Pearl Cleage

Pearl Makes A List: 5 Women Finding Their Power in All the Wrong Places (except Laura)

If you’re a feminist, like me, or feminist adjacent by choice, like my husband, watching film noir can present an interesting challenge. The men in these stories are usually desperate, angry and violent toward themselves and others. Since the crimes or offenses for which they are being relentlessly pursued by other men, either police or other lawbreakers, usually have nothing to do with their treatment of women, they are rarely, if ever, punished for it. But correcting the bad behavior of unenlightened men is not the mission of a great noir. So, what I do is keep my eye out for interesting women, who usually fall into three categories: good girl, bad girl, or sainted mother. The bad girls are always the ones to watch. So, while any such examination cries out for at least one Gloria Grahame classic and how can I not include Ava Gardner’s unforgettably duplicitous Kitty in The Killers, there is satisfaction in the discipline of examining only five, which brings us to this week’s list:

5 Women Finding Their Power in All the Wrong Places (except Laura)
  1. Laura (1944, directed by Otto Preminger). Gene Tierney plays the title character, the least powerful of these ladies, a rare noir innocent who floats through the story without initiating much action, but reacting beautifully to the machinations of Waldo Lydecker, an amazing Clifton Webb whose elaborate bath opens the film, and  the unflappable presence of Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) who falls in love with her and rescues her all at the same time.
  2. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, directed by Carl Franklin). Not as helpless as Laura, but not really powerful enough to pull off the blackmail scheme she has concocted, the racially ambiguous Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beal) is in need of the help provided by Easy Rollins, one of Denzel Washington’s best roles, and Don Cheadle, who steals every scene he’s in as the mysterious Mouse. Monet is no match for the physical strength and sadistic violence of the bad guys who are looking for her. For that kind of combat, she would have had to call on Hope Emerson…
  3. Cry of the City (1948, directed by Robert Siodmak). This is a noir driven by male characters, but it is the insanely powerful physical presence of Rose Givens, a sadistic, gangster, masseuse, played by former professional strong woman and Academy Award nominated actress Hope Emerson, that puts the film in a class by itself. At 6’2” tall and 200 pounds, Emerson’s first shadowy entrance where she seems to just get bigger and bigger and BIGGER, is one I will never forget.
  4. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, directed by Tay Garnett). Also unforgettable is the first entrance of the unhappily married Cora Smith, played by Lana Turner. Dressed in white short, tiny top and high heels when she first encounters Frank Chambers, played by John Garfield, her power is one of the few that women are allowed in noirs; her sexual allure. Frank, her partner in crime, is so out of his league that you almost feel sorry for him. Almost.
  5. Double Indemnity (1944, directed by Billy Wilder). You almost feel sorry for Fred McMurray, too, playing the not-as-cool-as-he-thinks-he-is Walter Neff in this perfect noir. Barbara Stanwyck plays the unhappily married Phyllis Dietrichson, with a combination of intensity and languor that is impossible to resist, even when you know she’s lying through her teeth. She’s the kind of woman who knows how to stash a hand gun between the couch cushions just in case things get tight, while wearing a slinky white gown. Stanwyck puts the femme in femme fatale in this film, and even though she comes to no good end, and richly deserves her fate, in noir world, who are we to judge?

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