The Last Seduction

*** (A must-see)

Directed by John Dahl

Written by Steve Barancik

With Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, Bill Pullman, Bill Nunn, and J.T. Walsh.

Director John Dahl may be carving out a lonely niche for himself as an auteur filmmaker specializing in film noir. Hot on the heels of Red Rock West, his sleeper hit of last spring, comes another highly engrossing little gem of dark motives and deception, The Last Seduction. Like his two previous features–the first was Kill Me Again, an underrated thriller that was barely distributed–this one is a noir drama along classic lines. But Dahl has added some contemporary twists that give the film greater depth–he supplies the usual greed, deception, seduction, and theft, but he also gives us a thoroughly modern, high-octane femme fatale in Bridget Gregory, played with slinky omnivorousness by Linda Fiorentino. She leaves her bad-women predecessors in the dust.

What distinguishes this film from other recent noir efforts is Dahl’s ability to create plausible characters in a believably modern milieu. Other films noirs of recent vintage can’t seem to do much but ape the manners, the cynicism, and the prevailing sense of doom that typify the genre. Two examples that come to mind–Stephen Frears’s 1990 The Grifters and James Foley’s 1990 After Dark, My Sweet–have in common that they’re too-faithful adaptations of the books they’re based on, both of them novels by Jim Thompson, one of the great sources for film noir. Neither director imposes any true authorial sense on the material, though After Dark, My Sweet is the better movie. In The Grifters Frears’s one major change is to update the story to the present. But he remains faithful to the original story’s treatment of the characters, who walk and talk as if it were 1950. The result is highly stylized but fractured–a film with a modern look populated by unbelievable, anachronistic characters, despite fine performances by Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening. Foley had the good sense to really bring the characters up to date. However, even After Dark, My Sweet doesn’t resonate much, doesn’t go beyond genre exercise; Foley hasn’t reworked the material in a way that makes it his own. Perhaps he was afraid to tamper with Thompson’s wonderfully skewed sensibility.

Dahl’s three features, besides being good, gripping fun, exhibit little of the preciousness that dooms The Grifters or the overstated reverence that hampers After Dark. He doesn’t take a pious approach to the material, instead moving the story along in workmanlike fashion. Bridget induces her husband Clay (Bill Pullman) to pull off a dangerous drug deal, then takes the money herself. Fleeing New York City for Chicago, she stops in the little upstate burg of Beston and, on the advice of her attorney (J.T. Walsh, always a delight in nuanced sleaze), decides to cool out there for a while. Her first night she goes to a bar for a drink and meets the sincere but unwitting Mike (Peter Berg), who tries to pick her up. She calls him on a sexual challenge, quickly taking control of the situation, and goes home with him. There’s a subplot about her husband sending a detective named Harlan (Bill Nunn) to bring her back to New York, but most of the story is concerned with Bridget hoodwinking Mike into helping her hang onto the stolen money and get her husband out of the way.

The story sounds similar to other films noirs, but thanks in part to the tight, dark-humored script by Steve Barancik, it rarely seems cliched or derivative: there are plenty of cruelly humorous lines, as when Bridget proposes a murder plot to the disbelieving Mike, then complains, “You said you wanted to be more than sex partners.” Fiorentino’s Bridget is the real centerpiece of the film, however. Alternately hard as nails and yielding, but just to the precise point of getting what she wants, she is the paradigm of sociopathic manipulation. That she is umpteen times smarter than anyone else in the film makes her all the more pernicious–and appealing. Fiorentino creates a finely etched portrait of a person untethered by any semblance of conscience; it seems Bridget is so preoccupied with who she’s going to screw over next that she never has time to consider her actions.

Film noir has always featured deliciously convincing ultrabitch femmes fatales, beginning with one of the genre’s first bona fide classics, Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity (which Dahl cites as one of his personal favorites). Barbara Stanwyck set the standard for the down-and-dirty double cross. But what distinguishes The Last Seduction from others of its ilk is the degree to which Bridget is a lone operator. Although, like Stanwyck, she seduces an uncomprehending man to carry out her plot, unlike Stanwyck she never shows a trace of remorse or ambivalence. Indeed, in her own perverse way, Stanwyck falls for her accomplice (Fred MacMurray, in what was probably his best role), a plot development that became de rigueur in films noirs; the femme fatale could be wicked up to a point, but then she’d reveal herself to be at least somewhat vulnerable, having something resembling a heart.

Dahl has dispensed with this requirement altogether, and it makes for a much more satisfying story. We don’t need to be reassured that Bridget is, after all, human–it’s not germane. Except for several instances when she’s trying to get something from Mike or her husband, she never pretends to be anyone other than who she is, and when she does her pretense is only halfhearted. Although several reviewers have suggested that Dahl’s and Barancik’s depiction of Bridget is misogynistic, just the opposite would appear to be true. The argument could be made that she is the ultimate result of the women’s movement: she’s smarter and quicker and has bigger balls than any of the men she comes into contact with.

Consciously or not, Dahl may be critiquing the heartlessness of white-collar business, and by extension women who want to be part of it. In the film’s opening scene, we see Bridget working as a telemarketing supervisor, driving her crew on to the next sale by dangling $100 bills in their faces. Later, when she’s holed up in Beston, she effortlessly secures a job at a bank as the generator of telemarketing leads (coincidentally, it’s the same place Mike works). Whether going about her job or orchestrating her latest crime, she is utterly efficient and competent. Her business smarts enable her to gain access to computerized customer lists, and this puts in motion her most devious and elaborate plot. (Barancik was once a telemarketing supervisor, which is how he conjured up some of the intricacies of the plot.)

Another distinctive touch to Dahl’s story, with an assist from cameraman Jeffrey Jur, is to set much of the action during the day in sterile, modern, evenly lit offices and homes in the rural town of Beston, running counter to most urban, night-enshrouded films noirs. Unlike noir heroines of the past, Bridget thrives in this atmosphere of airlessness and order: it’s her personal hothouse. Composer Joseph Vitarelli’s jazzy musical score, alternately sprightly and moody and at times reminiscent of Miles Davis during his cool period, nicely colors Bridget’s businesslike manner: the score is an important but unobtrusive element of the film.

If Dahl proves that a good contemporary film noir does more than pay tribute to stylistic pooh-bahs, another departure of his is perhaps more fascinating, if ultimately problematic: he pretty much dispenses with moral accountability. Most films noirs–and especially those in the first wave, immediately after World War II–were to a large degree morality plays, and in this regard they weren’t much different from westerns or other crime films. With the United States and much of the rest of the world in a state of flux after the war, there was plenty of material to draw on. Toss in the burgeoning fear of communism and the booming business of organized crime, and a very rich mix emerged. Many films noirs, specifically some of the cheaper ones shot at smaller studios like Eagle and Republic, exploited these timely topics, turning them into little parables of good and evil. Many of these efforts are amazing examples of unconscious, artless hysteria. But some of them are minor classics, including those made by such directors as Edgar Ulmer (Detour, Ruthless), Anthony Mann (T-Men, Raw Deal), and Cy Endfield (The Underworld Story, Try and Get Me).

What lends these films–and most noir–so much power and intensity is their ability to immerse us in the dark, sinister components of our world while maintaining a strong moral compass. If someone is an extortionist or murderer in a noir film, one can anticipate retribution by the film’s end. Perhaps one of the first counterexamples is Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown (though some would argue this movie isn’t film noir), challenging the viewer’s expectations by showing that crime does indeed pay.

While The Last Seduction isn’t anywhere near the complex and disturbing masterpiece that Chinatown is, it does contain more social commentary than has generally been ascribed to it. That earlier film had plenty to say about how men can control and destroy women, but here we find ourselves siding with the crook, not the cop, and it’s no coincidence the crook’s a woman. It can be argued whether the film exhibits a particularly jaded sense of morality or simply reflects the way things are, and to some degree have always been. Either way, Bridget emerges with a vitality and perverse integrity the other characters lack. Putting moral arguments aside, the movie does a cogent if cynical job of charting genuine progress in equal rights when it comes to crime. It shows us that women can be as good as–if not better than–men at getting away with murder.