“The bad girls were so much fun to play …. Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.”
—Audrey Totter (1917-2013)
When actress Audrey Totter died December 12, the obituaries all but unanimously labeled her a “femme fatale of classic film noir.” There’s something darkly addictive about the term “film noir,” two words that, along with “noir,” have spectacularly transcended the genre of American film French cinephiles gave a name to in the mid-1940s. Whether you think of it as a mood or a state of mind or a way of putting a convenient handle on something that challenges description, film noir has, in the internet sense, gone viral. It’s infinitely adaptable, one of those so-called “winged words” that fly well beyond their origins. Sometimes it seems we’ve been looking for film noir, waiting for it, ever since Cain slew Abel, Mephistopheles signed up Faust, and Macbeth heeded the witches and his femme fatale wife.
A Recent Noir Romance
Cain and Abel aside, the original noir couple is Adam and Eve, and right now I’m thinking of a couple whose last night together was recently watched by millions of cable television viewers. In this case, the man is a killer on the run and the woman hiding him out and risking her life on his behalf is complicit in the murder, which was done on assignment, in a justified cause (the “service of their country”), but guilt or innocence has nothing to do with it. That’s the beauty of this fantastically star-crossed couple. Theirs is so improbable a romance that we know from the start it has to be doomed; that’s what makes it so fascinating. Everything about these two has been ambiguous. He enters as an instrument of evil, which the woman has figured out long before anyone else suspects it, and one reason she knows is because she’s already begun to fall in love with him. They have sex, make love, know love, express it unconditionally, the “bigger than both of us” sort. This is what it’s all about, life and love, love and death, duty and country.
One of the tropes of film noir is the man of action wounded, embattled, in need of help, finding safe haven for a time in the arms of the woman who may betray him or protect him or bring him to his fate, which is sometimes beyond her control, as it proves to be here. She’s hustled him undercover and against all odds to a desolate refuge where they are to be rescued from the forces pursuing them. Alone together at last in that bleak sanctuary, they make no explicit avowals of love — they don’t need to, it’s understood — and they have no time for lovemaking; they’re both exhausted, both beyond it. Later we see the man nestled asleep with his head in her lap. This again is pure noir romance. She has him to herself and she has his child in her womb. But it’s folly to imagine for a moment that they can actually have a life together. It’s not, to put it crudely, in the script. He’s doomed and she will be a helpless witness to the moment of his death, screaming his name as he dies so that he knows she’s there for him right up to the end.
If you were watching Homeland on Showtime a couple of weeks ago, you’ll have recognized the story I’m describing. Three seasons of this award-winning series have taken viewers through all kinds of issues and actions and relationships, plots and counterplots, and innumerable graphic violations of probability. And it all comes down to the last night the doomed couple spend alone together. Bloggers may quibble about how tired they are of Carrie and Brody, but without that romance and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul, Homeland is little more than an updated, poor man’s 24, minus Jack Bauer.
A Christmas Film Noir
This was supposed to be a Christmas column. After all, we’re printing on Christmas day, at least according to the masthead (we actually put the paper together on Monday). So what does Christmas have to do with film noir? Doesn’t the very nature of the phenomenon resist such niceties as Christmas Eve, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, stockings hopefully hung by the chimney with care, stock images of the Nativity?
Most of the obituary summaries of Audrey Totter’s career single out Adrienne Fromsett in Lady in the Lake (1947) as her “breakthrough” role and give special notice to actor-director Robert Montgomery’s unique use of the subjective camera, the “You be the Detective” point of view, where all the action is seen through Philip Marlowe’s eyes. Perhaps because it makes such an odd match with the noir-flavored headlines, the obituaries ignore the key role Christmas plays in the story. Lady in the Lake offers a full serving of the holiday right from the opening credits, which are all decked out in holly and other seasonal trappings, plus images of the three wise men and the guiding star, and a Christmas choir singing carols. The wordless a cappella choral singing suspensefully interspersed throughout the action creates a transitional undertone of “warm and fuzzy” menace between scenes of violence and depravity, murder and mayhem. It was not Raymond Chandler’s idea to put Christmas into the mix; nor was it his idea to give Adrienne Fromsett so central and romantic a role and to turn the company she works for from “Gillerlain Regal, the Champagne of Perfumes” into a sleazy publisher of pulp magazines with titles like Lurid Detective and True Horror. These changes were the work of Montgomery and screenwriter Steve Fisher. Chandler hated the film and tried to take his name off it, but he’d already sold the rights to the novel, which, however loosely, was based on his story, with his characters, including of course, Philip Marlowe, who still has the benefit of Chandler’s infectious language.
Chandler’s portrait of Ms. Fromsett is true to style: “She wore a steel gray business suit and under the jacket a dark blue shirt and a man’s tie of lighter shade. The edges of the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket looked sharp enough to slice bread …. She had smooth ivory skin and rather severe eyebrows and large dark eyes that looked as if they might warm up at the right time and right place.”
Granted, Audrey Totter and the costume department at M-G-M can’t produce anything to equal Chandler’s sliced bread, but the woman we see through Marlowe’s eyes is in some ways an improvement on Chandler’s sketch. I omitted the novel’s account of her hair’s “loose but not unstudied waves” because the filmmakers style her hair to the “smooth” and “severe” nuances of the original: it’s pulled up in back and coiled on top to give a no-nonsense effect. The film’s one true femme fatale is played by Jayne Meadows (to get an idea of her first ditzy appearance before Montgomery’s relentless stare, imagine Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall with a gun in her hand). Totter’s character appears devious enough to be a suspect, all the while being groomed to be Marlowe’s loving protector; in the cozy Christmas Eve scene after she’s gathered him up, taken him home and healed his wounds, they’re listening to the happy ending of a radio performance of A Christmas Carol — a work, when you think of it, that Dickens steeps in noirish atmosphere replete with rattling chains, ghosts, fog, and death.
Noir Is Where You Find It
In the past few months of cable viewing we’ve found elements of film noir not only in Homeland but in Harlan County, Kentucky (in Justified, an amazing series with a for-the-ages performance by Walton Goggins), Atlantic City (Boardwalk Empire, with Gretchen Moll as the classic femme fatale Gillian Darmody), and, most recently, in Washington D.C. (Netflix’s House of Cards), where Kevin Spacey, whose face is a film noir all by itself, holds everything together. As he delivers his sinister Shakespearean asides, the House majority whip conjures up the primal noir of Richard the Third, Iago, and the Thane of Cawdor, with Robin Wright as his Lady Macbeth.
The Femme Fatale at 90
When my wife was visiting her mother in the Motion Picture Home, a retirement community for people formerly in the film business, she met Audrey Totter, the “bad girl,” who was then 90 and knitting a sweater, not holding a gun. There’s a quirky poetry in the image of the former femme fatale as a little old lady knitting ice-blue sweaters that my wife says matched her eyes. It’s because Totter earned modest fees compared to the big stars that she ended life in the Motion Picture Home. Were it not for her noir connection she would be getting even less exposure in the press than Joan Fontaine, a bigger star who died December 15 with headlines labeled “Academy Award winner,” for her role as Cary Grant’s paranoid wife in Suspicion; while Fontaine’s best film was probably Max Opuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), she was in two noirs, sympathetic in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) and profoundly nasty in Born to Be Bad (1950). Even as the devil’s bait in John Farrow’s mix of Faust and noir, Alias Nick Beal (1949), Audrey Totter has a heart of gold, but in Tension, which was made the same year, she’s beyond-redemption bad and she has a gun.