1940s, blogathon, Film Spotlight, movies

Barbara Stanwyck: Sorry, Wrong Number

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Sorry, Wrong Number(1948) is a film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. Directed by Anatole Litvak with Sol Polito as cinematographer, it was first written as a radio play in 1943 starring Agnes Moorehead, then adapted to the screen by Lucille Fletcher.  The film’s structure and the cinematography maximize suspense. Of course, what makes the film is the performance by Barbara Stanwyck whose Leona starts off bossy and queenly but sinks to a mental state of fragility that commands pity by the story’s end. It’s a meaty role any serious actress would crave and Barbara delivers.

Leona Stevenson is a manipulator. As the pampered daughter of a pharmaceutical magnate from Chicago, she falls for a small town, handsome Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) and manipulates him to marry her. Her health is a form of manipulation, too. If she convinces herself she is an invalid, she can control her husband to be at her side. One night, as she frantically calls looking for her missing husband, she overhears men discussing their murderous plot to kill a woman.  From there, the story weaves back and forth from flashbacks to real-time. The phone is the central object that connects the murderers, her husband, and Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) who reappears after an eight year break up with Henry. The phone is the thread that keeps the narrative alive and progressing. The story feels like a Nancy Drew mystery when Sally Hunt reveals her part in the plot, but otherwise,  we learn what mischief Mr. Henry Stevenson is up to in a compelling way. Barbara’s facial expressions and distress is palpable, and I am biting my nails with expectancy when out of the dark shadows the tension mounts to the apex and end of the story.

Anatole Litvak’s choice to use mirrors on his sets is highly effective for enhancing the mystery. Mirrors in the restaurant to check what’s behind you, mirrors over the bed or strategically placed to highlight the phone or a hand. The phone booths, the three-story spiraling staircase, the marquis rock on Leona’s finger, and Edith Head‘s costume designs make Sorry, Wrong Number a thrilling visual treat.

I only wish I could have heard this on the radio. With the lights off. I bet it was magnificent.

actors, femme fatale, movies

The Evolution of the Femme Fatale

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Welcome to the Lucky 13 Film Club spotlighting the bad luck charm, the femme fatale. Virtuoso BILL WHITE at Cinema Penitentiary Diaries agreed to be the guest contributor this month. Thank you, Bill! He discusses her roots and fermentation through the 1960s:

Vamps, vixens, sirens, ghosts, wasp women, nightclub singers, faithless wives, …..If you are contemplating suicide by woman, you have plenty of options.  The femme fatale, or deadly female, has been a central figure in literature and myth since mankind developed an imagination.  In films, it all started in 1915 with Theda Bara as The Vampire in A Fool There Was.  And so many fools have since followed the deadly female to destruction, be it physical, moral, spiritual, economic, or social. Some, like George O’ Brien’s The Man, in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W.Murnau), escape through love, faith, and redemption. Others, like  Emil Jannings’ professor Rath, victim of nightclub singer Lola in Joseph von Sternberg’s 1930 The Blue Angel, are not so lucky.

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Marlene Dietrich’s Lola has been a prototype for the predatory nightclub singer that has persisted for nearly a century, with Rita Hayworth’s Gilda one of its most popular incarnations.  By the time Janet Leigh’s Cherry showed up in the 1966 adaptation of Norman Mailer’s novel An American Dream, this character type had gone beyond both its Berlin Cabaret origins and film noir trappings to become a vengeful harridan of the deadliest order, with her final line, “What did you expect from a whore?” still awaiting an answer fifty years later.

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But not all femme fatales are vengeful witches. In Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur) Simone Simon plays Irena, a woman who, terrified that erotic arousal will turn her into  murderous leopard, avoids sexual relations with her husband. Not so with Shirley MacLaine’s serial widow in the frothy comedy, What a Way to Go, who keeps marrying men who are destined to get rich and die young, although she doesn’t mean them any harm. Then there are the bad girls who prove deadly only to themselves when they try to reform.  Gloria Graham’s Debbie Marsh (The Big Heat, 1953, Fritz Lang) and Jean Peters’ Candy (Pickup on South Street, 1953, Sam Fuller)  are examples of tramps whose turning of a new leaf gains them nothing but a bullet in the gut.

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Then there are the relatively decent chaps who are enchanted into a life of crime by sociopathic females. In Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950),  Bart Tare (John Dall) loves shooting guns for the sport of it, but his girlfriend Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), loves killing people with them. Bart soon joins her in the killing, and they both end up dead.  But usually the victim of the femme fatale has a touch of larceny in his heart to begin with. It sure doesn’t take much for Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) to seduce Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into maximizing her husband’s insurance policy before knocking him off in Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic, Double Indemnity.

Wilder’s picture might be the model for subsequent film noirs on the order of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but it is by no means a universal standard by which to measure the femme fatale.   In fact, the beast comes in so many guises that I don’t believe such a standard is possible.  We have the biblical femme fatale, marvelously embodied by Hedy Lemarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Samson and Delilah,  the female ghost in endless Japanese tales, most memorably portrayed by Machiko Kyô as Lady Wakasa in Kenji Mizoguchi’s unforgettable 1953 classic Ugetsu,  Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, perhaps the most evil personage of modern drama, played by Ingrid Bergman in Alex Segal’s 1963 television movie, and the vampire heroine of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 gothic serial, Carmilla,  which inspired countless films beginning with Carl Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr, and including Roger Vadim’s 1960, Blood and Roses, which starred his wife Annette.

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The sixties continued with a further evolution of the femme fatale, including Francois Truffaut’s 1969 throwback to the noir era, Mississippi Mermaid, featuring Catherine Deneuve, as well as modern variations on the siren archetype in Monte Hellman’s 1966 western, The Shooting.  And as long as we have stupid guys and devious gals, the femme fatale will continue to evolve.

Cindy’s take on it:  1970s to the Present 

Sex-appeal is a common denominator with all femme fatales through the decades. She exudes a powerful spell–the anticipation of sexual passion via body language combined with an aura of mysterious detachment. It is a heavy perfume few men can ignore.

The Emasculaters 

They are out to punish. These heartless emasculaters get off manipulating others. Often, they coax out the worst in a male to actualize their perverted prophesy. After driving him to violence they justify, “See? I told you, all men are pricks.” Debra Winger in Black Widow (1984), John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994), and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992) are a few that come to mind.  

The Complicated 

If a Madeleine Elster enters your life, you better run for the hills. Confused and a little crazy, men feel drawn to them and become a little crazy themselves. In one scene they’re slapping them, and in the next, they risk everything to save them. Why? Because deep down, men feel the troubled sexpot will save them. In L.A. Confidential (1997), Veronica Lake look-alike, Lynn Bracken, played by Kim Basinger, fits this mold.  Michelle Pfeiffer has made a career by playing sizzling-and-confused to perfection.

For Freedom 

Surviving in a patriarchal world ain’t easy. Girls don’t wish to grow up to be prostitutes; they are pawns and victims of male predators. Some femme fatales use their beauty to acquire eventual freedom from their oppressors. No better examples for this category exist than Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974) or Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). 

The Kick-Ass Present 

After Linda Hamilton’s performance in Terminator 2, a redefining of sexiness pushed femme fatales to a level of ultra-independence. As genders have become androgynous, in the last 15 years, the femme fatale has changed. She has become a super-hero (or villain).

Sexy and proud, she controls her own life. She can think and fight. She can kill as well as GI-Joe. Gone is vulnerability and dependency on a man. Do you agree?

My favorite femme fatale is Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946). Who is yours? 

How do you see the evolution of the femme fatale

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1920s, actors, culture, history, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol, movies, music, Research, writing

1927: Nickel-Hoppers and Taxi Dancers

When was the last time you watched a silent film? Try this entertaining, 1926 short film, The Nickel-Hopper starring adorable Mabel Normand. It’s about a young girl who earns her living as a “taxi dancer”. During the Jazz Age, dance halls were preferable over ballrooms and were popular for men because it didn’t matter your height or your looks, you could rent a taxi dancer for ten cents if she had an open slot on her dance card. The girls usually kept half the amount, hence the name “nickel-hoppers”.

The research continues exploring the year 1927 in America, and this silent film provided a wealth of insight into the culture. The character Paddy is twirled about on the dance floor by a dozen men during the course of the evening. There’s always someone who wants to take her home. It’s a simple plot–poor girl tries to catch a man who will deliver her from poverty and rag-doll job and into respectability. Oliver Hardy plays the enthusiastic drummer at the dance hall, and a very young Boris Karloff plays the predator who wants to take her home. She outwits him and charms, Jessop, the handsome, rich bachelor.

Barbara Stanwyck is a nickel-hopper in the film, Ten Cents a Dance.

Most taxi dancers were girls looking to make money. I’m thinking about my character Sally, my young Barbara Stanwyck inspiration, who will manipulate her aunt into renting an empty room in Jerome, Arizona so Sally can turn it into a dance hall. Of course, that means music. Irving Berlin, Ira and George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Gene Austin–I love their songs.

 

I will certainly place the current hits of the time into the second novel, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol.  These songs are a part of American pop-culture, and accentuate the historical climate perfectly.

Here is another Berlin classic, “How Deep is the Ocean”. Released in 1932, it shows the popular genre of the ballad. Billie Holliday’s version is my favorite. Anyone else appreciate the romantic, sweet music of the 1920s?

Silly love songs. Where did they go?