With the film noir corner pretty extensively covered by Warner Bros. box-set releases, it might be an understandable reaction to automatically write off VCI Entertainment’s Deadly Dames Film Noir Collector’s Set as a middling package opportunistically aimed to dip into the wallets of cinephiles with “classics” better left forgotten. The sweet surprise of the set, then, is twofold: The three entries not only prove that the genre still holds unknown treasures worth mining, they also illustrate the different facets of one of film noir’s most intriguing staples, the femme fatale. Spidery dames have always been close to the genre’s black heart, and the provocative succubus at the center of so many of these dark morality tales is unmistakably a response to the newfound assertiveness of women in the days of WWII, but is the genre’s misogyny as plain as that? Are these Venus flytraps retrograde portraits of destructive transgression, or subversive salvos against rigid views of family and womanhood?
The femme fatale has its most traditional incarnation in Blonde Ice, Jack Bernhard’s obscure 1948 cheapie. Introduced swathed in virginal, matrimonial white, Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) makes her first appearance under the gaze of two lovers, her rich new husband Carl (John Holland) and her former newspaper boss Les (Robert Paige); the façade of purity is instantly soiled, however, as she shamelessly makes a pass at Les while still in her wedding dress, making it clear that this is not the first time she’s juggled a couple of patsies. When her husband wises up and splits, Claire does the sensible thing and has him offed, pinning the rep on pussy-whipped Les while already setting her vixenish sights on a moneyed politico. “You’re like poison,” the framed stooge tells the anti-heroine. “Too little, and you’re finished. Too much, and you become an antidote.” Unfortunately, any actual intimation of the man’s complicity in his own collapse vanishes as a foreign-accented shrink is wheeled in to drop hints of Claire’s safely isolated malevolence. Never as delirious as Bernhard’s Decoy, the film stretches its shoestring budget cunningly with an often stylish chiaroscuro; its real poverty lies in a limited moral compass content to blame this “not normal” woman for all the evils in the male characters’ world.
The captivating thing about Slightly Scarlet is the way the genre’s feminine opposites, the good woman and the femme fatale, become complementary halves of the same soul. The Lyons sisters, June (Rhonda Fleming) and Dorothy (Arlene Dahl), could be twins in more than their matching crimson locks and ample ‘50s womanliness; though June works earnestly as secretary to a reformist political candidate while Dorothy lounges insouciantly in between spurts of kleptomania, the two are depicted less as contrasting absolutes than as intertwined sides of a single struggle. Whether legally at the mayor’s office or illicitly in acts of pre-Marnie rupture, the women are determined to stake out a claim in a male-dominated society. The sisters’ bond is reflected in the way Lance Fuller’s police station and Ted de Corsia’s gangland underworld keep leaking into each other, with amoral “chiseler” Ben Grace (John Payne) traveling from one side of the law to the other—and from one sister to the other. James M. Cain’s story, watered down but still pungent, is a bizarre choice of subject for Allan Dwan, the veteran wrangler of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Shirley Temple, yet the director revels in the material’s camp perversity, highlighting Dahl’s insolently spread-legged sprawl on a sofa and nasty bits of business with harpoon guns; John Alton’s cinematography is, like Leon Shamroy’s for Leave Her to Heaven, a study in bright colors that retain the genre’s deep shadows.
Only tangentially a noir, The Naked Kiss is nevertheless the culmination of the set’s deadly-dame motif. Samuel Fuller once declared that a movie’s first scene should give viewers a hard-on, and the opening of his 1964 masterpiece is uncut Viagra: When the hooker Kelly (Constance Towers) gives the p.o.v. camera a thorough thrashing with her purse, it’s as startling an assault on the stability of film as Buñuel’s razorblade slice in Un Chien Andalou. Rooted in tabloid dynamics, Fuller’s confrontational pulp style so consistently incinerates genre conventions that Kelly’s shift from shaven-headed big-city ho to small-town pediatric nurse becomes no more absurd than the words of Goethe and Byron which pop up out of nowhere. Of the film’s insane wonders—including a hospital-ward sing-a-long that, perched between transcendence and torture, forever changed this writer’s definitions of “good” and “bad”—the most radical may be its bold mingling of noir tropes and heated melodrama (“Sirk-on-a-shoestring,” my colleague Eric Henderson dubbed it). When the meaning of the title is revealed and the idyll’s scabrous backside is exposed, it is Kelly who emerges as the moral center, tending to children and stuffing bills into a madam’s maw with the same élan. Fuller’s characters are often walking paradoxes, and here his protagonist fuses the yin-yang sides of Slightly Scarlet into a single emblem of seamy bravery—the femme fatale, at long last, as heroine. It’s no wonder the film ends with her exiting the frame: What screen, then and now, could contain such a character?
The high level of grain in Blonde Ice shows that film restoration can only go so far, while the haziness of the Slightly Scarlet transfer actively works against John Alton's Technicolor cinematography. The Naked Kiss is at least on par with its previous Criterion presentation, and its soundtrack feels crystalline next to the insistent cracks of the older films.
Abundant, if odd. The meticulous commentaries by restoration consultant Jay Fenton on Blonde Ice and writer Max Allan Collins on Slightly Scarlet are inspiring in their dedication to such obscure works, while "A Fascinating Possibility" looks at the still murky link between Blonde Ice and Poverty Row great Edgar G. Ulmer (who may or may not have penned the basis for the film's scenario). Fenton discusses film restoration thoroughly, but the set's most rewarding interviews are in the Naked Kiss disc, where Fuller's widow Christa and daughter Samantha weigh in on the great director's legacy, and Michael Dante chats about his role and also conducts an audio interview with Constance Towers. The weirdest features, however, are a pair of noir TV shows (Into the Night and The Dark Stranger) so threadbare that they make the shabbiest passages of Blonde Ice look opulent, and the inexplicable musical short "Satan Wears a Satin Dress," which features forgotten crooner Ray Barber warbling about the bitch who ditched him. Bios, filmographies, and trailers round things up.
Far from scrapping the bottom of the genre's barrel, this trim collection fascinatingly maps out the progression of the vixens at the heart of noir.