Which Was The Baddest of Them All?
After finishing my blog about Bad Girls of Film Noir, I asked myself if there was a competition between the various ladies who might vie for that honor, who would win?
(Just a note here to show that I’m no misogynist: I’ll be writing about Bad Men in future blogs. I promise.)
A Great Selection of Candidates
- Let me start with the most audacious one of all. A crazy little movie called Decoy.
With Jean Gillie in the part of the psychopathic female, it couldn’t fail. Her performance is electrifying. As the cheerfully deranged Margot Shelby, she moves across the screen, a graceful phantom with the heart of a relentless psychopath. Courteous to a fault, always dressed to kill, she negotiates the tricky path between the three men she maneuvers like chess pieces with the skill of a seasoned pro. She is a master of duplicity, and unlike some other femme fatales, she never has a second thought. No agonizing over decisions of morality. Her mind, like a computer, has no empathy, only calculations. Summing up her philosophy of life, she quips: “Simple arithmetic.” All she has to do is add things up so that it all works out for her. In the end, Margot has the last laugh. Rather than fear, at the point of her own death, she sense victory as she literally laughs in the face of the one man who might have helped her, a cop named Portugal (played by Sheldon Leonard). We get the feeling that she might come back to life, in some other, more hideous form. At the final moment, dying and laughing all at once, with the camera on her profile, for the first time she looks unglamorous, even aging. In a remarkable transformation, with that last closeup before death, she looks anything but lovely. An intriguing actress, Jean Gillie died a few years later, at the age of 33.
- Next, I can’t think of anyone more deserving than Jane Palmer, in Too Late for Tears. Lizabeth Scott plays the part of a psychopath with less humor and more anxiety, but Jane is about as heartless and deadly as the character of Margot Shelby. Killing off her meek husband, Alan Palmer (played by Arthur Kennedy) and disposing of her reluctant partner in crime, Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea) with a poisoned drink and watching him in his death throes as the realization hits him that he made a deal with the devil and it’s too late to do anything about it now, places her somewhere near the top of the ladder. Her comeuppance is in the form of an avenger from the past. The end is foretold by the genre, which dictates that a person who murders gets punished. In this case, we have the satisfaction of witnessing that with the usual satisfaction that the balance of good and evil has been restored in the world. Jane Palmer, unlike Margot Shelby, is afraid to die. She doesn’t have the last laugh. And she vanishes forever, over the ledge of a balcony, backwards, gripped by panic and fear.
- In Framed, Paula Craig (played by Janis Carter), the femme fatale joins up with a very bad man, Steve Price (Barry Sullivan), to find a lookalike for him so they can collect the life insurance on himself after he’s declared dead. The plot itself is a device that has been used before and since and is not particularly interesting in itself. What is interesting here is the interplay between her and Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford), as the narrative unfolds. Paula Craig is certainly nasty, but the difference here is that in an unexpected development, she murders her accomplice instead. This leads us to believe that she may actually be in love with Mike. There are other clues along the way that support this impression. However, she still feels okay with turning her back on the poor slob who has been arrested for the crime (Jeff Cunningham, played by Edgar Buchanan) and going off with the love of her life, as it seems, without remorse. She rationalizes to Mike that if he’s innocent, he’ll get out eventually. Her comeuppance hinges on the hero’s honesty. He turns her in, as simple as that, and we can assume that she will be put to death for her crime.
- I’ve talked about Born to Kill, in a previous blog in which I pointed out how conflicted the main character of Helen Brent, played by Claire Trevor, is. Her behavior might be considered bipolar, as she bounces between the two extremes of good and evil, like a rubber ball. Her only concern is her own safety. Her background as an orphan adopted by a wealthy family, gives the character some excuse for being bad, but bad she is. She’s someone who feels safe, until she meets Sam Wilde (played by Lawrence Tierney), the psychopathic boyfriend, appropriately named, who leads her into the dangerous life she aspires to. Polarized between the evil of Same Wilde and the quiet, unprepossessing “goodness” of her fiancee, Fred (played by Phillip Terry), she deviously prepares for either eventuality, bracing against the inevitability of one outcome over the other. Either she’ll join Sam and follow her dream of a dangerous life, or she’ll be good, if Sam is arrested, and she’ll be with Fred and live a life of easy, comfort and safety. More than anything, she is afraid of her darker side, constantly aware of the shifting loyalties in her own soul. For that reason, along with films such as Out Of The Past and perhaps Double Indemnity, there is more substance, more depth in that there is more to the relationships between the warring parties, between the man and the woman, as between the characters in Out Of The Past, played by Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. But that’s for another time.
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