The Noir -tinged 1940s resulted in “the proliferation of women – broads, dames, and ladies in as many shapes and flavors, hard and soft centers as a Whitman sampler,” Molly Haskell asserted in her watershed 1973 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. However, Haskell lamented, this proved a case of variety but no depth. The realm of postwar hardboiled pulp remained strictly preoccupied with male salvation, male rules, male stories, and male points of view (often delivered in first-person voiceover). In the rich, shadowy, morally ambiguous terrain of the Noir the brazen, unscrupulous femme fatale was a masculine fantasy – or more nightmare – an anxiety-projection unfairly reduced to a good-bad binary system; the woman was deemed “not fit to be the battleground for Lucifer and the angels; they are something already decided, simple, of a piece.” But amidst Hollywood’s rich feminine history of Hawskian heroines, singular screwballs, Pre-Code wisecrackers, and supreme forces of nature Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, it is the transgressive allure of the femme fatale that somehow continues to most fascinate and challenge feminists and film fans alike.
Like the best of critics, Haskell keeps a keen eye on contemporary trends and constantly reflects, retreads, and renegotiates her previous claims and responses to filmic text. A self-proclaimed film fan first, and feminist second, Haskell is a refreshing voice in film criticism and theory – savvy and on-her-toes, but never losing sense of the essential fun and fantasy of cinephilia. In the wake of Noir’s ever-increasing popularity, and a festival this week at The New School celebrating the not-quite-a-genre, Haskell presented the paper “The Film Fatale: Different Shapes of Black” this Tuesday, April 5. Film and culture writer Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun, author Mary Gaitskill, journalist Susie Linfield, and Laura Frost, associate professor and chair of Literary Studies at The New School, were on hand to lead a post-discussion following Haskell’s lecture, which attempted a more nuanced analysis of these “glorious monsters” (as she describes Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity), and charted the legacy of these iconic screen sirens up through the current lovesick designer-clothed desperadoes of romantic comedy, and the Angelina Jolie brand of death-dealing action hero. As Haskell reminds us in From Reference to Rape it can still be good to be bad:
It is the not the evil in women, but the mutual exclusiveness of good and evil that we resent, since it is a way of converting women from their ambiguous reality into metaphors, visitations of an angel or a devil. If only the good woman and the bad woman weren’t, in the extremes they represent, such mirror images of each other. If only men would understand, as Barbara Stanwyck explains it to Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (knowing, by the note of resignation in her voice, that they never will), “that the best ones aren’t as good as you think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad… not nearly as bad.”