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What Does Kathie Moffat Want?

jane-greer

Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat…contemplating murder

The first time I saw Out of the Past, I had never seen a film noir before and was not aware that I was watching one of the quintessential films of the (dare I called it?) genre. And the film did not make much of an impression on me at the time.

It was Double Indemnity that really got me going and after many years I thought it was time that I gave Out of the Past another chance. I enjoyed it much more this time. But one question still tantalizes me. What does Kathie Moffat, the femme fatale played by Jane Greer, really want?

Generally, femme fatales have pretty specific goals. Phyllis Dietrichson wants money. Brigid O’Shaunessy wants the Falcon (and money). Mrs. Grayle wants to be free of her past so she can go on enjoying money and men. But what is Kathie’s overarching goal?

This is a puzzler, because she behaves in such a contradictory fashion. She shoots gambler Whit (played by Kirk Douglas) and steals $40,000, running off to Mexico. When she is tracked down by private detective Jeff (Robert Mitchum), instead of giving him the slip, she hangs around and starts an affair with him. She even returns to American and hides out with him in shady places (not something I could ever imagine Phyllis Dietrichson doing – she’d have skipped town and gone to South America). When Jeff’s former partner shows up and tries to blackmail them, she shoots him and Jeff suddenly realizes that she’s not as innocent as he had believed (he believed that she did NOT steal the $40,000).

Now without Jeff, she returns to Whit, who she seems to not like very much. When Jeff comes back into their lives, she tries to have him framed for murder and later just plain murdered. Finally, when backed in a corner by Jeff AND Whit, she shoots Whit and blackmails Jeff into going away with her, saying that she always did find him a kindred spirit. When Jeff betrays her, she shoots him, too.

So, what are her motivations? Money? Doesn’t seem to be her main one. She stole that $40,000, but she seemed perfectly willing to stay in hiding with Jeff instead of dashing off to greener pastures. Their scenes are played like a romance movie. She’s always coming out of the sunlight, moonlight, headlights, running in the sand in her bare feet with her hair down like a woman renewed while Roy Webb’s romantic score romances away.

jane_greer-328125519_stdShe says she’s afraid of Whit (assertions one has to take with a salt flat), but Whit’s attitude towards her is more one of possession than the bedazzled fascination of Jeff, so perhaps there’s some truth to what she says. But after all her running and hiding from Whit, even shooting Jeff’s partner when he threatens to tell Whit about them…she just returns to Whit and tells him everything about her and Jeff?

My sister’s theory is that she doesn’t have a specific goal; she’s living in the moment. She gets tired of Whit’s overbearing ways, so she shoots him and takes enough money to cover expenses (gambling and clothes and such). She’s attracted to Jeff, so she hangs around. She shoots Jeff’s partner, because he threatened her in the moment. Jeff loses his illusions about her, so she goes back to Whit. She kills Whit and has Jeff in her power – why not take him along with her?

It all seems rather unpremeditated. The only consistent thing I can see is that she likes to be in charge (and who can blame her). Still, it make Kathie Moffat a bit of an enigma and prevents her from seeming like a total force of evil. She’s mostly reacting to the moment and she doesn’t come off as any worse than anyone else. She’s a sociopath, but…I don’t know. Somehow, I found myself kind of on her side. Maybe it’s Robert Mitchum. Maybe he’s just too cool for me. Somehow, I rarely find myself firmly rooting for him in any of his films. It’s not that I dislike him or think he’s a bad actor. It’s just that I never quite make the leap towards being fully, emotionally on his side.

But what about you? What do you think Kathie Moffat really wants?

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – A Romantic Noir Melodrama

PostmanAlwaysPosterWhen I learned that The Postman Always Rings Twice was made at MGM, it explained a lot. MGM is known for gloss, musicals, glamour, lavishness and star-wattage. It is not known for film noirs and The Postman Always Rings Twice is an unusual film noir. It occurred to me while I was watching it this weekend that it was just as much a melodrama as a noir: heightened emotions, coincidences, rapid reversals of fortunes (and The Postman Always Rings Twice has more reversals of fortune than several Bette Davis films put together) and complicated and agonized inter-relational dynamics. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; a good melodrama is an art form.

And for a film about murder, adultery, betrayal, lust and blackmail, it lacks the edge, shadows and sharp camera angles and bleak cynicism one would expect. By the last third, the film has left noir behind and lodges itself in romance territory, though a romance gone awry.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s short novel from 1934, one of three of his books to be turned into film noirs: Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. The movie follows the plot of the book quite closely, though the violent sexual charge is considerably toned down for the movie.

Lana Turner as Cora

Lana Turner as Cora – Frank’s first sight of her

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a vagrant by choice, hitchhiking from odd job to odd job and staying until he gets the well-known itching in his feet and moves on. He stops at a gas station and diner by a rural highway in California and is hired by the owner, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) to help out. Nick is a genial fellow, unless there is any money at stake and then Nick’s paranoia that people are trying to cheat him comes out. Nick has a wife, much younger than him, named Cora (Lana Turner). There is instant electricity when they meet and through a series of plot turns, they decide to run away together. But Cora ultimately can’t do it. She doesn’t want to be a tramp or have to go back to working at a hash house. She wants to make something of herself and she and Frank decide instead to kill her husband, which would allow her to take over his business and employ some of her ideas to make it more profitable.

The plot is a bit mind-bending. Most noirs plots follow the three part formula of seduction, crime and reckoning. This film goes from initial seduction, failed murder attempt, abandonment of murder attempt, renewed attempt and success, a trial, betrayal, getting off at the trial, hating each other after the trial, dealing with a blackmailer, paranoia, jealousy and thoughts of killing each other, genuine reconciliation and the final reckoning. It doesn’t feel convoluted when you watch it, though. It all seems like a natural development of the characters.

I was especially impressed by Lana Turner, an actress famous for being beautiful rather than talented. Admittedly, she does not have an expressive voice (Barbara Stanwyck can seduce partially with her voice and can convey so much with a word), but her performance as Cora was surprisingly subtle. Cora Smith is not a usual femme fatale. When we first meet her, she is in the role of siren. However, later she reveals ambivalence. She seems to be almost afraid of Frank and the feelings he will bring out in her, like she knows she has a dark side and is afraid to unleash it.

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner

Several times when Frank is making advances, she tries to get her husband to pay attention to her as if she wants to remind herself that he loves her and she must remain loyal (Nick seems to suffer from a common noir and melodrama problem of remaining so blind to what is going on in his house that he even inadvertently encourages the affair).

There are moments when you can tell that she is manipulating Frank, but other times when she seems genuinely to want him. She gets to be the vulnerable and unhappy wife, the seductress, the manipulator, a vengeful woman (when Frank gets tricked into betraying her at her trial for her husband’s murder), unflinching, quick and surprisingly unfazed by Frank’s brutality in dealing with the blackmailer, ambitious, perpetually trying to start afresh and wipe the slate clean. She married Nick because it meant a new beginning; she tells Frank they must kill Nick so they can have a new beginning and she later believes that when she is pregnant the baby will provide yet another fresh beginning. But there is an imbalance in the force, so to speak, and she never can start afresh, but must pay for her actions and it is ironic that she finally does pay through a freak accident rather than human agency.

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner - Cronyn is the shifty lawyer who manages to get Cora off

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner – Cronyn is the shifty lawyer who manages to get Cora off

John Garfield is a natural fit for Frank Chambers as the drifter who knows better, but can’t help himself. Like most noirs, his motivations are simple: he wants her and that overwhelms everything else he knows and feels. His voice-over narration of the story is also unique. Most voice-overs are stoic or ironic, but not Garfield’s. His is desperate to be understood and to explain what happened and it is almost breathless.

The DA prosecuting Cora and her defense attorney are real highlights in the film. Leon Ames is the DA who is not above a few tricks to make his case, though he does want to see justice done. Hume Cronyn is the slimy, but brilliant, defense attorney, a man with no interest in justice who seems to be a lawyer for the sheer kicks of it, testing his ability. He won’t even take a fee from Cora when he could have demanded a large one. Instead, he wins a bet with the DA and an improbable case.

The ending, oddly enough, is positively upbeat, all things considered. Frank is indicted for murdering Cora – though it really was an accident – but when he realizes that it was only justice for the murder of Nick he embraces his end. He and Cora pay for their crimes with their death, balance to the force is restored and he even seems in hopes of being reunited with Cora after his execution. This is a romantic spin on what has come before. It is not entirely out of the blue, since the film increasingly seems to take on a romantic hue. Murder didn’t bring them what they wanted and actually brought them fear and paranoia, but unlike Double Indemnity, where  lack of trust is the lovers’ downfall, they really do seem to love each other and perhaps do genuinely overcome their fear. Their ultimate demise has nothing to do with self-destruction but cosmic justice.

John Garfield, Lana Turner and blackmailer

John Garfield, Lana Turner and blackmailer

I can’t end without discussing Lana Turner’s costumes, designed by Irene. In almost the entire movie she wears white  – usually associated purity – and some sort of heard covering: turbans, swimming cap, hat, even a towel at one point. My theory is that Cora is a relatively self-aware femme fatale. She’s not entirely evil, she wants to be good, but knows what she is capable of and fears it. In self-defense from herself, she constantly wears white to reinforce who she wants to be. It’s the adage about dressing like the person you want to be…though there is a distinctly sexy edge to her wardrobe. The head coverings I find more puzzling. At one point, just before she dies and believing she finally has that fresh start, she has a towel draped over her head and it looks like a wimple like nuns wear. Head coverings have traditionally been associated with modesty, so perhaps it is all part of the general attempt at modest dressing, even if the affect is seldom modest.

She does wear black twice and it stands out when she does. The first time she is in a black dressing gown and is contemplating suicide (she says; not sure how far we can believe her) and then she and Frank plot the final murder of Nick that actually succeeds. The second time is when she returns from her mother’s funeral and is ready to tell Frank that she is pregnant and ready for another fresh start, though the fresh start is deferred by the appearance of a blackmailer, who through quick thinking on her part and violence on Frank’s, they manage to foil. But in that scene she reveals a tellingly ruthless streak in how she handles the situation and watches Frank beat the blackmailer. It is possible that the moments when she is in black are the moments when she is most herself…fundamentally despairing and cold inside, but grasping for a better future, to be a better person, and capable of doing anything to achieve it.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Film Noir

 

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Further Thoughts on Destry Rides Again – Marlene Dietrich and Femme Fatales

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy

Last year I wrote a post about the movie Destry Rides Again, a comedic Western with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. I really enjoyed it, so several days ago I watched it again. It’s an extremely entertaining film that is also thoughtful. There is an underlying theme about how playing the way that your enemy plays opens you up to your enemy’s fate. Those who live by the sword die by the sword; or by the gun. It’s a curious point to make in 1939, when WWII was just getting underway, but perhaps what really stood out about the movie was how civilization wins out over lawlessness and brutality.

Tom Destry, Jr. (James Stewart) is determined to clean up the town of Bottleneck and believes that you can’t do it by using the methods of the enemy. If you do that, suddenly you’ve undermined your own goal. When he does take up arms, that decision has very serious consequences for him.

But what I was also thinking about when I watched it again was the role of saloon singer, Frenchy, played by Marlene Dietrich.

Frenchy is an interesting character. I am used to the idea of the saloon singer who has a heart of gold and that was my expectation of her coming into the movie. However, she’s really more of a femme fatale, who can recognize goodness. At the beginning, she helps her boyfriend and boss, Kent (Brian Donlevy) cheat a man out of his land and evinces no qualms when Kent kills the first sheriff. She rules at the saloon, almost more than Kent; though he is the one driving the quest for land. She seems happy to assist him,though, and rake in the money.

She also knew that Kent and his gang were going to break out their man from prison later in the film and that they would kill anyone who got in their way. She makes sure that Destry is not there, but as a result, the second sheriff is alone and he is killed. The only truly redeeming thing about her character is that she cares for Destry, though ultimately she is able to achieve redemption by dying for him.

Frenchy shows Destry how he can clean up the town while Kent looks on

Frenchy shows Destry how he can clean up the town while Kent looks on

In a contemporary movie, I don’t know if she would have died. There are so many things about her that we admire today. She can not only compete, but win, in a rough and tough man’s world. She is exactly the sort of fun and tough character we love. But in 1930s-’50s movies, the code dictated that people in movies had to pay the price for their crimes. If the film was made today, she would probably not only live, but get the guy. I’m not sure, though, if that would have been more satisfying or not. I have a sneaking feeling that it wouldn’t be.

She also represents our sneaking admiration for a more wild time. We don’t really want to live in a town where the sheriff can be shot and the gambling isn’t honest and the men are spending more time in a saloon than at home, but it’s fun to watch. We like femme fatales, we just don’t want them to win. And that’s the point about Frenchy. She really is a femme fatale, though a sympathetic one. It’s hard to imagine her settling down to civilized life. She belongs to the wild west and when that goes, she has to go, too. She is part of the lawlessness that gets overwhelmed by Destry’s law and order.

I really enjoy this movie. Despite the more serious points, the film is really an excuse to have a lot of fun and the film never allows its more serious points to overwhelm the general tone of the film.

There also some fun songs in the film, sung by Marlene Dietrich and written by Frank Loesser (who wrote the songs for “Guys and Dolls”) and Frederick Hollander (who had to leave Germany in 1933 because he had Jewish ancestors). This video is of Marlene Dietrich singing “Little Joe” from the movie, with movie stills from the film.

“See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” is probably the most enduring of the songs from the film. In this video, Marlene Dietrich is entertaining the troops during WWII. A German who emigrated to Hollywood in the early thirties to work, she was a staunch anti-Nazi and entertained troops indefatigably during the war, even going near enemy lines in Germany to perform. She officially became a citizen of America in 1939, the same year that Destry Rides Again came out.

 

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