Or how women embody this desirable and terrifying otherness.
Annie in « Gun Crazy »
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun crazy were both released after the World War II, in 1945 and 1950. During that period, women were recruited to take men’s jobs since places were vacant due to the mobilization. This social change lead women to be more independent, for they were making a living on their own. Financially and socially independent, women in men’s collective unconscious became a threat. As Place states in her essay Women in Film Noir: «Film noir is a male fantasy». Vera and Annie Laurie are the product of men’s mental construction, they embody this menacing archetype.
Vera in « Detour »
Thus, throughout our analysis, we should keep in mind that the women we are looking at are depicted through male lenses. So, we should simply ask how these women are portrayed. What are the elements that establish them as genuinely hostile? We will first analyze their similar characteristics, i.e. their aggressiveness against men. Then, we will see how their different physical appearances divide them, in other words how they are discriminated because of their features. Indeed, their looks play an essential role in the fulfillment of their respective plans. Finally, we will extend our interpretation on how their affinity to death legitimately condemns them to the eyes of men and society.
But before we start our analysis here are the plots summaries of our films:
Detour: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour begins when hitchhiker Al Roberts accepts a ride from affable gambler Charles Haskell Jr. When Haskell suffers a fatal heart attack, Roberts, afraid that he’ll be accused of murder, disposes of the body, takes the man’s clothes and wallet, and begins driving the car himself. He picks up beautiful but sullen Vera, who suddenly breaks the silence by asking, « What did you do with the body? » It turns out that Vera had earlier accepted a ride from Haskell and has immediately spotted Roberts as a ringer. Holding the threat of summoning the police over his head, Vera forces Roberts to continue his pose so that he can collect a legacy from Haskell’s millionaire father, who hasn’t seen his son in years.
Gun Crazy: The definitive Joseph H. Lewis-directed melodrama, Gun Crazy is the « Bonnie and Clyde » story retooled for the disillusioned postwar generation. Bart Tare is a timorous, emotionally disturbed World War II veteran who has had a lifelong fixation with guns. He meets a kindred spirit in carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr, who is equally disturbed — but a lot smarter, and hence a lot more dangerous. Beyond their physical attraction to one another, both Dall and Cummins are obsessed with firearms.
I. Characterized as aggressive, they are associated with evil
The first distinguished feature is the aggressivity of Vera and Annie. When we first encounter Annie she is a professional shooter in a circus. She plays with fire, putting her own life at stake each time she has to perform. She seems fearless and determined. No intellect is involved between her and Bart, only physical skills are demonstrated. Challenge is what Annie proposes to Bart, at first. As he goes up on the stage, metaphorically Annie and him are already on the same pedestal. In a way, she acts like a man when she holds a gun, and shoots. She transcends her gender, and becomes an equal opponent. Stepping outside of her socially assigned role makes her scary to a male audience.
She is always on the move, ready to fight. «Shoot why don’t you shoot?!» shouts Laurie to Bart, while they are being followed by a police car. Here, she induces Bart to follow her path, to let go his deadly impulses, to become an animal, which strives for survival. Annie defines her philosophy in these words: «No, guts’ nothing, I want action!» «Action» provides her adrenalin, which appears as essential to her metabolism. There is an unhealthy excitement she seems to take out of danger, and illegality. On their first bank robbery, Annie is driving Bart to the bank. She sits in the driver’s place. This could seem insignificant, but it actually reveals her new empowerment. When she looks back to check if no one is tailing their car, she smiles as if she enjoyed the scurry. Her hysterical smile makes her insane to our eyes and we associate her to evil since she seems to find pleasure in her criminal deeds. So, it is through aggression that she encounters joy.
As for Vera, she is probably the scariest protagonist, because she does not demonstrate tender feelings, which at least Annie showed when embracing Bart. She is physically and verbally aggressive. Because Vera scratched his hand, she is first introduced to us as the attacker of Charles Haskell. From that moment, we consider her as a malevolent character. The way she insults, blames, or shouts at Al confirms this idea.
The fact that we cannot situate her in a context or relate her to any previous event destabilizes the audience. We know nothing about her past. She just worms her way into Al’s life. Her omniscience of the situation confers her power and control over Al. She yields at him saying: «Remember who is the boss around here!» She seems superhuman since she bolts from the blue and seizes the action. Her apparition is not rational, thus her presence is rendered even more eerie.
The aggressiveness of Annie and Vera positions them as manly. They appear as very self-confident, although in each case they need the help of the men in order to fulfill their plans. They are the ones who breed evil within their partners; Bart becomes a calculating person, he schemes robbery and forces himself to shoot at a police car- although he made the promise to never shoot anyone- while Al ends up becoming a real murderer.
II. The element that separates them: their attractiveness.
«The dark woman of film noir had something her innocent sister lacked; access to her own sexuality (and thus to men’s) and the power that this access unlocked.»
Annie derives power from her sexuality. As a matter of fact she succeeds to seduce Bart, and holds sex as an asset. She uses her physical appearance as a commodity. Her attractiveness works as a bond between her and Bart. She knows how to seduce a man and to profit by it. « Next time you wake up, Bart, look over me laying there beside you. I am yours and I am real.» She makes herself an object in Bart’s eyes. She gives him the illusion that he possesses her. And in this sense, she appropriates the male logic as her own. Her strength lies in the awareness of her sexuality, and in her capacity to make it a profitable tool. These characteristics establish her as a true femme fatale.
Unlike Annie, Vera is always seen as an antagonist. There is something uncanny about her as Al specifies it at the beginning. «I got the impression of beauty. Not the beauty of movie actress or the beauty you dream about when you are with your wife but a natural beauty. A beauty that is almost homely because it is so real.» To Al’s eyes she is attractive in her unattractiveness. Her eyebrows are shaped to invoke fear and mistrust. Because her look conveys a sense of meanness, she is not to be trusted nor loved. She contradicts the beauty standards with dark hair and eyes. She is not as glamorous as her rival, Sue. When she and Al are stuck in the apartment waiting for their next move, Vera tries to lure Al to the bedroom. She wanders around in her bathrobe for almost six minutes, during which she is trying to physically come closer to him. Three times in a row, she subtly makes sexual advances to Al but each time he pushes her back and breaks free from her. This rejection reinforces her frustration, and from then on she appears as a repressed character. She was probably rejected as well by Charles Haskell, which nurtured her hatred for the male sex.
To Al’s point of view, she is not attractive. In fact, he has somebody else in mind. He is indifferent and ignores her flirty attitude. Maybe Place’s statement about men’s survival could be applied here:
«In Film Noir, it is clear that men need to control women’s sexuality in order not to be destroyed by it.»
Refusing to give in to Vera’s charm, Al saves his own life. Unlike her, he does not die at the end. Bart succumbed and let himself dragged into Annie’s arms. As a result both of them found death at the end. So, can we state that Al triumphed because he refused to share the temptress’ bed? What we can argue is that by denying Vera any kind of sex appeal, Al deprives Vera of her identity. Attractiveness seems to be at the core of the femme fatale nature, without it they are empty entities. Their physical features are meant to serve their machiavellian plan, if they can not be considered as attractive they are merely fatale.
III. Their affinity to death legitimates their own
We know that Vera and Annie are both involved in crimes and try to lure their male partners further into them. They do not hesitate to be at the front-rank when they have to deal with death. Both of them assume death, they flirt with it all the time, whereas their partners strive to get away from it. To the audience of the 1940‘s it must have been regarded as blasphemous. Bart works as the spokesman of the vice squad, since he is openly against this life style : «I kept fighting myself. I am not a killer. I don’t want to be a killer. I don’t like this kind of life. I have had enough!» However, his objections are vain since each time he accepts to undertake one more robbery. Annie is the one who influences Bart. She is the scapegoat. We learn that she apparently killed someone in the past, and shot an employee when she was robbing the meatpacking factory with Bart. After doing so, she does not express any regret. The fact that she acts cold bloodily results in dehumanizing her. No redemption is possible; she has to be punished for her crimes and Bart is compelled to follow her in her descent in hell, not just to satisfy the production code but the moral logic of Hollywood as well.
Vera’s lack of care for Charles Haskell’s death puts her in the shoes of the executioner. As we witness later in the movie, she is willing to profit from his death and encourages Al to become an impostor in order to get back the inheritance. Al is portrayed as a prisoner. Vera locks him up while they are staying in the apartment. She blackmails him all along, threatening Al to turn him to the police. As she is unintentionally killed the audience is supposed to feel relieved when she dies. Unlike Annie, she seems merely motivated by evil. She is not involved in any relationship, and there is nothing in her character that the audience can identify itself with.
At the end, both of our femmes fatales die. In each case, there is an aim to legitimate their death. Because they are sinners they have to be punished, as well as their their partners; Bart is shot and Al is picked up by the highway patrol. Nevertheless, we cannot help but find their death legitimate. They are the ones who are the source of evil. Their partners are seen as the victims, whereas they are the true instigators. The way they are depicted suggests that they have already been playing in the antechamber of death. From the start, there is something morbid about them.
Although, Annie and Vera die at the end, one of them could have fit in the American dream. Annie could have been a perfect housewife, if she did not let herself be fascinated by crime. Bart and her make frequent references to a nice settled life. Annie gives us the impression of a good girl who turned out badly, whereas Vera is a marginal, unfit for society. Vera’s appearance and attitude are repulsive and induce no empathy towards her. As Al says about her: «she was just as rotten in the morning as she did the night before.»
Overall, these two women by being liberated from social and patriarchal standards are seen as a threat, since they defy men’s authority. Therefore, their attitudes can not be unpunished, the common order has to be reestablished. Both of them meet their end; as they were elevated to a pedestal, they fell from it. Place explicits that idea:«the myths of the sexually aggressive woman first allows sensuous expression of that idea and then destroys it. And by this limited expression, ending in defeat, that unacceptable element is controlled.» By doing so, the femme fatale remains a fantasy, since she does not get away with it nor have a happy ending. She is confined into fiction, and must not be taken as a role model.