She is sitting at the drugstore counter biting into a hamburger. She is looking at an ad for a fur coat. Her hair is blond, her blouse is white, and the charm bracelet and gold earrings sparkle. When a young man wants to get her something, she says, “Drift, Junior.” When her husband, a druggist in spectacles, brings her breakfast in bed the next day, she says, “You burned the toast again.” He says, “I’m sorry, baby, I’ll scrape it off.”
There is something extraordinary about Claire Qwimby.
Played by Audrey Totter in Tension (1949), she has a big effect on everyone around her. Before the movie is over, she has run out on her husband Warren (he gets so upset he tries to change his identity by throwing away his eyeglasses and getting contact lenses; it is a B movie), seduced Barney the liquor salesman, brought about Barney’s death, tried to convince a cop who is always pulling on rubber bands to run off to Acapulco with her, and so on. Her impact on the world is far greater than the kind and gentle woman played by Cyd Charisse, who makes dolls out of pipe cleaners. Yet Qwimby is nothing more than the wife of a druggist. Like so many of the femmes fatales in ’40s and ’50s films, Qwimby is extraordinary because she is an ordinary woman who acts in such extraordinary ways.
This summer, Turner Classic Movies is showing 94 films from the period— a “Summer of Darkness”
series, a random mix of noirs, some A, a lot of them B, some otherwise impossible to see (like 99 River Street), some not entirely categorically noir but still gloomy and full of characters who are doomed to start with or bring about doom anyway. Lots of women like Claire will be moving around inside people’s television sets wearing black negligees and ruling the world from their tatty bungalows, telling everyone what to do and who to kill and to hurry it up. Or if they have the aura of Jane Greer, they’ll be doing it in a white dress with their liquid eyes.
Femmes fatales like Clytemnestra and Carmen have dominated lierature and drama forever— the evil ones or those who have tragic
effect are always more fun to write, to play, to watch, for who wants a story about someone waiting for the oven-
repair person to get there?
In films of the ’20s and ’30s, characters played by Garbo and Dietrich filled the screen with their fury, their longings. But more often than not, these women were special by birth or talent. They were royalty, exotic foreigners, ballerinas, spies. If they were poor and struggling girls like Barbara Stanwyck in Babyface, they invariably chose a life of virtue over gold at the end.
In ’40s and ’50s cinema, the women who had fatal effect looked like everyone’s mother or grand-mother did when they were young. And, if they were not married to some man they could torment (like Elisha Cook Jr. in The Killing, who always has an upset stomach), they had jobs— the waitress with amour fou (The Postman Always Rings Twice); the secretary “wrapped in nylon and silk” (They Won’t Believe Me); the “publisher’s special assistant” who informs the writer that “Every man has his price” (Lady in the Lake).
Most of them were played not by exotic stars but hardworking actresses. As part of the series TCM is airing documentary shorts titled Cruel Beauty. In one of them, four of the actresses some five decades later are sitting around a conference table, in their ladylike suits, with their little collars— Jane Greer, Marie Windsor, Audrey Totter, Coleen Gray. They chat about this and that and say, “Oh, Audrey,” “Oh, Jane,” and Totter, who was married to a rheumatologist for 42 years, says, “I wasn’t aware they were really sexy parts,” and Gray says, “Oh come on, you were very sexy,” and Totter says, “Thank you, sweetheart,” and scrunches her nose. They laugh and look down at their ceramic coffee cups.