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

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

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

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(Quote from This Is Orson Welles, 193)

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Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 15

“The sculptural shoulders of Rita Hayworth effortlessly bear the whole weight of the film. The new Lola-Lola of the ‘atomic age,’ she is the worthy representative of a certain American eroticism… Within the noir series, Gilda was a film apart, an almost unclassifiable movie in which eroticism triumphed over violence and strangeness.”

—Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, Panorama du Film Noir Américain

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The Lady from Shanghai (1947): More Than Luck

lady“A director is someone who presides over accidents.” —Orson Welles

“You are made from nothing but this, from these contingent manifestations, from these little discontinuities.” —Jacques Lacan

See this movie before you die.

It sounds glib, doesn’t it? Appealing to your fear of the ultimate deadline to add weight to my recommendation. Certainly it would be rather difficult to see the movie afterwards.

Strange thing, though… Once I got talking to a brilliant man who was lecturing at my college, a full-time cosmologist, no less, and a part-time cinephile. He’d somehow neglected to see The Lady From Shanghai, my all-time favorite film, so I told him that he simply had to.

He emailed me a few weeks afterwards to tell me that he’d watched it: “I loved the editing, the close-ups, the movement, the characters talking over each other. There was really no part where I was not totally engaged and engrossed with the artistic nature of the film.”

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We chatted back and forth about movies—he was an Antonioni fanatic—then it stopped. A few months later, I learned that he had died following a long battle with cancer. He’d been fighting the last campaign when I met him.

I didn’t know him well. However, the fact that my recommendation brought the beauty of The Lady from Shanghai into his life before he passed away has stayed with me through the years. I’m not proud of very much I’ve done in my misspent life, but, damn it, I’m proud of that.

And if you were to ask me why I sit down almost every day and try to share the movies I love with people I’ve never met, I’d tell you that story.

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Orson Welles suggested that films are largely made of accidents—which should come as no surprise. In all honesty, don’t accidents and chance encounters sculpt our lives more than our so-called willpower does?

We emerge from contingency, from incalculable contingencies. Just like movies. Just like The Lady from Shanghai, which wouldn’t exist as such without Rita Hayworth’s doomed final bid to rekindle her marriage to Orson Welles… and hundreds of contingencies besides.

The encounters we have with movies and around movies reflect the tenuousness of chance back to us. What was caught, as though off-guard, by the camera catches me off-guard and becomes part of me.

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The Jagged Edge

Glass breaks. Mirrors shatter and fall in sharp, tiny pieces, like confetti with malicious intent. The characters, already refracted by dozens of angled panes, drop and cascade in a spray of light and dark. Images suddenly bloom with starbursts of shards and fractures.

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When I first saw this scene, it held me spellbound, even in a 360 pixel YouTube frame. If not quite a surrealist ‘found object,’ my introduction to The Lady from Shanghai came at me without warning from the great jumble of the Internet, a cavernous, disquieting funhouse. It was more than a clip. It was an encounter. And from that moment on I did not use my head very much—but for thinking about film.

The scene had no narrative context for me, and it didn’t need any context. I was 16, and that was the summer Orson Welles’s films changed my life, transforming me from somebody who watched a lot of old movies into somebody who loved cinema and wanted desperately to understand it.

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In the years since, though, I’ve reached my boiling point with obvious interpretations of the Playland sequence. Those dwelling in mirrored chambers shouldn’t throw stones, so I’ll ’fess up to the cheap trick analysis I’ve promulgated here and elsewhere, say my mea culpas, and promise not to do it again (until next week).

Still, on the subject of The Lady from Shanghai, I’m done with “the masks we wear” and “the images we project.” And I’m sick to death of the crazy mirror as the metaphor for Orson’s many chimerical guises and identities. The “jagged edge of symbolism” made Welles cringe while alive. Don’t let’s disturb him in his shroud.

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Beyond Meaning

Why do we even try to decrypt The Lady from Shanghai thematically and/or autobiographically? Because it tempts us to. But we mustn’t fall into that snare. In fact, many of Orson Welles’s movies set this trap for the viewer. Their “themes” seem to announce themselves blatantly in the best college essay tradition. The lost innocence of childhood. Nostalgia for an imperfect past. The badness that we make terms with. The corrosive effects of police impunity. And so forth.

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Yet, these themes collapse under the overwhelming sensuousness of Welles’s imagery. Who cares what that movie, that scene, that shot means? Could any meaning live up to what it makes us feel? Why, you might as well light a forest fire to symbolize a lit match as to create a sublime sequence like the mirror shootout to serve as a delivery system for some whiff of philosophy. Analysis should open, not close; expand, not contract.

In fact, Welles’s major criticism of Jean-Luc Godard centered on this very question of meaning: “His message is what he cares about these days, and, like most movie messages, it could be written on the head of a pin.”

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In the same vein, when asked about the visual splendor of The Lady from Shanghai, Welles revealed that this beauty was born of frustration—and hinted that he intended it to cause frustration.

Reflecting on the lush, distracting backgrounds in the aquarium scene, Welles explained, “It was so gripping visually that no one heard what was being said. And what was said was, for all that, the marrow of the film. The subject was so tedious that I said to myself, ‘this calls for something beautiful to look at.’”

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When people complain about The Lady from Shanghai, and some do rather loudly, they generally bemoan the lack of a coherent plot. This impenetrable narrative—so opaque and brackish that, even when Columbia head Harry Cohn offered a preview audience money to explain it, no one succeeded—ironically allows the audience to experience the film as pure cinema.

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The Lady from Shanghai isn’t about ideas or even relationships. It’s a movie of gestures, tones, and textures, especially contrasts. Elsa’s flawless face in close-up gives way to ghoulish Grisby’s oily skin and bulging eyes crammed into the frame. The pale, platinum goddess flits like a dove across a skyline and races through slums like a fallen angel—but then glints darkly in the funhouse like a serpent or, backlit by the murky tank of a moray eel, strikes a profile of inky black flawlessness.

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Like its title character, this movie never surrender its secrets.

Loving something means never comprehending it, realizing that you cannot grasp it or exhaust its charms. I love The Lady from Shanghai, which is why it’s taken me years to write a word about it.

I’ll doubt I’ll ever fully understand it. Maybe I’ll die trying.

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15 Film Noir Valentines for All You Lovelorn Mugs and Molls

outofthepastIt’s that time of year when flurries of cards in Pepto-Bismol hues invade our lives with syrupy messages of eternal devotion. I see gestures of love like that and I think, “What would Raymond Chandler do?”

Well, he’d probably have a drink and say something funny and bitterly insightful, I guess. But I’m no Raymond Chandler. So I did the next best thing and spent some time communing with Photoshop to make shoddily satirical valentines.

When you think about it, though, film noir is first and foremost about relationships—romances that actually reveal the dark side of human interactions and the shallow pretense of bourgeois affection… oh, who am I kidding? I just wanted to make some damn noir valentines. As for the analysis, today, baby, I don’t care.

Please note that these valentines are ironic and are not meant as an endorsement of: homicide, codependency, passive aggression, guns, necrophiliac crushes, l’amour fou, watered-down penicillin, or bad romance of any kind. Make sure you talk to your doctor about whether hardboiled dialogue is right for you.

And, without further ado, the valentines…

Martha Vickers says what we’d all like to say to Bogie in The Big Sleep (1947):

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Rita Hayworth tells us how she really feels in Gilda (1946):

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Gloria Grahame is not charmed by Glenn Ford’s hang-ups in The Big Heat (1954):

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Grimy drifter Ann Savage just can’t quit Tom Neal in Detour (1945):

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Noir’s rottenest couple, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944):

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You thought your girl- or boyfriend was clingy? Get a load of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1946):

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It was surprisingly hard to come up with something romantic for Harry Lime (Orson Welles) of The Third Man (1949) to say. But I think this is pretty heartwarming.

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Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth are fools in love in The Lady from Shanghai (1947):

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Maybe Bogie loves Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but he won’t play the sap for her!

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Ava Gardner explains to Burt Lancaster that she has some emotional baggage in The Killers (1946):

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Outlaw lovebirds Peggy Cummins and John Dall in Gun Crazy (1950):

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The ultimate in noir tragic coolness, Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947):

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I couldn’t help but get a little mushy over my favorite noir screen team, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire (1942):

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Gloria Grahame recites some melodramatic script lines to express her despair over losing Bogie at the end of In a Lonely Place (1950):

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Dana Andrews seems a tad too fixated on a portrait of a dead dame in Laura (1944):

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 Happy Valentine’s Day to all you femmes and hommes fatals!

Eight Films in Eight Days: Cinematic Adventures in Paris

cinemaThe French take classic movies, like all forms of sophisticated pleasure, rather seriously.

For instance, if I want to go see a great movie at the Forum des Images, I must do so without so much as a macaron to sustain myself through the screening. Meanwhile, a few meters away, a huge multiplex sells the latest forgettable films on the market—with a full concession stand wafting good smells. I can hear its siren call, “Come over to the dark side… we have popcorn.”

But no, true bliss demands discipline before it bestows its favors. As much as the rigor and intensity of French audiences intimidate me, I also admire their deep respect and love for the fascinating films of yesterday. It warms the cockles of my heart to witness such a wide range of ages attending screenings, from a school group of tweens at the Cinémathèque to dowagers in Chanel suits frequenting the legendary theaters of the Latin Quarter.

In Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir, the narrator of the first story concludes, “Le bonheur n’est pas gai.” That is, “Happiness is not joyful.” So you’d be wrong to think that solemn spectators in Paris movie theaters were absorbing the films like some kind of bitter medicine. In fact, they’re about as happy as you can get for €7.50.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a pretty representative sample of what you can see in huit jours (the French often talk about “eight days” when they mean a week) in cinema’s hometown. Lucky for me, I also happened to be visiting Paris during La Fête du Cinéma, a yearly event that reduces ticket prices to €3.50 for a few days.

ritaCover Girl (Charles Vidor and Gene Kelly, 1944)

The Venue: Sadly, the Cinémathèque Française doesn’t live where it used to back in the days when Langlois hand-picked the movies, Musidora helped work the box office, and the likes of Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette hogged the front-row seats. But, hey, look on the bright side: there’s a gift shop. And you can still see a wide variety of classics, from the obvious to the obscure, projected from the archive’s own collection of prints.

The Movie: This inventive, flamboyantly-colored backstage musical, about a hoofer who wins a modeling contest, gave Rita Hayworth’s rising star a major boost.

Why I Went to See It: Whereas the Cinémathèque’s founder put together wildly eclectic programs of movies each day, the establishment now heavily favors retrospectives and coherent series. When I go see a movie at the Cinémathèque, I look for movies that belong to the Histoire Pérmanente du Cinéma series, which tends to feature a wider assortment of films, including some real rarities as well as Hollywood classics.

The Print: A 35mm version with French subtitles from the Cinémathèque’s vaults. The well-loved reels started to crackle and break up at their beginnings and ends—resulting in one jump cut so startling that I swear I thought the Nouvelle Vague boys got ahold of the print!

My Highlight: Rita Hayworth, wearing a somewhat plain navy suit with red piping, in a waiting room full of models decked out in chic pastels. The lily needs no gilding.

Bottom Line: Technicolor is a damn good storyteller. 

otherThe Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972)

The Venue: Crammed into an underground mall amongst numerous fast food joints and chain stores, the Forum des Images does not overwhelm you at first sight.

However, since the Forum opened in 2008, its exciting programs and decidedly hip ambiance have won over cinephiles from all walks of life.

With both purple fluorescent lights and a changing collection of real vintage posters hanging up in the lobby, the space revels in an oh-so-French blend of old and new. Did I mention the cinema library, where individual browsers can partake of thousands of films and books about films?

The Movie: A horror film? A coming-of-age story? A psychological thriller? However you categorize The Other, it’s much more than another good-twin-bad-twin movie.

Why I Went to See It: In my humble opinion, The Other also ranks as one of the unheralded masterpieces of the 1970s.

The Print: I neglected to notice that the Forum planned on screening a 35mm print in version française, borrowed from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. That is, with dubbing from the original French release. Listening to all of the characters speaking approximations of their lines in French—and having to provide some whispered translations for my mother—oddly enough gave me the pleasant sensation of watching the film as if for the first time.

My Highlight: The way milkweed silk catches the sunlight as one of the twins carries pods of the fluffy stuff across a bucolic field.

Bottom Line: My respect for this film grew even more after seeing it on a big screen. 

loveLove in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957) 

The Venue: Fortified by some steak au poivre, I returned to the Forum des Images for the second screening of the day.

The Movie: A barely legal cellist tames a notorious roué by regaling him with false tales of her amorous escapades… lifted from the files of her private eye father. I can only describe this silly, tender trifle as an operetta without singing.

Why I Went to See It: Billy Wilder + Paris + Tango Music = Where Do I Buy My Ticket?

The Print: A well-preserved 35mm version.

My Highlight: Back-to-back close-ups of weathered Gary Cooper and weathered Maurice Chevalier in their confrontation scene. I’d weather that weather!

Bottom Line: It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to go kiss the first person you meet in the street. Fortunately I knew better than to ruin my lipstick. 

champo1A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)

The Venue: Rue Champollion is the epicenter of Paris cinephilia, lined with art house theaters of which La Filmothèque is my favorite so far. Sure, you might have to elbow someone out of the way to get your tickets, but it’s totally worth your trouble to burrow into a comfy plush chair in a screening room with golden floral sconces.

And, sure, some crazy filmgoer might bawl you out for fidgeting during the movie when you were just reaching for your lip balm, but that’s all part of the thrill. Next time, I think I’ll shush someone who isn’t talking, just for the hell of it.

The Movie: A typical love story set in crumbling WWII Germany, elevated by Sirk’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes gritty, but always arresting use of CinemaScope.

Why I Went to See It: When I was in college, I read young Godard’s review of A Time to letempsLove and it’s a real hoot, ending with something along the lines of, “You don’t know beauty ‘til you’ve seen it.” Well, I’d never seen it… And if I ever meet Godard, now I’ll at least have something to talk about while politely avoiding the topic of the migraine that Weekend gave me.

The Print: A gorgeous 35mm version, recopied from the original negative, with French subtitles.

My Highlight: A platinum blonde chanteuse keeping calm and carrying on signing in a swanky wine cave turned bomb shelter while perched on an enormous wooden keg.

Bottom Line: No, I’m not crying. I just got some irony in my eye…

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

The Venue: La Filmothèque again. Shorter lines, no crazy lady barking at me—such a disappointment.

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The Movie: A society lady falls for her gardener and his proto-hippie ethos of self-reliance à la Walden, and almost everyone she knows tries to crush her happiness.

Why I Went to See It: The world seems tragically drab after watching a Sirk film. I needed my next fix.

The Print: Another 35mm version in Technicolor with French subtitles. Some days I really like my life…

My Highlight: Jane Wyman standing in blue light, wearing a red dress, gazing at a yellow tree branch in a vase—the primary color triangle, almost phantasmagorically saturated—left me agape.

Bottom Line: I love happy endings, especially when they come with an alarmingly friendly stag that serves as the auteur’s eye-roll to his audience. 

ticketsL’Arlésienne (André Antoine, 1922)

The Venue: The Cinémathèque Française—and I should warn you that the establishment screens its silents without music. This tradition stems from the days when Henri Langlois couldn’t afford an accompanist and thus decided to argue that truly silent silents offer the viewer greater advantages. It’s so quiet you can hear the metallic whine of the projector behind the wall.

Look, I’m up for the occasional surreal film event kind of thing, but I do believe that silent movies, to be properly enjoyed, appreciated, and, yes, even studied, require music. When those films first hit theaters, they had live music and they still cry out for that treatment.

I have this nightmare where someone who’s never seen a silent film walks into the Cinémathèque and emerges with the impression that silent movies are austere, remote relics—when nothing could be further from the truth. So, you’re hearing it from me: if silent movies are as yet undiscovered territory for you, please seek out a screening with live music or at least some music.

The Movie: Frédéri, a farm heir obsessed with a vampy townswoman from Arles, agrees to marry a peasant girl who loves him. Brace yourself for tragedy.

Why I Went to See It: I’d never even heard of this film and, chances are, I’ll never get to see it again.

The Print: This 35mm version, restored in 1990 with support from the Musée d’Orsay, sparkled with sunlight and shadows. The original intertitles—written in that soothing, graceful Art Nouveau font that one often sees on early 20th century French posters—offered an unforeseen treat to the eyes.

My Highlight: An ominous silhouette shot of the woman from Arles watching Frédéri hover in front of her lace-curtained window, like a shadow puppet. But there were so many stunning countryside shots of sheep ambling and villagers dancing that I lost track of my favorites.

Bottom Line: A fascinating and sensual document of rural France in the 1920s weighed down by a waffling, melodramatic plot. Maybe music would’ve helped.

champo2Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

The Venue: Le Champo opened its doors in 1938 and has been delighting cinephiles ever since. The movie theater now specializes in retrospectives—as I write, there are series showcasing Ford, Renoir, and Varda. The screening room where I saw Cléo featured a charming canopy of tiny lights, sparkling from the ceiling like distant stars.

Why I Went to See It: A few days before, I got my taste of Paris, Paramount-style with Love in the Afternoon. Just as one craves salty after sweet, I wanted a taste of the real Paris, in all its 1960s chaos and glory, as it appeared to the street-roving cameras of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers.

The Print: Actually it was a 2K digital projection; the restoration and digitization was overseen by Varda herself. I tend to be a skeptic where digital is concerned, but the eloquent crispness of the images proved quite persuasive.

My Highlight: Cléo’s grey kitten swatting at the train of her angelic negligee. Although the switch from color to black-and-white in the opening scene also took my breath away.

The Bottom Line: This movie is heaven for the eyes, but hell on mascara.

spiteSpite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton, 1929)

The Venue: Forum des Images again. This time, before my screening, I tried out the stylish, yet comfy café on the second floor, which I totally recommend. A pot of green tea before a movie does so much to focus one’s powers of concentration, n’est-ce pas?

Why I Went to See It: Buster and his biceps on a big screen. Well, that’s a big part of it, but I also wanted to observe how a French audience would react to a Keaton movie. In his memoir, Buster wrote with pride that the French referred to him as “Malec,” a word that has no direct translation, but which means roughly “the hole in the doughnut” or “a blank piece of paper.” Um… does that mean he represents some kind of cosmic emptiness? And can you laugh at a cosmic emptiness?

The Print: A surprisingly unblemished 35mm version, on loan from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. I only realized afterwards that this marked the first time I ever saw Buster on 35mm.

My Highlight: Tough to pin down, but I think the prize goes to Buster’s fierce frowny face, hissing the villain from the play in which his lady love plays the lead.

Bottom Line: A doughnut hole-in-one. You could probably hear the laughter for blocks. Apparently happiness can be joyful…

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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