Enduring Empowerment : Women Who didn’t Give a Damn! …in Silent & Classic film!

THE SILENT YEARS: When we started not giving a damn on screen!

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THE GODLESS GIRL (1929) CHAIR SMASH courtesy of our favorite genius gif generator- Fritzi of Movies Silently

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In celebration of our upcoming Anti Damsel Blogathon on August 15 & 16, I had this idea to provide a list of bold, brilliant and beautiful women!

There was to be no indecent exposure of the ankles and no SCHWOOSHING!  Not in this Blogathon baby!

From the heyday of Silent film and the advent of talking pictures, to the late ‘20s to 1934 Pre-Code Hollywood, films were rife with provocative and suggestive images, where women were kicking up a storm on screen… The end of the code during the early 60s dared to offer social commentary about race, class, gender and sexuality! That’s our party!

In particular, these bold women and the screen roles they adopted have become legendary. They sparked catchy dialogue, inspired fashion trends, or just plain inspired us… All together there are 111 of SOME of the most determined, empowered and uniquely fortified femmes of classic film…!

First of course I consulted the maven of all things splendid, shimmery and SILENT for her take on silent film actresses and the parts that made them come alive on the immortal screen…. Fritzi at Movies Silently has summoned up these fabulous femmes….

Rischka Wildcat
1) Rischka (Pola Negri) in The Wildcat (1921) Ernst Lubitsch’s hyperactive Dr. Seussian comedy is worth seeing for the sets alone but the best part is Pola Negri’s Rischka, a young bandit queen who is terrorizing the mountains. She meets the local Lothario during a robbery and by the end of the scene she has stolen his heart. And his pants.
Countess A Woman of the World
2) The Countess (Pola Negri) in A Woman of the World (1925) Anyone who thought going to Hollywood would tame Pola Negri’s wild side had another thing coming. In this film, she plays a countess whose skull tattoo causes an uproar in Anytown, USA. The film also features a romance between Negri and the stuffy local prosecutor, who soon finds himself on the receiving end of her bullwhip. Not a metaphor.
Miss Lulu Bett
3) Lulu (Lois Wilson) in Miss Lulu Bett (1921) Independent women weren’t always given to violence and thievery. In the case of Lulu, she is a single woman trapped in two Victorian social conventions: spinster and poor relation. During the course of the film, she rejects both titles, learns her own self-worth and empowers herself to enter into a healthy relationship with the local schoolmaster. Tasty feminism!
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4) Zaida (Bebe Daniels) in She’s a Sheik (1927) Silent movie audiences enjoyed reversals of gender tropes. The Rudolph Valentino vehicle The Sheik (1921) had been a smash hit and had spawned many rip-offs and parodies. (kidnapping = love = box office!) In this case, a warrior princess falls for a French officer and decides the most sensible course of action is to abduct him for the purpose of marriage. Sadly, this comedy seems to be one of many silent films that is missing and presumed lost.
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5) Eve (Leatrice Joy) in Eve’s Leaves (1926) Another gender reversal comedy, Eve’s Leaves features twenties fashion icon Leatrice Joy as a tomboy sailor who finds the perfect man while ashore on business. She ends up saving the day– and her favorite dude in distress– through quick thinking, a knowledge of knots and a mean right hook.
Ossi The Doll
6) Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) in The Doll (1919) Ernst Lubitsch featured another feisty heroine in this surreal comedy. Our hero wishes to dodge marriage but cannot gain his inheritance without a bride. A plan! He will buy a lifelike doll from a famous toymaker and marry that. What he doesn’t know is that the doll was broken, the toymaker’s daughter has taken its place and she means to teach the reluctant bridegroom a lesson. Oswalda’s mischievous antics are a delight.
Molly Sparrows
7) Molly (Mary Pickford) in Sparrows (1926) Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart during the silent era and audiences adored her fearless heroines. Molly is one of her boldest. She’s an orphan raised in a Southern swamp who must rescue a kidnapped infant. The epic final race across the swamps– complete with alligators– is still harrowing to behold.
Helen Lass of the Lumberlands
8) Helen (Helen Holmes) in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916) Helen Holmes was an action star who specialized in train-related stunts and adventure. In this 1916 serial, she saves the day on numerous occasions and even saves her love interest from peril on the train tracks. (It should be mentioned that the Victorian “woman tied to the train tracks” cliche was incredibly rare and usually treated with ridicule in silent films.) This is another movie that is missing and presumed lost.
Musidora Judex
9) Diana Monti (Musidora) in Judex (1916) Not all the empowered women in classic film were heroines. In the case of Musidora, her most famous roles were as criminals. She was the deadly thief/hit-woman Irma Vep in Les Vampires and then took on the titular caped crusader in Judex. Smart, stealthy and likely to slip a stiletto between the ribs… in short, a woman not to be trifled with.
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10) Helen (Miriam Nesbitt) in The Ambassador’s Daughter (1913) This short film from Thomas Edison’s motion picture studio features espionage and a quick-thinking heroine. She tracks down spies at the embassy, follows her suspect and manages to steal back the documents that he purloined from her father. Not at all bad for a film made seven years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.
Cornelia The Bat
11) Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy) in The Bat (1926) It’s a dark and stormy night and a murderous costumed villain means to recover stolen loot in an isolated mansion. What is an elderly woman to do? Take up her trusty pistol and investigate, of course! She also wields a dry wit and keeps cool under pressure. The Bat doesn’t stand a chance
Catherine The Eagle
12) Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser) in The Eagle (1925) As mentioned above, Rudolph Valentino specialized in aggressive wooing but he finds the shoe on the other foot in this Russian romance. Louise Dresser is a kick as the assertive czarina who knows what she likes and goes for it.

Now to unleash the gust of gals from my tornadic mind filled with favorite actresses and the characters that have retained an undying sacred vow to heroine worship… In their private lives, their public persona and the mythological stardom that has & still captivates generations of  fans, the roles they brought to life and the lasting influence that refuses to go away…!

Because they have their own unique rhythm to the way they moved through the world… a certain kind of mesmerizing allure, and/or they just didn’t give a hoot, a damn… nor a flying fig!

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“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud”-Coco Chanel

Stars like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford managed to keep re-inventing themselves. They became spirited women with an inner reserve of strength and a passion for following their desires!

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Barbara Stanwyck posing with boxing gloves!

The following actresses and their immortal characters are in no particular order…!

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13. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) Double Indemnity (1944) set fire to the screen as one of the most seductive femme fatales— a dame who made sunglasses and ankle bracelets a provocative weapon. She had murder on her mind and was just brazen enough to concoct an insurance scam that will pay off on her husbands murder in Double Indemnity (1944). Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is the insurance guy who comes around and winds up falling under her dangerous spell… Walter Neff: ”You’ll be here too?” Phyllis: “ I guess so, I usually am.” Neff: “Same chair, same perfume, same ankle?” Phyllis:  “I wonder if I know what you mean?” Neff: “I wonder if you wonder?”
Bacall Slim To Have and Have not
14. Marie “Slim” Browning in To Have and Have Not (1944) Lauren Bacall walked into our cinematic consciousness at age 19 when Howard Hawks cast her as Marie “Slim” Browning in To Have and Have Not (1944). A night club singer, (who does a smoking rendition of Hogie Carmichael’s ‘How little We Know”) She’s got a smooth talking deep voiced sultry beauty, possesses a razor sharp wit to crack wise with, telling it like it is and the sexiest brand of confidence and cool. Slim has the allure of a femme fatale, the depth of a soul mate and the reliability of a confidant and a fearless sense of adventure. Playing across Bogart as the jaded Captain Harry Morgan who with alcoholic shipmate Eddie (Walter Brennan ) run a boating operation on the island of Martinique. Broke they take a job transporting a fugitive running from the Nazis. Though Morgan doesn’t want to get involved, Slim is a sympathizer for the resistance, and he falls in love with her, while she makes no bones about wanting him too with all the sexual innuendo to heat things up! Slim: “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”
Bette as Margo Channing in All About Eve
15. Margo Channing (Bette Davis) All About Eve (1950) In all Bette Davis’ films like (Jezebel (1938) Dark Victory (1939) The Letter (1940) Now, Voyager (1942)), she shattered the stereotypes of the helpless female woman in peril. Davis had an unwavering strength, fearlessly taking on the Hollywood system and embracing fully the moody roles that weren’t always ‘attractive.’  Davis made her comeback in 1950, perhaps melding a bit of her own story as an aging star in All About Eve. Margo must fend off a predatory aspiring actress (Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington) who insinuates herself into Margo’s territory. Davis’ manifests the persona of ambition and betrayal which have become epic… “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” 
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16. Margaret DeLorca / Edith Phillips (Bette Davis) plays the good twin/bad twin paradigm in Dead Ringer (1964). Edith, is struggling working class gal who owns a nightclub, and Margaret is her vein and opportunistic twin who stole her beau Frank away and married into a wealthy lifestyle. On the night of his funeral, Edith shoots Margaret in a fit of vengeful pique, then assumes her identity with ironic results. Davis again proves even though she commits murder, she can manifest a pathos like no one else… Margaret DeLorca: You really hate me, don’t you? You’ve never forgiven me in all these years.”  Edith Phillips: “Why should I? Tell me why I should.”  Margaret DeLorca: “Well, we’re sisters!”  Edith Phillips: “So we are… and to hell with you!”
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17. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a forgotten alcoholic former child star living in a faded Hollywood mansion with her invalid sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), herself an aging Hollywood star. They punish each other with vicious mind games, temper tantrums and repressed feelings of revenge and jealousy.  Jane is a tragic tortured soul who’s life becomes ‘ugly’ because she’s been shunned and imprisoned by a fatal secret in which sister Blanche holds the key. What makes Jane such an empowered figure are the very things that have driven her mad. Jane’s itching for a comeback and is ready to dance and sing her way back into everyone’s heart! Jane has a child-like innocence that gives her that ambition and pure drive to see herself back on the stage. She believes it. While other people might laugh at her behind her back, Jane’s repressed rage also leaves room for joy. She’s an empowered aging actress who refuses to give up the spot light… Good for you Jane, now put down that hammer and feed Blanche something edible… Davis delivering yet another legendary line… Blanche: “You wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this chair.” Jane: But you *are*, Blanche! You *are* in that chair!”
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18. Alma Brown (Patricia Neal), in Hud (1963): Playing against the unashamed bad boy Hud Bannon (Paul Newman), Alma is a world-weary housekeeper who drips with a quiet stoic sensuality and a slow wandering voice that speaks of her rugged womanly charm. The philandering Hud is drawn to Alma, but she’s too much woman for him in the end… Hud Bannon: “I’ll do anything to make you trade him.” Alma Brown: “No thanks. I’ve done my time with one cold-blooded bastard, I’m not looking for another.”
Ball of Fire (1941) Directed by Howard Hawks Shown: Henry Travers, Oscar Homolka, Gary Cooper, Leonid Kinskey, Aubrey Mather, S.Z. Sakall, Richard Haydn, Tully Marshall, Barbara Stanwyck
19. Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanny) in Ball of Fire (1941) she is just that, a sexy ball of fire and a wise-cracking night club singer who has to hide out from the mob because her testimony could put her mobster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) away for murder! Some nerdy professors (including Gary Cooper) want to exploit her to study slang and learn what it’s like to speak like real folk and does she turn their world upside down. Sugarpuss O’Shea: [needing help with a stubborn zipper] “You know, I had this happen one night in the middle of my act. I couldn’t get a thing off. Was I embarrassed!“
Killer Jo Walk on the Wild Side
20. Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck) in Walk on The Wild Side (1962). Jo runs the New Orleans bordello called The Doll House with an iron hand— when anyone steps out of line she knows how to handle them. Stanwyck had the guts to play a lesbian in 1962, madly in love with Hallie Gerard (Capucine). Stanwyck’s Jo Courtney is elegant, self-restrained and as imposing as Hera in tailored suits. Having to be strong in a man’s world, her strong instinct for survival and the audacious will to hold onto Hallie brings her world to a violent conclusion…  “Oh you know me better than that Hallie. Sometimes I’ve waited years for what I wanted.”    
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21. Marie Garson (Ida Lupino) in High Sierra (1941) Roy “Mad Dog” Earle has been pardoned from a long prison term. Marie, a rough around the edges taxi dancer, finds herself resisting her attraction to this brutal gangster, forming a very complicated dynamic with a second mobster who wants to pull off a high stakes robbery. Marie is a force of nature that bristles from every nerve she purely musters in this tale of doom-fated bad boys, but more importantly here… A woman can raise a rifle with the best of them! Marie Garson “Yeah, I get it. Ya always sort hope ya can get out, it keeps ya going.”
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22. Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino) in Private Hell 36 (1954) This rare noir gem is written by the versatile powerhouse Ida Lupino who also plays Lilli Marlowe. Lilli has expensive tastes. After getting caught up in an investigation of a bank heist, she falls in love with the blue collar cop Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran). Cal has secretly stashed away the missing money from that bank heist, and then begins to suffer from a guilty conscience.  Lilli’s slick repartee is marvelous as Cal and his reluctant partner Jack Farnham (then husband Howard Duff) focus on her, hoping she’ll help them in their investigation. Lilli’s tough, she’s made it on her own and isn’t about to compromise now… Cal may be falling apart but Lilli knows what she wants and she always seems to keep it together! Lilli Marlowe: “Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed I’d meet a drunken slob in a bar who’d give me fifty bucks and we’d live happily ever after.”
Tallulah Lifeboat
23. Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) in Lifeboat 1944. It’s WWII and Connie is a smart-talking international journalist who’s stranded in the middle of the Atlantic ocean with an ensemble of paranoid and desperate survivors. Eventually her fur coat comes off, her diamond bracelet and expensive camera gets tossed in the sea. But she doesn’t give a damn, she can take the punishment and still attract the hunky and shirtless (yum) John Kodiak… survival’s just a state of mind… and she does it with vigor and class and a cool calm! Connie Porter: “Dying together’s even more personal than living together.” 
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24. Berenice Sadie Brown (Ethel Waters) The Member of the Wedding 1952. Berenice doesn’t take any crap. She’s in charge of the brooding, temperamental tomboy Franky Addams (Julie Harris) who feels like an outsider. Berenice’s kitchen is a place of wisdom as she tries to bestow some life lessons, to a child who is a wild and longing little soul… Berenice is the only steady source of nurturing and a strong pair of shoulders to lean on… Thank god Franky/Harris didn’t start having her droning inner monologues until The Haunting (1963). Frances ‘Frankie’ Addams: [throws the knife into the kitchen door] “I’m the world’s greatest knife thrower.”  Berenice Sadie Brown: [when Frankie threatens her with a knife] “Lay it down, Satan!” 
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25. The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) Bride of Frankenstein (1935) The Bride might be one of the first screen woman to rabidly defy an arranged/deranged marriage. She’s iconic,  memorable and filled with glorious hiss!.. because The Bride may have come into this world in an unorthodox way, but she’ll be damned if any man is going to tell her who to love! James Whale isn’t the only one who brought about life in this campy horror masterpiece… Elsa Lanchester manifested The Bride with a keen sense of fearsome independence. No matter whether the Monster demands a Mate, The Bride isn’t ready and willing. Lanchester always took daring roles that were larger than life because she had a way of dancing around the edges of Hollywood convention. Charming, hilarious and downright adorable even with the wicked lightning struck hair and stitches and deathly pale skin! the bride-“Hiss…Scream….”
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26. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Gal Friday (1940) Hildy is a hard-bitten reporter for New York City’s The Morning Post. She’s just gotten back from Reno to a get a divorce from her louse of a husband who happens to also be her boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Hildy’s anxious to break ties with her manipulative ex-husband who just isn’t ready to let her leave the job or their marriage so she can marry straight-laced Bruce (Ralph Bellamy)… and he’ll do so by any means. But she’s nobody’s fool… and if she stays it’s because she’s made up her mind to embrace Walter’s crazy antics… Hildy Johnson: [to Walter on the phone] “Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong!” 
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27. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950) There’s just no one quite like Norma Desmond. It’s 1950’s decadent Hollywood, the heyday of the Silent Era long gone… and a true screen icon, a sympathetic soul, fights her way to a comeback. brought to life by Gloria Swanson. Swanson, who knew very well what it was like to be a screen goddess railing against fading away, creates an atmosphere of fevered madness. She’s a woman whose desires are punished by an industry and the men who hold the reigns. But Norma doesn’t give a damn she’ll always be ready for that eternal close-up… Yet another memorable phrase is turned and a legend both on and off screen is reborn. Joe Gillis: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”  Norma Desmond: “I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.” 
Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone
28. Karen Stone -(Vivien Leigh) in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961) Karen Stone has the misfortune of being a 50 year old actress. There’s no place in theatre for an old woman of 50. On the way to Italy with her husband who is much older than she, he dies of a heart attack on the plane. Karen decides to settle in Rome and live a quiet life of solitude in her magnificent villa. Contessa Magda Terribili-Gonzales (Lotte Lenya) is an opportunistic Madame who employs charming young gigolos to wine, dine, and bleed dry wealthy older women. She introduces Paolo di Leo (Warren Beatty) to Karen in hopes that it will bring about a showering of riches from this great American lady. Karen has no use for her old theatre friends, the status, and the game of staying on top. She enjoys the serenity of her life at the villa. Yet she is shadowed by a young Italian street hustler’s mysterious gaze. At first Karen is reserved and cautious but soon she allows Paolo to court her, and the two eventually begin an affair. Karen is aware Paolo is using her for her money, but her passion has been released. She is using him as well. But when his mood begins to sour and he turns away, Karen finds him with a younger wealthy upcoming starlet that he is already sizing up as his next meal ticket… The fling ends but Karen has taken back the power of attraction and sexual desire, and turns the usual stigmatizing dichotomy on it’s head, for while it was okay when she was a younger woman married to a much older man,  she takes a younger male lover Karen Stone: “You see… I don’t leave my diamonds in the soap dish… and when the time comes when nobody desires me… for myself… I’d rather not be… desired… at all.” 
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29. Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner) in Night of the Iguana (1964). Maxine is a the personification of the loner. She is sexually, morally and socially independent from opinion. When Ava was cast as the “earthy widow” the director said her “feline sexuality” was perfect for one of Tennessee Williams’ “hot-blooded ladies.” Maxine runs a quiet out-of-the-way tourist oasis in Mexico. When a bus load of provincial middle aged ladies break down, Maxine has to host Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall) a repressed lesbian, her gaggle of ladies who lunch, and Sue Lyon, a Lolita who is chasing Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) a defrocked alcoholic priest, that Maxine would like to become better acquainted with. Once Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her elderly grandfather arrive, the atmosphere seems to shift and Shannon is confronted with questions of life and love. Everyone at the hotel has demons and the rich and languid air seems to effect everyone… Maxine waits patiently for Lawrence to realize that they could have a passionate life together if he’d stop torturing himself… Gardner’s scene dancing in the ocean with the two young men is daring and provocative and purely Ava Garnder- Judith Fellowes: [Yelling at Shannon] “You thought you outwitted me, didn’t you, having your paramour here cancel my call.”  Maxine Faulk: “Miss Fellowes, honey, if paramour means what I think it does you’re gambling with your front teeth.”
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 Ava Gardner | Maxine Faulk in Night of the Iguana 1964
HAROLD AND MAUDE, Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, 1971
30. Maude (Ruth Gordon) in Harold and Maude (1971) There is no one quite like Ruth Gordon. She’s a sage, a pixie filled with a dreamy light that shines so bright from within. You can’t help but believe that she was as effervescent off screen as she was on screen.  Maude has a transcendent world view and a personal dogma to live life to the fullest and not waste time with extraneous matters. She believes everyone should be themselves and never mind what other people think… What else can you say about a character that vocalizes as much wisdom as any of the great and insightful spiritual leaders? Maude and Ruth both have a tenacity, vivacity and perspicacity…  Maude: “Harold, *everyone* has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can’t let the world judge you too much.”  — Maude: “I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They’re so tall and simple. What flower would you like to be?”  Harold: “I don’t know. One of these, maybe.”  Maude: “Why do you say that?”  Harold: “Because they’re all alike.”  Maude: “Oooh, but they’re *not*. Look. See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All *kinds* of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are *this*”

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31. Ma Kate Barker (Shelley Winters) in Bloody Mama 1970: You know that Roger Corman was going to get the BEST woman who didn’t give a damn to play Ma Barker, the machine gun wielding matriarch of a notorious gang of bank robbers. She’ll do anything for her boys… Four boys only a mother could love. She’d kill for them! Ma Barker was irreverent and as mean as a bear backed into a beehive. A bold and brazen nature that delves into a whole other level of ‘no fucks given.’  Holding up a bank with her machine gun in hand “Alright everybody now reach for the nightgown of the lord, REACH!” 
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32. Pepe (Grayson Hall) in Satan in High Heels (1962). Pepe is the owner of a posh burlesque house in mod-yet-gritty 60s New York City. Pepe is an incessant smoker and savvy, domineering woman who brings the story about a new ‘singer’ Stacey Kane (Meg Myles) who joins the club, to a boil— even as she stays as cool as the center seed of a cucumber. Pepe tilts her head sizing up all the various patrons who inhabit her club with just the right mix of aloof and self-possession as she puffs on her cigarette. She’s always ready with the quick lash of her tongue like a world-weary drag queen.  “Bear up, darling, I love your eyelashes.” — “You’ll EAT and DRINK what I SAY until you lose five pounds IN THE PLACES WHERE!”
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33. Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne), The Awful Truth (1937) Before the ink on the divorce papers is dry Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) torture each other and sabotage any chances of either of them getting re-married. Both Lucy and Jerry carry on monologues to themselves throwing out quick witted repartee, so that we can see both sides of the story. One evening, when Jerry is flirting with the idea of marrying into a high society family, Lucy impersonates his sister, playing at it like a cheap bimbo. At one point she does a fabulous drunken Hoochie dance, wiggling around with a provocative sway falling into her ex-husbands arms in a way that should definitely put a dent in Jerry’s plans. Lucy is hell bent on driving Jerry crazy, yet becomes flustered herself when the tables are turned on her as she tries to carry on with her new fiancé (Ralph Bellamy). Jerry Warriner: “In a half an hour, we’ll no longer be Mr. and Mrs. Funny, isn’t it.”  Lucy Warriner: “Yes, it’s funny that everything’s the way it is on account of the way you feel.”  Jerry Warriner: “Huh?”  Lucy Warriner: “Well, I mean, if you didn’t feel that way you do, things wouldn’t be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different.”  Jerry Warriner: “But things are the way you made them.”  Lucy Warriner: “Oh, no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn’t make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you’re the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.”
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34. Catherine ‘Cay’ Higgins (Ruth Roman) in Tomorrow is Another Day (1951). Catherine is a tough dance hall girl who isn’t afraid to get herself dirty. She goes on the lam for the sake of self preservation when her new love interest Bill Clark (Steve Cochran) is wrongfully accused of killing her abusive pimp… and geez he’s just gotten out of prison after a long stretch. Cay is ballsy, extremely earthy, and exudes an inner strength that is so authentic it’s hard not to believe she could take one on the chin and still keep going. She embodies an indestructible sort of sex appeal, powerfully passionate and self-assertive woman you’d want to be with you if you’re ever on the lam… Catherine ‘Cay’ Higgins: “You worked a whole day just to dance a minute at Dream Land?  Bill Clark: It was worth it.”
Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr in Pitfall 1948
35. Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) Pitfall (1948) Mona is a sultry dewy blonde fashion model with a low simmering voice in the greatest tradition of the noir femme fatale. Forbes falls for her, and they begin to see each other, though she unwittingly starts the affair without knowing he’s married. It’s a recipe for disaster because ex-cop turned private dick J B MacDonald (Raymond Burr) is psychotically obsessed with Mona and will set things up so Forbes goes down. Mona is a tough cookie, who unfortunately keeps attracting the wrong men. But she can take on any challenge because she’s got that noir frame of mind. She’s a doll who can make up her own mind and can hold a gun in her hand as easily as if it were a cigarette. Mona “You’re a little man with a briefcase. You go to work every morning and you do as you’re told.”
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36. Lady Torrence (Anna Magnani ) in The Fugitive Kind (1960) Lady is an earthy woman who’s passions run like a raging river & her emotions and truths flow freely on the surface clear and forceful. She is a shop owner in Louisiana who is stoically existing in a brutal marriage to her cruel and vindictive husband Jabe (Victor Jory) who’s bed-ridden and dying of cancer. Lady dreams of building a confectionary in the back of the store. Along comes Marlon Brando as Valentine “Snakeskin’ Xavier, a guitar playing roamer who takes a job in the shop. Lady’s jaded loneliness and Valentine’s raw animal magnetism combust and the two begin a love affair. And Lady suddenly sees possibility again and her re-awakened passion empowers her to live her dreams. Lady-“Let’s get this straight, you don’t interest me no more than the air you stand in.”
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37.  Egle (Anna Magnani) … And the Wild Wild Women (1959) Egle is the toughest inmate at this Italian prison for women. When Lina (Giulietta Masina) is convicted on a wrong felony charge, Egle takes her under her hardened wing and tutors her in the ways of crime. Egle is an instigator, she’s volatile and inflammatory and stirs up quite a riot at times. She’s got no fear. She is a tougher-than-nails, armpit-washing dame who just could care less about anyone else’s comfort or freedom. She’s a woman who has built up a tough exterior long enough that she truly is made of steel. The only thing that may betray that strength is at times the past sorrow or suffering that swims in her deep dark eyes.
The Rose Tattoo
38. Serafina Delle Rose (Anna Magnani) in The Rose Tattoo (1955) As the tagline states ‘Seething with realism and frankness!” You can’t get any other kind of performance from Magnani, her passionate soul is right up front, on her face and in her movements like a wild animal she moves so freely. Serafina is perpetual grieving widow filled with fire, playing against another actor (Burt Lancaster) whose bigger-than-life presence comes her way to bring about a lighthearted romance… Serafina is a seamstress in a small New Orleans town. She lives with the memory of her dead husband as if he were a saint. She mourns and wears black to show she is still committed to her man, even after he’s been killed by police while smuggling drugs for the mafia hidden in the bananas in his truck. With the presence of the local Strega or witch (Serafina gives deference to these things illustrating that she is of an older world of ancient feminine magic and empowerment), and her wandering goat, the town of fish wives & gossips who point, stare, judge, wail and cackle with their unkind insults put Serafina it forces her to fight for every last bit of dignity. Serafina gives deference to these things illustrating that she is of an older world of ancient feminine magic and empowerment. Once she learns her dead husband Rosario Delle Rose (who had a rose tattoo on his chest) was having an affair, the spell that leaves her imprisoned by mourning, breaks and awakens her will to celebrate life once again. She is stubborn, & passionate, and she has a strength that commands the birds out of the trees.  Serafina “We are Sicilians. We don’t leave girls with the boys they’re not engaged to!” Jack “Mrs Delle Rose this is the United States.” Serafina “But we are Sicilians, and we are not cold-blooded!”
Virginia Woolf Liz
39. Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Martha who is the archetypal Xanthippe and George (Richard Burton) are a middle-aged couple marinated in alcohol, using verbal assaults, brutal tirades, and orgies of humiliation as a form of connecting to one and other. All the characters spew biting blasphemous satire and are each neurotic in their own ways. But Martha is a woman who spits out exactly what she wants to say and doesn’t hold back. It’s an experiment in at home couple’s therapy served with cocktails, as they invite Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) to join the  humiliating emotional release. In the opening of the film Martha arrives home and does a nod to Bette Davis while also condemning her own personal space and the state of her marriage, as she says “What a dump.” “I swear to GOD George, if you even existed I’d divorce you.”– Martha: “You’re all flops. I’m the Earth Mother, and you are all flops.”
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40. Gloria Wandrous  (Elizabeth Taylor) in Butterfield 8 (1960) Gloria is a fashionable Manhattan beauty who’s part model, part call-girl–and all man-trap. She grew up during the Depression and couldn’t escape the sexual advances of her uncle. New York City was for her a great escape. Gloria becomes an independent, sexually free woman who wants to get paid for her time. She hits the bottle a lot, because she has those dark troubling memories from her past that make her want to drown her thoughts. She winds up meeting a wealthy business executive who’s married, Weston Liggett, (Laurence Harvey) instantly he becomes entranced by her. She’s thrown off course and headed toward a fateful end, because she sees a kindred soul in the disillusioned Liggett who isn’t happy in his marriage. Their passion breathes new life into both lonely people. Though we can admire her sexual liberation, in cinema, women in the 60s ultimately had to be punished for their willful freedom, though it’s a double standard of course. Liz Taylor is another screen goddess who never shied away from bold & provocative roles. Gloria Wandrous: “Command performances leave me quite cold. I’ve had more fun in the back seat of a ’39 Ford than I could ever have in the vault of the Chase Manhattan Bank.”
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41. Severine Sevigny (Catherine Deneuve) in Belle du Jour (1967) A whole new world opens up to Severine, a repressed housewife married to a doctor, when she decides to spend her midweek afternoons as a prostitute. While she can not seem to find any pleasure or intimacy with her husband, she blossoms in the brothel run by Madame Anais (Geneviève Page) and adopts a persona that can experiment with her secret desires of being dominated, her sexual appetites flourish during the day, when often she runs into more rough clients. But, sexual freedom has a price and ultimately, a relationship with a volatile and possessive john (Pierre Clémenti) could prove to be dangerous. Severine breaks free of the confines of convention, like marriage, and explores a provocative even deviant kind of sexual behavior. She allows herself to go further and explore the most secret desires by indulging them, it is quite adventurous and risky and Deneuve masters it with a transcendent elegance. Madame Anais: “I have an idea. Would you like to be called “Belle de Jour?”  Séverine Serizy: “Belle de Jour?”  Madame Anais: “Since you only come in the afternoons.”  Séverine Serizy: “If you wish.” 
Moreau Bride Wore Black
42. Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) in The Bride Wore Black (1968) Julie Kohler is on a mission of revenge for the men who accidentally shot her husband on their wedding day outside the church. It was a short marriage… Julie finds a maniacal almost macabre sort of presentation to her theater of revenge, she moves through the film with the ease of a scorpion. But there’s dark humor and irony  (in François Truffaut’s homage to Hitchcock) running through the narrative. Like a good mystery thriller it utilizes very classic iconographic motifs. Julie is a captivating figure of sadness and passion put out at the height of it’s flame. Once passion for her late husband, and now passion for revenge. It’s playful and sexy and Moreau is utterly brilliant as the resourceful Julie Kolher who creates a satirically dire & elaborate, slightly Grande Guignol adventure of a vengeful woman on a crusade to exact poetic justice where the system has failed. Coral: “Permit me to make an impossible wish?” Julie Kohler: “Why impossible?” Coral: “Because I’m a rather pessimist.” Julie Kohler: “I’ve heard it said: “There are no optimists or pessimists. There are only happy idiots or unhappy ones”. .Julie-“It’s not a mission. It’s work. It’s something I must do” Priest–“Give it up”
 Julie–“That’s impossible, I must continue til it’s over”
Priest–“Have you have no remorse in your heart?… don’t you fear for your soul?”
Julie-“NO… no remorse, nor fear.”
Priest-“you know you’ll be caught in the end”
Julie-“The justice of men is powerless to punish, I’m already dead. I stopped living the moment David died. I’ll join David after I’ve had my revenge.”
Brigitte Helm Alraune
43. Alraune ten Brink -Brigitte Helm as Alraune 1928. A daughter of destiny! Created by Professor Jakob ten Brinken (Paul Wegener) Alraune is a variation on the Shelley story about man and his womb envy- which impels him to create a human-oid figure from unorthodox methods. A creation who does not possess a soul. He dared to violate nature when he experiments with the seed (sperm) of a hanged man and the egg of a prostitute. Much like James Whale’s Frankenstein who sought the secrets of life, Alraune is essentially a dangerous female who’s origin is seeded from this socially constructed ‘deviance’ of the hanged criminal and the whore (the film proposes that a whore is evil- I do not) Mixing the essence of sin with the magical mandrake root by alchemist ten Brinken he is seeking the answer to the question of an individual’s humanity and whether it be a product of nature or nurture. Alraune stumbles onto the truth about her origin when she reads the scientist’s diary… What could be more powerful than a woman who isn’t born with the sense of socially ordered morality imposed or innate. Is she not the perfect femme fatale without a conscience, yet… A woman who knows she is doomed to a life without a soul, she runs away with her creators love-sick nephew, leaving Professor ten Brinken, father figure and keeper- alone.
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44. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in Night of the Hunter (1955) “I’ve never been in style, so I can never go out of style.” Lillian Gish. There are certain images that will remain with you long after seeing masterpieces like Night of the Hunter. Aside from Harry Powell and Mitchum’s frightening portrayal of an opportunistic sociopath, beyond the horror of what he is, the film is like a childhood fairy tale. It’s a cautionary tale about the boogeyman but it’s also a story about the resilient spirit and far reaching imagination of children. And those who are the guardian angels of the world. One of the most calming and fortifying images- is that of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) protecting the children from harm, holding the rifle and keeping watch like a wonderful fairy god mother elected by fate to guard those little ones with her powerful brand of love… There’s just something about Gish’s graceful light that emanates from within and the character she manifests in the righteous Rachel Cooper…. Rachel Cooper: “It’s a hard world for little things.”
Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner
45. Kathleen Stewart- (Lucille Ball) in The Dark Corner (1956) Kathleen Stewart is the always faithful and trustworthy secretary of private investigator Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) She’s the right amount of snarky and just a sexy bundle of smarts… Bradford Galt: “You know, I think I’ll fire you and get me a Tahitian secretary.”  Kathleen Stewart: “You won’t like them; those grass skirts are a fire hazard.”  Kathleen just won’t quit her boss. She knows he’s in trouble and wants to help him face it head on. She keeps pushing Galt to open up that steel safe “heart”, of his and let her help. Once she’s in on the intrigue, she’s right there with him, putting her secretarial skills aside and getting into the fray with her love interest/boss. She shows no fear or hesitation, doesn’t look down on Galt’s past, and is quite a versatile sidekick who really helps him out of a dangerous set up! She’s that other sort of  film noir heroine Not quite the ‘good girl’ nor a femme fatale. A strong sassy woman who doesn’t shy away from danger and when she’s in… She’s in it ‘for keeps.’ And say… isn’t that empowering!. Kathleen tells it like it is, sure she dotes on the down and out guy and is the strong shoulder to lean on, whenever things get frenzied or rough. Doesn’t make her a sap, it makes her a good friend and companion! Kathleen: “I haven’t worked for you very long, Mr. Galt, but I know when you’re pitching a curve at me, and I always carry a catcher’s mitt.”  Bradford Galt: “No offense. A guy’s got to score, doesn’t he?”  Kathleen: “Not in my league. I don’t play for score, I play for keeps “
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46. Lady Lu (Mae West) in She Done Him Wrong (1933) In the Gay Nineties, Lady Lu is a voluptuous nightclub owner/singer (she sings-A Guy What Takes His Time) who has men falling all over themselves. One is her ex lover who just escaped from prison, and a few waiting in the wings. Lu is interested in the handsome Captain Cummings (Cary Grant) who runs the temperance league across the way. Lady Lu loves to be bathed in and dazzled by diamonds, lots of diamonds. But Lu is also determined to seduce missionary Cary Grant… who is more interested in her soul than in her body-Marvelous Mae tells him- “Maybe I ain’t got no soul.” Mae had a hand in creating the woman who didn’t give a damn! She gave us the immortal line… “Come up’n see me sometime. I’m home every evenin’–“Lady Lou: “Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them.”  Captain Cummings: “Well, surely you don’t mind my holding your hand?”  Lady Lou: “It ain’t heavy – I can hold it myself.” 
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47.  Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) in Diabolique (1955) Simone Signoret is a torrent of sensuality (Room at the Top 1959, Ship of Fools 1965) Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) plays the wife of a sadistic husband Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) the controlling headmaster at their boarding school for boys. Nicole is the mistress of the cruel Michel, who has formed a special bond with Christina. Nicole incites the timid and weakly woman to kill the bastard by drowning him in a bathtub and then dumping his body in the school’s unused and mucky swimming pool. Nicole is determined and forceful in her mission to rid Christine of this abusive beast and the two women go through with the plan.  Nicole Horner: [to Christina] “I won’t have any regrets.”  In short, the pool is drained, the body isn’t there. And then there are numerous eerie sightings of the dead man which eventually drives the murderesses into a panic…  Is Nicole in on an even more nefarious scheme to drive Christina crazy? For now, the main focus is how Nicole summons a thuggish type of power that is riveting.  What’s remarkable about the film, aside from Clouzot’s incredible construction of a perfectly unwinding suspense tale, Signoret’s performance exudes grit and an unrelenting audaciousness. Nicole.  Christina Delassalle: “Don’t you believe in Hell?”  Nicole Horner: “Not since I was seven.” 
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48 Mia Farrow is Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby 1968
Ruth and Mia
48. Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in Rosemary’s Baby 1968. Rosemary has a fearless defiance in an ordinary world that becomes an unsafe space and a deep well of paranoia. Beyond guarding her body and motherhood against all intruders, Rosemary has an open mind, a delicate brand of kindness although troubled by a catholic upbringing that haunts her, she is still ‘too good’ and too independent to taint. And she winds up taking life and the life of her baby on her own terms. No one could have manifested the spirit of Rosemary Woodhouse like Mia Farrow. It’s an indomitable image of striking resiliency. A heroine who braves an entire secretive cult of devil worshipers entrenched in the high society of NYC. That takes a lot of guts people!… Ruth Gordon as well personifies a meddling old New York busybody who just happens to be a modern day witch. Minnie Castavet also does what she wants -as she is empowered with her quirky style and her beliefs, as wicked as they may be…And her wardrobe is bold, kitschy and fabulous! Rosemary Woodhouse: “Pain, begone, I will have no more of thee!”
Geraldine Page
49. Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page) in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) Alexandra Del Lago is a decadent, soaked in boozed, and fading film star who is picked up by drifter by Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) for a tumble in the sheets. He’s been trying to break into the film biz for years, and hoping that Alexandra can help him get a screen test. He also wants to be reunited with his old flame Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight). Chance Wayne: “I had my picture on the cover of Life magazine!… And at the same time I was… employing my other talent, lovemaking.”  Alexandra Del Lago: “That may be the only talent you were ever truly meant for.” The roles that Geraldine Page would often take were filled with an intellect that transcends the strong female archetype. As Alexandra, she has a unique sort of cynical romanticism that exudes, a bit of alienation, a touch of longing and a penetrating intensity. She might be a washed up film star but she’s also a philosopher with a grasp of vocalizing the ironies and tragedies of life. She wants to drown her sorrows in liquor so she can escape from the pain of her life, and the uncertainty the future holds. But within that internal tumult is the soul of a great lady. Narcissistic, world-weary and a spirit stoked by those heart-aches.
Anna Lucasta (1958) | Pers: Eartha Kitt, Sammy Davis Jr | Dir: Arnold Laven | Ref: ANN040AE | Photo Credit: [ United Artists / The Kobal Collection ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement
50. Anna Lucasta (Eartha Kitt) (1958) Young Anna is rejected by her sanctimonious father Joe played to the hilt by Rex Ingram. While the rest of the family wants Anna to come home, her self-righteous father can’t resist demonizing his daughter, with an underlying incestuous desire that he is battling.  Anna takes the cliched road of the fallen woman and becomes a good time gal who meets Danny (Sammy Davis Jr.) a cab driving sailor who is as smooth as silk and as fiery as molten lead. Though there is an underlying sadness because of the estrangement with her father, Anna possesses a strong sense of self, and exudes a fiery passion that cannot be denied… She isn’t a bad girl, she had to find her own way and again, it often leads to taking control of who you love and how you love. She and Sammy have a smoking hot chemistry on screen, and Kitt is just powerful as a woman who made that road her own…  Danny- “Tell her who Papa is” (speaking about the little carved wooden Haitian idol he’s given her) Lester – “That’s the model of Agwé the Haitian god of the sea. Seems he’s good to sailors” Anna- “Looks like Papa and me’s got something in common…”
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51. Carol Richman (Ella Raines) in Phantom Lady 1944 Carol Richman risks her life to try to find the elusive woman who can prove her boss (Alan Curtis) didn’t murder his wife. The unhappy guy spends a fateful evening with a woman he has picked up in a bar. He doesn’t know her name but she wears an unusual hat, which might be a clue for Carol to try and track down. Carol’s got so much guts, she puts herself in harms way so many times but she’s fearless just the same. Even when she meets the super creepy jazz drummer Cliff Milburn, who obviously is manic and might just be a sadist in bed, (if his drumming is any indication.) Plus there’s always the deranged sculptor Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) who seems to be a menacing force.  Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook Jr) “You Like Jive?” Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman “You bet, I’m a hep kitten” 
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52. Pam Grier is Coffy 1973  Okay okay tho I’m sneaking in past the 1970 cut off… I’m a woman who doesn’t give a damn and nodding to one of the greatest 70’s icon… Pam Grier set the pace for strong female heroines that laid the groundwork for all the others to follow… so she gets a nod from me! She plays a nurse who becomes a vigilante in order to get justice against the inner-city drug dealers who are responsible for her sister’s overdose… Coffy sets the bar high for strong female characters who wouldn’t back down, and who possessed a strength that is meteoric and a force to be reckoned with. Beautiful, resourceful, intelligent -a strikingly irrepressible image that will remain in the cultural consciousness for an eternity. Arturo Vitroni: “Crawl, n*gger!” Coffy: [pulls out gun] “You want me to crawl, white mother fucker?” Arturo Vitroni: “What’re you doing? Put that down.” Coffy: “You want to spit on me and make me crawl? I’m gonna piss on your grave tomorrow.”
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53. Charlie (Teresa Wright), in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Charlie is tired of small-town life with her parents and annoying younger sister. She’s a girl starved for new adventures, longing for something exciting to happen, to stir up her life. Careful what you wish for… She’s overwhelmed with joy when her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) decides to pay the family a visit. But something isn’t quite right with her idol, he begins to exhibit a strange sort of underlying hostility and troubling secret nature… Her mother’s (Patricia Collinge) younger brother is actually a sadistic serial killer who preys on rich widows by marrying them, then strangling them! He’s so charming and charismatic that women can’t help being drawn to him. But young Charlie begins to see through his facade. Why would he cut out the news headline in the paper about a murderer who kills rich women? It all begins to take shape, and unfortunately Uncle Charlie can’t afford to have his favorite niece spill the beans.  What’s remarkable about young Charlie is that for a girl who fantasizes and indulges herself in things of a more romantic nature, she’s pretty darn brave in the self preservation department since no one else in the family believes her suspicions that he’s The Merry Widow killer. And she might just have to go rogue and wind up killing him in self-defense… Young Charlie: “Go away, I’m warning you. Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See… that’s the way I feel about you.”
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Constance Towers & Virginia Gray
Constance Towers The Naked Kiss
54. Kelly (Constance Towers) in The Naked Kiss (1964) The opening of the film is one of the most audacious entrances in early exploitation cinema,as Kelly confronts her pimp who has shaved off her hair and stolen her money. Kelly brutally pummels the rat with her handbag. Stripped of her hair she looks like a mannequin signifying her as the ‘object’ She is introduced to us from the opening of the narrative as a fighter. Kelly manages to fit in to the quaint new town of Granville she’s made her home until the perverse true nature of Granville’s benefactor is exposed. Grant (Michael Dante) possesses a dark secret that Kelly stumbles onto and ultimately explodes in scandal. The story is a mine field of social criticisms and hypocrisy that allow Kelly to rise above her persecution by the local cop Griff (Anthony Eisley) who isn’t adverse to taking Kelly to bed himself or frequenting Madame Candy’s (Virginia Gray) high class “cat house’ yet he’s above reproach. Griff tells Kelly it’s a clean town and he doesn’t want her operating there. But Kelly wants out of the business. She’s great with disabled children at the hospital and just wants a fresh start. Until she exposes the truly deviant secret about Grant and winds up accused of his murder. Kelly initially walks the fine line of being the ‘whore’ of the story, the one who needs redemption only to have the narrative flip it around and more importantly it’s the town that must be redeemed because of it is jaundiced complacency from the long kept secrets of the wealthy Patriarchal family that own and run it. Kelly is a powerful protagonist, because she kicks down the door of hypocrisy and judgement. Kelly also shatters the limitations that are placed on women. There’s exists a displaced female rage that started to become articulated later on with ‘f’eminist parable’ films during the late 60s and 70s. In the end she no longer is labeled or objectified or persecuted. She is embraced as a savior. Kelly’s got a reserve of strength and a great sense of self. To me she ends up being a heroine who rather than redeems herself becomes the catalyst for cleansing the ‘white middle-class’ town of it’s hypocrisy… Kelly (talking to Capt. Griff Anthony Eisley)“I washed my face clean the morning I woke up in your bedroom!”
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55. Velma (Agnes Moorehead) in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) Velma is Charlotte’s trusted companion. She shows a lot of gumption when Cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) shows up trying to gaslight poor Charlotte who’s suffered enough at the grotesque and tawdry way she lost her fiancee, and how she lived under the oppressive thumb of her father (Victor Buono). Velma wasn’t nary shy a bit to face off with Cousin Miriam, that intimidating gold-digging she-devil in Park Avenue clothes. (From de Havilland’s own wardrobe) Velma always says it like it is, and tries to be a trusted friend to Charlotte even when the whole town shuns her as a crazy axe murderess. We all need friends who would either help you hide the body, or at least defend you against an accusing mob… either way. I’m pretty sure Velma could have taken Miriam if she didn’t have Joseph Cotton’s help on her side… And we can’t forget Mary Astor’s firebrand performance as Jewel Mayhew… Jewel Mayhew: “Well, right here on the public street, in the light of day, let me tell you, Miriam Deering, that murder starts in the heart, and its first weapon is a vicious tongue.”– Velma Cruther talking to Cousin Miriam: “O you’re finally showin’ the right side of your face. Well, I seen it all along. That’s some kinda drug you been givin’ her. Isn’t it? It’s what’s been making her act like she’s been. Well, Ah’m goin’ into town and Ah’m tellin them what you been up to.”

Continue reading “Enduring Empowerment : Women Who didn’t Give a Damn! …in Silent & Classic film!”

Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Sigmund Freud

“Ladies and gentlemen- welcome to violence; the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains sex.” — Narrator from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Faster Pussycat
Tura Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1965
Cul-de-Sac
Françoise Dorléac and Donald Pleasence in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac 1966
the Naked kiss
Constance Towers kicks the crap out of her pimp for shaving off her hair in Sam Fuller’s provocative The Naked Kiss 1964
Shock Corridor
Peter Breck plays a journalist hungry for a story and gets more than a jolt of reality when he goes undercover in a Mental Institution in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963
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Bobby Darin is a psychotic racist in Hubert Cornfield and Stanley Kramer’s explosive Pressure Point 1962 starring Sidney Poitier and Peter Falk.

THE DARK PAGES NEWSLETTER  a condensed article was featured in The Dark Pages: You can click on the link for all back issues or to sign up for upcoming issues to this wonderful newsletter for all your noir needs!

Constance Towers as Kelly from The Naked Kiss (1964): “I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That’s what I saw.”

Griff (Anthony Eisley) The Naked Kiss (1964): “Your body is your only passport!”

Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux in Repulsion (1965): “I must get this crack mended.”

Monty Clift Dr. Cukrowicz Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) : “Nature is not made in the image of man’s compassion.”

Patricia Morán as Rita Ugalde: The Exterminating Angel 1962:“I believe the common people, the lower class people, are less sensitive to pain. Haven’t you ever seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of pain.”

Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri Walk on the Wild Side 1962“When People are Kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it.”

The Naked Venus 1959“I repeat she is a gold digger! Europe’s full of them, they’re tramps… they’ll do anything to get a man. They even pose in the NUDE!!!!”

Darren McGavin as Louie–The Man With the Golden Arm (1955): “The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.”

Baby Boy Franky Buono-Blast of Silence (1961) “The targets names is Troiano, you know the type, second string syndicate boss with too much ambition and a mustache to hide the facts he’s got lips like a woman… the kind of face you hate!”

Lorna (1964)- “Thy form is fair to look upon, but thy heart is filled with carcasses and dead man’s bones”

Peter Fonda as Stephen Evshevsky in Lilith (1964): “How wonderful I feel when I’m happy. Do you think that insanity could be so simple a thing as unhappiness?”

Glen or Glenda (1953)“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even a lounging outfit and he’s the happiest individual in the world.”

Glen or Glenda
Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda 1953

Johnny Cash as Johnny Cabot in Five Minutes to Live (1961):“I like a messy bed.”

Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) Island of Lost Souls: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969): “Sex dominates the world! And now, I dominate sex!”

The Snake Pit (1948): Jacqueline deWit as Celia Sommerville “And we’re so crowded already. I just don’t know where it’s all gonna end!” Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham “I’ll tell you where it’s gonna end, Miss Somerville… When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.”

Delphine Seyrig as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness (1971)“Aren’t those crimes horrifying. And yet -so fascinating!”

Julien Gulomar as Bishop Daisy to the Barber (Michel Serrault) King of Hearts (1966)“I was so young. I already knew that to love the world you have to get away from it.”

The Killing of Sister George (1968) -Suzanna York as Alice ‘CHILDIE’: “Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know” Beryl Reid as George: “That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of!”

The Killing of Sister George
Susannah York (right) with Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George Susannah York and Beryl Reid in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George 1960

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)“You can’t get blood out of an illusion.”

THE SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965)Dominique-“I’m attracted” Pablo-” To Bullfights?” Dominique-” No, I meant to death. I’ve always thought it… The state of perfection for all men.”

Peter O’Toole as Sir Charles Ferguson Brotherly Love (1970): “Remember the nice things. Reared in exile by a card-cheating, scandal ruined daddy. A mummy who gave us gin for milk. Ours was such a beautifully disgusting childhood.”

Maximillian Schell as Stanislaus Pilgrin in Return From The Ashes 1965: “If there is no God, no devil, no heaven, no hell, and no immortality, then anything is permissible.”

Euripides 425 B.C.“Whom God wishes to destroy… he first makes mad.”

Davis & Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring to life two of the most outrageously memorable characters in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

WHAT DOES PSYCHOTRONIC MEAN?

psychotronic |ˌsīkəˈtränik| adjective denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics. [1980s: coined in this sense by Michael Weldon, who edited a weekly New York guide to the best and worst films on local television.] Source: Wikipedia

In the scope of these transitioning often radical films, where once, men and women aspired for the moon and the stars and the whole ball of wax. in the newer scheme of things they aspired for you know… “kicks” yes that word comes up in every film from the 50s and 60s… I’d like to have a buck for every time a character opines that collective craving… from juvenile delinquent to smarmy jet setter!

FILM NOIR HAD AN INEVITABLE TRAJECTORY…

THE ECCENTRIC & OFTEN GUTSY STYLE OF FILM NOIR HAD NO WHERE ELSE TO GO… BUT TO REACH FOR EVEN MORE OFF-BEAT, DEVIANT– ENDLESSLY RISKY & TABOO ORIENTED SET OF NARRATIVES FOUND IN THE SUBVERSIVE AND EXPLOITATIVE CULT FILMS OF THE MID TO LATE 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s!

I just got myself this collection of goodies from Something Weird!

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There’s even this dvd that points to the connection between the two genres – Here it’s labeled WEIRD. I like transgressive… They all sort of have a whiff of noir.
Grayson Hall Satan in High Heels
Grayson Hall -Satan in High Heels 1962
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Gerd Oswald adapts Fredrick Brown’s titillating novel — bringing to the screen the gorgeous Anita Ekberg, Phillip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee and Harry Townes in the sensational, obscure and psycho-sexual thriller Screaming Mimi 1958
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Victor Buono is a deranged mama’s boy in Burt Topper’s fabulous The Strangler 1964
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Catherine Deneuve is extraordinary as the unhinged nymph in Roman Polanski’s psycho-sexual tale of growing madness in Repulsion 1965

Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Noir took a journey through an even darker lens… Out of the shadows of 40s Noir cinema, European New Wave, fringe directors, and Hollywood auteurs, brought more violent, sexual, transgressive, and socially transformative narratives into the cold light of day with a creeping sense of verité. While Film Noir pushed the boundaries of taboo subject matter and familiar Hollywood archetypes it wasn’t until later that we are able to visualize the advancement of transgressive topics.

Continue reading “Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground”

When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

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This is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy* Shadows and Satin & *Silver Screenings from April 20th – 26th 2014

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”– T.E. Lawrence

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”- Mark Twain

IT’S ALL IN THE EYES! -THE LEGACY OF GLORIA SWANSON/NORMA DESMOND & GLORIA HOLDEN/COUNTESS ZALESKA

Gloria Swanson Norma Desmond

Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter

Are these wicked women? Do they exemplify the monstrous feminine? I dare say NO! They are sensual yet tragic figures!

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Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska is a victim of her bloodline (literally)–her father Dracula’s legacy, desperately seeking out redemption and’ release’ from the torture of her relentless desires. (lesbianism in the form of blood lust) And Gloria Swanson‘s enduring Norma Desmond an aging silent screen star pushed out by talkies-a victim of a punishing Hollywood institution that forces older women into self-delusion. Though her beauty did not fade, the praise and recognition has.

Both women are-literally immortal!

Ironically without realizing the connection there are two threads of synchronicity that revealed themselves after I decided to pair both Glorias. A) Both women have male servants who show a stoic undying co-dependent worship of their mistress and B) Hedda Hopper appears in both films….

“She gives you that weird feeling!” –tagline from Dracula’s Daughter

Two Glorias, two dynamic forces on screen- Written about endlessly, on the surface spider women, vamps and villainesses perhaps… but to the thoughtful observer and film fanatic like myself… they are sympathetic figures in a cruel world…

“Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.”- subtitle from one of Gloria/Norma’s silent films.

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First let’s begin with our ‘close-up’- on Gloria Swanson as the eternally mesmerizing Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece! Norma is in actuality the one trapped in an orbit of ambivalence about her own primacy which ultimately devolves into a vulnerable, needy, discontented and brooding personality whose dependency upon men and (one opportunistic man in particular) is self-destructiveness turned outward.

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Written and directed by auteur Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity 1944, The Lost Weekend 1945, Ace in the Hole 1951, Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Some Like It Hot 1959, The Apartment 1960 which won for BEST PICTURE that year, beating out ELMER GANTRY!).

Considered the last motion picture in the film noir cannon. The first being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity 1944  with his notoriously sexified femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson who’s got a great pair of gams showcasing that diamond ankle bracelet, dark sunglasses and Barbara Stanwyck’s cool exterior. And Wilder’s last noir Sunset Boulevard that unofficially marked the end of classical noir’s heyday. Sunset Boulevard truly pushing the conventions of noir to it’s limits.

Written for the screen by Wilder and Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend ’45, Edge of Doom, ’50, Niagara ’53).

Music by Franz Waxman  (Magnificent Obsession ’35, The Invisible Ray ’36, A Day at the Races ’37, The Man Who Cried Wolf ’37, Gone With the Wind -uncredited, Humoresque ’46 I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Home Before Dark, there’s so much more– see IMDb profile). Waxman’s score is superb, from the exhilarating opening sequence that accompanies the flurry of police and newsreel camera trucks racing to the crime scene, the vibrant strings and strident horns that accentuate modernity to the more subtle poignant moments that underscore Norma’s internal agony.

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John Seitz is responsible for the evocative and quirky noir-esque cinematography (Sullivan’s Travels ‘4I, Double Indemnity ’44 , The Lost Weekend ’45).

The use of light in key frames showcases Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond who exults whenever she is either watching herself or is thrust into sudden illumination renders her as somehow lost. The use of shadows and oddly lit spaces evoke the sense of her tragic misconstruction of reality. 

Bruce Crowther on- Cinematographer Seitz who helped to define some of the memorable images of Sunset Boulevard“Rarely does full light intrude upon this movie… Seitz handles the often cluttered sets using lighting to direct the eye to each scene’s key areas. Even when light is used fully, as when Norma steps into the beam of her home movie projector or when a lighting technician at the studio turns the spotlight on her, it serves a dark purpose… Here it shows with appalling clarity the incipient madness that will eventually destroy Norma.”

Arthur P Schmidt, the film editor, died at age 52 (worked on Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot with Wilder).

Art direction by Hans Dreier and John Meehan, fabulous mise-en-scéne by set designers  Sam Comer Ray Moyer who both worked on (Read Window 1954, Vertigo 1958, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961) Which arranges the landscape of Norma’s world with Art Deco style furnishing, elaborate candelabras, wrought iron scrolled staircases, tapestries and ornate lighting fixtures. Norma’s bedroom is something out of a Gothic fairytale with it’s superfluous ruffles and claustrophobic pageantry.

Wilder and his artistic design team create an atmosphere of decadence and decay. Using an ornate baroque visual style that puts emphasis on the surroundings which are careful set pieces of time-worn opulence. The scenes are filled with a cluttered and suffocating mise-en-scéne. Sunset Boulevard reveals the conflict of the old grandeur of the silent era with the hollow clamor of modernity, as a ‘clash of styles and eras.’

Once Joe walks in from the brightly lit Los Angeles hustle and bustle, the tone turns darker, as he steps inside the confines of the mansion crowded with the serpentine wrought iron staircase, large yet dim light fixtures and ancient looking columns that appear to be disintegrating in small scattered parts. Set against the crispness of Max’s white gloves and Norma’s black sateen lounging pajamas, it offsets the sense of a perishing house in an odd and creepy way. Again this is where noir meets horror by the elements combined in the visual style.

Most effectively is the central character of Norma Desmond who’s electrifying intensity and melodramatic flare projects an other-world style in contrast with the biting and cynical, dispassionate humor of the younger screenwriter from the age of talkies.

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According to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair many of the film’s props came from own Swanson’s home and scrapbooks. “One shot pans across the table covered with Swanson’s film stills, the photographs in old frames capturing her young face and heavily painted eyes.”

The portrait in Norma’s living room was painted by Geza Kende. Wilder also borrowed a film clip of “Norma” in her prime from a Swanson film Erich Von Stroheim directed, Queen Kelly 1929.

From Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen- he cites Amir Karimi in Toward a Definition of the American Film Noir as the true period of noir beginning with Wilder’s Double Indemnity and ending with the same directors Sunset Boulevard 1950. He goes on to say that Wilder’s noir drama’s contain “the biting social comment, the stinging disapproval of the American way” Sunset Boulevard “transfers noir psychology to a novel setting, the decaying mansion of a once-grand film star. Wilder’s portrait of the megalomaniacal Norma Desmond is etched in acid; she is the embodiment of Hollywood’s rotting foundations, its terminal narcissism, it’s isolation from reality.”

Norma’s sensational costumes were created by prolific designer Edith Head who resurrected Swanson’s silent era look, the exotic and exaggerated costumes and fashions of an ex-screen Goddess, which point back toward Swanson’s past. She wears a hat, adorned with a peacock feather in the scene where she is reunited with Cecil B. DeMille. This is a visual homage to a headdress she wore in Male and Female 1919 one of the first films he directed her in.

The silent movie queen Norma Talmadge is reportedly “the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen” Dave Kehr,An independent woman, nobly suffering in silents”, New York Times, 11 March 2010.

Sunset Boulevard could not have been cast with anyone better than the dynamic and grande actress who in 1919 was signed to a contract by Cecil B. DeMille. With this, her come-back role Gloria Swanson ignites the screen with her eponymous Norma Desmond -star of the silent screen -Norma Desmond, the tragic central satellite of the story who herself is dreaming of a comeback. Swanson’s performance is as much transfixing as it is exquisite.

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The intoxicating beauty of Gloria Swanson from the silent era

gloria swanson & william holden 1950 - sunset boulevard

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Swanson herself was a very hard working actress in 1910s and 1920s with Mack Sennett before joining Paramount studios. She started her own production company in the mid ’20s but only made a few talkies in the 1930s. She made six silent films with Cecil B. DeMille.

As Leo Braudy says in his insightful book- The World in a Frame: What We See– Aesthetically, Swanson faces into the film as the fictional character Norma Desmond and faces outward toward us as the star. He calls her role a ‘meditation’ on her screen image and the relationship between the old world of silent films and the new world of 1950s Hollywood. He refers to the other actors who were her contemporaries playing themselves as ’embalmed’ with her in the past, losing their relevance to the audience and ultimately their power.

Billy Wilder’s film is as James Naremore says in his book More Than Night- Film Noir in its Contents- is an “iconoclastic satire” and “a savage critique of modernity.” Much like Aldrich’s The Big Knife it is a condemnation of Hollywood in the cycle of films released in the 1950s, also notable The Bad and The Beautiful 1952. Naremore points out these films coincided with the blacklist, and the decline of studio owned theater chains summoning the end of an era. Norma’s character is a casualty of changing times.

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Co-starring as the ill-fated gutless unemployed screenwriter who becomes Norma’s gigolo, is smooth and sexy William Holden as Joe Gillis. Erich Von Stroheim plays Norma’s devoted butler and ex-hubby Max Von Mayerling. Erich Von Stroheim who had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly ’29 is perfectly suited to play her servant/ex-husband/devotee.

The film also co-stars Nancy Olson (Union Station 1950) as Betty Schaefer, Fred Clark as Sheldrake, Lloyd Gough as Morino, Jack Webb as Artie Green, Franklyn Farnum as the undertaker, and special appearances as themselves, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and composers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston.

The film is a Gothic, poetic nightmare in noir that so often evinces a sympathetic lens toward the forgotten characters who engage the audience like apparitions of another time in Hollywood. The unorthodox narrative that embraces a vividly unstable noir identity that dwells within the constructs of an American life, pushing the limits of social and sexual convention to a dark place of obsession and excess. Although Wilder scripted this as a black comedy, the noir stylization that had by now ran through it’s re-occurring patterns still manages to create the incessant mood of bleak cynicism and a distant vulgarity.

Bruce Crowthers Reflections in a Dark Mirror- ”Of the other German emigres who worked in Hollywood the most significant contributor to the film noir is Billy Wilder, whose Ace in the Hole perhaps the most cynical movie ever to come out of Hollywood, Double Indemnity with it’s mesmerizing manipulative spider-woman and Sunset Blvd with it’s atmosphere of brooding baroque insanity are classics of the genre.”

“Wilder introduces a creepy atmosphere of eccentric ruin that’s strange and destroys lives, yet hypnotically alluring and seductive from a lost indulgent age.”Alain Silver & James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir-The Directors

Wilder wanted stark reality and realism to pierce the veil of illusion and fantasy that was the dream factory of Hollywood 1950s. He portrays a corrupt landscape of used-up people, conniving agents, writers hustling to get their scripts sold, and the loneliness and alienation that permeates a world of broken dreams and perpetual struggle. Andrew Dickos in Street With No Name calls Wilder’s noir films “visions are steeped in cruel and corrosive humor, distinctive in its own right and its ability to function apart from the noir universe.”

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In this provocative masterpiece Billy Wilder masterfully evokes a shudder in us, “by emphasizing it’s verisimilitude, though, Wilder reveals the hidden truths of the world’s cruelest company town- from the isolation of forgotten celebrities to the crass efficiency of producers. Not only a thrilling and strange piece of entertainment, the film also is an indictment of Hollywood.” –Kashner & MacNair

Louis B Mayer, at a private screening of Sunset Boulevard, was furious with Wilder for his cruel portrayal of the industry that supported him. At the party before the various celebrities, he reproached him, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” Wilder kept the script hush hush using the innocuous code title A Can of BeansWilder and Brackett fearing that Hollywood would respond negatively to their damning portrayal of Hollywood.

He offers us the very typified archetypes of classical noir with his doomed anti-hero, the dangerous femme fatale, and the good girl redeemer. Also present are the familiar themes of entrapment, claustrophobia, instability, corruption, flawed character, psychological crime melodrama and even the police procedural with it’s thrilling opening sequence as the newsreel camera’s and police cars, their sirens blaring, tear up the streets as they speed toward the murder scene.

Mae West
The inimitable Mae West turned down the part of Norma Desmond

Originally Billy Wilder wanted the legendary & incomparably sexy and suggestive writer/actress Mae West to play Norma. West declined because she found the story to be ‘too dark’. She also didn’t want a film that portrayed the relationship between an older woman and younger man that reflected itself as hideous. The two approached Greta Garbo who also declined the offer. Wilder also approached Mary Pickford who was appalled by the offer, they had to apologize to her. It was George Cukor who suggested Gloria SwansonWilder asked Gloria Swanson to screen test for the part in 1949 and she almost said no. She had worked with Wilder who had adapted the screenplay for her film Music in the Air 1934. Norma is a larger-than-life film character though an exaggeration of reality considering Swanson wasn’t ancient she was only fifty at the time!

Wilder had contracted Montgomery Clift to play Joe Gillis. Clift left the picture finding it too uncomfortably close to his own life, because of the younger man relationship- he allegedly had an affair with Libby Holman a popular singer of the 20’s whose career was ruined by scandal surrounding the shooting death of her husband. Clift had spent time with Holman who also lived in a sprawling mansion much like Norma’s. Wilder worried that the age difference between Swanson and Holden wasn’t big enough, Swanson was fifty and Holden was thirty one. Wilder hadn’t been impressed with some of Holden’s more mediocre films of the ’40s, even though he had starred in Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) with co-star Barbara Stanwyck. Sunset Boulevard made William Holden’s career. While I find Joe Gillis to be a dismissive smarmy ass who sort of had it coming to him, in this picture, I let it be know that I’m a huge fan of William Holden!- he did a superb job of playing it cagey, opportunistic and sarcastic as hell.

Wilder mirrors Joe Gillis’ from his own start as a shaky Hollywood writer having moved from Germany to America after Hitler’s rise to power, He used to be a ‘taxi dancer’ who would dance with any unattached older women who were willing to pay for his services.

One of the most iconic scenes from Sunset Boulevard, aside from the film’s fever dream climax where Norma descends the grand staircase, plunging into her gathering madness, is the scene that illustrates the withering passage of a lost era. The three fading silent film stars play bridge in the parlor of Norma’s decaying Gothic mausoleum. During the scene with the old stars playing bridge, the collectors come and take Joe’s car away, the only passport to freedom he has.

‘The wax works’ cracks wise, struggling snarky screen writer Joe Gillis, referring to Norma’s bridge party guests. Wilder envisioned this scene as purposefully macabre or as Kashner and MacNair call it “ghastly.” To see figures gathered around the table, as the sequence unfolds, it is revealed that these actors are actually playing themselves. Silent screen actress Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner who had played Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 picture The King of Kings. And Legendary actor of silent cinema Buster Keaton is there too. Kashner and MacNair describe “his features ravaged by alcohol abuse.” Even Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in a way is paying tribute to herself recalling the bridge game in the parlor scene- “Came close to giving us all the creeps.”

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-Waxworks promotional

Like the bridge guests DeMille plays himself with scenes shot on the real set of his 1949 motion picture Samson and Delilah. Erich Von Stroheim himself a once great director, Wilder uses him poignantly as Max who mourns his former life. Wilder touching on the fact that Stroheim in real life had a rough time with his career often going over budget and ultimately making box office flops.

As I’ve pointed out here in this piece for The Great Villain Blogathon, I am using Norma Desmond to argue that she isn’t the psychotic spider woman or villainess that she’s been referred to, and that the film neither makes fun of her, yet creates a sense of sympathetic apology to this grande dame mostly revealing her as quite a tragic figure. I neither see her as washed up nor grotesque, but a beautifully powerful women possessed of intensity. She is the one who is ‘trapped’ in the web of an unforgiving culture that demonizes women for their sexual primacy. Norma is possessed of desire. The desire to still be adored. The desire to make a ‘return’ to motion pictures. The desire to be loved as a great star. The desire to be loved by Joe.

It’s Joe Gillis that is not a very likable guy, who is uncaring, weak, too shallow and powerless. Let’s face it he’s a self-acknowledged heel. Ironically, sadly it is Norma’s story that is being told through this guys voice and perspective yet another way that her character is silenced, her personae distorted and perverted through the male gaze.

Once again Silver & Ward point out eloquently-

“Norma herself as portrayed by Gloria Swanson is a tragic figure. imbued by Wilder with powerful romantic presence… A woman obsessed, she clings to her vision with a tenacity that must ultimately be granted a grudging admiration and she is the only character in the film with the possible exception of Erich Von Stroheim’s fanatically loyal Max, who inspires genuine sympathy. Watching herself on screen in an old movie, she leaps into the projector’s murderous blast of light and cries, ‘They don’t make faces like that anymore!’ It is difficult for the viewer to favor Joe’s cynicism over her fervor, however misguided or self-centered it may be…”

THERE’S A MONSTROUS FEMALE IN OUR MIDST- SOME CHARACTERIZATIONS OF NORMA:

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From The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the 1950’s by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair-Chapter- The Waxworks: Mae West, Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard which opens with-
 “Hollywood has never been kind to older actresses…”

Here are just a few of the negative & unwarranted cursory examinations of Norma Desmond’s persona, put here -not because I agree, but to point out how cruel & misguided critics have been.

David Kehr of the New York Times refers to Norma as “predatory and grotesque.”

Alain Silver and James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir- The Directors– refer to Norma as “delusional eccentric, past her prime.” and a “washed up misfit.” “femme fatale who embodies unstable noir psychosis.”

Foster Hirsch spells it out like this,  “Her fate was monstrous” calling her the “ultimate spider woman hibernating behind closed shutters in a swoon of alcohol and self-deception…{…} her loss of fame and fading beauty turn her into a psychopathic recluse.”

Hedda Hopper describes Norma descending the great staircase at the climax of Sunset Boulevard as her being in- “ a state of complete mental shock!”

Bruce Crowther-Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror actually uses the word ‘demonic’ he says “Yet, in Sunset Boulevard (1950), she succeeded in bringing to demonic life Norma Desmond, an old-time movie star who is on the most grotesque of all femme fatales.”

Janet Place chapter The Spider Woman from Women in Film Noir“with her claw-like hands.”

Actress Mae Murray a contemporary of Swanson’s, was offended by the film and commented, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”

Forster Hirsch calls her -“megalomaniacal.”

John McCarthy- Movie Psychos and Madmen calls her “a monster”

Marjorie Rosen (Popcorn Venus 1973) & Molly Haskell ( From Reverence to Rape 1974) –“a despairingly lonely serpent…” whose predicament is “reduced and trivialized because the source of her misery is merely growing old”cited by Brandon French, who feels they miss the point by merely reducing Norma to a victim of Wilder’s satire.

Brandon French -On the Verge of Revolt- “these fictional villainesses unable to discover-or accept-an autonomous creative expression of their power are made monsters by it, to one degree or another…{…} Her ludicrous existence as a middle-aged child.” 

From Chapter –Women in Film Noir– by Janet Place- The Spider Woman

In discussing the powerful returning motifs and patterns in film noir, Place talks about the dangerous power of the sexual woman, and how it is visually expressed. She states,

“Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is the most highly stylized ‘spider woman’ in all of film noir as she weaves a web to trap and finally destroy her young victim, but even as she visually dominates him, she is presented as caught by the same false value system. The huge house in which she controls camera movement and is constantly center frame is also a hideous trap which requires from her the maintenance of the myth of stardom;the contradiction between the reality and the myth pull apart and finally drive her mad.”

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A caption that goes with the photo of Norma with head scarf and dark glasses smoking a cigarette “emphasizes the perverse, decaying side of film noir sexuality, with her claw-like hands, dark glasses and bizarre cigarette holder.”

She goes on to add that these ‘visual cues’ are a characteristic iconography of the “dangerously explicitly sexual and often violent noir female.” Using signals like cigarettes and their trails of wispy smoke are linked with immoral feminine sensuality and the forces of darkness. The specific use of heavily defined make-up, eyebrow pencil and full contoured lips, the dark glasses etc. Even the animal print that Norma wears. The power of these particular women is expressed in the visual style by “their dominance in composition, camera movement and how they are lit.”

From Mary Beth Haralovich– Chapter-Movies and Landscapes in-American Cinema of the 1950s Themes and Variations edited by Murray Pomerance“A character’s mental landscape is written on the mise-en-scéne in the film, the bodies of the actors and in their subjective visions, in their responses to settings that give them solace and to settings that they fear.”
As Joe Gillis comments to Betty Schaefer in Sunset Blvd“Psychopaths sell like hotcakes.”

In fact like the silent cinema which was once her world, Norma is a ghost there, an empty shadow of the past. Now Norma is in a lonely place because the industry that once supported her has forgotten her completely.
“Sunset Boulevard is cast with doppelgangers, fictional counterparts of actual Hollywood players, Paramount’s actual silent star Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, “Paramount’s Silent Star” Like Norma, Swanson’s screen career did not transfer over to sound films until her remarkable performance in the Sunset Boulevard.

One issue that is suggestive of lensing Norma as a monstrous female is the prevailing mood of ‘male anxiety.’ Centered around not only her age, (for crying out loud she was only 50), but threatening was also her vivid sexual impulses and desires.

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Mary Beth Haralovich points to critic Sarah Street “Sunset Blvd. describes the overwhelming male anxiety about age, morality and career” -from her Mad About the Boy”; Masculinity and Career in Sunset Boulevard 1995

Haralovich points out that in Sunset Boulevard Joe works well with Betty at the studio -it’s a space where creativity can flourish, after hours and is a collaborative effort with Betty for the screenplay first entitled Dark Windows but the new draft is called Untitled Love Story. It shows that energetic youth is taking over the staid and faded ways of the old world.

I defer to Brandon French once again because of his insight and compassionate stance on the character of Norma Desmond, as I also see her. He writes, “In numerous films of the fifties such as All About Eve (1950) The African Queen (1951), The Rose Tattoo (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1956) and Autumn Leaves (1956) middle aged women are shown to be sexually attractive. What renders Norma less than desirable is her neurosis not her age.”

So you could argue that Wilder’s film is not only a condemnation of the failed system of Hollywood but also how it marginalizes it’s older stars, more specifically women. As French puts it, “a protest against Hollywood’s institutional policy of human discard, Wilder put the spotlight on Swanson.”

Gloria Swanson beautiful

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The film showcases society’s anxiety about sexual women especially those who have aged out of their place of ‘desirability.’ It’s this repulsion against older women that turns them into screen ‘monsters.’ It only follows that Norma would fall into an orbit of madness, when she had once flourished in an industry that co-nurtures narcissism, then punishes their women stars when they no longer have the advantage of claiming that egotism as an earned right. These stars are primed to be egotistical and then damned for it once they no longer serve a purpose for the industry cronies who make pictures.

Again, it invokes, Bette Davis’ performance of Baby Jane Hudson and her self-delusion caused by years of growing neglect and the cruel reversal of attentions that were once foisted on her. These accolades taken away, creating  stars that are relics left in a lonely place. Perhaps Wilder’s script did not make his import obvious or more compassionate through the narrative which would more easily coax the audiences sympathies and not necessarily gear them toward repulsion of the central tragic figure that is Norma Desmond. 

Norma Desmond was the prototype for the Grande Dame Guignol films that were to follow… of course the actresses would be faced with the same dilemma– of being given a script that would challenge them not to be type cast or appear monstrous.

It is then up to us to redeem Norma ourselves and see her as the victim and not the ultimate noir spider woman, psychopathic megalomaniac, deranged and deluded horror movie queen.

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The story should work in a way that sheds light on the anxiety surrounding women who aren’t in their twenties or thirties, not framing the narrative or focusing the visual cues on their age as if they are uncanny and dangerous. To tell the story of alienation and madness yes but lens it in a way that doesn’t promote revulsion of the older woman’s sexuality and power. A beauty standard where women can’t grow older and be beautiful at the same time. As people describe Norma as ‘grotesque’ All I see is a very beautiful lonely woman who is yes, filled with a growing delusion. Norma’s misguided fervor is only fueled by her co-dependent side-kick Max as he shelters her from the truth instead of helping her gain awareness through his companionship.

“The attention that Norma Desmond pays to herself, as opposed to the man, is the obvious narrative transgression of Sunset Boulevard.” -Haralovich

Not that Hollywood hasn’t created narcissism in their stars, or that it’s truly a crime for a woman to value herself above all else. Norma gazes at her own reflection in mirrors and in her old motion pictures. As Writer Place points out that the narcissistic independence that the femme fatale seeks is ‘fundamentally and irredeemably sexual’ in noir. Combined with both aggressiveness and sensuality, the dangerous woman becomes the central ‘obsessive’ focus of the narrative. She represents the man’s own sexual freedom, which she must control, repress or ultimately destroy him.

Norma insists on Joe participating in her life rather than being interested in his life. He dreams he is her pet chimp and he actually does become her victim. The victim of Salomé-

From Brandon French’s On the Verge of Revolt-Women in American Films in the Fifties- Chapter 1 The Scarlet “A” Sunset Boulevard (1950) “Sunset Boulevard is a film about ambition and what it allegedly does to the human spirit…{…} On the other hand we harbor a gloomy suspicion that ambition corrodes the soul. America’s negative attitude toward ambition had a critical influence on the transitional woman of the fifties. An Ambitious woman not merely violated the domestic female image; she became a receptacle for America’s most distorted fantasy projections about ambition; a soulless monster of selfish manipulation without moral restraint.”

This was the type of female who film noir had manifested during the forties and fifties. French so aptly points out that ambition is ‘as deadly as the scarlet “A” that is born of our puritan consciousness’. Sunset Boulevard is a perfect example of how a woman who has more drive and ambition, even more than Joe Gillis, evokes an image of her as a “fallen Eve seducing Adam into sin.”

In Sunset Boulevard French views as do I, Billy Wilder’s depiction of Norma as not a typically “just plain rotten” noir villainess. The film yields a thoughtful perspective on the ambivalence of what French calls ‘the transitional woman in the fifties.” Because Wilder complicates the issue of the typified noir evil predatory woman, misunderstood trapped man, innocent ingenue redeemer. Norma is therefore much more nuanced than a sad tragic figure.

Another sentient point that goes to the entire source of Norma’s ambivalence and state of mind begs the question… who’s responsible for her state? DeMille who doesn’t take any culpability for his own contribution to Norma’s decline-blames the press agents who worked overtime focusing on Norma, creating her goddess like megalomania. Demille does not come to Norma’s rescue and help her ‘return’.

Sunset Boulevard Norma and de Mille

DeMille fondly recalls Norma’s talent in terms of her as “a lovely little girl of seventeen.” But unlike ‘men’ in the film industry who don’t have to qualify themselves by their age and appearance, they don’t have to suffer the effects of a punishing system of skin-deep values. Also it’s this atmosphere that nurtures and places value on youth and the function of beauty that have given rise to a Norma with an arrested development, living in the past obsessed with her ‘self.’

His girlfriend Betty types while he dictates the script they try to write together. Joe loves that Betty smells like a brand new car or freshly laundered handkerchiefs, and not tuberoses. Betty is ambitious too, she dreams of his career and is content to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. “Self-interest, over devotion to a man is the original sin of the film noir woman.”Haralovich

In John McCarthy’s Movie Psychos and Madmen- Chapter- The Female Psycho, McCarthy talks about Gloria Swanson’s faded movie queen in Billy Wilder’s biting attack on Hollywood. He frames Norma as trapped by her delusions-“the delusion that her glamour has not yet faded.”

I disagree. I think that Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond is STILL glamorous. Perhaps led by the majority who have profiled her as a has been beauty queen and here again, the value judgement has been sworn against her, not just as a character trapped by self-delusion and that her career has ended, but that her desirability is an illusion as well…

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Gloria Swanson is beautiful as ever as silent movie queen Norma Desmond

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Given the immense narcissism which goes along with Hollywood, Swanson  in my opinion does not look like a caricature of her former self nor is she Norma Desmond’s doppelganger. To me… she just looks a little older but still quite sensual and beautiful as ever!

I suppose due to the visual cues by director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz Norma is presented or we are made to believe that she is grotesque like Bette Davis’ Baby Jane whose make up, hairstyle and mannerism truly were an exaggeration of a farcical youth that Davis purposefully plays as campy in order to illustrate her detachment from reality and the attachment to a past life that doesn’t translate well in the modernity of Los Angeles in the 60s. Aldrich’s film pushed the boundaries of convention even further by implementing an even more claustrophobic universe in conflict with the outside world, that engenders madness.

It was a combination of fate and opportunity-

Though Norma has been referred to as having snared Joe in her web. She didn’t go out and set a trap for him, he wandered into her world, she didn’t force him to stay, he stayed because he saw ‘a cozy set up’. and money in it for him, he was hiding and was morbidly curious about the ex-screen Goddess as if he saw her as a side show freak… if the house was a web, he put his own foot on the silk chord and set off the tremor that signaled the spider to pounce. Joe even remarks via voice-over while he’s being led up to his room over the garage, “I dropped the bait, and she snapped at it…”

It’s a tragedy of psychological entrapment and neurotic purgatory that she desires to be loved for herself by the down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis whom she has turned into her kept man. Tragic that she believes her fans continue to remember and write to her, and finally that the Hollywood she helped build is still anxiously awaiting her return. McCarthy says “unlike the use of her trap of delusion as a vehicle for comedy as in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) about two dotty women… Norma’s psychological entrapment is a tragedy.”

That Norma’s entrapment is as real and not just that of Joe Gillis’ is a tragedy, I would entirely agree. But McCarthy continues by calling her a ‘monster.’ And yes through the lens of Grande Dame Guignol cinema of which Sunset Boulevard appears to be seedling the screen for the sub-genre, with the decaying mansion and dreary atmosphere, and the theme of ‘the monstrous feminine’ Norma has been perceived and written about as having evolving into a monster. Though I’ll never see her that way.

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And I dare say she did not create this transmogrification herself. She was created by Hollywood, the fictionalized concept that Wilder attacks and by the actualization of the character by Wilder who framed her that way. As a result of her delusion, much like Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson– her madness leads to murder. As McCarthy says, “broken dreams leading to a broken mind” He brings up one good point. That Sunset Boulevard could almost be a horror movie/film noir hybrid. Much like Aldrich’s similar rebuke of Hollywood with his seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? it is a psycho-sexual thriller that breaks apart conventional narratives. And much like Norma Desmond, I will never see Bette Davis’ role as Jane Hudson through the lens of the monstrous. They will always be sympathetic figures to me.

Plot

“A Hollywood Story… This is it … the most compelling dramatic story ever unfolded on the screen .. a tale of heartache and tragedy … love and ambition … told against the fabulous background of Hollywood.”

Told in flashback by a dead man-set against the blaring sirens of racing police cars to the crime scene, the film opens with police cars speeding down Sunset Boulevard. They’ve been called to a mansion where the body of a man, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is floating face down on the surface of the swimming pool with his eyes wide open-(camera used a mirror underneath to catch Holden’s face from underneath). The dead man begins to narrate the story of what led to his death in flashback noir style. This is truly a spin on the term, “ghost-writer.”

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“Yes, this is Sunset Blvd… the homicide squad complete with detectives and newspaper men. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses… You’ll read all about it in the late editions… You’ll get it over your radio, and see it on television because an old-time star is involved, one of the biggest. But before your hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth… If so you’ve come to the right party.”

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Repo Man-“There’s gonna be fireworks” Joe Gillis- “You Say the cutest things!”

It leads us back- Six months earlier. Joe Gillis is an out of work screenwriter with only a few B-movies to his credit. He tries to persuade Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) to buy one of his scripts, but reader Betty Schaefer (Olson) administers a harsh critique not realizing that Joe can hear her. Carrying a folder of papers, she puts them on Sheldrake’s desk not noticing Joe Gillis standing by the door. Referring to Joe’s script Sheldrake-“What’s wrong with it?” Betty- “It’s from hunger… just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Sheldrake-“I’m sure you’ll be glad to met Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.”

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Betty is embarrassed, she would like to ‘crawl into a hole and pull it in after her.’ She says to Joe, “I’m sorry, Mr.Gillis but I just don’t think it’s any good. I find it flat and banal.” He asks “Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoyevsky?” She tells him, “I just think pictures should say a little something.” Gillis“Oh, you’re one of those message kids. Just a story won’t do. You’d have turned down Gone With the Wind.”

First Joe is typing at his apartment when two collectors show up looking to repossess his car. He manages to elude them once but they spot him on the street at a traffic light. Gillis spots the men who are going to repossess his 1946 Plymouth convertible while sitting at an intersection. They begin chasing him and he gets a blow out.

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the car hidden behind Rudy’s Shoeshine Joe comments about Rudy-“he’d just look at your heels and know the score”

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Trying to hide out Joe turns onto a Sunset Boulevard driveway and stumbles onto an old garage crumbling by the side of a gloomy yet grandiose deteriorating, dying mansion with a little formal garden all gone to seed.

“If ever there was a place to stash away a limping car with a hot license plate.”

When Joe starts his monologue describing Norma’s house, it’s as if he is giving us a portent, describing Norma’s state of mind as the mansion is an extension of her projected identity.

Gillis’ voice-over “It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy twenties. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations –that Miss Haversham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go by”

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Suddenly he hears, “You there!… why are you so late!”

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The ever brooding Max

Living in this opulent ruin, is the reclusive and long forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. She alone inhabits this fading estate with her faithful butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim), who also happens to be her ex-husband, who was once a great director and plays a wheezing organ. Both lost relics of a bygone era. The interior shots of the grand hall, great staircase, Norma’s ‘waxwork’s’ parlor, her bedroom and the Gothic baroque style mansion in general evoke an atmosphere of bleak desolation and mystification.

The great hall is grandiose and grim, described in the script as exhibiting portieres that are drawn before all the windows, and “only thin slits or sunlight find their way in to fight the few electric bulbs which are always burning.”

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As Norma Desmond first makes her entrance she stands like a ghostly figure down the corridor in front of a doorway that allows the intrusion of a flickering light. She is small in stature, yet she exudes an electrifying presence, wearing black house pajamas and high heeled pumps. Like many femme fatales she wears dark glasses, a scarf and turban patterned in leopard print.

The undercurrent is gloomy and dust covered. The room is hung with white brocade which is tattered in places and has become mucky from years of neglect. Sam Comer and Ray Moyer’s set design fits the mood perfectly as the scene also showcases a great unmade gilded bed, the gold peeling off as to symbolize Norma’s decomposing love life. The curious set piece is in the shape of a swan.

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The gondola bed in her boudoir is ornately carved with cherubs that Norma sleeps in was actually owned by dancer Gaby Deslys who died in 1920. It had belonged to Universal’s prop department who bought it after Desly’s death. It appears in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Joe in one of his voice-overs describes it as a gilded row boat. “The perfect setting for a silent movie queen. Poor devil still waving proudly to a parade which has long since passed her by.”

All these little details just add to the sense of realism built into the visual narrative with its accoutrements of Hollywood’s “world of illusion.” Clothes and negligees strewn about the room, which is graced with photographs of fading stars of yesterday. There’s a baroque style fireplace book ended by two ornate candelabras. Set out like an Egyptian prince on her massage table is the shrouded monkey in repose under a shawl.

Norma begins to direct Gillis believing him to be the undertaker (Franklin Farnum) from the funeral home. Joe plays along with a morbid fascination. She tells him,  “I’ve made up my mind we’ll bury him in the garden. Any city laws against that?” Joe says, “I wouldn’t know” Norma continues, “I don’t care anyway. I want the coffin to be white. And I want it specially lined with satin. White, or deep pink.”

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When she picks up the shawl, a small stiff arm falls out. Joe is a little stunned by the tiny hairy arm. “Maybe red. Bright flaming red. Gay. Let’s make it gay.”      

When Joe looks closer at the small body under the shawl he sees the very pitiful, bearded face of a dead chimpanzee. It’s a startling scene, odd and curious. Norma seems to have made her little friend almost a surrogate child.

Joe says to her, “I know your face. You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Norma replies with a stately languor, “I am big… it’s the pictures that got small…”

Gillis in his smug manner, “I knew there was something wrong with them.”

Norma begins her brusque tirade “They’re dead. They’re finished. There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough. Oh, no They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk…”

Joe Gillis quips, “That’s where the popcorn business comes in. You buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.”

Norma chastising- “Look at them in the front offices — the master minds! They took the idols and smashed them. The Fairbanks and the Chaplins and the Gilberts and the Valentinos. And who have they got now? Some nobodies….”

Joe Gillis- “Don’t get sore at me. I’m not an executive. I’m just a writer.”

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Norma- “You are! Writing words, words! You’ve made a rope of words and strangled this business! But there is a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue!”
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Joe- “Ssh! You’ll wake up that monkey.”

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Norma yells- “Get out!” as Gillis starts down the stairs, he answers her, “Next time I’ll bring my autograph album along or maybe a hunk of cement and ask for your footprints.” Halfway down the stairs she stops him, “Just a minute you!”

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Joe-“I didn’t know you were planning a comeback”
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“I hate that word!” (clenched teeth)
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“A return… to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen”
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“Salomé” (Norma whispers to herself)

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She is drawn to Joe, and offers him a job helping her prepare the script for her ‘return’ (she hates the word ‘comeback’) in the film Salomé.

Norma tells Joe, “It’s the story of Salomé I think I’ll have DeMille direct it” Joe humors her. “We’ve made a lot of pictures together.” Joe asks, “And you’ll play Salomé?” “Who else?” “Only asking, I didn’t know you were planning a comeback” “I hate that word… It is a ‘return.’ A return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen!… Salomé, what a woman! What a part! The princess in love with a Holy man. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils. He rejects her, so she demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.”

Max wheels in a tea wagon with Champagne and caviar. Norma sits in her chair smoking from her curious cigarette holder that is a gold ring with a clip. She dumps another batch of pages from the script on Joe.

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Joe “It was a cozy set up”
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“That bundle of nerves Max… that dead monkey upstairs and the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while”

“Well- I had no pressing engagement and she’d mentioned something to drink… Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad, bad writing can be. This promised to go to the limit. I wondered what a handwriting expert would make of that childish scrawl of hers. Max wheeled in some champagne and some caviar. Later I found out that Max was the only other person in that Grim Sunset Castle, and I found out a few other things about him… As for her she sat coiled up like a watch spring, her cigarette clamped in a curious holder… I could sense her eyes on me from behind those dark glasses, defying me not to like what I read, or maybe begging me in her own proud way to like it. It meant so much to her.”

Joe admits- “The place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion… I knew there was something wrong… it sure was a cozy set-up.”

He dismissively mocks her when she tells him that she’ll have DeMille direct, and that she will play the part of Salomé.

“Salome… what a woman what a part. The princess in love with a Holy man She dances the dance of the seven veils. He rejects her and she demands his head on a golden tray… Kissing his cold dead lips”

Okay perhaps there’s a hint of Norma having a little pent up rage toward men… Still, she’s adorable!

Seeing that Joe is broke and a bit of a schemer, he accepts the job and moves into the guest room over the garage. Joe is weak-willed, gutless and a cynic who wields mocking witticisms at every turn. And soon he becomes Norma’s lover, a kept man, a gigolo.

The undertaker arrives with the tiny coffin… Max greets him at the door and leads him up the long winding staircase.

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Joe’s voice over-“Silly hodge podge of melodramatic plotz however I started concocting a little plot of my own”
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Joe tells Norma-“Maybe what it needs is a little more dialogue”
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“What for I can say anything I want with my eyes!”
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“You know I’m pretty expensive”

Wilder visually suggests how Joe is being drawn into Norma’s world at first when he goes to his room above the garage, the camera focuses on the gnarled dead branches that invade the space as he climbs the dark stairs to his room. Joe is too smug in his new cozy set-up, having no clue of the dangerous path he’s about to embark on.

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“So I let him (Max) unpack my things. I wanted the dough, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I thought if I really got going, I could toss it off in a couple of weeks. But it wasn’t so simple, getting some coherence into that wild, scrambled melodrama she’d concocted. What made it tougher was that she was around all the time–hovering over me, afraid I’d do injury to that precious brain child of hers.”
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Joe-“Say… She’s quite a character that Norma Desmond” Max– fixated on his mistress-“She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know… you’re too young… In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. ….there was a maharjas who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings… later he strangled himself with it”
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Joe’s voice over-“Crumbling apart in slow motion -the whole place had a sort of creeping paralysis out of beat with the rest of the world”

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“the last rights of that hairy chimp as if she were laying to rest an only child”
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“it was all very queer…”
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“was her life really as empty as that?”

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While daylight seeps through the blinds, he lies on top of the shabby quilt, the script strewn about him. As he awakens to these strange surroundings he narrates in voice over for us once again-, “That night I had a mixed up dream. In it was an organ grinder. I couldn’t see his face, but the organ was all draped in black and a chimp was dancing for pennies. I opened my eyes the music was still there… Where was I?… Oh yes, that empty room over the garage. (the organ playing beneath his voice-over) Only it wasn’t empty anymore. Somebody had brought in all my belongings. My books, my typewriter, my clothes… What was going on?” He puts his jacket on and heads toward the pipe organ–Max (Von Stroheim, white gloved close up is actually playing) Bach’s widely used baleful Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.

Not too long after he finds that Norma has told Max to move his belongings into the house. Joe is weak and resents having to rely on Norma’s affections to support him. Norma argues with him about him needing her financial support, that he’s a proud boy who is in difficulties.

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Joe dumps a scene ‘cut away from me?’

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Joe’s voice-over-“I didn’t argue with her. You didn’t yell at a sleepwalker–he may fall and break his neck. That’s it, she was sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career– plain crazy when it came to that one subject: her celluloid self, the great Norma Desmond. How could she breathe in that house, so crowded with Norma Desmonds? More Norma Desmond, and still more Norma Desmond!”

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“How could she breathe in that house so crowded with Norma Desmonds”
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Max lifts the painting that reveals the large movie screen

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Norma is entertaining her cynical ‘lover’ who is coasting on ennui. Trusted Max is a constant enigma of stoic devotion, as he watches from the projection booth, the light from the bulb shimmers on his somber face.

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Joe finally begins to accept his role as Norma’s found boy-friend. He spends time with her, working on the script while Norma dressed in one of her lounging pajamas autographs photos of herself. Joe begins to realize just how unaware she is about how much the world has passed her by. Norma isn’t gracious about any criticism, she forces him to watch her old movies. Joe’s smug voice-over-

“She’s sit very close to me, and she’d smell of tuberoses, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes as we watched, she’d clutch my arm or my hand forgetting she was my employer becoming just a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen… I guess I don’t have to tell you who that actress was. They were always her pictures, that’s all she ever wanted to see.”

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Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence which cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”

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Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence which cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”

Standing in the ghostly beam of projector light Norma avows- “Those idiot producers! Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!”

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“Norma is caught between challenge and panic. Her neurotic solution is to buy a man, which establishes her power and control, and then make a pretense of a girlish vulnerability. Her suicide attempt is emblematic of her ambivalence since it is both an assertion of power and an act of self-diminution.” -Brandon French-On the Verge of Revolt-Women in Films of the 1950s

Continue reading “When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)”

Re-Ocurring Iconography-The Cinematic Mirror

A Streetcar Named Desire
Vivien Leigh as Blanch Dubois in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire 1951
IsobelaCorona is Sara the witch-the witches mirror
Isobela Corona is Sara the witch-The Witches Mirror 1962
Repulsion- Catherine
Catherine Deneuve as the demented Carol in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion 1965
Bette Davis in Deception
Bette Davis as Christine Radcliffe in Irving Rapper’s Deception 1946
Robert Cummings in The Chase
Robert Cummings is Chuck Scott in Arthur Ripley’s The Chase 1946
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Citizen Kane-1941-Orson Welles
Corridor of Mirrors 2
Terence Young’s Corridor of Mirrors 1948 Edana Romney as Mifanwy Conway
Dead Ringer
Paul Henreid’s Dead Ringer 1964 starring Bette Davis & Bette Davis as twin sisters Margaret DeLorca / Edith Phillips
Decoy
Jack Bernhard’s film noir classic Decoy 1946 Herbert Rudley as Dr. Craig
fritz lang's M
Fritz Lang’s M (1931) starring Peter Lorre
Ida On Dangerous Ground
Ida Lupino is blind Mary Malden in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground 1951
Jane Wyman Stage Fright
Jane Wyman is Eve Gill in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Stage Fright 1950
Jean Simmons and Dan O'Herlihey Home After Dark
Jean Simmons is Charlotte Bronn and Dan O’Herlihy as Arnold Bronn in Mervyn LeRoy’s psychological melodrama Home Before Dark 1958
jean-marais-Orpeus '50
Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (Orphée)1950 starring Jean Marais
Kiss Before The Mirror '33 James Whale
The Kiss Before the Mirror 1933 directed by James Whale Gloria Stuart and Paul Lukas
Lady in the Lake
Robert Montgomery is Phillip Marlowe in Lady in the Lake 1947
Marilyn Don't Bother to Knock-mirror
Marilyn Monroe is the disturbed babysitter Nell Forbes in Roy Ward Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock 1952
Psycho-Janet Leigh Marion Crane
Janet Leigh plays the ill fated Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s classic horror Psycho 1960
Renoir's The Rules of the Game 39
Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game 1939
She Wolf of London
June Lockhart is Phyllis Allenby in Jean Yarbrough’s She-Wolf of London 1946
sin in the suburbs
Joe Sarno’s Sin in the Suburbs 1946
Somewhere in the night Hodiak
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night 1946 starring John Hodiak as George Taylor and Nancy Guild (rhymes with Wild) as Christy Smith
Sunset Blvd
Gloria Swanson is the sensational Norma Desmond and William Holden is Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. 1950
The Big Steal
Robert Mitchum is Lt. Duke Halliday and William Bendix as Capt. Vincent Blake in Don Siegel’s The Big Steal 1949
The Dark Mirror
Olivia de Havilland & Olivia de Havilland star as Terry and Ruth Collins in Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror 1946
The Lady from Shanghai
Rita Hayworth is Elsa Bannister in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai 1947
The Queen of Spades mirror

Yvonne Mitchell is Lizaveta Ivanova in Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades 1949
Thomas Mitchell in The Dark Mirror
Thomas Mitchell is Lt Stevenson in Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror 1946
what ever happened to baby jane
Bette Davis is the outrageous Baby Jane Hudson in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

Here’s looking back at ya!-Your ever lovin’ monstergirl

Postcards From Shadowland’s Big Fat No.10

Alexandra Schmidt in Mother Kraus' jounrey to happiness mutter-krausens-fahrt-ins-gluck-schmidt
Alexandra Schmidt in ‘Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness’ (1929)
all-about-eve-anne-baxter-bette-davis-marilyn-monroe-richard carlson-george sanders-celeste holm
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s brilliant satire- All About Eve (1950) starring the inimitable Bette Davis as Margo Channing and Ann Baxter as the cunning Eve Harrington.
All's Quet on the Western Front
Director Lewis Milestone’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front-(1930) starring Lew Ayres
anatomy of murder scene
Otto Preminger’s riveting court room noir Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
battleship-potemkin-odessa-steps-sergei-eisenstein
Battleship Potemkin (1925) Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece about the great Russian naval mutiny.
Brute Force
Jule’s Dassin’s brutal noir masterpiece Brute Force (1947)
Cat-on-a-Hot-Tin-Roof-elizabeth-taylor-scene
Richard Brooks adaptation of Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
DameJudith:MrsDanvers
Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca 1940
janet-leigh-touch-of-evil-charlton-heston
Orson Welles’ film classic Touch of Evil (1958)
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William Dieterle’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939
kiss of death
Henry Hathaway’s disturbing noir classic Kiss of Death 1947
Laura
Otto Preminger’s quintessential noir Laura (1944)
Lee Remick in Experiment in Terror 1960
Blake Edwards Experiment in Terror 1960
Earth Vs The Spider
Bert I. Gordon’s Earth Vs The Spider 1958
Dracula's Daughter
Lambert Hillyer’s understated yet powerfully erotic horror classic Dracula’s Daughter 1936
Linda darnell no way out
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s taut and thought provoking social noir No Way Out 1950
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Mervyn LeRoy’s gangster odyssey Little Caesar 1931
Day the earth stood still robert wise
Robert Wise’s Science Fiction masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
long dark hall
Reginald Beck and Anthony Bushell’s suspenseful The Long Dark Hall 1951
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Herbert Brenon’s beautiful Laugh, Clown, Laugh 1928
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Fritz Lang’s notorious psychological thriller M (1931)
Monday Nights with Oscar
Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece about addiction The Man with the Golden Arm 1955
allison hayes Attack of the 50 foot woman
Nathan Juran’s iconic 50s campy sci-fi romp Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
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Anthony Mann’s noir classic Raw Deal (1948)
Mother Joan of the Angels
Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s surreal and transcendent Mother Joan of the Angels 1961
Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed
Mervyn LeRoy’s naughty tale about a child psychopath. The Bad Seed (1956)
naked kiss2
Samuel Fuller’s irreverent noir gem The Naked Kiss (1964)
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Carol Reed’s intense noir thriller Odd Man Out (1947)
Norma Desmond
Billy Wilder’s iconic film noir masterwork of grand proportions Sunset Blvd (1950)
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Jean Cocteau’s stunning Orpheus (1950) Orphée
outofthepas
Jacques Tourneur’s hauntingly mesmerizing noir Out of the Past (1947)
Peggy Cummings Gun Crazy
Joseph E. Lewis Gun Crazy or Deadly is the Female (1950)
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George Steven’s sadness and joyful Penny Serenade (1941)
frankenstein
James Whale’s campy take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931
the+black+cat
Edgar G. Ulmer’s sadistic and transgressive journey into horror The Black Cat 1934
vampyr
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterful vision of quiet uncanny horror Vampyr (1932)
prowler-tale
Joseph Losey’s titillating noir The Prowler ((1951)
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Henri-Georges Clouzot’s brilliantly chilling Les-Diaboliques-1955
Seance
Bryan Forbes’ compelling suspense thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
Seven Chances
Buster Keaton’s fantastic Seven Chances (1925)
SCARFACE (1932)
Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson’s SCARFACE (1932)
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William Beaudine’s haunting Sparrows (1926)
Bride of Frankestein
James Whales even campier and finest work The Bride of Frankenstein 1935
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Elia Kazan’s volatile theme of desolation and passion based on Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire 1951
SUNSET BOULEVARD
some more divine SUNSET BOULEVARD 1950
the nymph ward shock corridor
Samuel Fuller’s edgy Shock Corridor (1963)
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Jame’s Whale’s The Old Dark House 1932
They-Live-By-Night
Nicholas Ray’s incredibly beautiful film noir journey They Live By Night (1948)
Theo and Eleanor
Robert Wise’s uncompromising ghost story adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting (1963)
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Raoul Walsh’s iconic crime thriller White Heat (1949)

the clip joint: Sunset Boulevard (1950)”I am big… It’s the pictures’ that got small”

SUNSET BOULEVARD 1950

Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I ‘am’ big. It’s the ‘pictures’ that got small.

Sunset Blvd Poster

Director Billy Wilder’s gritty and gothic noir starring Gloria Swanson as the iconic faded starlet, Norma Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis. Co-starring Erich Von Stroheim as the faithful Max Von Mayerling.

Bill, Gloria and Erich-Sunset Blvd promo shot

Set in 1950s Hollywood the story surrounds the outrageously batty recluse Norma Desmond, goddess of the silent-screen living in a world of self-delusion within the walls of her decaying Sunset Boulevard mansion. Her only companion is her ex-husband turned butler Max who idolizes her, once having been her director when she was a star.

Norma’s mania creates the grand dreams of a comeback to pictures. One day Joe Gillis stumbles onto her property needing a mechanic Norma first mistakes Joe as an employee of the funeral home who’ve been sent to take care of her old chimpanzee who has just passed away. Joe a hack-writer becomes Norma’s lover, but soon gets entangled in a web of madness and murder.

Swanson and Holden lobby card Sunset Blvd

gloria swanson & william holden 1950 - sunset boulevard

Holden and Stroheim Sunset Blvd Lobby Card

Gloria as Norma

Ready for my close up

See you round the Boulevard-MonsterGirl

Postcards From Shadowland No.6

The 49th Parallel (1949) Directed by Michael Powell and starring Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier
La Belle et la Bête 1946 directed by Jean Cocteau starring Jean Marais and Josette Day
Beggars of Life 1928 staring Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen. Directed by William Wellman
Bunny Lake is Missing 1965 Directed by Otto Preminger. Starring Carol Lynley, Laurence Olivier, and Keir Dullea
La Main du Diable or Carnival of Sinners 1943 Directed by Maurice Tourneur and stars Pierre Fresnay, Josseline Gael and Noel Roquevert
The Devil and Daniel Webster 1941 Directed by William Dieterle and stars Walter Houston as Old Scratch, and Edward Arnold, Jane Darwell and Simone Simon.
Dracula’s Daughter 1936 directed by Lambert Hillyer and starring Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger and Marguerite Churchill
Experiment in Terror 1962 directed by Blake Edwards and starring Lee Remick, Glenn Ford, Stephanie Powers and a raspy Ross Martin as ‘Red’ Lynch
Fallen Angel 1945 Directed by Otto Preminger and starring Linda Darnell, Dana Andrews and Alice Faye
Fedra The Devil’s Daughter 1956 Directed by Manuel Mur Oti and stars Emma Penelia, Enrique Diosdado and Vicente Parra
Joan Crawford is Possessed 1947 directed by Curtis Bernhardt, also starring Van Heflin and Raymond Massey
Diaboliques 1955 directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and starring Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse
Never Take Sweets From A Stranger 1960 Directed by Cyril Frankel and stars Gwen Watford, Patrick Allen and Felix Aylmer
The Night Holds Terror 1955 Directed by Andrew L. Stone starring Jack Kelly, Hildy Parks, Vince Edwards and John Cassavetes
Robert Mitchum is Harry Powell, in Night of The Hunter 1955 Directed by Charles Laughton also starring Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish
Plunder Road 1957 directed by Hubert Cornfield and stars Gene Raymond, Jeanne Cooper, Wayne Morris and Elisha Cook Jr.
Seance On a Wet Afternoon 1964 directed by Bryan Forbes and stars Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough and Margaret Lacey
Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train 1951 starring Farley Granger, Robert Walker and Ruth Roman
Gloria Swanson is Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard 1950 Directed by Billy Wilder and starring William Holden and Erich von Stroheim
Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim 1943 Directed by Mark Robson and stars Kim Hunter, Tom Conway and Jean Brooks
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi star in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat 1934 inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story.
The Killer Is Loose 1956 Directed by Budd Boetticher and stars Joseph Cotten, Rhonda Fleming and Wendell Corey
The Ox-Bow Incident 1943 Directed by William Wellman and stars Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes and Anthony Quinn
The Prowler 1951 Directed by Joseph Losey and stars Evelyn Keyes and Van Heflin
The Queen of Spades 1949 Directed by Thorold Dickinson and stars Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans and Yvonne Mitchell
Lon Chaney stars in Tod Browning’s The Unknown 1927 also starring Joan Crawford and Norman Kerry.
Edward L. Cahn’s 1956 film The Werewolf
Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher 1928 inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and adapted for the screen by Luis Bunuel
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) Based on a story by Sheridan Le Fanu. Starring Julian West, Maurice Schutz and Rena Mandel

Postcards From Shadowland No.2

BORN TO KILL (1947) Directed by Robert Wise starring Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney
CAGED (1950) Starring Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead and Ellen Corby
The Cape Canaveral Monsters 1960
The Spiral Staircase 1945 directed by Robert Siodmak, Starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore
Phantom Lady 1944 Directed by Robert Siodmak, starring Ella Raines, Franchot Tone and Elisha Cook Jr.
I Walked With A Zombie 1943 Produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur, edited by Mark Robson, written for the screen by Curt Siodmak and starring Frances Dee, James Ellison and Tom Conway.
MAN HUNT 1941 directed by Fritz Lang, starring Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett and George Sanders
QUICKSAND 1950
The Naked Kiss 1964
PUSHOVER 1954 directed by Richard Quine, starring Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray
The Seventh Victim 1943 Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson, starring Kim Hunter, Tom Conway and Jean Brooks.
THE BURGLAR 1957 Directed by Paul Wendkos and starring Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield and Martha Vickers
Sunset Blvd. 1950 directed by Billy Wilder, starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden.