I don’t know if the Humphrey Bogart Estate sponsoring its debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, or even having Bogie’s son Stephen Bogart as one of the executive producers provides a new neo-noir film with some type of implicit ‘Noir Imprimatur’. But those credentials can’t hurt. Even so, writer/director Steve Anderson’s 2019 White Orchid, starring indie darling Olivia Thirlby, owes more to Otto Preminger’s Laura, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or perhaps Brian DePalma’s Body Double and Dressed To Kill than it does to The Maltese Falcon or Dead Reckoning.
White Orchid might be considered a so-called ‘erotic thriller’, a 21stcentury take on that 1980’s-1990’s era direct-to-video/DVD/cable sub-genre. If so, the ‘erotic’ is more a matter of mood than explicit sex scenes. The film dials up the suspense, but does so without car chases, gunplay, explosions or bloodshed. It is sexy, but in a very intimate way, and aside from some brief dance floor grinding, a frenzied bit of groping in the back of a taxi and some intriguing business going on behind the closing credits, the effect is sensual more than sexual, all part of the film’s stylish atmosphere.
Always reliable freelance investigator Claire Decker (Olivia Thirlby) reluctantly accepts an unusual case from Social Services bureaucrat Jennifer Beals, for whom she normally ID’s the elderly who’ve died alone, or tracks down the deceased’s survivors so their estates can be settled. Claire’s really, really good at what she does, better than Beals’ own staff, in fact. But this time she’s assigned to investigate a high-profile murder, “The White Orchid”: A beautiful stranger whose body was found on sleepy waterfront resort town Morro Bay’s beach. Shot dead. Decapitated. Her hands and feet removed. The murder scene’s become a morbid shrine, rabid true crime enthusiasts lurk everywhere and local teens prank the victim’s house. There, all of her things remain, right down to the vases of white orchids. The local police resent Claire’s intrusion but grudgingly cooperate, even giving her unfettered access to the dead woman’s home.
No-nonsense Claire Decker favors sensible clothes, drives a sensible car and is unencumbered by anything that could be called a social life. Focused, patient and methodical, she quickly uncovers clues overlooked by the police. Convinced there was something more sinister than mere murder involved, Claire becomes increasingly intrigued by the victim herself. Bit by bit, intrigue turns into obsession, till Claire’s actually seduced by her subject, drawn to the White Orchid’s vintage roadster and plushly furnished seaside abode, the closets of designer apparel and drawers full of luxurious lingerie.
Oh, and a hidden stash of cash. A lot of cash. Clearly the murder victim had some secrets…if she even was who the police think she was.
Convinced she’s figured things out, Claire effectively becomes the White Orchid, telling herself it’s only to unmask a killer when she masquerades in the woman’s clothes and wigs. But in fact, she’s fully succumbed to this obsession with a dead woman…or with the woman who impersonated the victim. Or with…well, who knows? Frankly, we’re not certain. What is evident is that Claire’s antics put her in danger and get her in deep trouble with the local law. A climactic meeting between Claire and the stunning femme fatale behind it all is less an investigator interrogating a suspect and more of a mutual seduction that practically steams up the screen. But White Orchid still has one more trick up its sleeve with a nifty gotcha ending any savvy noir enthusiast should’ve seen coming.
Confession time: I didn’t.
I’m not saying White Orchid is Oscar material. There’s a bit of peekaboo voyeurism at play, even it’s there to tell the story. There are some red herrings and narrative threads left unresolved, but I’ll bet the original shooting script made things a bit clearer and some film ended up on the cutting room floor with bits and pieces that filled in various holes. That Claire Decker is a reserved, intellectual, non-social sort who’s intrigued by the flamboyant, sexually adventurous ‘White Orchid’ is one thing. That this sensible loner would play dress-up in the dead woman’s own things is another that could use some explaining. At least Thirlby’s Claire Decker learns that there’s much more to being a femme fatale than donning a costume. The makeup, wigs and saucy lingerie might seduce the mousy investigator into some risky behavior and make her feel like she’s someone else. But in the end, Claire’s still who she is, just as the real femme fatale is who she is. And she really is fatal. Both characters resume their appropriate roles by the film’s end.
White Orchid is the kind of dreamy neo-noir that’s content to play with the viewer a bit, and frankly, I didn’t mind at all, perfectly pleased to follow Olivia Thirlby’s well-acted transition from slightly nerdy loner to obsessive curiosity seeker to fetching femme fatale. I don’t know what path contemporary ‘erotic thrillers’ ought to take, or if that genre (if it even is one) still has a place in today’s culture. But if it does, White Orchid isn’t an entirely bad place to start to reinvent a particular subset of neo-noir.