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Femmes Fatales

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A Fool There Was
Scarlet Street
The Naked Kiss
Angels' Wild Women
Bad
Exterior Night
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Sex sells, and what is sexier in the overwhelmingly male-driven movie business than a bad, loose, naughty woman? As relatively few ticket buyers live lives of intoxicating sin, it was the movies that, from very early on, provided them with the excitement everyday existence lacked. Whether it's the silent era's "vamps," film noir's glam diabolical schemers or the more cray-cray incarnations of femme fatale in much-imitated latter day hits like Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, attractive women behaving badly always seems to spark a certain "Yeah, baby" enthusiasm. This tour of seductive wrongdoings stretches from the antiquated "foreign" corruptresses of a century ago to variably campy and murderous genre antiheroines of recent years. For this installment we fix our gaze on American-made films; a later edition will focus on foreign femmes fatales.

By Dennis Harvey

A Fool There Was

(1915) directed by Frank Powell, 66 minutes

The original "vamp" in American movies was Theda Bara, an alleged exotic émigré from Egypt who was in truth a nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati. Hugely popular in her brief vogue playing evil temptresses, she is little more than a historical footnote now, in large part due to the fact that of the myriad vehicles she ground out for Fox over a four-year course only this 1915 breakthrough survives. It's a heavy-breathing melodrama in which her European siren seduces a respectable married Yank during a ship voyage and proceeds to ruin his life as best she can. With her raccoon eye makeup and theatrical gestures, Bara quickly went from being a popular sensation to a figure of popular mockery as movies (and society) rapidly grew more sophisticated. She retired into a happy long-term marriage and duties as a Hollywood socialite staple as of 1921, after such (now-lost) extravagant vehicles as 1917's Cleopatra (for which she was paid a then-extraordinary $4,000 a week) failed to secure her continued stardom.

Scarlet Street

(1945) directed by Fritz Lang, 102 minutes

The 1940s vogue for what we now call "film noir” (back then they just called ’em crime melodramas) triggered a whole lot of memorable wicked-woman portrayals. Few rank higher in cineaste estimation than Kitty, the quintessential "cheap tramp" who entraps a milquetoast bank teller (Edward G. Robinson) into an exploitative relationship because, being venal but not too bright, she's mistaken his amateur oil dabblings for those of a rich, famous painter. Dan Duryea is memorable as her scummy boyfriend/co-conspirator ("Johnny Prince," no less), but this 1945 movie is stolen whole by Joan Bennett's "Kitty." A cute, bland Hollywood ingenue in the 1930s, Bennett completely reinvented herself for this wonderfully trashy characterization. It was such a hit that she repeatedly worked for director Fritz Lang and then went on to memorable later roles in the original TV Dark Shadows series and Dario Argento's 1975 horror classic Suspiria.

The Naked Kiss

(1964) directed by Samuel Fuller, 90 minutes

Few females on U.S. screens had been allowed to be half so vividly berserk as Constance Towers in the opening sequence of Sam Fuller's cult thriller: her prostitute beats a pimp senseless with her spike heel (exposing her wig-covered bald pate in the process). Two years later, "Kelly" is re-inventing herself in a small town where she cares for disabled children and gets involved with two seemingly "good" men, a cop (Anthony Eisley) and wealthy philanthropist (Michael Dante). The deeper she digs into this seemingly wholesome community, however, the more trivial her own past sins seem by comparison. One year after the remarkable 1963 Shock Corridor, Fuller topped himself with this lurid demonstration of what critic J. Hoberman termed the director's signature "abstract sensationalism." As that film dealt daringly with mental illness and racial prejudice, this one pushes the envelope yet further to poke a stick at prostitution, child abuse and other then-forbidden topics. Kelly is an early example of the "bad girl" as avenging angel: she destroys only men inclined to destroy people even weaker than she once was.

Angels' Wild Women

(1972) directed by Al Adamson, 85 minutes

In the sexed-up atmosphere of 1970s cinema, women's sexuality, albeit almost invariably through a male gaze, was more blatantly treated than ever. Hence exploitation movies like this 1972 exemplar by drive-in cheese king Al Adamson (Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, Satan's Sadists, Cinderella 2000), in which a multiracial posse of biker chicks prove just as aggressively lusty, and lethal, as their hog-riding "old men." First they take arse-whupping revenge on two hicks who make the mistake of assaulting one of their number; then after crossing the law, they hide out at a hippie commune that turns out to have its own male snakes in the grass. Advertised as being shot partly at "Spahn's Movie Ranch,” where Charles Manson and his murderous "family" lived until prison beckoned, it sports such niceties of the early 1970s exploitation era as soundtracked flute rock and lines like "Drugs are my friend! They make me forget!"

Bad

(1977) directed by Jed Johnson, 103 minutes

This last in the series of officially Andy Warhol-presented campy narrative movies features numerous actual women, albeit playing females of the nightmare-drag-queen variety. Erstwhile Hollywood glam goddess Carroll Baker stars as the suburban electrolycist and broker for an all-goil hit squad invaded by the sexy/gamy masculine likes of Perry King, standing in quite ably for prior Warhol chief hunk Joe Dallesandro. This 1977 festival of cartoonish cruelty, probably influenced by John Waters' films of the era (especially Pink Flamingos) leaves no stone unturned with regard to bad taste, most notably in an infamous scene providing one drastic solution to the problem of an ever-crying baby.

Exterior Night

(1993) directed by Mark Rappaport, 35 minutes

Mark Rappaport's thirty-six-minute 1993 homage to classic 1940s film noir and pulp fiction is a technically ingenious tribute to those genres' alluring, possibly treacherous "women of mystery." Its modern-day hero Steve (Johnny Mez) feels instantly, overwhelmingly attracted to a beauteous nightclub chanteuse (Victoria Bastel) with Veronica Lake-like blonde locks and a signature song tellingly called "Deja Vu." But she's an elusive love object who leads him down a rabbit's hole of intrigue stretching back over three generations, encompassing a private dick/crime novelist grandfather (David Patrick Kelly), more mystery women (Bastel again) and the fatal pursuit of "the gilded orchid." This affectionate pop-art exercise places its actors in rear-projected vintage black-and-white clips (including some from famous noirs) to clever, Zelig-like effect.