Sunday, 16 August 2015

Hell Hath No Fury - A List of Cinema's Greatest Femmes Fatale

"And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
 Must command but may not govern—shall enthral but not enslave him.
 And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
 That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male."
Rudyard Kipling

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."
William Congreve

 Never mind "the evil that men do"! In the world of story telling it is a woman's wrath which truly engrosses us. Why, even the oldest story ever told starts off with Eve tempting Adam into disobeying his Lord. Greek mythology is filled with jealous and scheming goddesses; Shakespeare created the prototypical 'woman behind the man' in Lady Macbeth; the most memorable villains in Grimm's fairy tales are vain and bitter stepmothers; and in the modern age's most popular storytelling medium - i.e. cinema - it is the posionous allure of the femme fatale which continues to shock or enthrall us.

In this blog I will list some of the most memorable female characters in cinema who, whether out of vengeance, bitterness, jealousy or desperation, carefully set out to destroy another person's life.

Catherine Sloper in The Heiress (1949)

Olivia de Havilland

Catherine Sloper (played by Olivia de Havilland) is a plain, painfully shy woman whose emotionally detached father makes no secret of his disappointment in her. When she meets the charming Morris Townsend (played by Montgomery Clift), she falls desperately in love with him. Catherine intends to marry him, but when Morris finds out that Catherine will be disinherited if he marries her, he disappears.  A few years later Catherine's father has died and she has inherited his fortune. Morris returns to try and woo her again, but this time Catherine is wise to his deceptive ways and the scene is set for her carefully orchestrated revenge.

Eve Harrington in All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter
Margo Channing (played by Bette Davies) is one of the biggest stars on Broadway, but despite her success she is bemoaning her age, having just turned forty and knowing what that will mean for her career. After a performance one night, she meets a besotted fan backstage - the titular Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter). Eve tells a moving story of growing up poor and losing her young husband in the recent war. Moved, Margo quickly befriends her, takes her into her home, and hires her as her assistant. But as the film progresses, we realize that Eve is not who she said she was. In fact, she is a conniving young actress who gradually works to supplant Margo, and uses her to make her own successful career on Broadway.

Mrs Robinson in The Graduate (1967)

Anne Bancroft
Anne Bacnroft plays Mrs Robinson, a bored and disillusioned housewife in her forties who, in an attempt to add some excitement to her life, seduces the 21 year old Benjamin Braddock - the son of her husband's business partner and a recent college graduate. Despite Benjamin's attempts at adding some depth and meaning to their relationship, Mrs Robinson remains aloof and disconnected. She is only interested in him for the sex. Benjamin soon becomes bored with the relationship and starts flirting with Mrs Robinson's daughter. That's when all hell breaks loose. Filled with jealousy and shame, Mrs Robinson does all she can to keep Benjamin away from her daughter.

Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep plays Joanna Kramer, a young wife and mother who feels she has slowly been losing her identity since she became married. She abandons her family to go and find herself, leaving her ex-husband to look after their son on his own. Mr Kramer (played by Dustin Hoffman) has a tough year, balancing the care of his son with his fledgling career, but during that time, father and son bond and become closer to each other than they ever have been. But then Joanna Kramer returns, demanding her son back, and a bitter custody battle ensues. This film was released at the height of the woman's lib movement and at a time when divorces and custody battles had become more common. It was a real zeitgeist movie which divided audiences into those who supported Joanna Kramer's right to be an independent woman and a mother, and those who derided her as a heartless and selfish bitch.

Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (1987)

Glenn Close
Glenn Close plays Alex Forrest, a successful editor who has a fling with Dan Gallagher, a married business colleague, played by Michael Douglas. What started out as a quick and opportunistic one night stand, soon devolves into every married man's nightmare, when Alex Forrest starts stalking him. Glenn Close does an excellent job of portraying a woman with emotional problems who is desperate for a meaningful relationship with a man. She does all she can to avoid playing the stereotypical psycho bitch from hell, but she is let down by the re-shot ending. The original ending had her character commit suicide when she realised that a real, loving relationship with Dan Gallagher was impossible. But audiences did not react well to this ending during test screenings and it had to be re-shot. The film now ends with a deranged Alex Forrest showing up at Dan's house with a kitchen knife intent on killing his wife. Like Kramer vs Kramer, this was a real zeitgeist movie, released at a time when women were still struggling to be taken seriously in the world of business, and it faced a feminist backlash for portraying a successful businesswoman as a sad, lovelorn and desperate psychopath.

Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates
While traveling from Colorado to his home in New York City, Famed novelist Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) is caught in a blizzard and his car goes off the road, rendering him unconscious. Paul is rescued by a nurse named Annie Wilkes (payed Kathy Bates), who brings him to her remote home. When Paul regains consciousness he finds himself bedridden, with both his legs broken as well as a dislocated shoulder. Annie claims she is his "number one fan" and at first seems to be a pleasant, bubbly, slightly odd, but harmless spinster. However, Annie Wilkes is very much affected by mood swings and a dark cloud appears in her mind when she finds out that Paul Sheldon has killed off her beloved heroine, Misery Chastain. She becomes increasingly dangerous and psychopathic as she holds the author hostage and forces him to burn his manuscript and re-write the book to save her heroine's life.

Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Judi Dench
Barbara Covett (played by Judi Dench) is a history teacher at a comprehensive school in London. A spinster nearing retirement, she becomes instantly infatuated with Sheba Hart, a new art teacher (played by Cate Blanchett) who joins the staff. When Barbara discovers that Sheba is having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student, she uses the information to manipulate Sheba into loving her. She allows the story to leak out, causing Sheba to be fired, thrown out of her home by her husband and move in  with Barbara. But her plans backfire when Sheba discovers her real intentions.

Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014)

Rosamund Pike
The day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne returns home to find his wife Amy is missing. The police conclude that Amy was murdered and suspicions arise that Nick is responsible. But all is not what it seems. As Nick desperately tries to proof his innocence, he slowly falls into Amy’s carefully laid trap to incriminate him; Amy’s twisted form of punishment for neglecting her throughout their marriage. Rosamund Pike does an excellent job of playing a steely-willed woman, who knows exactly what she wants and has no qualms about hurting people to get it.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Dark and Nasty - The Enduring Appeal of the Film Noir

The term film noir was coined by French film critics in the late 30's and early 40's to describe a certain style of cinema which was emerging from Hollywood at that time. These were mostly crime dramas in which the film characters displayed a cynical attitude towards the world. Stylistically, the films owed a lot to the German Expressionist movement of the 1920's;  low key lighting, skewed angles, convoluted story lines.

Famous German film directors such as Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and Josef von Sternberg moved to Hollywood in the early 30's, lured by the booming film industry, and planted the seeds of what would become one of Hollywood's most enduring stylistic legacies.

Film noir is not so much a genre as a style. Although most of the pictures labelled as film noirs in the 1940's were crime dramas, from the 1950's onwards we get to see many different genres imbued with the same black pessimism and featuring morally questionable protagonists with a generally dark and nasty worldview.

I have compiled a list of my favourites - one for each decade.

1940's - The Maltese Falcon

The quintessential noir thriller. Adapted from a novel by Dashiell Hammett, Humphrey Bogart plays a hard nosed private detective who is initially employed to find a missing woman, but who gets embroiled in a murderous game of backstabbing and deceit by a trio of unscrupulous adventurers.

It contains all the elements of a film noir; a cynical and immoral detective, an attractive femme fatale; and a twisting and winding plot in which nothing and no one is what they first appear to be.

Mary Astor as the Femme Fatale

1950's - Sunset Boulevard

The film stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, an impoverished and down on his luck screenwriter who meets Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star who has become a recluse, locked away in her crumbling Holywood mansion.  Desmond dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen and hires Gillis to write the screenplay for her interpretation of the Salome story. Having no money and being heavily indebted, Gillis reluctantly takes on the job and (literally) prostitutes himself to this deluded old diva.

It is a wonderfully brilliant movie with a nasty undertone. At a time when Hollywood was exporting glamour and the American dream to the rest of the world, this film exposed the seedy underbelly of a city where dreams are built but lives are shattered.

William Holden floating dead in the swimming pool at the titular address.

1960's - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane

Two aging sisters live together in a decaying Hollywood mansion. Jane (played by Bette Davies) is a former child star of early Vaudeville known as "Baby Jane," who was spoiled, pampered and doted upon by her father. Her ignored older sister, played by Joan Crawford, lives in Jane's shadow and has to endure the torment of her increasingly deranged and deluded sister. A camp and grotesque drama which, like Sunset Boulevard, deals with the nasty aftermath of faded fame and glory.

Bette Davies and Joan Crawford - the feud between these two faded movie stars of the 40's during the shooting of this film has become legendary.

1970's - Chinatown

Directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne, this film is an ode to the noir genre. It was inspired by the California Water Wars, a series of disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century. It incorporates all the elements of a clasic film noir - i.e. the seedy P.I, the tragic femme fatale and a convoluted plot, yet it manages to be refreshingly original.  With its multi-layered story (part mystery and part psychological drama), the film has become the quintesential neo noir mystery.

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes

1980's - Blue Velvet

None come nastier than this gem by David Lynch. Kyle McLachlan plays a young suburban boy who gets lured into a dark underworld after finding a human ear in a field. Isabella Rosselini plays the tragic heroine and femme fatale, a nightclub singer who is indebted to a perverted and sadistic crime lord (Dennis Hopper at his most menacing).
David Lynch literally takes us beneath the green lawns and white picket fences of suburbia to the surreal, murky and insect ridden underworld of Disturbia.
Isabella Rosselini singing Blue Velvet

1990's - The Grifters

This is a highly under valued and largely forgotten movie from the early nineties. Like Chinatown, it incorporates all of the themes we have come to associate with the genre, but gives them a twist, making for a fresh and original movie. It deals with the sordid lives of a trio of con artists and the depths of depravity they eventually sink to.

It features a brilliant ensemble cast in John Cusak, Annette Bening and Angelica Houston. Houston in particular is outstanding as the most fatalistic of femmes fatale.

Angelica Houston - the most fatalistic of femmes fatale.

2000's - Black Swan

"Black Swan?" I hear you ask. "This isn't a film noir!"
Well, it  absolutely is a film noir. It may be a film about ballet, but all the elements are there: dark and moody lighting, a brooding and persistent sense of menace, an ensemble of immoral and questionable characters, and there's even a femme fatale in the shape of Mila Kunnis.
The plot revolves around a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake  by a New York City dance company. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a young dancer given the chance to dance the prestigious part of the White Swan. She becomes overwhelmed by a feeling of immense pressure when she finds herself competing for the part, causing her to lose her tenuous grip on reality and descend into a living nightmare.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan

2010’s - Drive

Drive has been described as a tough, hard-edged, neo-noir, 
art house feature, extremely violent and very stylish. 
The director's inspiration for Drive came partly from reading 
Grimms' Fairy Tales, and his goal was to make a fairy tale that 
takes Los Angeles as the background, with The Driver as the 
hero who protects what is good, while at the same time killing 
degenerate people in violent ways. The script imposes a kind 
of sideways moral code, where even those who comply with it
are almost never rewarded for their effort.

Ryan Gosling in Drive

                                     Buy Gay Noir now. Available as ebook and in paperback