doubt, but still powerful and frightening.

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Whereas standard Hollywood flicks incorporated psychoanalysis as a means of explaining away complexes, as a kind of tool to decipher the world and make it safer, Daughter of Horror plunges us into a forest of smirking symbols. In this twisted cosmos, a cigar is never just a cigar.

Though drawn in broad, blown-up strokes, this movie still surprises you with subtle allusions and amusing touches. The generally transfixing cinematography shows what veteran director of photography William C. Thompson (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda) could do when not saddled with Ed Wood’s trashy, inept vision. The film begins with a shot of a city at night with a flashing sign that reminds me very much of the flashing sign skyline opening of Hitchcock’s The Lodger. After that, we cut to a track-in camera movement that creeps past a flashing HOTEL sign into the cheap rented room of our sleeping heroine, where she clutches the bedclothes in the throes of a bad dream. The movie ends with a parallel camera movement, drifting away from the room, before cutting back to that chasm of starry sky. What fearful symmetry!

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Leer Cam! The camera slips inside of the room where the Gamin is dreaming… then right into her consciousness.

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If the lecherous fat man who picks up the Gamin resembles Orson Welles, as some have noted, the film also references Welles’ style with shots of striking depth, presenting multiple points of interest. In one of my favorite, the fat man gnaws away at a chicken leg while, in the background, the Gamin displays her own shapely legs as a temptation, then sneers when the corpulent creature keeps on chowing down.

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This bizarro gem of a movie not only borrowed bits and pieces from great filmmakers, but also foreshadowed future masterpieces. Those track-ins on the hotel recall the probing high angle shots that you see at the start of Psycho. And you’ll definitely recognize the whole smoky, grungy atmosphere of Daughter of Horror in Touch of Evil—they were both films at Venice Beach, California.

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So, today I’d like to invite you into this forbidding terrain of vast, cavernous spaces and hole-in-the-wall bars, of predatory men and even more predatory women. I offer you a superb, if sometimes clunky, wide-awake nightmare.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

Christmas Holiday (1944): I’m Dreaming of a Noir Christmas

 

Christmas HolidayMaybe you’ve gotten sick on December gingerbread and need some noirish entertainment to cleanse your palate. Maybe you’re craving a warped, dark, mean movie for any month of the year. In any case, you won’t regret watching Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday—even if it is the bleakest film ever to include Christmas in the title.

This stunningly perverse crime drama stars Deanna Durbin as a prostitute and Gene Kelly as evil incarnate. Warning: there will be NO singin’ in the rain. Just lots of rain. Its subversive beauty and the wrenchingly effective against-type performances of the two leads will stay will you.

This masochistic little yarn follows the recently commissioned Lieutenant Mason on his holiday furlough. He’s stuck in New Orleans for a torrentially rainy Christmas Eve on the way to San Francisco to confront his girlfriend who recently dumped him… via telegraph—Merry Christmas!

Dragged to a nightclub and (let’s face it) a brothel, our young man happens upon baby-faced torch singer and (again, let’s face it) hooker Jackie who begs him to take her to Midnight Mass where she breaks down sobbing. And a Happy New Year!

Jackie eventually tells the impressionable Mason that her real name is Abigail Manette. She ‘fesses up about her marriage to a charming, well-born gambler and n’er-do-well Robert Mannett who ended up getting sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he definitely did commit.

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As she remembers, we see Robert and Abigail’s doomed, codependent romance unfold in a series of non-sequential  tangled flashbacks. We also watch Robert’s faded Southern belle mother (Gale Sondergaard, wicked and spooky as ever) deciding to blame Jackie for not saving her baby Robert from himself.

Ignoring enough red flags to communicate the script in semaphore, Jackie persists in her delusional love for her murderous, glib bastard of a husband. She wallows in her guilt and punishes herself by becoming a lady of the night.

Christmas Holiday

If the plot sounds predictable and sentimental, I can tell you it simply isn’t so. This film discards clichés like unsold Christmas trees on December 24th.  Take the prostitute-crying-in-a-church cliché, lifted straight from Maupassant’s “La Maison Tellier,” in which a troupe of weeping whores teach a group of peasants about the true meaning of Easter.

Well, guess what? When Durban’s fallen woman starts to noisily heave and weep in her pew, she doesn’t offer a spectacle of redemption and spirituality. She’s an embarrassment. An uncomfortable reminder of the discarded people we want to forget about at merry times—the times when we ought to be remembering them most.

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Christmas Holiday

As all the faces turn toward the Lieutenant, her escort, as if to say, “What is the matter with you and your girl?” Jackie crumples on the floor. Lieutenant Mason looks down with pity (not empathy, I’d say) and hides her with his coat. The withering indifference of the whole world strips us of many illusions about the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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Upon the film’s release, the ever-crabby Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed Durbin’s acting, stating that “[she] is merely adequate in her role.” I disagree.

Throughout the film, Durbin’s rendering of the Garbo-Dietrich fallen woman shtick feels askew—but intentionally so. Because of its awkwardness, its unexpectedness, her performance is simply perfect. We’re watching something we’ve come to see as pure—Durbin and her image—being unmercifully sullied. Durbin never abandons the wholesome, radiantly loving vibe that she channelled in all those musicals… which makes the occasional low-life mannerisms that Jackie’s acquired all the more unsettling and perverse.

Rather than giving us a lesson in noirish coolness, Siodmak employs Durbin’s soulful naïveté to superb effect and demystifies the “gallant hooker” trope. He refuses to glorify a disgustingly twisted relationship, a coupling that would degrade any sane person’s idea of love.

The cuts back and forth between the pure, fresh-faced Abigail of the flashbacks to the faux-vamp Jackie of the present make us realize the silliness of her charade. Jackie’s tough babe act only points to the saccharine motive behind her degradation: atoning for not being a good enough wife. She’s internalized every victim-blaming message beaten into her brain until she wholeheartedly accepts her victimization.

Jackie’s masquerade contrasts with that of her husband. Robert Mannette pretends he’s a decent guy with a few flaws, when it’s not hard to recognize a sociopathic sponger.

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Bet you never thought Gene Kelly could look this scary.

Since this is based on a story by Somerset Maugham and adapted to screen by Herman J. Mankiewicz (of Citizen Kane acclaim), we get some off-hand discussion of this identity play in the dialogue, too:

Robert: “Which do you like better: the person I pretend to be or—”

Abigail: “The person you are.”

Of course, the problem with this exchange is that Abigail cannot know the real Robert. This astute shyster possesses enough skill to reveal a few of his minor vices so as to insist on his overall transparency. His disguise is a double disguise—because he acts like he’s taken off his mask.

Christmas Holiday

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most deceptive publicity shot Hollywood ever produced… and that’s saying something.

Through exploring these rancid guises, Christmas Holiday punctures two sets of Hollywood myths. Classical American cinema tends to perpetuate, in my mind, two main types of fantasy.

1. The normalcy or domesticity myth: “I’m young and perky and will overcome any obstacles to happiness by standing by my man!”

2. The bad-faith noir or tragically hip myth: “I live a bad life because life itself has ruined me for everything else. You wouldn’t want to be me, but you still do, and you know it, because I’m really cool.”

Yes, these are generalizations, but as my math teacher told me, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Well, Christmas Holiday takes these two clichés and knocks their heads together. First, we see that homey, domestic dramas of redemption don’t work out in reality. Girl, you can’t pull him up. He’ll pull you down.

Second, and more crucially, Siodmak mocks the glamorous despair of film noir’s beautiful and damned denizens. Bordellos, bookie bars, dance halls—they’re not dreamy or desirable. They’re shabby and absurd. Snap out of it! Which is what we long to tell the heroine of this mordant drama.

Christmas Holiday

Gee, how I love my awful, momma’s boy, murderer of a husband!

Jackie, you see, loves being in love. And not in a good way. She’s addicted to the idea of an eternal, unhealthy, unconditional, self-sacrificing love, a child’s concept of l’amour fou. We feel her swelling girlish visions of passion through grandiose shots of a concert hall where she listens, rapt, to Tristan und Isolde… sitting next to a stranger who she’ll end up marrying. (Warning: do not listen to Wagner before agreeing to go on a date.)

Indeed, two musical motifs dominate Christmas Holiday’s Oscar-nominated score: there’s the majestic, tragic strains of Wagner’s “Liebestod” and then the syrupy repetitions of Irving Berlin’s “Always.” (Now, it’s a great song, and a favorite of mine, but anything is absurd on repeat.) The movie contrasts these two love anthems to suggest that when real people try to live out the “Liebestod,” though, they don’t become sublime Tristans and Isoldes or even tragically hip lost souls. They turn into cornballs and bad jokes.

This film also boasts gorgeous chiaroscuro photography by Elwood Bredell, especially during the scenes of pageantry at the high mass, in the nosebleed seats of the concert hall, and in the seedy nightclub.

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Christmas Holiday

However, I most appreciate the ways in which the noirish flavor of the domestic sphere comes alive. In this noir, the cozy home isn’t the opposite of the dity city. No, this den of domesticity is just as dirty. Maybe more so. Every place is bad. Some places are just more honest about their badness. Sinister Mrs. Mannette looms in the frame, ogling the newlyweds with malice. Bedposts, windows, bars, and the shadows of windows and bars imprison Jackie/Abigail in almost every scene.

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And, by the way, don’t watch this movie if you love Gene Kelly. You will never be able to look at Kelly again without seeing the man who comes home from killing someone and proceeds to make love with his wife as if nothing happened. Or the man who says, “I want a shave. I wanna look pretty when I see my wife again…” even as he plans on murdering her.

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Kelly’s spry, lithe physicality suits a vile cad with surprising aplomb and he dives right into the subtle depravity of his character, bringing his wife to a gambling den to teach her all about the things he promises he’ll never do again. As he makes one particularly florid protestation to his fiancée, the sound of unrelated laughter in another part of the bar lets us know, in case there was any doubt, that this man’s promises are worth “two percent of nothing,” to borrow a phrase from Raymond Chandler.

Christmas Holiday

For me, the greatest scene, the one that gave me shivers, occurs at the very end of Christmas Holiday—and involves a serious spoiler. Robert dies in Abigail’s arms after he tried to kill her. Lieutenant Mason, looking on, gently tells her, “You can let go now.” We see Abigail cradling her husband, her childish face contorted in an unbecoming sob.

And then, something magical happens: a jump cut to a close-up of Deanna Durbin—she suddenly shines, looking grown-up, transfigured, and glamorous, like a cross between Norma Shearer and Garbo. You can see her thoughts click. It’s not my fault. It was never my fault. I couldn’t save him. I shouldn’t have had to save him. I can only save myself. Catharsis. Enlightenment. Whatever you want to call it. It happened in the space of two shots.

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Abigail stands and walks to a window. The stunning backlighting makes her glow. Gazing out a window, she sees clouds part, revealing a twinkling starry sky. It sounds corny, but when I watched it, by God, did it ever work on me. The scene delivers an exhilerating sense of liberation, the cinematic equivalent of a deep breath. I’ve read at least one other review that pans this ending, so perhaps it won’t work for you. But I “bought” it, and I am by no means easily sold on anything.

It’s like a fresh start, albeit one with enough ambiguity to avoid total happy-ending bathos. Sincere, but not gushy. After a downward spiral, we, the viewers, are rewarded with beauty. And we learn a little about what beauty means.

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Beauty isn’t commitment to a bad man. It’s not abject self-sacrifice. It’s not despair. It’s none of the platitudes or cynicisms that we may blindly accept.

Beauty is freedom. The freedom to let go of things before they kill you—which they usually do in Siodmak’s work. And that’s the closest to the true meaning of Christmas that any film noir is going to get.

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