Be Afraid, Very Afraid, of Film Forum's Femme Fatales

© Universal Pictures
© Universal Pictures
Photo of Graham Fuller
Film Editor16 August 2017

Film Forum in New York recently launched its second season of 28 summer double features. Some are so rich that cinephiles may find themselves drowning in pleasure. Here’s a look at today’s lethal film noir pairing.

Fall guys in search of a mirror can do no better than attend one of today’s scheduled screenings of two film noirs: Charles Vidor’s Gilda and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, both released in 1946, both featuring slinky, manipulative femme fatales.

Destructive carnality

If Film Forum had really wanted to twist the knife in the (male) groin, it could have programmed a quadruple bill by adding The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Big Sleep. These are also canonical 1946 noirs featuring unknowable women—played by Lana Turner and Martha Vickers respectively—whose destructive carnality won’t be staunched by moral concerns.

A word of warning: Gilda and The Killers may have been twinned as films about the destabilizing effects sexually active women have on masculine enclaves and phallocentric power, but it would be wrong to suggest that Gilda Farrell (Rita Hayworth) and The Killers‘ Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) are sisters under the skin.

Gilda (Hayworth) in the dress she wears and the gloves she removes while singing “Put the Blame on Mame” | © Columbia Pictures

Sheeny and fetishistically attired molls though they are, Gilda and Kitty are otherwise unalike. Gilda’s femme fatale reputation is misleading. The feint at seeming ready to sleep with anybody that she pulls off her satin evening gloves during her public semi-striptease is intended to punish her husband, Johnny (Glenn Ford), who has humiliated and neglected her sexually. She wants to goad him into being a man again, but, it’s implied, he has just come out of a passive homosexual involvement with his employer Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Johnny is still recovering his heterosexual drive.

Good bad girls

At heart, Gilda is a one-man woman who doesn’t merely want to have regular, satisfying sex with Johnny; she wants to be his pal. She shares with The Big Sleep‘s Vivian Sternwood (Lauren Bacall) and The Blue Dahlia‘s Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake) the distinction of being a “good bad girl” in the noir landscape of 1946—proof that the independence seized by America’s women during World War II had not turned all of them into contaminating Circes.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth in Gilda | © Columbia Pictures

Kitty is more deceptive and fluid in her arrangements than Gilda. Like Velma Valento/Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past (1947), Kitty is a self-serving woman with borderline psychopathic tendencies. Following wealth, not love, she is closer to Hayworth’s reptilian Elsa Bannister in The Lady From Shanghai (1947) than to Gilda.

Lustful gaze

The defining difference between Gilda and Kitty concerns mobility and immobility. Gilda expresses her positive sexuality through dance, which enables her to elude Johnny’s objectifying gaze. Kitty, in contrast, moves slowly and lazes around; she is a fixed object positioned as a receptacle for the lustful gaze of Pete “the Swede” Lunn (Burt Lancaster), which she resents. It is self-evident which of the two women has agency.

The first act of The Killers was adapted (mostly by the uncredited John Huston) from an Ernest Hemingway story about a crime gang rub-out. The film then uses 11 non-chronological flashbacks—which liken it structurally to Citizen Kane (1941)—to explain what caused the Swede to wait, sunk in shadows on his bed in his New Jersey rooming house, for two hit men (William Conrad, Charles McGraw) to shoot him.

In a virtuosic traveling shot that conveys the Swede’s fatalism, the camera watches his garage co-worker Nick (Phil Brown) climbing over two garden fences to warn him he is being hunted down, retreats into the room where the Swede lays, and swivels to admit the anxious Nick. The Swede’s inertia in the face of his murder sucks the film into an undertow of morbidity that not even the cheerful, dogged insurance claims investigator Riordan (Edmond O’Brien) can allay.

Sexual talisman

Smitten with Kitty, briefly his girl, the Swede spent three years in prison after covering up for a jewel theft in which she was implicated; while inside, he fixated on the shamrocks-and-harp handkerchief she had given him, a talisman of feminine sexuality (the harp is the instrument of Greek Sirens) and Hollywood shorthand for masturbation.

On release, the Swede took part in a payroll heist organized by Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), whom the Swede wrongly thinks is Kitty’s friend, so he could be near her again. When Colfax attempted to cheat Lunn and their fellow robbers out of the takings, the Swede double-crossed him and lit out to Atlantic City with Kitty and the money.

Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in The Killers | © Universal Pictures

In an especially anguished scene, the Swede is seen raging and crying in his hotel room because Kitty had absconded with the money. Only the intervention of a maid—his later beneficiary—stopped him from throwing himself through a window. It was the loss of Kitty, not the loot, that plunged Lunn into a terminal depression and cost him the will to live.

Another patsy

Like Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past (1947)—another beefcake, another crime boss’s patsy, another femme fatale’s dupe—the Swede went to ground in a small town and worked as a grease monkey; he was discovered there by Colfax. Like Jeff, the Swede can’t escape from his past mistake of sleeping with the boss’s girl, a sexualized mother figure.

Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien in The Killers | © Universal Pictures

Riordan is ostensibly investigating the case because his company is required to make a paltry payout on Lunn’s extinguished life. His symbolic role in the story is to redeem masculinity by bringing the killers to justice and by proving himself immune to the sensuality that corrupted the Swede, a maimed (symbolically emasculated) ex-fighter.

Driven by his professional quest, Riordan is tempted neither by the attractive office secretary who desires him nor by sultry Kitty when she invites him to her hotel—so intent is he on proving that she and Colfax conspired to cheat the Swede out of his share of the heist money.

Otherness of women

Riordan may well be aroused by Kitty’s languid eroticism: the phallic candle with its solidified wax drips that stands between them when they talk (see the image above) echoes the ornate phallic table lamp, perched on Kitty’s piano, that stood between Kitty and the Swede when they first met. The difference is that Riordan doesn’t act on his arousal, whereas the Swede was destroyed by his.

In his incorruptibility, Riordan is like Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep and Ford’s Dave Bannion in The Big Heat (1953), though in his isolation and womanlessness he hews closer to Raymond Chandler’s conception of the loner private eye in the first five Marlowe novels.

The otherness of women is such that Riordan doesn’t admit it to his life, but where does that leave him as a potent man? The imposition of male control on “deviant” female sexuality in The Killers was one goal of film noir, but there was greater wish-fulfilment for both sexes in the rapprochement that, unlikely or not, concludes Gilda. What straight guy in 1946 wouldn’t have wanted to end up with Rita Hayworth?

Admission to both films in Film Forum’s Summer Double Features is $8.00.

You might also be interested in The Fall of Modern Movie Manhood.

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