Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Femme Fatale, by Dominique Manon and James Ursini

Femme Fatale: Cinema’s Most Unforgettable Lethal Ladies, by Dominique Manon and James Ursini. New York: Viking, 2009. Paperback $24.95, 400pp. ISBN: 0-87910-369-8. Hammer Glamour, by Marcus Hearn. London: Titan Books, 2009. Hardcover, $29.95, 160pp. ISBN: 1-84856-229-2.

Where would cinema be without hot chicks for audiences to fall in love with, lust after and obsess over? Probably broke. And yet feminists and patriarchal line-towers alike judge those of us who love, lust and obsess over these ephemeral visions, and maybe they’re right, for beneath the klieg lights, make-up and stockings, there are real, honest-to-God women. Fed into the grinding gears of the star-maker machinery, these ladies are picked out of chorus lines, dusted off and dragged on publicity tours, only to fall prey to age, drugs, controlling husbands and abusive lovers. Many of them come to the screen having been sexually abused as a child, and perhaps the damaged aura they radiate is part of what makes them so captivating, and their blase attitude toward sex makes them queens of the casting couch system. At least that turns out to be the uneasy aftertaste left by Hammer Glamour: Classic Images from the Archives of Hammer Films and Femme Fatale: Cinema’s Most Unforgettable Leading Ladies, two recently released tomes that each pack sizzling and classic pictures from Hollywood and London’s Hammer Studios, in blazing bleeding-margin color. In both books the sirens come alive with oodles of steamy pictures. It’s in the text, however, that the books are worlds apart.

The typical writing in photo books is often lousy, let’s face it. Either the writer knows that no one will be reading it anyway — at least not all the way through, or the guy who brings the most photos to the book has written it and is better at collecting and lovingly preserving old stills than writing.

The first few pages are a great example of the good and bad in film books. Beautifully designed in dusky dark crimson and black text, the title of Ursini and Manon’s book lies opposite a picture of Angelina Jolie in a negligee, looking as if she’s pulling herself off the floor. The picture is deep and dark in purples and reds that make it resemble a J. W. Waterhouse or Edward Burne-Jones painting. Then on the first page is a 19th-century painting of Empress Theodora, and the comparison does much for making Jolie and Theodora seem as direct links in a long femme fatale chain.

The actual text in Femme Fatale, however, includes bizarre, thesis-pounding captions like “Angelina Jolie emits the femme fatale aura in this publicity photo” or the suspiciously creationist subtext of the introduction’s opening sentence: “The femme fatale is such a quintessential part of our collective imagination expressed in art, literature, and media that some of her earliest appearances can be found as far back as the Judeo-Christian bible” (2).

Hmmm, to say nothing of the weird grammar, the femme fatale goes all the way that far back? I mean, is there no mention of her anywhere before then, say in ancient Greece or Chinese folklore? Later sentences can get even more florid and presumptuous than that, such as discussing Jolie’s first big role:

[A]t the age of twenty, Jolie as “Legs” Sadovsky unexpectedly enters the school halls and then the biology classroom in Foxfire (the camera underlining her power by dramatically panning up from her boots, across her leather jacket to her face framed by a boyish haircut — emphasizing her androgynous qualities), frees a frog from its pins, and then jumps out the window, both the students in the school and the audience in the theater know they have witnessed the appearance of a powerful and magnetic individual destined to leaver her idiosyncratic tattoo on the archetype of the femme fatale” (315).

My responses to this sentence range from delight to outrage to concern, the unconscious parallel between power and androgyny (over, say, feminine attire), the demarking of Jolie less as a human than as an archetype (actresses and their characters seem regularly confused in the book, and are frequently referred to as animals who are “destroyed” rather than killed.(272) and the fact that no one even saw Foxfire, in 1996 or now. If they did, they certainly didn’t notice anyone leaving any tattoos on any archetypes; they probably only noticed how bad the script was (had the writer ever even gone to high school?)

And it’s not just the shaky sentence structure, but the way the book eschews any kind of film criticism or analogy in order to follow brief bio history with lengthy, full summaries of each film’s entire plot, as if relevance or quality depends on who turns out to have killed whom. Thus our interest in Anna May Wong — “In 1928, Wong decided to expand her horizons and move to Europe, where she worked on stage and in the movies” (96) — leads directly to the plot of her silent film Piccadilly (1929): “Shasho demonstrates her genuine pleasure at controlling not only Wilmot but her servant-lover Jim simultaneously in numerous scenes” (96) This leads up to the big courtroom climax: “At the trial we discover Mabel actually fainted, and it was the jealous Jim who murdered his mistress” (97). Do we really need to have the climaxes of every film noir revealed to us, presuming we actually intend to one day watch them?

But who’s to complain about film writing choices? From Bebe Daniels to Ornella Muti (Princess Aura in Flash Gordon), from Isabella Sarli to Sybil Danning, from Dietrich to Dalle, everyone is here, in beautiful photos — both color and b&w, laid out by loving hands who know their cinema backwards and forwards. Even the sternest grammarian must applaud, in the end, the way art and trash are so gleefully lumped together.

Faring far better in the writing department, Hammer Glamour takes a clear-eyed, unsentimental look at the seedier side of international film production. Even though its imprint, Titan Books, is part of the same company that controls the Hammer films dynasty, author Hearn has no qualms about detailing the sometimes tawdry world of Hammer film promotion and the sleaziness of pin-up marketing without slipping into unconscious moral judgments. Diana Dors, for example, is summarized as: “A fun-loving girl with an unhealthy addiction to fast living and lawless young men” (61) rather than, say, labeled as a bimbo. Hearn shows a great penchant for distilling interviews into their most telling of sexual sound bites, as when Vera Day remarks “At the time boobs were very in. But a lot of girls who had big boobs had big everything else” (50). Barbara Peyton “claims to have lost her virginity at 15, seduced by a schoolfriend’s 45-year-old father at his birthday party.” Later she leaves her husband for Hollywood with a Universal contract and affairs with Howard Hughes and Bob Hope! Plot summaries are sidestepped to focus on specific, exemplary scenes such as when Linda Hayden in Taste the Blood of Dracula “gleefully murders her father with a spade, exacting her master’s revenge and symbolically triumphing over old fogeys everywhere” (p. 86).

Adding a feeling of uneasiness is Hearn’s frankness when dealing with the amount of child abuse, molestation, rape and abandonment these starlets suffered, and making you realize, by implication, just how interconnected sex symbol stardom, prostitution and child abuse really are. Though the British could probably never be as horrifically tawdry as America and Showgirls, lord knows they can try, and as Austin Powers teaches, socialized dentistry ups the sordidness significantly.

What you learn over both books is that playing bad-asses in the movies usually results from artistry being harnessed to trauma, and sometimes being birthed in it. We learn that Eva Bartok, for example, was “condemned to a concentration camp and married the Nazi Giza Kovas. She described the marriage as a ‘series of brutal rapes worse than death’ and the marriage was later annulled on the grounds that she had only been 15 at the time of the ceremony” (18).

It’s hard to read something like that there amidst the gorgeous color publicity shots that comprise the bulk of Hammer Glamour. In fact, it’s hard to accept the whole history of mankind, a history so awash in rape, genocide and horror that cheesecake books can be seen — as they often are by hardcore feminists — as part of the problem. Perhaps that’s why femme fatales and glamorous horror stars are so important in the cosmic archetypal lexicon, for though they’re the bad guys, we root for them anyway, as any act of violence or treachery against men seems well-warranted, every blow a “triumph over old fogeys everywhere.” Simultaneously that means we position ourselves as outside that framework while squirming with guilt anyway.

Of course, part of that fascination lies in the knowledge we can be exploited, tempted and ruined ourselves. One man can destroy the world, but there will always be at least one woman who can destroy that man, even if it’s only his mother. If the femme fatales are meant largely to sell tickets through titillation, they also force us to address the inequities of the social order wherein men judge — both fearing and desiring — women for using sex as a tool for power while robbing them of all other options. Of course the strong independent woman can’t be satisfied with two car garages, an apron and a husband who’s never home, and if she has to be repressed by the patriarchy, the least she can do is topple part of it on the way down. We still living in its coded borders can only sigh in relief when she’s gone, and then long for, canonize and celebrate her daring from afar, later, through books and movies.