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You know it's noir ...

When the look of classics and revivals says volumes without uttering a line.

September 06, 2006|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

A shiny black car stops in the shadow of an apartment house in Hollywood. A baby-faced police officer climbs out and looks longingly up the curved staircase. A door opens and there she is, a smoldering blond with cherry red lips and a white satin robe, ready to take him down with nothing more than the power of suggestion.

It's been more than 50 years since the height of film noir, but in this scene from "The Black Dahlia," opening Sept. 15, the visual cues are as recognizable as if it were yesterday.

In noir, style is as important as story. Because nothing much changes in these hard-boiled detective thrillers: Every woman has a past and every man a price. It's always night in the city, with a car careening through lonely, rain-slicked streets. Inside, Venetian blinds cast shadows like prison bars, cigarette smoke is circling and there's plenty of hard liquor for pouring that almighty drink.

In one way or another, women are always at the top of the staircase, dominant and powerful, dressed in sinuous gowns and strong-shouldered suits with rigid pencil skirts. And men play the fools, vulnerable in soft, drapey jackets and pleated, high-waist pants. The dialogue is fast and flirtatious, and the love affairs are deadly. It's completely seductive, even after all this time.

This month, there's a mini-revival of noir between "The Black Dahlia" and "Hollywoodland" films, two gumshoe mysteries about casualties of fame. Both are shot in color, which kills much of the noir mood, with its delicious contrasts of dark and light.

Julie Weiss ("Frida," "American Beauty") designed the costumes for "Hollywoodland," opening Friday, about the death of TV "Superman" George Reeves. It's set in the late 1950s, which means the clothes are more playful than anything else. Instead of suits for detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), she chooses pants and rayon shirts, which make it difficult for him to have any swagger. The dangerous woman is Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of a studio head and femme fatale who snares Reeves. But her fussy brooch and beaded dress with a flat bow spell matron, not murder.

Jenny Beavan ("Gosford Park," "Emma") designed the costumes in "The Black Dahlia," about the unsolved 1947 killing of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short. The devious Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) looks the part, with her dark wavy hair, scarlet lips and fingernails. And Kaye Lake (Scarlett Johansson) works her curves -- whether she's wearing that white satin robe or a peplum jacket and pencil skirt, her cigarette holder pointed to the side like a hot poker. But the story's hero, Det. Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), is jarringly contemporary in casual pants and a leather jacket.

Except for that moment on the staircase, neither film uses noir style to its full effect.


Dangerous curves

For that, you have to look to the classics, in which the femme fatale could be a waitress, an heiress, a singer or an actress, but she always has the goods to find a fall guy. She's curvy in all the right places, but with sharp edges too. Her hair is sleek and molded, her posture suggestive but menacing.

In "Mildred Pierce" (1945), Joan Crawford marches through the film like a man-eater. She wears a fur coat by Milo Anderson that's so massive, it should have had its own production credit. It's no wonder she's able to push the men in her life around, and pull herself and her daughter Veda out of the lower class. Her love interest, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), may be high society, but he's broke and half her size, with pencil-thin legs and a mustache to match.

Another kind of armor for femmes fatales is the silk robe. It isn't just a costume in "Fallen Angel" (1945), it's a plot device, the only thing standing between Stella (Linda Darnell) and her naked ambition. A waitress in a single-counter diner determined to marry rich, she has to improvise when a drifter, Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), falls for her instead. He doesn't have a dime to his name, but he's determined to do anything to please her. So she smiles and teases, flashing her legs and her peep-toe pumps. Finally, after she answers the door in a sexy, embroidered robe, he wilts, coming up with the desperate plan to marry another woman first, a rich one, steal all of her money and come back for Stella.

Curves are a weapon as powerful as a gun in noir, which explains how Rita Hayworth makes mush out of every man she meets at her husband's South American casino in "Gilda" (1946). She draws his right-hand man, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), to her with a dramatic flip of her hair. But her flirtatious nature is directed at all men, and eventually it drives Farrell crazy. After her husband is out of the picture, he agrees to marry Gilda, only to imprison her in her apartment. But he's no match for her feminine wiles. Gilda has the last word when she takes the stage at the casino in a tall column gown by Jean Louis, her bosoms dangerously close to falling out.


Chanel of femmes fatale

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