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Femmes Fatales of Every Shade

"Grief takes people in different ways. Mrs. Allynson’s had moved her to change her chalk-stripe costume for a soft, blue housedress that fitted in her waist, fell loose along her arms and clung from her hips down. The blue was livened by a string of cut stones of a lighter shade, a dark silk flower pinned high on a mandarin collar, high-heeled matching slippers, straight seams and a scent of jasmine blossom in her hair. We didn’t speak. She seemed a little out of joint. Following close behind her to the top of the stair was work you don’t expect to get paid for."


That’s Newman, the shamus in Shamus Dust, contemplating the recent widow of a client’s lawyer. Shamus Dust, in its way, is an elegy for noir as I understand it. The recent widow follows on a long line of women in noir. To explain how the line came about, let me start with a story.

First an admission. I’m a museum hound but also a relative newcomer to American history, so the museums that tell it are apt to intrigue. As for instance, the Minnesota History Center Saint Paul. You see, it has sign in the foyer, pointed at a gallery, that says: Minnesota’s Greatest Generation. Now which generation in the world do you think that might that be? I guessed at pioneer tales of the mid-West,  or perhaps of harnessing the giant Mississippi (thrilling - there are no rivers in my country, or even a year-round stream). I licked my lips, kid in a candy store, took the stair and couldn’t have been more wrong. The story is strictly twentieth century.

Ready-made for Noir

For the Minnesota History Center, its greatest generation was born in the shadow of the Great War. Raised through the pit of the Great Depression. It was in its teens through the New Deal and the Dust Bowl years and then, when the very hardest times began easing, it learned for the first time where Pearl Harbor was. So it upped and migrated to find war production work. Fought across oceans. And four years later those who came back braced for A-bombs, the Cold War and Korea. Any one of those upheavals would have left its mark. The women and the men we’re talking about had run the gamut by the time they were in their thirties. Why remind you of their story? Because they were the audience ready-made for noir. And they found it at the movies.

Dark Disillusioned Times

A phenomenon that sparked almost magically in Hollywood. It started in the midst of the Second World War, in studios short on resources but long on talent. The spark was fanned by a wave of European refugee film-makers, schooled in a startling, expressionist cinema of careening angles, terse lighting and dense shadows. And it set alight some of the studios’ most bankable contract stars, losing interest in their regular Happy Ever After fare just as much as their audiences were. Enter a Hollywood era ready and able to make movies for dark, disillusioned times.

For women in noir, those femmes fatales of every shade, this is where it starts, in a stunning decade and more of film-making that ran on through the end of the studio system.

The influences on and forerunners of these movies fill walls in film institute libraries. But we’ll cut to the chase, when Paramount bought rights to a long short story by James M. Cain, and it transformed into a 1944 film masterpiece. Billy Wilder directed and he brought in Raymond Chandler, no less, to share the screenwriting.

First Film Noir

The experimental, claustrophobic photography is John Seitz. But since it’s the women in noir we’re here for, our special interest in Double Indemnity is the casting. Also because it’s a movie that gets fingered for the first film noir.

Cain’s is an everyday, based-on-a-true-crime tale of clear-eyed, suburban lust, complicity, murder and life insurance. Wilder had the call on casting. His was the striking idea of persuading Fred MacMurray to play against type as insurance salesman Walter Neff. For the hardshell wife who seduces him to chalk off her older husband, he went to Barbara Stanwyck. In 1944, stars didn’t come bigger. In that year MacMurray was the highest earning star in Hollywood. Stanwyck was a screen goddess supreme, not only top earning actress, but the highest paid woman in America. Also, well aware that the role of unredeemed, clear-eyed, corrupt and sexually incandescent manipulator Phyllis Dietrichson, might not be altogether best for her image.

Yet she let herself be persuaded too (eased by a $100,000 fee equal to MacMurray’s). The performances are electric. The result, a fearless original. Double Indemnity became a box office and critical triumph. More important, Miss Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson blazed a trail; the start of a line of magnetic, subversive, illusion-free and armor-plated women who chimed perfectly for movie audiences right through the early Cold War. That era of noir got overtaken, naturally enough, along with the generation it was made for.

Smart, Convincing Women

That era of noir cast a shadow that reaches down to us today. For the fact is, these are the movies that showed how to write rounded, smart, convincing women who could also be as dark and transgressive as their times or any of the men around them. And once out of the box, there’s been no putting them back. You’ll have your own favorites in current crime fiction. But with times darkening again, it can be fascinating - also a lot of fun - to rediscover the originals, and be reminded of the period they sprung from.

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