french postcards

by Megan Abbott

I’m freshly back from the Quais du Polar, a crime fiction and film festival in Lyon, France. The entire time, glued to the side of my wonderful French editor, Marie-Caroline Aubert (a glorious redhead who was once the translator of no less than Donald Westlake), I felt too lucky by half.  Which I was.

Trust me: to say I felt more than a little like an imposter is not false modesty. In every room, I knew far less than everyone else. After all, the French know noir. I had to keep my game on for conversations well into the night about Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox’s complicated romance in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the particular genius of Deadwood and why I must see the 1971 movie Vanishing Point. Much like a Frenchier, larger version of NoirCon.  (Thankfully, my knowledge of Rip Torn apparently did exceed everyone else’s.)

Perhaps the highlight of the visit for me–other than a new appreciation for what felt like 24-hour wine drinking–was a trip to the Institut Lumiere (English here), a museum, archive and theater dedicated to preserving and celebrating French filmmaking, with special focus on Auguste and Louis Lumière – inventors of the cinematography and among the very first filmmakers. As part of the Quais du Polar, they were screening films noirs and I introduced The Big Heat, Fritz Lang’s nasty 1953 movie starring Glenn Ford as an honest cop and Gloria Grahame as the “kept woman” of a vile gangster (memorably played by Lee Marvin).

I admit, while I always liked The Big Heat, it was never in my upper pantheon, though its female star, Gloria Grahame, is indisputably my favorite noir actress, occupying a powerful position in my imagination. No slithery Ava Gardner vixen, no ethereal beauty like Gene Tierney, she is more minx than siren, more pixie than femme fatale. And yet. And yet she is a crackling presence, a hot, messy, complicated one. There’s just no one like her.

Somehow, she seems to embody everything I love about the genre—its heady, sticky mix of desire and rage, sordidness and yearning, the aching sense that something went wrong somewhere and now there’s no saving us.

On the one hand, tucked in that pouty lip of hers, curled in that slippery, cooing voice lies all the genre’s fleshy pleasures.

On the other hand, in that haunting way her face can arrest itself, her body skittering into itself to protect itself, lies all the heartbreak of the genre. She carries them both: lust and loss, shallowness and depth.

So, in preparation, I rewatched the movie. And I’m so glad I did. It felt like a different movie than the one I’d remembered as a well-done but rancid bit of ’50s noir thuggery. I’d missed all its complexities, and much of its, well, beauty. [Potential spoilers ahead]

First, it’s a movie populated by interesting women—strong, even brittle, experienced yet perpetual victims. Victims of their own sense of inutility (their worth seems only to be defined by their smooth, shiny surface).

But victims most of all the peerless brutality of the men around them. And I’m not just talking about the “bad guys.” The hero, Glenn Ford’s, carelessness with his wife echoes of the more obviously cruelties of the thugs in the film—over and over again, fire destroys women in this movie, fires ignited by men.

As some critics have pointed out, The Big Heat upturns the classic noir paradigm of the femme fatale enticing men to their death. Here, driven by his complicated mix of knightly ideals and dangerous masculine bravado, Ford is the fatal man, responsible in part for the destruction of every woman in the film.

But I will admit, my largest pleasures in the film are not analytical ones. They’re visceral. When I first saw The Big Heat as a young girl, the thing in it that mattered most was the gleaming sight of Gloria Grahame in her mink.

The creamy pelted garment becomes a key motif in the film. Late in the story, Grahame tells a fellow fur-cloaked woman,  “We’re sisters under the mink.”

The mink coat signifies prestige, material success. But also a kind of animalism, and a kind of enslavement. The mink comes to mean everything, and risks swallowing Grahame whole.

Midway through the film, all the characters converge at a nightclub called The Retreat. It’s a pivotal moment, when Grahame makes a key choice, a brave one.

The Retreat, Gloria at right.

What strikes me most about the scene is the way Grahame, perched on a bar stool, wears her mink, casually draped off her lovely white shoulders. It seems to drip off her, skating across her pearly arms. She wears the mink not like a skin, but merely something she’s trying on, part-way, because she feels she should, but it just might slip off at any moment so she can reveal the real Grahame beneath.

In a scene late in the film, when Gloria has risked her skin for the greater good and is taking charge, she wears the coat tightly bound, clasped at the neck. The fur has become hers now, and she wears it like a powerful armor

Gloria Grahame’s personal life was often chaotic and mostly unhappy. She brings those shadows to all her characters, and the yearning too. We see that here. It makes us yearn for her, on her behalf.

In the film’s most famous scene, Grahame’s shiny surface is ruined forever—but, when writing the introduction, I started to think about it instead as a purification, a baptism. After, she is transformed, born again. In a genre supposedly without heroes, she is a hero.

18 Comments to “french postcards”

  1. Gloria Grahame even brought some heat to a squeaky clean movie like It’s a Wonderful Life, as the could-turn-into-a-floozy Violet Bick “I think I got a date – but stick around, fellas!”

  2. Yes! and when she is complimented on her dress and she coos, “This old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don’t care how I look…”

  3. Wonderful post on The Big Heat, Megan! I doubled featured this and Human Desire (which I prefer) at Film Forum a couple months ago, and one of the things that most stood out to me was how honest and self-knowing Gloria’s characters were. More so than all the other characters (especially Glenn Ford), she seems to be the only one that knows exactly what is going on and what road she is walking down. Nothing about her fate surprises her.

  4. Couldn’t agree more about Grahame. I fantasized about her a lot when I was a young man falling in love with old movies. (I can almost taste her right now thanks to your wonderful descriptions.) First discovered GG in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, oddly enough.

    And please tell me that Rip Torn was nowhere near this French Noir and Film Festival. Please stay away from that man.

  5. Oh, I see you’ve already mentioned “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Sorry. I should read the comments before I respond. I’m not sure I’d call that a squeaky clean movie, though. There’s some darkness in that old dog, and Stewart’s mind runs in all directions. I really need to see “The Big Heat” again. I enjoyed the McGivern novel quite a bit.

    • Russell–I never read the book but mean to!
      One of the greatest, darkest moments in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is, in the Pottersville sequence, that moment we see Grahame being hauled off into the paddy wagon, screaming. It’s so haunting, like a Weegee photo

      • For me the most haunting moment in the film is a look. It’s when Stewart is meeting his brother’s train after the war, on the eve of shaking the dust of that little town from his feet, but the war hero has brought a young bride home with him — a bride who wants her smart new husband to work in her father’s plant, not in some broken down savings and loan. The black look that crosses Stewart’s face as the happy young bride passes by is one of the greatest moments of a great film.

  6. I thought about you the other day when I discovered/recalled via TCM (I must have put it out of my mind) that Rip Torn is the “other man” who comes between Bob Hope and Lucille Ball in CRITIC’S CHOICE!

    • Jack, I almost wrote about THAT! One of the strangest juxtapositions EVER! (and the sight of him wooing Lucille!)

  7. And I really was like, “I can’t wait till she gets back from France so I can tell her!”

  8. When I was in Lyon, I had a 24 hour wine tasting too…

  9. Funny story about mink: My step-grandmother, 1st generation Irish widow who worked 40 years as a hostess in a restaurant in Queens, was considering buying a fur coat for herself as a 70th birthday present but decided against it. Her explanation was that people would “get the wrong idea” about her (at age 70!) since there’s only one way that a woman without a husband could get a mink.

  10. Oh, Christa, that’s fabulous — which restaurant in Queens??

  11. Megan, can we get matching tattoos that say; “sisters under the mink?!”

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