The Sex Appeal of Hollywood


By Johan Liebenberg

Joan Bennett makes self-loathing look good

A film poster depicts a stunning woman, with full lips and dark hair, staring defiantly at the world, her expression echoing the words printed in bold at the top of the poster: “Go ahead and say it … I’m no good.”

If this is self-loathing, then the star, Joan Bennett, had never looked better—or sexier, for that matter.  This poster, for Jean Renoir’s film The Woman on the Beach, to a large extent typifies one of the most enigmatic periods in American movie history. The period stretches from the early forties to the seventies, during which time a film genre emerged that became known as film noir, literally meaning ‘dark’ or ‘black’ film.

The website defines film noir in this way: “The primary moods of classic film noir were melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia”.
Does this sound off-putting? Well, it wasn’t to audiences at the time. This is because the genre specialised in making the worst kinds of human traits appear sexy. And, as a result, film star wannabes got turned into screen idols overnight and, with blockbusters such as Touch of Evil, Sunset Boulevard, and The Maltese Falcon, studios raked in millions in what has become known as Hollywood’s Golden Age.

There is something instantly recognisable about classic film noir elements, plots, and even the settings. They work towards making the viewer feel as though they are caught up in a recurring nightmare: dingy, dark rooms, with sunlight filtering through Venetian blinds. Abandoned buildings where dust clings to the air. Rain-sodden streets and someone—often ‘the dame’, in a pencil-skirt, with her full lips and smoky looks—caught in the headlights of an approaching automobile.

These women date dubious men who are often murderers and almost always desperate, with slouch hats and trench coats, cheap cigarettes and Zippo lighters. Menace and desperation permeate the atmosphere, helped along by the special lighting effects, which cast dark shadows on walls. The camera angles, as well as the plots themselves, suggest characters who are trapped in a prison, in a kind of existential bitterness.

And one of the set pieces of the genre is that the male protagonists fail to see the dishonesty and duplicity of the scarlet women, blinded, as they are, by desire and lust and sometimes love.

But why this bleak cynicism from Tinsel Town? Why this sombre mood?

The reason can probably be found in the fact that the US was still punch-drunk from the many events that had changed the country. First it had endured the Great Depression of the 30s. Then came World War II, followed by a period of rapid urban growth. People had become dispossessed and disillusioned; individuals felt swamped by the advent of Corporate America, and for them the Great American Dream had faded.

The greatest change, brought on by World War II, was wrought in the traditional roles of women. This dramatically affected the way in which women were portrayed in films.

After working in the armaments industry, on the factory floors—jobs usually reserved for men—women had become emancipated. Instead of standing behind the stove, wearing neat aprons and baking apple pies, women now found themselves in smoky bars, drinking cocktails and trapped in love triangles, instead of in kitchens. A ‘New Woman’ emerged—at least on the silver screen—and she was often a femme fatale who ensnared her man in a web of fatal desire and lust. Someone who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. And she got what she wanted by using her body. These women were the femmes fatales of the silver screen, who strutted through the era of film noir.

Lana Turner and The Postman Always Rings Twice

  Lana Turner

Lana Turner

Film buffs agree that the original version of The Postman Always Rings Twice is the definitive film noir. The story concerns a drifter (John Garfield) who is given a job in a little town in the middle of nowhere by the restaurant owner. While taking care of a hamburger patty sizzling on the grill, the owner’s wife Cora (Lana Turner) appears and ‘accidentally’ drops her lipstick while checking her makeup in a hand mirror. It rolls towards Garfield, who stoops to pick it up. The first he sees of Turner is her legs (she is clad in shorts). The rest of her comes as a bit of a shock to him because she is, quite simply, the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Still looking at herself in the hand mirror, she holds out her hand imperiously towards him. She waits for him to bring it to her, but he makes no attempt to return it, so she is forced to go to him. And that’s the last time he resists her will. Once he has inhaled the fragrance of her narcotic perfume, set eyes on those pouting lips and pencilled eyebrows, and felt the impact of her cloudy, smouldering presence, he is lost.

For Turner, meanwhile, things couldn’t be worse. She’s desperately unhappy in the small town and she hates her husband. She later persuades Garfield to murder him. He complies.

To watch the scene (available on YouTube) in which Cora first makes eye contact with Garfield is a revelation in terms of sexual tension and sensuality. Turner wrote in her autobiography: “[The makers of the 1981 film starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange] didn’t have to worry about the censors. I’d had to project a rather intense sexual presence, but always with my clothes on. I was amused to read that (NY Times film critic) Vincent Canby considered the remake a pale, rather sexless imitation of my version.”

This goes to show that a film with neither nudity nor simulated sex can be quite sexy in its own way. And that explicitness is not always the ultimate achievement in the aesthetics of the sensual, and can sometimes come across as merely vulgar.

Turner was married eight times. She also had many lovers. In 1958, her daughter Sheryl Crane killed her mother’s lover, Johnny Stompanato, a gangster, with a kitchen knife during a violent altercation. At times Lana Turner's life resembled some of the scenes she played so breathtakingly on screen.

Michael Mills, who hosts a website devoted to film noir, features a stunning image of Lana Turner from the film, taken from the film as the “camera pans from her ankles upward in that breathtaking shot from The Postman Always Rings Twice”. The title is evocative: “High Heels on Wet Pavement”. The image is sexy and mysterious, somehow, and the fact that you see only her heels and ankles on a wet glistening pavement makes you curious about the rest of her and where she’s going.