Thursday, 27 March 2014

Women in Black and White

Lately I started watching old black and white films and I was struck with how mysterious and sexy the women characters appeared.  This is particularly true of the films of Ray Chandler's novels.  The one I watched last night was Farewell my Lovely from 1944 - it was originally called Murder my Sweet and it featured Claire Trevor as the blonde bombshell.  The acting in general might not have been up to much - in the later version Robert Mitchum was much more convincing as the world-weary Philip Marlowe than Robert Powell - but it was fun to watch it.  In his novels Chandler nearly always featured a mysterious blonde with a pouty mouth who while eminently desirable was a bad girl at heart trying to lead the detective astray :  "a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window" as he describes it in Farewell my Lovely.  This film didn't disappoint in that regard.

I think that the women heroes (we aren't allowed to call them heroines any more are we?) in today's cinema are a different breed, even the ones who seduced Michael Douglas in past films.  There seems to be a lack of that smouldering subtlety that characterised the black and white era.  There were no bedroom scenes but there was no need for them as every gesture told a story and had everyone's imagination working overtime.  I think modern cinema does an overkill on sex and violence, those two motors of the film industry.  In effect it tells us that we don't have the wit to work it out for ourselves.  Mae West is of course one of the best examples here and her "why don't you come up, see me some time?" said in that husky voice is surely one of the best temptress lines recorded.

And the women were more than simple sex objects.  They might have been bad and nearly fooled the detective but they were intelligent, had their own agenda, and defied the role of wholesome stay-home-at-the-kitchen-sink housewife and mother which was so prevalent at the time.  They certainly would not have fitted comfortably into life on Walton's Mountain any more than women in our modern culture do.  I don't want to go back to earlier cinema stereotypes but I think we may have lost something in glamorous femme fatales along the way. 

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