“I believe what we’re looking for is a certain horse-like quality.” —Linda Fiorentino, The Last Seduction
To put it broadly, film noir was more a cultural moment than a viable, long-lasting genre, arising naturally—and without such a label—from the darkness and cynicism that gripped the country after World War II. While, say, Westerns could be endlessly revised to accommodate more modern ideas of violence and history in movies like The Wild Bunch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, attempts to update noir are inevitably afflicted by movie-movie self-consciousness. They can’t simply execute the genre; they have to comment on it, rework it, or pay homage to its past. That isn’t entirely a knock on what we’ve come to call “neo-noir,” but even the title of something like Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale—previously covered in this column—makes it clear that neo-noirs come in quotation marks.
With his 1993 breakthrough Red Rock West, director John Dahl showed a great facility for noir atmosphere and plotting; had he shot it in black and white, and curbed some of the R-rated sex and violence, it could have been mistaken for the real vintage. And though his later Rounders, another NCC entry, wasn’t a neo-noir per se, Dahl treated the underground-poker scene with a seedy romanticism that helps explain why poker aficionados find that film so alluring. But Dahl’s best film, 1994’s The Last Seduction, is more than just an attempt to reheat old genre tropes or mine the past for moody atmospherics, though those elements are certainly at play. The question that drives Dahl’s alluring, darkly hilarious film is this: What does the modern femme fatale look like? She has to depart from the classic model, but how she departs from it and how she gets around in Hicksville, U.S.A. is another question.
Working for HBO, which also produced Red Rock West the year before, Dahl had the freedom to cast Linda Fiorentino, who had scuttled around various projects for a decade—most notably as Rosanna Arquette’s S&M-loving sculptress roommate in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours—but was far from a household name. She was an unknown quantity at the time, but it’s now impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, just as it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Sharon Stone in Paul Verhoeven’s 1993 thriller Basic Instinct, an iconic performance that’s like Fiorentino’s platinum-blonde, West Coast mirror image. Fiorentino is dark and sexy, similar to Lara Flynn Boyle in Dahl’s Red Rock West (though more adult), and her distinctive voice is the kicker—spectacularly deep, flinty, and suggestive of mortal sin. Yet the context explains half of her appeal: Fiorentino doesn’t look or act like anyone else in the world of The Last Seduction, and the film often seems as much a fish-out-of-water comedy as it does a noir.
Embodying New Yorkers at their most unapologetically brusque, Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory is first seen pacing through rows of telemarketers with a stopwatch, driving them through sales calls like a jockey with a whip. (“I can’t hear you people!”; “Ask for the sale four times every time.”) Meanwhile, she’s already mid-scheme. Her doctor husband Clay (Bill Pullman) is out rendezvousing with drug dealers under the Brooklyn Bridge, exchanging pharmaceutical cocaine for a briefcase filled with $700,000 in cash. It’s a shrewd risk/reward calculation: His risk, her reward. As soon as he hits the showers, she takes off with the money, and the beauty part is that he can’t claim half the ill-gotten cash in the divorce. She just needs to hide out from Clay and his hired help (Sam Nunn) in the meantime.
En route to Chicago, Bridget lands in Beston, New York, a one-horse town that isn’t close enough to Buffalo to be considered a suburb. Though she’d be smart to blend in with the locals, Bridget isn’t one to compromise her monstrous big-city arrogance and callousness so readily. When she struts into Ray’s Tavern in a dark skirt and nylons, and orders a Manhattan without saying “please,” it’s clear enough to the whole bar she’s from out of town, even before she castigates the bartender by announcing, “Who’s a girl gotta suck to get a drink around here?!” Trying not to seem intimated, Mike Swale (Peter Berg), a Bestonite with big-city aspirations, swoops in to buy her drink and work his hayseed charms on her. He’s a bit out of his league:
Bridget gets what she wants out of Mike—“a certain horse-like quality”—but her lawyer (J.T. Walsh) advises her to lay low in Beston for a while, which makes her shudder with revulsion. (The next day, she absorbs each friendly “Good morning” from passersby as if it were a blow to the sternum.) She changes her name to “Wendy Kroy” (a play on New York spelled backwards), takes a job at an insurance company (a classic noir gig since Double Indemnity), and keeps on treating Mike as a lame-brained sex object. She then hits upon a scheme: Using the credit reports of married male clients to discern whether they’re having affairs—and assessing their wealth, too—she wants to set up a service for wives who want to lose their two-timing husbands. Or does she?
It isn’t a surprising choice for Fiorentino’s femme fatale in The Last Seduction to be more explicitly revealing than past models; after all, the suggestiveness of Barbara Stanwyck descending the staircase in Double Indemnity wouldn’t register now as it did then. Really, greater explicitness is a common denominator among all modern femme fatales. What really sets Fiorentino apart is how far Dahl and his screenwriter, Steve Barancik, go in pushing her voracious appetites to the surface. If the suggestion of classic noir doesn’t play anymore, why not make her sexual aggression and avarice completely transparent? There’s really no fundamental difference between Stanwyck and Fiorentino: They want the same things, and go about getting them in the same way. Fiorentino’s character just doesn’t hide her monstrousness.
The Last Seduction is fascinating, too, for how it fiddles with gender politics. Bridget shocks the modest people of Beston in part because she isn’t particularly ladylike; she strides into Ray’s Tavern wanting to drink, smoke, and fuck, and she isn’t coy about it. This is behavior that’s accepted from a man, and a drunken man might have no compunction about asking a woman to show him the goods, just as Bridget does with Mike’s supposedly equine appendage. Mike keeps trying to get the upper hand in their relationship, and he struggles to locate some hidden reserves of feminine vulnerability within Bridget that will make her need him for more than just a roll in the hay. But he’s the emotionally needy one, and Bridget never fails to put him in his place.
Beyond its noir trappings, The Last Seduction has great fun exploiting the city-girl-in-the-sticks premise, starting with poor Mike, whose relationship with Bridget is aspirational: He believes he’s bigger than Beston, and therefore she’s his ticket to the big city. She’s an exotic, alien creature, the alluring personification of New York City; he’s barely cut out for Omaha, and thoroughly compromises himself in trying to keep up with her. (“Maybe it’s my quaint small-town values,” he says, “but I don’t murder.” He later tries to murder someone.) Dahl slightly overplays Beston’s small-towniness—the other women in the town dress in gowns so modest, it’s like they’re citizens of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village—but the contrast pays off in small gestures, like Bridget snuffing out a cigarette in grandma’s apple pie, and large ones, like Bridget lying low in a place where she could not be more conspicuous.
One of the best of the neo-noirs, The Last Seduction revitalizes the genre without losing the core appeal of illicit passions, labyrinthine plots, and deliciously ornate dialogue. Barancik’s script has a snappy, Mamet-like efficiency and teems with memorably salty one-liners, but Fiorentino sells the movie with her voice, her body language, and an array of sighs, eye-rolls, and sinister smiles. (The straight-to-video sequel cast Joan Severance in the role. A slight step down… into a bottomless chasm.) She belongs in the pantheon of great femme fatales, playing one of those villains so transcendently wicked that she deserves to survive, because the world is a less exciting place without her.
February 24: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
March 10: Enter The Void (director’s cut)
March 24: Highlander