Tuesday, February 15, 2011

modern medusas-setting up the femme fatale

It's that time of year again! That's right, the for the love of film (noir) blogathon hosted by the inimitable and irreplaceable Self-Styled Siren (aka Farran Smith Nehme) and Marilyn Ferdinand. They have teamed up for an encore, partnering with the film noir foundation to help restore a print of The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me. If you have a little money to spare ($5 or more) it's a fantastic opportunity to be a part of preserving film heritage for future generations. It's also sure to bring in some fantastic posts so be sure to check out the round-up at the above mentioned blogs.

So let's get to it!

Brief basics. Film noir is classically characterized as a genre based on a set of easily identifiable features: a low key style (lighting and camera angles) common themes (say, lack of regard for 'the law') and character types (the detective, the femme fatale, the token good girl).

The femme fatale is pretty easy to discern. She's the shady lady. The one who can match the leading man double entendre for double entendre and whose skirts remain teasingly above the knee.

I've chosen to focus on the construction of two of film noir's best known and best remembered femme fatales, Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945) as played by Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Tierney respectively.

What makes Phyllis and Ellen especially memorable are the murder scenes, two of the best known and referenced in film history. What I find so striking is how similar both are in their structure, as well as the ways both films build up to the impact of these moments.

What I'd like to attempt to sketch out in this post is the implications of this for a common style construction of the femme fatale. What it is about these scenes that make them (and these women) so horrifying.

The First Looks
The obvious focus in each murder is on the callous expressions of Tierney and Stanwyck as they sit by and watch someone die. It is this lack of activity that gives them a certain power and creates terror. The impact of the face is built up in each film by its previous de-emphasis.

Stanwyck's first introduction at a distance gives her a seductive, ethereal quality.

That focuses on and emphasizes her body in the famous pan up from her legs.

Tierney's intro into the film takes this one step further by concealing her face behind a book.

The focus of the camera is on their bodies and their seductiveness for the poor saps who will take up with them. It is not about them personally. It is a certain carefully constructed image.

The sudden focus on the face in the murder scenes is a shock because it is previously withheld. It suddenly thrusts into focus a personal ugliness at odds with what once was glimmering perfection.

While the editing of the two murder scenes is different (DI is short, this first murder in LHTH is long and drawn out, part of what makes it so completely terrifying) in each case sound is what gives the viewer a picture of what is happening.

It is only through sound that we know that Phyllis's husband has been murdered as the camera remains on her as she (barely) reacts to what is happening right next to her.

While Leave Her to Heaven relies more on inter cutting and we do see Danny drown, we hear his offscreen screams, then the ominous stillness as Tierney's face remains unchanged.

The greatest power of off screen sound is suggestion. By leaving the murder in Double Indemnity up to the imagination the viewer can make it as horrific as they please. By pairing the sound of suffering with these unfeeling females it makes them all the more terrible.

This only skids across the surface (what can be made of the use of sunglasses in both films, for example) but what it points to is the importance of the greater stylistic construction of the femme fatale aside from finding the perfect shade of lipstick.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

new (to me) films watched in 2011

A bit late and always a dollar short but I do love a good list.

Films Fatales 2011
1. Heathers (Michael Lehman, 1985)
2. National Lampoon's Animal House (John Landis, 1978)
3. The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
4. Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945)
5. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
6. Road to Morocco (David Butler, 1942)
7. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)
8. Kid Auto Races at Venice (Henry Lehrman, 1914)
9. The Immigrant (Charles Chaplin, 1917)
10. One Week (Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920)
11. Romance Sentimentale (Grigori Alexsandrov & Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1930)
12. Limelight (Charles Chaplin, 1952)
13. The Property Man (Charles Chaplin, 1914)
14. A Night in the Show (Charles Chaplin, 1915)
15. Backstage (Roscoe Arbuckle, 1919)
16. The Playhouse (Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1921)
17. Troubles of a Grasswidower (Max Linder, 1912)
18. The Tramp (Charles Chaplin, 1915)
19. The Pawnshop (Charles Chaplin, 1916)
20. Tango Tangles (Mack Sennett, 1914)
21. Dough and Dynamite (Charles Chaplin, 1914)
22. Neighbors (Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920)
23. The Saphead (Herbert Blache & Winchell Smith, 1920)
24. Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton & John G. Blystone, 1923)
25. Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
26. Land Without Bread (Luis Bunuel, 1933)
27. A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Pate (Charles Chaplin, 1923)
28. The Frozen North (Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1922)
29. The General (Buster Keaton, 1925)
30. Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (Edward Sedgwick, 1931)
31. Allez Oop (Charles Lamont, 1934)
32. Jail Bait (Charles Lamont, 1937)
33. Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947)
34. Railrodder (Gerald Potterton, 1965)
35. A King in New York (Charles, Chaplin, 1957)
36. The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo Gel Toro, 2001)
37. The Blind Swordsman (Takeshi Kitano, 2003)
38. Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB (George Lucas, 1967)
39. The Halfmoon Files (Peter Scheffner, 2007)
40. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
41. History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)
42. Pajama Party (Don Weis, 1964)
43. Eat Pray Love (Ryan Murphy, 2010)
44. Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983)
45. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
46. Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen, 1951)
47. Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1982)
48. The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
49. Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears, 2010)
50. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
51. Baby Blues (Lars Jacobson & Amardeep Kaleka, 2008)
52. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989)
53. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)
54. Girl, Interrupted (James Mangold, 1999)
55. Death of a Cyclist (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955)
56. Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
57. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)
58. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
59. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
60. The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1998)
61. The Importance of Being Earnest (Oliver Parker, 2002)
62. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)
63. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)
64. Dogville (Lars Von Trier, 2004)
65. O Brother, Where Art Though? (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2000)
66. Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, 2007)
67. The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009)
68. The Wrestler (Darron Aronofsky, 2008)
69. In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001)
70. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
71. Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002)
72. Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)
73. 49th Parallel (Powell & Pressburger, 1941)
74. The Princess Comes Across (William K. Howard, 1936)
75. Yolanda and the Thief (Vincente Minnelli, 1945)
76. Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)
77. Roger & Me (Michael Moore, 1989)
78. The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
79. Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)
80. Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)
81. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates, 2011)
82. Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
83. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)
84. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
85. Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)
86. Xala (Ousmane Sembene, 1975)