“Film Noir Style. The Killer 1940s” by Kimberly Truhler (published by GoodKnight Books)

Women to kill for, women to die for

It’s a shocking omission, says Kimberly Truhler, that the costumes and their designers are too often left out of the conversation when it turns to film noir, that genre which explores the dark side of human nature, particularly sins such as lust and greed and crimes from robbery to murder. After all, many of these films are sexy and stunningly beautiful. Time, then, to redress the balance and give credit where not only due but often long overdue.
7. April 2021 16:15

Here at The Budapest Times we have a strong interest in Cinema (with a capital C) and we try to watch a film a day, from the early silent black-and-whites to modern-day melodramas. Good or bad (but preferably watchable, of course), it doesn’t always matter: they are all a part of cinematic history. But asked to pick a favourite category we would have to plump for noir.

Film noir is an oft-misused term. What it should refer to is a style of hard-boiled crime drama, mostly American from the 1940s and 1950s, distinguished by such elements as cynical heroes, stark lighting and shadows in black and white (real aficionados like to refer to this as chiaroscuro), frequent use of flashbacks and narration, intricate plots and a bleak view of life. If it’s urban, night-time, raining and there are clouds of cigarette smoke, that helps. Oh, and femme fatales.

The category wasn’t known as such until the French started to refer to “film noir”, meaning “dark film”. Strict noir must have the above characteristics. Where things start to go wrong with many critics and commentators is when any old crime film with gangsters, molls, gats, shivs, heists, cops, private dicks and hold-ups gets lumped in as film noir. No they aren’t, and if there is one ingredient that certainly must be present it is the femme fatale.

Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire, 1942 – Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Here at The Budapest Times we confess to a bad habit of uncontrolled swooning and drooling when watching the femmes fatales of American noir. If Gene Tierney, Claire Trevor, Rita Hayworth, Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Lana Turner, Lizabeth Scott, Audrey Trotter, Gloria Grahame et al are flashing their fabulous faces and figures, well it can get downright embarrassing among the news team.

Not to forget Ava Gardner, looking totally stunning and seductive in a strapless off-the-shoulder shiny black silk full-length dress (shapely legs pushing through the slit) on the cover of this new American book in which fashion historian Kimberly Truhler takes us behind the studio sets and into the wardrobe rooms inhabited by the costume designers who gave the stars the signature style of film noir. The men stars receive attention too, of course, but the book is chockablock with fabulous photos – black and white, naturally – that emphasise the ladies.

Femmes fatales, perhaps it should be pointed out, are generally defined as women of great seductive charm who are mysterious, duplicitous, subversive, double-crossing, gorgeous, energised, intelligent, powerful, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate. Mary Poppins need not apply.

Perhaps the first to spring to mind is Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in what many consider to be the apogee of noir, director Billy Wilder’s masterpiece “Double Indemnity” from 1944. Poor insurance salesman Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, never had a chance of escaping this black widow spider’s ravishing web.

Truhler takes us behind the history of the film, which stemmed from a true murder story and had a script written by Wilder and crime novelist Raymond Chandler that went through eight years of changes before being approved by the Hollywood Production Code (remember, in Golden Age movieland America, married couples always slept in separate beds. Still, boundary-breakers could sneak through.).

Paramount Pictures head costume designer Edith Head overcame some challenges presented by the Stanwyck body, and we learn the importance of her gold anklet and enormous ring on her wedding finger. A cardigan that caused a commotion and the over-the-top, bleach-blonde wig that she sported are dealt with in the book. (And the photos of Edith Head are a revelation: from the film credits we always imagined a bland sort of elderly dutiful woman, but Ms Head stands cool as can be with a dramatic fringe and dark circular glasses, hands in pockets.)

Rita Hayworth in Gilda, 1946 – Courtesy Sony Pictures

A score or so of other important films noir and their vital style points are dealt with by Truhler, each in their own chapter, including the 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon”, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor and often considered the first film of the genre; “I Wake Up Screaming” from the same year featuring Betty Grable and Carole Landis; “The Shanghai Gesture” from 1941 and “Laura” from 1944, both with the stunning Gene Tierney; “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 with more Edith Head creations, this time for Veronica Lake with floor-length gowns that elongated her, compensating her lack of height and allowing platform shoes to be concealed underneath; Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s “To Have and Have Not” (1944); Claire Trevor in “Murder, My Sweet” (1944); Joan Crawford’s “Mildred Pierce” (1945); and “Gilda” (1946) in which a dancing Rita Hayworth wore the iconic strapless black satin dress that should have fallen down but didn’t. Truhler describes it as a “marvel of engineering in addition to beauty”.

One of 29 costumes for the film, costume designer Jean Louis said it was the most famous dress he ever made. He described it thus: “Inside was a harness like you put on a horse. We put grosgrain under the bust with darts and three stays, one in the centre, two on the sides. Then we molded plastic softened over a gas flame and shaped around the top of the dress. No matter how she moved, the dress did not fall down”. (And, boy, could Rita Hayworth move.)

Femme fatale Lara Turner made one of the eye-opening film entrances in the 1946 version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, in a turban, sun suit and heels, all white, courtesy MGM costume designer Irene. In reality Irene Lentz Gibbons, Irene was chosen by studio head Louis B. Mayer to succeed Adrian as MGM’s head of costume design when he retired in 1942. (Sometimes first names are all you need when you are a film studio costume designer.)

On the book goes through Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” (1946), another Edith Head effort, this time for Ingrid Bergman; the Bogart and Bacall combination again in 1946’s “The Big Sleep”; and “The Killers” (another from 1946) where we find Ava Gardner in the signature, one-shouldered black satin gown that adorns the cover of Truhler’s book.

The author’s insights keep coming: Orry-Kelly’s vision for Mary Astor’s femme fatale in that 1941 “The Maltese Falcon”, for instance, started the trend of bad girls disguising their intentions by dressing like ladies. And more on the diminutive Veronica Lake: Truhler brings attention to certain hats for the women, especially Lake’s in “This Gun for Hire”, which were designed with vertical rather than horizontal detail in order to give the extremely petite actress the illusion of height.

Lizabeth Scott in “Dead Reckoning” (1947), Audrey Totter in “Lady in the Lake (1947), Jane Greer in “Out of the Past” (1947), Marilyn Monroe in “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) where MGM head costume designer Helen Rose proved an early contributor to the actress’ legendary look, and Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) where Edith Head dressed the fictionally fading actress in an animal print to signify her predatory nature.

Here at The Budapest Times we’ve watched them all. Now we have to watch them again with “Film Noir Style” by Kimberly Truhler in hand to see all the subtleties we missed.

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