John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 6

In many (if not most) cases, noir style is like red lipstick. You’re supposed to notice it. That’s the whole point. The Maltese Falcon, however, opts for a stealthier (though no less sizzling) shade of noir.

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Its self-effacing yet slyly cynical camerawork and découpage approximate the hardboiled assurance of Dashiell Hammett’s gripping prose. For instance, consider the scene in which Brigid O’Shaunessy confesses to Spade that she’s been bad, “worse than you could know.” From the moment Spade enters her apartment to the dissolve wipe that closes the scene, the action unfolds in 4 elegant shots.

As Spade sits down, a smooth, mid-sentence match-on-action gives us a cozy two shot of Spade and Brigid. The cut adds a jolt to the Spade’s accusatory remark, “You, uh, you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?”

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The space of the room has contracted at this moment of truth. We can see the wicked glint in Bogie’s eyes as he leans forward and chips away at the enamel on Brigid’s society-matron-of-the-underworld schtick. Once Brigid admits to her checkered past, Spade leans back in his chair, apparently satisfied, and suddenly we have some breathing room again.

Next Huston cuts to provide a view of Brigid’s reaction—or suspicious lack thereof—when Spade drops the name Joel Cairo. Without batting the proverbial eyelash, she asks, “Do you know him?” She’s good alright. Too good. Sangfroid and honesty seldom keep company. Composure belongs to the crooks of this world. It’s the rest of us who fret.

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But the shot of Brigid doesn’t last long, as though she can’t take the heat of Spade’s up-close scrutiny and knows it. And so begins the long take that’ll carry us to the end of the conversation.

As the two characters bluff each other out, Spade trying to figure out how much Brigid knows, Brigid trying to betray as little as possible, the camera gives us a prime orchestra seat to this duet for murderess and shamus. Our focus can drift back and forth between planes of action, Spade reclining in his chair wearing a wry grin (until he isn’t) and Brigid fidgeting in the foreground, facing more towards the audience than towards the man she’s trying to manipulate.

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The long take keeps the lid on the hystrionics; in the hands of a more flamboyant director (and other actors) this material could turn into pure potboiler brisket. Flurries of edits would undermine the cagey reserve of the characters. Instead they stay tough and defiant even when locked in one of noir’s most erotic clinches—which crowds the frame alarmingly after more than a minute dominated by comfortable open space.

By not cutting, Huston also refuses to release the simmering tension between Brigid and Spade. It’s the kind of effect that works on your nerves regardless of whether you’re conscious of it, as does the flickering light of the fire that Brigid stokes to feign nonchalance. Not unlike a good private eye (or any self-respecting femme fatale), The Maltese Falcon gets to you without you fully realizing it.

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The Maltese Falcon sounds like a film that was as fun to make as it is to watch. No doubt the actors’ breezy onset camaraderie contributed to the movie’s enduring freshness.

As Astor recalled in My Story, Huston “had the picture well organized so that we got things done in a miraculously short time. And we had fun—zany, lighthearted fun. We were an unusually ‘close’ company; players usually like to get away from each other at lunch time, but we would all go together across to the Lakeside Golf Club, where a big table was set on the patio for us. The normally frowned-on pre-luncheon drink was a must. We often took an hour and half, and still we stayed ahead of schedule. I remember one scene near the end of the picture, very complicated technically; it ran about six minutes—and six minutes of script an average good day’s work. We rehearsed the scene before going home one evening, and all the camera moves were carefully plotted. The next morning we shot it in one take and went swimming at Lakeside for the rest of the day.”

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Red Dust (1932): Rubber Souls

poster“Clark Gable and Jean Harlow have come to typify… free love and plenty of it. Anybody having the slightest knowledge of youth psychology knows what a disastrous effect such films have on the immature minds of adolescents who see them.” So preached Max Knepper in his humorless 1935 tirade Sodom and Gomorrah: The Story of Hollywood.

Okay, full disclosure time. I started watching Harlow movies in my teens and have since embarked on a life of wantonness, criminal activity, and blogging, so you might want to take this review with a grain of smelling salts.

Ironically enough, Red Dust is a story about morality, bordering on allegory at times. Much to the dismay of America’s bluenoses, however, the most moral individual in the movie turns out to be a wisecracking, unapologetic prostitute. I suspect that what really scared censors about this movie wasn’t the steamy chemistry between Gable and Harlow. No, what must’ve shocked them is that an apparently moral wife willingly succumbs to Gable’s adulterous advances.

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The story tastes like someone put The Letter and Rain into a cocktail shaker with some pineapple juice and thrashed vigorously. Rough-hewn Denny Carson (a moustacheless Gable) runs a rubber plantation in Indochina, occasionally longing to escape the grimy work for a more civilized life. One day he comes back to his bamboo hovel to find Vantine (Harlow), a feisty prostitute hiding out from the law.

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After a few weeks of playtime, Carson stuffs a roll of cash down her blouse and tries to ship her back to Saigon. Falling for the big lug, Vantine decides to stick around instead. The plot thickens when Carson’s new employee Gary arrives with his elegant, tennis-racket-carrying wife, Babs (Mary Astor). Before you can say “The natives are restless,” Carson seduces Babs—in a doozy of a rain-drenched, clingy-white-clothing-swaddled love scene—and cuckolds his deferential underling. Will he break up the marriage or do the right thing by returning to Vantine’s loving arms?

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Despite its underlying racism and occasional creakiness, Red Dust challenges audiences to see through outward signs of virtue and shatters the assumption that a good reputation equals a good heart. This movie makes you think a little—something that self-appointed champions of morality seldom want the public to do for themselves.

A kimono-wearing, platinum-haired hooker might loathe deceitfulness and strive to maintain a standard of decency, whereas a demure country club brunette might cheat on her husband and remorselessly lie to cover it up. Indeed, the lack of an easily recognizable moral horizon makes pre-Code cinema so tantalizing in general. No one has a monopoly on sin. Like the rubber that Carson harvests in the jungle, pre-Code morals are elastic, stretching to fit the situation.

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Red Dust also uncorks a vinegary commentary on the American way of life. At the very end, we learn that Babs and her startlingly bland husband Gary (Gene ‘the yawn’ Raymond) have arrived in San Francisco and no doubt intend to resume their society lifestyle—with hubby never the wiser of what she was getting up to on that rubber plantation.

This schmoe had earlier confided in Carson that he dreamed of traveling to South America, before his marriage put a stop to such a fantasy. In the same scene, Gary launches into a starry-eyed speech about his new, wife-approved vision of children and a house in the country, within commutable distance to New York, of course. It’s the sort of propaganda that would sound maudlin and gooey in any other movie, but, as Carson sits there in the driving rain trying not to betray his guilty secret, the context flavors the monologue with an unmistakable bitterness. The film thus implies, and none too subtly, that your standard, respectable American couple consists of a repressed wife and an emasculated husband.

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Meanwhile, far from the apparently idyllic dens of people like Babs and Gary, Carson and his crew of outcasts toil and labor to support the consumerism of the culture that marginalizes them. As he growls in an early scene, “You think I’m going to sink my whole life in this dry rot just so the rest of the world can ride around on balloon tires?”

Intensifying the satire on American values, Vantine mocks Babs by appropriating the vocabulary of a well-to-do housewife. “I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning what to wear to the country club dance this Saturday night,” She drawls for Carson’s benefit. Listening to Harlow’s tinny, faux-refined voice spouting out lines that could come from the Ladies’ Home Journal exposes the cherished virtue of domesticity as a pretense. Her burlesque of society chatter also highlights the film’s central inversion of roles: the prostitute stays faithful to her man, while the prudish wife cheats on her husband. Who’s the real “lady,” after all?

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In the end, however, I don’t watch Red Dust for the drama, the slick satire, or even for sweaty Clark Gable. I watch it for Harlow’s brazen, yet vulnerable comic performance. Consider her introduction in the movie, dozing in a random bed, when Carson and his crony unknowingly drop one of their drunk comrades on top of her in the dark. That unflappable voice cries from offscreen, “Hey! What’s the idea?” And then we get this piquant close-up of the silvery blonde illuminated by a flashlight, her eyes squinting as she reflexively berates the drunk whom she assumes is trying to sleep with her.

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Rather than present her as an object of fetishistic admiration first, as Lewis Milestone did with Crawford’s famous entrance in Rain, Fleming lets Vantine impress the audience as a brassy straight-shooter. Caught by surprise, she leads with a torrent of her personality and sass. Her profession and her looks are secondary. A few seconds later, as she forcefully swings her bare legs and kicks the drunk out of her bed, she does so with a remarkable lack of daintiness or self-conscious grace. You’d think she’d been doing it all her life.

The notorious rain barrel sequence, in which a nude Harlow lathers herself up and bathes in the plantation’s water supply, doesn’t disappoint. The men in the audience might not have noticed, but this very pre-Code scene serves an important narrative purpose, too, as Vantine tries to annoy Carson by scandalizing Babs. “Afraid I’ll shock the duchess?” She teases, beckoning to Carson with a soapy sponge. When Carson hurries up to reign in Vantine’s antics, Babs appears on a balcony. Fleming repeatedly cuts to her holier-than-thou reactions as Vantine playfully splashes around in the barrel. Again, appearances are deceptive, since Babs’s hypocritical “shock,” we understand, really betrays her own jealousy and her desire for Carson.

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Harlow proves her talent for both verbal and physical comedy. The dry twang with which she rattles off sarcastic dialogue vindicates MGM’s decision to cast her as Vantine, a role previously intended for Garbo or Crawford. Without Harlow dropping sassy lines like, “This rain seems to have uncovered a pile of garbage around here,” (when she bawls Gable out for his two-timing behavior) save the film from dull melodrama purgatory. In another instance, provoked Carson’s budding liaison with Babs as the monsoon pours down, Vantine disdains to comment. Instead, she scornfully kicks her shapely legs up on a table and starts to file her nails—not an extraordinary gesture, but one that Harlow fills with an amusingly contained anger, a hissy fit manicure.

1Her accomplishments in Red Dust are all the more inspiring given the tragedy that struck during production. Her husband Paul Bern, an MGM executive more than 20 years her senior, committed suicide. In addition to Harlow’s emotional loss, the scandal seriously threatened her career. A true professional, she returned to work after a 10-day break and soldiered on with a performance that runs the gamut from funny to heartrending.

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Victor Fleming directs the cast on the set of Red Dust

1932 was a good year for onscreen hookers with hearts of gold. Marlene Dietrich, as an impossibly glamorous courtesan, tempted a warlord to save her true love in Shanghai Express. Ruth Chatterton, playing a businesslike madame, sacrificed all for her son in Frisco Jenny. And Carole Lombard, in the role of a wry streetwalker, discovered the joys of home and hearth in Virtue.

But none of them struck the same gold as Harlow. Her chatty, stubborn, sublimely unladylike Vantine doesn’t want to be redeemed and doesn’t need to, either. Perhaps because of that, she remains one of the most iconic and lovable dames of the pre-Code era.

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A Reel Joy: Day One of Capitolfest 12

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William Powell, featured star of Capitolfest 12, in a still for “Ladies’ Man”

The good news: there are more quality classic films out there than even I suspected. The bad news? Well, let’s just say they can be mighty elusive.

But, hold on, there’s still more good news, because each year a cozy festival in Rome, New York screens some of the rarest films on the planet. A small, but passionate crowd of spectators settles into the seats of a vast 1928 movie palace, the lights go down, and films unseen for decades flicker up on a huge screen.

Out of the 17 features on the festival’s roster, I was familiar with only two of them. Nearly all of the obscure films surpassed my expectations. From zany curios to one bona fide masterpiece, the program showcased a range of stimulating movies that renewed my faith in early Hollywood’s ability to surprise and delight me (not that I ever really doubted it). Capitolfest confirmed that I’ve only been chipping away at a single vein of classic cinema: commercially available movies. Meanwhile, there’s a whole cache of obscure, but exceptional films waiting to be to rediscovered.

This year marked my first pilgrimage to Captolfest. Needless to say, I’m hoping it won’t be my last.

I had the good fortune to share the experience with two wonderful bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Annmarie of Classic Movie Hub, as well as my extraordinarily understanding mother (@MiddParent on Twitter). I also got to meet Beth of Spellbound by Movies, who flew in from San Francisco for the festival, and Shirley and Mark of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. You really ought to check out their respective blogs and sites, if you haven’t already.

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Me, Aurora, Annmarie, and Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, in the theater’s projection booth.

As I struggled to condense my opinions about Capitolfest, it occurred to me that all of the movies deserved at least a few lines. I couldn’t stop myself from writing a mini-review of each. One of my favorite aspects of the program, the abundance of short subjects almost made me believe that I really was sitting in a movie theater circa 1930, gearing up for the big feature or double bill. However, if I wrote about every newsreel or Vitaphone morsel that I saw, you’d be reading a three-volume treatise instead of a blog post (although I realize that, with me, it can be hard to tell the difference).

So, with a heavy heart, I’m confining myself to the feature films and decided to split my festival recap into three parts. Here’s what I saw on the first day of Capitolfest…

Partners of the Sunset (Robert H. Townley, 1922)

Oh, 2014, you think you’re so cutting-edge. When a woman proposes to a man in the movies nowadays, critics and fans alike lavish praise on the clever gender inversion. Well, then, how are we to respond to a movie that did the same thing almost 100 years ago? In this obscure Western, two impoverished sisters—one in love with nature, the other alleneenamored of high society—inherit a ranch in Texas and decide to claim it. When a greedy local landowner tries to force them out, the rugged Patricia joins forces with a windmill engineer to face down the baddies and defend her new home.

The little-remembered Allene Ray, catapulted into the limelight after winning the 1920 Fame and Fortune Contest, grew up on a Texas ranch in real life and earned a reputation for doing her own daring stunts in Westerns. In Partners of the Sunset, she imbues the strong female protagonist with an earthy, almost elfin spunk. Whether frolicking barefoot by a river or pulling a pistol on her would-be captors, Ray acquits herself as one hell of a boss lady. Inspiring outdoor long shots and refreshing action sequences helped this film launch Capitolfest in style.

Bottom Line: Go west, young woman and kick some serious butt! My favorite from the first day.

Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930)

Two ships’ officers (George Brent and Jed Graves) wage a war of petty one-upmanship—until one steals the other’s girl and the rivalry turns potentially lethal. This tough, grimy little pre-Code drama impressed me with the realism of its scenes at sea. The artful simulation of its hurricane sequence proved thrilling, violent, and remarkably convincing. Amazing what you could do with industrial fans, water tanks, and camera angles as opposed to CGI, huh?

derelictThe script also crackled with some enjoyable tough-guy banter. Reduced to working on a banana boat, Brent calls out the captain’s cowardice by snarling, “You’ve been carrying bananas so long you’ve turned their color!” At the end, once the old enemies have buried the hatchet and Brent’s walking off to the altar, the pair can’t resist a final jab:

Brent: You can be the best man.

Graves: I always was.

Plus, I relished the chance to watch Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest, play a tempting nightclub singer.

Bottom Line: Testosterone in celluloid form. Snappy, economical, and well worth its short runtime.

Horse Play (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)

I can’t remember the last time I cackled so loudly in a movie theater. I kept expecting a surly usherette to escort my rowdy companions and me from the premises. When a lovelorn hick from Montana strikes it rich, he and his pal Andy gatecrash the British aristocracy in search of Slim’s sweetheart. Slim Summerville, whom I like to think of as Gary Cooper redesigned by a five-year-old, delivers the goods in terms of belly laughs.

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The mixture of crude yokels and snooty nobles brewed up a broadly comic variation on the traditional comedy of manners. For instance, in perhaps the film’s funniest scene, Slim and Andy invite two curious grande dames to their hotel room at the Ritz for a little drink. CUT TO: the aforementioned scions of the aristocracy swigging whisky, firing rodeo pistols, and suggestively saddling up furniture. As one of the ladies who lets her hair down with the cowboys, Una O’Connor looks more primly sexy than you might imagine she could—and demonstrates that her comic chops extended far beyond that famous paint-peeling shriek of hers.

This film milked its gags for maximum screen time. Nows, sometimes that works brilliantly. If you push a gag past the funny mark, it gets unfunny, but it turns out there’s a sweet spot just past unfunny where a gag becomes absurdly funny again. For instance, Slim and Andy have a slap-happy fight with collapsible top hats that lasts about five minutes, and I never wanted it to end. Other times one had the distinct impression that a dead horse was being beaten.

Bottom Line: Uneven as a whole, but the side-splitting antics of Slim and company made you forget its failings.

The Bright Shawl (John S. Robinson, 1923)

One could argue that this fine historical thriller runs too long, but if the movie needed that much time to cram Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Mary Astor, Jetta Goudal, and, yes, even Edward G. Robinson into one movie, you won’t hear brightshawlme complaining! An ambiance of tropical sultriness and wide-open spaces confer a special vibe of authenticity on the film, since the cast and crew travelled to Cuba to shoot exterior scenes on location.

In this adaptation Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel, a naïve American visits Cuba with his resistance leader friend and joins the movement himself after witnessing the cruelty of the Spanish oppressors. However, in the end, our hero escapes with the girl he loves only by the grace of a foe’s merciful whim. And who else to play that gallant, sympathetic villain but William Powell in his fourth movie appearance! Even without the advantage of his voice, Powell displays the insouciant, dandyish charm that would serve him throughout his career. Everybody else does their darndest, too: Barthelmess is earnest and indignant, Gish is naughty but nice, Astor is pure but feisty, Goudal is slinky and sinister, and Robinson is full of mighty rage and grief as a bereft father.

Bottom Line: A dream cast in a handsome production, albeit one that feels too much like a filmed novel at times.

Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)

Get in the queue, girls, ’cause William Powell makes one dapper gigolo! Interestingly enough, Ladies’ Man presents a gender-flipped version of the fallen woman sagas that 1930s audiences ate up with such gusto. As Powell’s character explains, “I look at women the way women look at men”—that is, as meal tickets. The difference is, the hookers and courtesans played by the likes of Garbo, Crawford, and Stanwyck often got their chances at redemption. When a man prostitutes himself, though, the penalty is death. How’s that for a double standard?

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Kay Francis having her gown mended on the set of “Ladies’ Man”

Elegant escort for a rich society lady, Jamie Darricott also indulges in a liaison with her wild daughter (Carole Lombard). As if that weren’t awkward enough, a mysterious woman from out of town (Kay Francis) wins his heart and convinces him to leave his sordid occupation. Unfortunately, Jamie’s powerful paramour and her jealous husband won’t let him escape their world unpunished.

In a distinctly amoral role, Powell oozes savoir-faire and never falls into the trap of sanctimoniously renouncing his, ahem, profession. The actor supposedly disliked this part, believing himself too unattractive to pull it off. (Yeah, right, Bill.) You’d never know it, though, from the confidence and breeding he projects in even the most embarrassing situations. Herman Mankiewicz’s sophisticated dialogue, spoken by Powell’s velvety baritone, likewise boosts the value of what could have been a tawdry melodrama.

Do I wish that Powell, Lombard, and Francis had been drafted into, say, a Lubitsch comedy instead of this? Well, yes. But I can still appreciate the film for its luscious Travis Banton gowns and its stars’ vivid performances.

Bottom Line: An unapologetic yet occasionally heart-rending portrait of a man who lived and died beyond his means.

Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)

Call it politically incorrect, trashy, or flat-out goofy, but first try to stop laughing. One of the more famous films on the Capitolfest program, this trippy pre-Code musical centers on a sweet-natured loser from the corrupt modern town of West Rome. Magically transported back to ancient Rome, he finagles to save an imprisoned princess—and his own skin.

lucyEasily sustaining the pace of a big-budget musical extravaganza, Eddie ‘Banjo Eyes’ Cantor jumps around like a bunny on speed, singing, dancing, cracking wise, and offending pretty much every possible demographic. Busby Berkeley arranged some of his weirdest musical numbers for this film, including a hymn of hope sung by evicted families in the streets and the infamous slave market sequence.

I’d seen clips of the cult classic before, but the dazzling quality of the 35mm print left me breathless. Say what you will about Sam Goldwyn, but the man sure could harness star power. If I’d been around in ’33, this piece of box-office bait would have reeled me into the theater for repeat viewings.

Oh, and whenever a certain young platinum blonde popped into the frame, knowing individuals in the Capitol audience burst into spontaneous ovations. The blonde in question would be a very young Lucille Ball. If you ever get to savor this nutty confection, keep an eye out for her.

Bottom Line: This movie has all the good taste of a gladiator fight. Fortunately, my tastes aren’t much better. By all means, bring on the bread and circuses!

Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial

Poster“But the true beau is a beau-ideal, an abstraction substantialized only by the scissors, a concentrated essence of frivolity, infinitely sensitive to his own indulgence, chill as the poles to the indulgences of others; prodigal to his own appetites, never suffering a shilling to escape for the behoof of others; magnanimously mean, ridiculously wise, and contemptibly clever.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1844.

Superficiality gets a bad rap. After all, what does that much-maligned word denote, in its essence? It means an emphasis on the surface, on that which is readily apparent. Now, I will never condone an obsession with exterior beauty that dismisses any interior value; however, I cannot help but detect something heroic about the desire to project a surface of agonizing perfection. Appearance-consciousness rises to the level of greatness—and dare I say art?—when it demands extreme discipline and taste on the part the person who takes up the heavy burden of being an exalted human spectacle.

I am referring to that hallowed creature, the dandy. And if we want to enjoy Beau Brummel as anything other than a quaintly moving romance based on Clyde Fitch’s 1890 play, we need to introduce ourselves to this most charming phenomenon.

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The dandy as a cultural and literary concept resists a simple definition. It depends on whom you’re talking to, but I like Nigel Rodgers’s recent definition of “the perennial dandy principles: independence, elegance, courtesy, wit.” On a more philosophical level, the love of my life Charles Baudelaire likened the dandy to the Stoic of antiquity because the dandy wears a mask of whimsy and nonchalance even when in the throes of pain or misfortune or when sullied by the teeming mediocrity of the commercial world around him. His beauty is not vulgar because it cannot be bought merely with money (although it helps, all dandies agree); that beauty reflects his originality, his ability to style and reimagine himself.

And no man incarnated the ideals of dandyism more famously than Beau Brummel, the subject of today’s offering, a 1924 silent period drama based on his spectacular life. (N.B. I am spelling the character’s name Brummel because that’s how it’s written on the titles. However, the favored spelling, according to the junta at dandyism.net. is with two L’s.)

jackprofileBeau Brummel follows the trajectory of a rise and fall. As a young officer, Brummel falls in love with Lady Margery, an heiress betrothed to an aristocrat and fails to rescue her from the clutches of her family.

Deciding to climb the social ladder, Brummel ingratiates himself with the Prince of Wales by getting him out of an amorous jam. Through his careful cultivation of mannerisms and trends and his blistering wit, “Beau” sets himself up as the reigning king bee of the upper crust—but earns as many enemies as friends. Eventually, Beau grows too big for his breeches and winds up banished by the Prince to some frigid outpost in Calais, northern France, where he dies in utter penury.

Harry Beaumont, best known for another film about style and appearances, Our Dancing Daughters, directed this poignant tale with panache and an acute eye for stunning compositions and haunting details. In depicting the rise and fall of a fashion arbiter, Beaumont uses mirrors as a motif to explore the character’s self-consciousness. The first shot we see of Brummel is a shot of him between intertitles, reflected in an oval mirror. In that classical round frame, he resembles the immaculate, still images on 18th century cameos. This is the image—but the real man is onscreen, too, although you notice him as an afterthought. We understand that appearance means everything to Brummel. Paradoxically, the most profound desires of his soul express themselves in his drive to be flamboyantly attractive and debonair.

Once Brummel has fallen from grace, the mirror, once his friend, becomes his enemy. Barrymore brought me to tears in one scene where the ravaged, wasted Brummel tries to look at his face then turns away, pushing at the glass with his fingers, streaking it in dismay.

However, I hope that our director, the talented Mr. Beaumont, won’t roll over in his grave if I observe Beau Brummel wears the unmistakable charm and savoir faire of John Barrymore front and center—like a gracefully tied cravat—and deserves most of the credit for this film’s emotional impact. A rake, a genius, a matinee idol, and as self-destructive a man that ever existed, Barrymore incarnated the sardonic wisdom and reckless hedonism at the core of dandyism.

Our star is also responsible for perhaps this film’s most significant contribution to posterity: Mary Astor’s breakout role.

maryAstor—a woman who never gave herself enough credit for her depth and strength—initially attracted attention from Hollywoodland by winning a beauty contest. Superficiality, at least, brought her to the screen and to all of us. Her possessive parents, so cruel and pushy that they might have easily fit into the ruthlessly upwardly-mobile world of Beau Brummel, recognized her beauty as their cash cow. Mary played several minor parts until John Barrymore asked for her as his leading lady in Beau Brummel.

And that’s when life and art started to intertwine to the point that it would be hard to say which was imitating which. In her autobiography, My Story, Astor recalled her screen test for the role of Lady Margery and her first meeting with the Great Profile:

“We were both in costume of sorts, just enough to indicate the period, and as we were standing in for lighting my awe for this great man made me confused and awkward. Mr. Barrymore broke through my shyness by talking about everything under the sun but the picture; he made me laugh about something, and he gradually and skillfully made me feel that I was his contemporary as an actor and as a person. He told me he had seen a picture of me in a magazine while he was on a train coming out from New York, and the caption had appealed to him: ‘On the brink of womanhood.’ I told him I was seventeen, and he said, just a little sadly, ‘It seems so long ago that I was seventeen. I’m forty now.’

“ ‘That’s not so old,’ I said, and we were great friends.

“I know that on that afternoon we fell in love, and I am sure he was even more startled than I.”

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Barrymore gave Mary her first acting lessons and unlocked a new realm of ideas and intellect to this affection-starved girl. During some of these lessons, there was no studying, however. These forbidden trysts between the ingénue and the mentor over twice her age echo the roles that they poetically brought to life onscreen. Astor remembered,

“In the filming of the many romantic, delicate love scenes of Beau Brummel we could stand in each other’s arms, Jack in his romantic red and blue hussar uniform and white wig, I in the beautiful Empire style dresses, while the camera and lights were being set. We whispered softly, or just stood there, quietly loving the closeness; and no one was the wiser. Between scenes, Jack had the prop man place two camp chairs together just off the set, and we sat side by side.”

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And so, finally, after much perambulation around the film’s contexts, I arrive at Beau Brummel itself. Unlike me, this movie wastes no time; we don’t see the romance between Beau (or George) and Lady Margery blossom—we see it cut off in medias res.

Dressed in a bridal gown, Margery meets her beloved George, a dashing soldier, in the garden to say goodbye. She’s about to depart for a life bound to another man in a marriage of convenience. Watching Barrymore’s duly celebrated face going nose-to-nose with Mary Astor’s equally photogenic profile presents a sight so stunning and precise it borders on graphic design! I felt like I was looking at one of those dual-profile-chalice illusion sketches.

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Their dazzling united loveliness might sound like a superficial thing to remark on—but, again, it’s an instance where superficiality weds something more spiritual. The surreal perfection of these two people leads us to wordlessly understand that they are meant to be together. Our eyes know it and our eyes speak directly to our hearts.

Beau Brummel is one of those rare films that captures the spark of an off-screen love affair. You can read it in Astor’s overly wide eyes and in the tender care with which Barrymore’s hands never seem to stop moving, but always seem to nervously long to caress a different part of this splendid creature.

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Unfortunately, Lady Margery’s nasty, social-climbing mother (not so different from Astor’s real-life maternal unit) bursts in. This harpy forces the girl to choose between her duty and the man she loves—really, no choice, because she can’t exactly run away with an enlisted man. George leaves her in despair, vows to climb the social ladder with his charm and wit. He takes his miniature portrait of her and writes on the back, “This beautiful creature is dead.” We know that he will meet her again.

Mary Astor, even in her teenage years, possessed a striking aura of grief and maturity. For instance, after Beau leaves for France, she clings to the door he just exited through, almost squashed against it like a broken butterfly. Seen from behind and in a long shot, she communicates a universe of pain merely by wiggling her arms despondently.

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Except for when she was playing comedy (and even then), Astor interacted with the world as one who has been hurt by it. And with her pale complexion and those perpetual dark circles that even panstick makeup couldn’t conceal, she never looked like she got quite enough sleep. That is a strong part of her allure. You wonder what she was doing all night.

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Both her fragility and her fortitude shine through her portrayal of Lady Margery. Although the script gives her little more to do than watch and react, her soulful eyes, so dark that the appearance of the whites is startling, convey a sense of heartbreaking loss. As she turns her eyes to signify the screen direction of her departing lover, we feel her happiness slip away.

trioThe scenes between her and Brummel stand out as the best of the film. Now, that’s not to say that Barrymore doesn’t beguile us pretty much constantly. Whether he’s flirting with another man, treating the Prince of Wales like an inferior acquaintance, or coyly nodding at his jealous fellow officers, he swaggers exquisitely. However, when he encounters the love of his life, then and only then do we perceive the man worthy of all that external beauty.

When Lady Margery visits him in Calais, her youth still shines while Beau, ground down by poverty, has aged horribly. He’s crouched by the fire, gnawing on a piece of bread when she comes in. As she stands in the doorway, the awkward stillness of the shot-reverse-shot exchanges tear at our heartstrings. Finally, she enters, informs him that her husband is dead, and, in an unusual inversion of the movie proposal scene, asks him to marry her. Do I smell a happy ending after all?

No, alas.

As Beau tells her, “I am grown old, and changed, and tired of life.” After she departs, he starts to sob by the door, biting on his own hand to keep her from hearing and coming back to his aid.

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Call it vanity, call it stupidity, but he loves her so much that he couldn’t live with the thought of giving her a second-rate version of himself. Thus we witness the pride and integrity that sustains dandyism. We also observe a very genuine facet of Barrymore’s love for his teenage costar.

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As Astor noted, “I know Jack loved me. I know it as surely as I know the fact of my own existence. Fifteen years afterwards he was talking to me about it, telling me how surprised he had been to find himself beginning to love me that first day on the Beau Brummel set. Even then, fifteen years later, he didn’t dismiss it lightly. ‘It s a good thing I wasn’t free to marry,” he said then. ‘And it’s a good thing I couldn’t get you away from your family. I would have married you, and you would have had a miserable life.’”

bgIf that Calais scene doesn’t wet your cheeks, wait until the denoument, which finds Beau in a debtor’s hospital as a decrepit, crazy old man. His former servant visits him with the news that Margery is dying.

This news penetrates Beau’s senility and he begins to relive his best days with her. Cut to Margery in her bed. She breathes her last… and her splendid spirit rises from the bed. Her double-exposure soul descends into Beau’s squalid room just as he expires. And he too emerges from his mortal coil as the idealized officer he once was.

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.

As the ghostly Lady Margery and Beau embrace, the shimmering schmaltziness of this telepathic love-beyond-life scenario actually works and triggers a surge of weepy fulfillment. The visual pleasure of gazing at such picturesque people, combined with the verisimilitude of the actors’ star-crossed love affair, succeeds at provoking a catharsis. After all, cinema is sort of a dandy; like Brummel, this art of surfaces runs surprisingly deep. It can see the veracity and purity of a love that no one else could perceive. And preserve that love for almost 90 years.

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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!”

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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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