Not The Blue Dahlia Or The Black Dahlia: A White Orchid.

White Orchid 4

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.

White Orchid 2

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.

White Orchid 7

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.

White Orchid 1

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 withwell, 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.

White Orchid 3

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.

 

La Petite Mort

Longreads screen cap“Who do I have to fuck and kill to get a good erotic thriller?” Soraya Roberts asks in her 5.24.19 Longreads article “The Erotic Thriller’s Little Death” (link below).

While that may be one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time, I suspect that Roberts could bed or murder anyone she likes, but it wouldn’t help. Only a time machine dialed back two decades or more could locate a good erotic thriller. The genre – if it truly was one – has been retired, or at least placed on hiatus while the business and our culture sort things out.

Soraya Roberts’ piece points to high profile big screen films from the 1980’s through 1990’s, bracketed by Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Body Heat (1981) and Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct (1992) which trace their lineage back to the mid-twentieth century noir and proto-noir films that sidestepped cops & robbers in order to zero in on more intimate tales of jealousy, lust, greed and desire. Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity would be the obvious reference, but John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde in Roadhouse, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of The Past, and Lizabeth Scott and Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning come to mind.

Roberts’ article quotes Linda Ruth Williams’ 2005 The Erotic Thriller In Contemporary Cinema for a definition of the genre: “Erotic thrillers are noirish stories of sexual intrigue incorporating some form of criminality or duplicity, often as the flimsy framework for on-screen softcore sex”, and that’s about as good a definition as I can think of. If I read “The Erotic Thriller’s Little Death” correctly, Roberts assumes that cultural changes doomed the genre. Woman-as-sex-object simply doesn’t cut it in a #MeToo era. But she rightly wonders why empowered women taking control of their own sexuality while concurrently asserting themselves in screenwriting, producing and directing haven’t given birth to a new breed of neo-noirish erotic thrillers? And thus, her article’s opening question: Where are the erotic thrillers for today?

This may be where Soraya Roberts and I part company…well, to a degree. She labels a handful of sexy big screen films as ‘erotic thrillers’. But for every one of those, there were dozens (if not more) made in the same era, but viewed on TV screens, not at the multiplex. Erotic thrillers as a very recognizable film genre peculiar to the 1980’s and 1990’s (with some stragglers creeping into the early 2000’s, perhaps) were primarily a direct-to-video VHS tape and then DVD phenomenon, rented at Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, regional chains and local mom-n-pops. They were produced on shoestring budgets at near assembly line speed and efficiency without costly location shoots, elaborate sets, CGI effects, large casts or big-name stars. Armed with a decent script, an earnest crew and a talented director-wannabe, it didn’t take much more than a knife, a firearm with blanks, some stage blood and a rent-a-prop squad car to get the cameras rolling. Wardrobe? It could almost be borrowed right out of the actors’ own closets, perhaps with a quick side trip to a shopping mall lingerie chain store.

Most were dreadful. Some very few were actually quite good and stand the test of time (well…almost). And in this, the ‘real’ erotic thrillers (not the much smaller number of big screen A-List productions from the same era) mimicked the 1930’s – 1950’s pulp magazine and postwar paperback original marketplaces. They were hastily produced, easily accessed and packaged in garish, sexy covers, with more and more needed every month to fill the video rental chain shelves’ ravenous appetites. The genre, if it was one, doesn’t trace its lineage back to James M. Cain so much as Spicy Detective pulp magazine stories, trashy Gil Brewer and Orrie Hitt 1950’s crime novels and the few vintage sleaze PBO’s that actually had plots.

I don’t think evolving attitudes had anything to do with the erotic thrillers’ little death. The swift blink-and-they’re-gone decline of the movie rental store did. Redbox DVD kiosks and streaming services seem largely disinterested in keeping the genre alive, and what even Soraya Roberts acknowledges as ‘one handed watching’ is more easily accomplished (if one is so inclined) with free online porn, story be damned.

My own experience with the 1980’s – 1990’s erotic thrillers is limited to what I’ve come across in used bookstores’ close-out bins. Note: Not sale shelves. Close-out bins. And not used VHS tapes. (I mean, who has a VCR? Are they still sold at Best Buy, shelved between 8-track tape players and rotary dial phones?) Many 1980’s – 1990’s ‘classics’ have been repackaged and dumped into outlets as $1.99 – $2.99 brand new and sealed DVD’s. Can’t miss them: Look for a photo montage with a pistol and some spiky heels. Have I bought some? Sure have, even if feeling a little squirmy bringing one up to the cashier, depending on the DVD case cover art. And yes, I’ve been disappointed by some, but pleasantly surprised by others, concluding that Shannon Tweed, Joan Severance, Kari Wuhrer, Shannon Whirry and an entire Hollywood subculture of nimble-fingered writers and hard-working crews scrambled from one studio or location to another in a round-the-clock production schedule, so many of the scripts, costumes, sets and wardrobes (or lack thereof) fully interchangeable from one film to another.

Mainstream cinema is a little timid about sex right now. Streaming and cable may be less squeamish, perhaps, but sex and crime mixed together into a neo-noirish cinematic cocktail seems to make everyone uneasy. Instead, we get sparkling vampires dreamed up by a Mormon, dreary faux S&M that’s more effective than Melatonin gummies at lulling you to sleep, totally de-sexed Lifetime Channel thrillers and sex-ified CW tween-TV series. The erotic thriller as a big screen mainstream release or a slew of low-budget online/cable movies has been sanitized, diluted or outright abandoned.

But the dark impulses that propelled James M. Cain novels to the screen in the 1940’s and the more explicitly depicted drives that found their way onto tape, disk and cable in the 1980’s and 1990’s still linger. Hollywood and the culture at large may need to reassess, purge some outmoded and frankly repellant voyeuristic dismissiveness and ultimately discover a new vocabulary for the 21stcentury. Then maybe Soraya Roberts won’t have to fuck or kill anyone just to get a good erotic thriller again.

Link to Soraya Roberts’ Longreads.com article:

https://longreads.com/2019/05/24/the-erotic-thrillers-little-death/

 

How Gauche.

Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, American Vogue, March 1985. Photograph by Helmut Newton.

I get a kick out of imagining the stories behind narrative style fashion photography. And oh, what a tale we could come up with for this one, like a still right out of a 1980’s direct-to-video erotic thriller. Here Helmut Newton shoots a bit of upscale haute couture neo-noir for Yves Saint Laurent/Rive Gauche for US Vogue back in 1985. Gun in one hand, phone in the other, but it’s the woman reflected in the round mirror that unnerves me. Something bad just went down, or is about to…

Looks Can Kill. So Can Guilty Pleasures.

Femme Fatales

Everyone has some guilty pleasures, so don’t you dare fib and tell me (or yourself) that you don’t. Twinkies? Vaping? Ridiculous reality shows on TLC? Funky flavored martinis with silly names that are almost too embarrassing to order? Come clean, now. You have something.

For the record, I don’t care for Twinkies, vaping, martinis or any shows on TLC. But I’ll admit to one recent guilty pleasure: Femme Fatales, the 2011-12 Cinemax series, 25 half hour episodes worthy of a lot of guilt and maybe a bit of pleasure, albeit the kind which requires your brain to be turned off for 30 minutes at a time.

Femme Fatales TV Series

Never saw it when it aired. I’m not sure I even heard of it at the time. But I did pick up both complete season sets in a used bookseller’s DVD section recently.

The name’s a bit of a misnomer. You’d like to expect something more retro-noir-ish, and what a terrific series that could’ve been. But, no such luck. Femme Fatales is rooted a bit – though only a bit – in the legacy of the 1980’s-90’s era of ‘erotic thrillers’, those ubiquitous direct-to-video (and I do mean VHS tapes) quickie crime/adultery/serial killer films chock full of extended sex scenes, electro-pop club music soundtracks and wall-to-wall nighttime L.A. exterior shoots (or Toronto, often as not, I suppose), all of which kept a generation of actors and filmmakers fed for 10 years-plus, then faded as quick as Blockbuster Video stores. Or perhaps Femme Fatales actually owes more to the early pre-streaming cable television era when late night on every premium channel was ‘sex-time’, if not in feature films then in original series, like Showtime’s Red Shoe Diaries (1992 – 1997). Flimsy plots? Sure. Unknown actors? For the most part, yes. But the production values weren’t horrible, as good as anything we’re likely to see on the CW or some Netflix/Amazon/elsewhere shows. And in Femme Fatales you get…well, ‘femmes fatales’.

Femme Fatales 2

Okay, only ‘sort of’. There are bad girlz aplenty. I’m not suggesting the series includes anything up to the caliber of Linda Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory in John Dahl’s memorable The Last Seduction, of course. The scripts may deal with romance, crime, adultery, seduction or revenge, all dressed up in a dark, neo-noirish look with a sexy veneer and neatly structured to zero in on centerpiece soft-core sex scenes. Each episode is set up by narrator Tanit Phoenix playing someone called “Lilith”, and the South African actress and pinup model makes cameo appearances as well. Needless to say, the series did not win any Emmy awards.

Tatia Phoenix

I think Femme Fatales is on Netflix. I’m sure I’ve spotted some episodes on YouTube, though I couldn’t say if those are snips, blurry full episodes or fraudulent links to who knows where. (Shouldn’t be surprising that the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ would often use ‘femme fatale’ as a search term.) But complete season DVD sets are available new or good as new for under ten bucks, which fits in nicely with guilty pleasures, which are all the more pleasurable when they’re inexpensive. Are the shows kind of silly? You betcha. But everyone likes to turn off their brain for an occasional half hour, myself included. After all, that’s precisely what guilty pleasures are supposed to be.

 

 

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