The Lascivious Gaze
In The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell offers a fascinating, provocative passage about the difference between cinema and the other arts as he says that the female body is clothed but can be imagined naked. Here we have the actress dressed for the part but the clothes are the concealment of the unclothed. "In paintings and in the theatre, clothes reveal a person's character and his station, also his body and its attitudes. The clothes are the body, as the expression is the face. In movies, clothes conceal; hence they conceal something separate from them: the something is therefore empirically there to be unconcealed. A woman in a movie is dressed (as she is, when she is, in reality), hence potentially undressed." This is troublesome for various reasons, as Cavell only mentions the women - as if he cannot quite countenance the disrobing of the man. It is also argumentatively apparently weak: doesn't theatre offer us actors clothed who could easily be disrobed, and doesn't painting, while dealing with models painted rather than women filmed or watched, have a long history of the nude? However, quibbling with Cavell won't take us very far, while running with an aspect of his argument might take us quite far indeed, especially if we suggest that it was only at a certain stage in cinema's development that the idea we could imagine the woman undressed became pertinent.
Watching both the 1946 and the 1964 versions of The Killers, Ava Gardner seems to us someone who remains not just clothed, but incapable of being imaginatively disrobed, while Angie Dickinson, who also keeps her clothes on throughout, nevertheless appear to us 'disrobeable'. Those who have a few problems with Cavell's argument might have a few more with the one we are presenting here, but let us run with it nevertheless. Now this doesn't have to do with nudity (even if Dickinson would later in her career do nude scenes as Gardner did not) - it rests more on an explicit nature of the gaze and of the body language. If numerous femmes fatale of the forties suggested a sexual presence, it still seemed secondary to the financial gains that could be accumulated out of their status as calculating beauties. They weren't desiring; they were desired - and money could be gained from the fall guys who fell for their charms. This is very evident in the original film, where we sense that Gardner loves nobody more than herself, with Burt Lancaster the besotted man who gets caught in a scam. Whether Dickinson loves John Cassavetes' racing car driver might be moot, but there is little doubt that she desires him sexually - we can imagine Cassavetes and Dickinson making love as we cannot readily see Lancaster and Gardner doing so. This of course rests partly on the dressed lovemaking scenes in 1964 version that are absent from the original, but it is also an aspect of actresses from a more modern era taking advantage of the sexual revolution in film form to express themselves. If Cavell could say in another book on cinema, Pursuits of Happiness, that he thought the remarriage comedies he focused upon were a product of actresses of a certain age (early thirties) arriving at a certain age in history (the late thirties and early forties), then we can claim too that the imaginative possibilities of the women taking their clothes off became evident in the sixties. A series of actors seemed to straddle classic Hollywood and more permissive cinematic times; we can think of Dickinson, Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, Tuesday Weld, for example.
It is useful here to distinguish these actresses from the femme fatale and the sex bomb, from Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth in the former instance; Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Kim Novak in the latter. While the former group suggested an intelligence contained by the cunning; the latter, and none more so than Monroe, indicated an ingenuous or blunt sexuality bordering on the perverse. The sexual presence in the latter was so pronounced that it hinted at the burlesque as we could easily imagine a trans-Marilyn (indeed a pop star even went by that name in the eighties), as we could not a trans-Dickinson. Indeed, in the film that Dickinson appeared in on that theme (Dressed to Kill), the woman that analyst Michael Caine impersonates looks nothing like Dickinson herself. Can we imagine the fifties sex bombs as burlesque male stars partly because we do not expect to see them undressed? In Some Like it Hot, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag do take their style from Monroe's character. In what we will call the lascivious gaze, the actress is feminine indeed as we can easily imagine her without her clothes on.
Lest this article be seen as a sexist account of a heterosexual male viewer's desire, another one could easily be written too about the shift in masculinity, with Brando introducing the possibility of a man disrobed into cinema, evident also with Clift, Newman and Dean. When we see Clark Gable without a vest in It Happened One Night, we still see man posing his sexuality, while in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando imposes his. But to explore that further is for another article; for the moment we want to see how it plays out in the female actor, and at a slightly later period than the man, not least because while Cavell locates the idea of the undressed as ontological cinematic fact, our point of disagreement rests on it also lying in historical detail. That certain developments in society, a certain loosening of censorship in cinema, allowed for this possibility.
Angie Dickinson is a good place to start because she very much straddles the classic and the modern, Hollywood wholesomeness and the lascivious gaze. She became a modest start after Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, yet five years later in The Killers we see a woman whose entire existence is sexual as we can trace this path with some of the films in between where she is both wholesome and sexual. One thinks here especially of Fever in the Blood and Jessica. In the first, she plays a dutiful wife with a politically ambitious husband, but he is ambitious because he loves her, and she is dutiful because of a mix-up years earlier over a friend of her husband's - a man she has always been in love with but who was married. The film's convoluted story concerns a murder case where Dickinson's husband seems happier getting a conviction rather than caring about the solution of the crime, but what interest us is Dickinson's resoluteness. From the moment we see her setting eyes on the friend after years apart we know she loves him, but she also knows that she is a married woman who cares about her husband. What is she to do? The film helps resolve the problem for her with its tortuous plotting but it seems a very Dickinsonian role that she can show clear desire for one man while leaving us convinced that she also loves but isn't in love with the other one. In Jessica, she is an American woman arriving in a small Italian village determined to forget all about her late ex, only to be reminded of her beauty at every opportunity as all the men in the village fall in love with her. Dickinson plays the role without any hint of the coquettish, and there is no sense when she finally accepts the advances of the town's most august citizen that she is betraying the memory of her late ex or getting involved for money. In one scene she stands dressed in a blue suit and white blouse looking like she has wandered in from The Killers, while the locals are dressed in village garb, yet manages to convey an air of integrity as she confronts the gossiping gang. "My devil-inspired body. What quaint words signorigna you use for your dirty thoughts," she says, taking the moral high ground that we don't doubt she is entitled to take. We see it again The Chase as she plays Marlon Brando's wife as a supportive figure who stands by her man and registers her moral disgust as he gets beaten up for having the audacity to protect a black man in his custody. This isn't to say women should remain dutiful to their husbands; more that Dickinson's capacity to express desire and duty simultaneously isn't a common trait.
Thus sexual pleasure is not antithetical to being sincere, and this is where The Killers is quite interesting. The film hints at this when others talk about the idea that while she would sleep with a bullfighter, boxer or a racing car driver for pleasure, stability always lay with Ronald Reagan's father figure - and perhaps also a perverse duty. Yet she also feels duty towards Cassavetes also. Cassavetes' character might be the latest in a line of exciting young men she gets her kicks with, but the film wouldn't work if we didn't believe that the desire she has for Johnny wasn't vivid. "I love you, Johnny" she says as they kiss on the floor in his apartment, conveying well an unequivocal desire in what is no doubt an equivocal feeling. There is no man she would rather sleep with, but she also has a sweet tooth: a taste for luxury that she later admits to and that Johnny cannot supply. "I like nice things", she tells him. "which woman doesn't." Before returning to the apartment for their first sexual assignation they dance in a club. As the camera retreats from the singer and finds Dickinson and Cassavetes on the dance floor, the camera moves in on them in one shot, the light playing off their faces as they are illuminated by the light one moment; shadows the next. Cassavetes talks of white flags as the conversation is based on the double entendre, while Dickinson insists on unconditional surrender in a throaty, sexual manner. The desire manifest is not that of the wary noir heroine determined to play the man, but simply to get him into bed at the soonest possible opportunity. It is partly why the film is not fundamentallymotivated. When later in the film she double crosses Cassavetes and sides with Reagan, this is contingent to the situation: she never sleeps with him to get the money initially. Sleeping with Johnny is not part of some grand, economic plan. When they are back in the apartment and making love on the floor, this is not a woman who would rather be somewhere else; she is exactly where she wants to be: a woman of the sixties who knows she is entitled to take her pleasure where she can find it and doesn't think she will find it more fulfillingly at that moment than with Cassavetes.
In another passage from Cavell's The World Viewed, the philosopher discusses whether actors of the sixties had the same resonance as actors from an earlier era and believes they do not. He doesn't quite know whether this is a personal response or a generalisation that holds good beyond his own prejudices, but one thing we could say is that something had changed: that the actor was willing to lose an aspect of their iconic status as part of the dream factory, becoming more embodied figures of people's sexual fantasies. Dickinson was a minor star in film, but a major actor in this shift. "I dress for women and I undress for men" she once said, but there is in the way that she would dress in films like The Killers and Point Blank that shows she is dressed as if in a state of prepared disrobing. We might think of the moment in Point Blank where the odious villain Reese starts to undress her, an example where she is faking pleasure towards a man she despises. She looks the part partly because she is playing it but there is a sense that in both The Killers and Point Blank that she is always playing a role. This has nothing to do with whether or not she is attracted to the man; more how attractive she needs to feel towards herself. She seems more a seducer than the seduced or abandoned: drenched in her own sexual energy rather than switching it on and off at will, or at another's whim. It is partly what makes both The Killers and Point Blankfascinating: that she needs sex in her life as a pleasurable release.
Does this lead to a different look in film: the lascivious gaze that shows the woman looking back? If Laura Mulvey notes in 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' that the history of filmmaking has generally been that of the male gaze to the detriment of the female's, then what happens if the woman is a sexual object that nevertheless returns the look? Might we even say that unless the woman offers this lustful look the male gaze is hardly sexual at all, but instead merely possessive. Whether it is Gable in It Happened One Night, or Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, the men are finally proprietorial: the look can only be sexual if it is met and though sparks certainly fly brilliantly, and mainly comedically, in each, the look is not quite met. One reason why Vertigo can prove central to Mulvey's thesis is that the gaze is Stewart's on Novak's; it is not Novak's on Stewart. While Mulvey understandably makes much of this and thus searched for a feminist cinema that would generate a female gaze as central to a new mode of viewing, of fundamentally changing cinematic perception, for our purposes we believe this was happening within traditional cinema as a narrative component. Mulvey says, "after all, even if it is admitted that the woman is frequently the object of the voyeuristic or fetishistic gaze in the cinema, what is there to prevent her from reversing the relation and appropriating the gaze for her own pleasure?" ('Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema') Yet we can see it in minor form in some of Dickinson's films as the object of the gaze became the subject of desire and thus The Killers is itself a minor film that is nevertheless very interesting from the point of view of point of view. Dickinson's Sheila Farr is not quite the helpless woman or the hopelessly greedy lady who wants it all, she seems like a woman whose sexual pleasures are important to her, and can convey in a look the difference between a man which can give her release and a man who cannot. In the scene where the gang is discussing the heist that is the film's central point, Ronald Reagan doesn't assert his sexual prowess over her when he asks her to leave the room; he reveals his impotence. "You get back to the hotel and stay there", Reagan says in a high angle that reflects more than that he is sitting down. The film cuts to a low angle on Dickinson saying that "I like it here". The camera holds on Dickinson as he tells her to get moving, before she repeats "I said, I like it here" as she looks offscreen and not towards Reagan, as the films cuts to Cassavetes. Though after the slap Cassavetes does the manly thing and sock Reagan, the blow has already been dealt in Dickinson's sexual assertiveness. There is an ostensibly similar scene in the earlier version, but it is for the purposes of plot mechanics as Gardner is given little sexualpresence within the sequence.
When writing on the remarriage comedies Cavell sees as we have noted that the films came out at a particular time, and are of a particular time. The female characters are the emancipated women who would have been historically the children of Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, Margaret Sanger. They are women who think nothing of wearing trousers and power suits, but they wouldn't be inclined to agree with Dickinson that they dress for women and undress for men. We might think that Katharine Hepburn especially, but also Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck, would be more inclined to give a dressing down to the men than undress for them. Does this make the sexualised presence of Dickinson a reactive one? This depends on whether one privileges a feminisation of power or a sexually acknowledged femininity. Hepburn and Stanwyck are powerful actresses but they aren't very sexual ones, and we say this taking into account the significance of Stanwyck's role as one of the great femmes fatale in Double Indemnity. Yet the operative organ in Billy Wilder's film is the brain; Stanwyck's sexuality is not there for pleasure, it is to be used for her own material ends, rather different from the remake, Body Heat, with Kathleen Turner. Here the two come together in gaining pleasure for her present self and financial security for her future on a tropical beach. This is a performance that has passed through the possibilities of the lascivious gaze which Dickinson and others ushered in.
Vital to the difference between the classic noirs of the forties and their updated nineties versions (Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, Jade, Body of Evidence), rests on this gaze. Some of the films are more sexually explicit than others - with Basic Instinctinfamous for the leg-crossing scene - but what interests us here is the look on the women's faces: the assertiveness of their body language, not the body that happens to be on display. When in Basic Instinct the detectives come round to take Sharon Stone in for questioning, Michael Douglas sees her slipping into a slinky dress minus underwear, but this is the part that signifies the whole: that she is a woman in control, living in a luxury mansion she owns, and a male gaze she can easily take possession of. This is not Mulvey's wish for a cinema that is more radical in its capacity to look, but one that sexualises the woman's regard. Mulvey says in her essay that, "in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between "active male and passive/female and by extension the desired female and the desiring male." There is nothing radical in director Paul Verhoeven's vision, but he updates Hitchcock for the purposes of acknowledging female desire. The film is pulpy, vulgar and opportunistic; nevertheless, the woman's pleasure is acknowledged as it could not have been fifty years earlier, with Verhoeven's film offering a variation on Cavell's comment about the emancipatory revolution offered by Roosevelt, Perkins and Sanger. Stone's performance is made possible by the sexual revolution and the performances of Dickinson, Fonda and Ann-Margret.
That great critic of actors David Thomson claimed Dickinson his favourite actress in hisBiographical Dictionary of Film. What might allow a critic so attentive to the actor to regard Dickinson so highly, an actress who could admit "I was a leading lady but never the lead"? We might suspect it rests on the sort of personal opinion a good critic or philosopher tackling cinema can get away with. That whether it is Cavell commenting on the lack of interesting actors in the sixties, or Thomson insisting that he favoured Dickinson over everyone else, they are reflecting their times. It isn't that Cavell is right to say the actors were more engaging in the thirties and forties, or that Thomson is wrong to rate Dickinson so highly, it is that cinema even, or perhaps especially, at a philosophical or critically astute level, seems to ask of us such claims. We perhaps take cinema more personally than any of the other arts, and especially the actor who exists both like a God and a neighbour: someone whose image is blown up on the screen, and whose life is blown out of all proportion in the magazines. Their private lives are never quite their own as they are for writers and painters, or even the directors who film them.
This is what psychoanalytic cinema studies half-understood and that Mulvey was tapping into. Yet there was a sense in psychoanalytic film theory that the libidinal economy of film needed to be tempered not unleashed, that it could play too easily into our ready desires and result in socio-political false consciousness. It drew on Lacan's idea of misrecognition. As Christian Metz says in 'Identification, Mirror': film is "a mirror then, very like that of childhood, and very different. Very like, as Jean-Louis Baudry has emphasized, because during the showing we are, like the child, in a sub-motor and hyper-perceptive state; because, like the child again, we are prey to the imaginary, the double, and so, paradoxically through a real perception." There is some validity to this, but one also might feel that the writers would sometimes focus on abstract theory rather than concrete example. Metz's Psychoanalysis and Film draws on about twenty films over a three hundred page book. Cavell and Thomson give examples aplenty as they examine film as a pleasure principle. It is as if in psychoanalytic film studies the films are always secondary to the idea, while Cavell and Thompson try and extract from films ideas about them. This doesn't mean film isn't dangerous in psychoanalytically political terms: how much over the years have our personalities been shaped, our role models discovered, and our behaviour affected, by very rich, very attractive people pretending to be someone else? Is this really such a good way to understand the world and our place within it? Perhaps not always, but to comprehend an aspect of desire in the 20th century few places are more useful than cinema in helping us explain it. What we find interesting is seeing in a relatively minor Hollywood figure a desire that registers a societal shift much more completely than stars much bigger than Dickinson - like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. The former seemed to push into the sexual too categorically (for all her brilliance), and the latter appeared to be countering it - as if insisting that there is still a place for innocence within beauty.
There is little innocence in Dickinson's persona, as though she made more fundamental in The Killers the classical noir notion that women were never really interested in the man, only in the money. Dickinson would seem to be interested in the money too (evident when talking about having nice things), but while the typical noir hero might console themselves with the idea that, all things being equal, they would always only ever be losing out to the cash, Dickinson suggests something more frightening to the fragile masculine ego. She wouldn't be faking pleasure for the sake of the puffed up man, but taking pleasure for her own sexual needs, and various men will satisfy that want. Dickinson is a thrill seeker, someone who after first meeting Cassavetes immediately wants to be taken for a ride - a literal one in his souped-up racing car around the track. She is drawn to the dangerous in sporting form - hence the affairs with a matador and a boxer. Who will be next after she gets bored with racing car drivers? One senses in Dickinson's persona a voracious sexual appetite that we also of course find in Point Blank, Big Bad Mamma, Dressed to Kill. and Pretty Maids All in a Row. A man needn't worry whether she is for real or not (there isn't even an attempt at that when she seduces the villain in Point Blank), but how real she could be with others also. When she whispers to Cassavetes as they lie on the floor that she loves him, this has a different inflection from its forties equivalent. While we believe that in classic Hollywood cinema there is a beseeching tone even if it is fake, whether sincere or otherwise the tone indicates a love towards infinity; in Dickinson's it suggests a desire that is decidedly finite. It is a declaration of love that asks for another bout of sexual pleasure over a line that indicates, marriage, house and kids. Reagan's character in The Killers is a sugar daddy alright, but he cannot supply the honey: there is no sense at all of a sexual relationship between Dickinson and Reagan. He keeps her in the manner to which she has become accustomed, but the pleasures of the flesh are a temporary phenomenon that she must find elsewhere.
This notion of the sexually temporary is what would seem to have made Dickinson such a contemporary actress, with the sixties ushering in a period not so much of free love but love that could not claim an earlier permanence. We couldn't easily see Dickinson in a comedy of remarriage except if the genre were reconfigurated for the modern era: the remarriage would be to a new partner, an Updikean comedy of manners morally accepting that the times they are a changing and with it marriages come and go. One could easily imagine Dickinson in an adaptation of an Updike or John Cheever story, someone who has gone through two or three marriages and comes across not as a bitter figure broken by divorce, but someone awaiting the next opportunity. She could of course play the mistress too, yet without the expectation that the husband should leave his wife; he just has to make sure he is capable of regularly pleasuring her. In the TV series she made in the mid-seventies as an undercover cop, Police Woman the first clips available on YouTube show her as a model lounging by a pool in a bikini, a stripper working in a club, and a tennis player in a short skirt. She is the professional woman with a sexual persona: someone who knows the pleasures of the flesh are as fundamental as justice.
We don't want to equate here Angie Dickinson the person with Angie Dickinson the persona, and it would be nave of us to draw analogies between the two even if the numerous interviews Dickinson gave on various television chat shows with Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers and others would play up the sexual. In an appearance in 1983 at fifty-two on the Joan Rivers Show, Rivers introduces the actress thus: "a woman with a great body. She was born with measurements...the men just go crazy for her." Arriving on the show Dickinson doesn't do anything to contradict the impression, saying after Rivers speaks of jewellery and asks if men give her things, Dickinson replies with a resolute "yes". However, when asked about her personal life she deflects the question and this suggests that while she is happy playing up her persona that doesn't mean she is happy to talk about herself. We should never forget that the talk show is part of the actor's performance, part of the synergetic appeal of the movie star who knows that more than other artists they cannot easily separate the self that they happen to be on screen and the person they happen to be in life - because they are on screen as directors and cinematographers are not. And they are different from theatre actors partly because of Cavell's earlier point about being potentially unclothed, but also because of the intimacies demanded of them on screen. It might be small moments of body language as one clears a table or washes some dishes, folds the clothes or makes coffee. In theatre these would demand exaggerated gestures; in film they must be done with the maximum amount of fidelity to the specific action. Even if the screen actor insists that they are playing a role, faking a feeling, just doing a job, the nature of that job is quite different from most others.
Thus what we want to emphasize is not the personal life of an actress, but the existential dimension of the profession that allows film to mimic reality rather than offer the autobiographical. These are not one and the same: with the latter we have an individual exposure; the former a symptomatic exploration. If we insist that Dickinson captured a sexuality of the times in the US better than almost anyone else, this does not rest in any intentional, confessional aspect on her part, but that is embodied in her persona; that she exemplified more astutely than anybody else that sexual shift. "I have never knowingly dated a Republican" (Vanity Fair) Dickinson proposes in her distinctive combination of innocence and knowingness, even if two of her major roles were starring opposite them: John Wayne in Rio Bravo and Ronald Reagan in The Killers. It was as if she was never going to be reflecting conservative values when her body and face reflected progressive ones. This is partly why we suggested that film is not confessional but symptomatic: what does someone's being indicate about the world? Are there Republican faces and Democratic faces: faces that indicate the preservation of values or faces that open themselves to change? Jane Fonda was so much more obviously a Democratic figure than Dickinson, evident in the politically inflected roles she would take in Klute (feminism), Tout va Bien (consumerism), Coming Home (anti-war) and others, as well her open protestations against the Vietnam war that led to the nickname Hanoi Jane. But while Fonda would be one of a number of actresses from the sixties who suggested liberalism in various manifestations including the sexual, we believe Dickinson better represents the sexual revolution in American film. This rests partly on her age. Born in 1931, she was a young actress in the fifties who was only six years younger than Marilyn Monroe; three years younger than Audrey Hepburn. Monroe and Hepburn were the most important icons of the late fifties into the sixties, and retain their status as two of the most significant female stars in film history, yet neither of them ushered in a new era: Monroe was perhaps too tied to the male idea of a woman, and Hepburn offered the ultimate gamine. When we see Dickinson in easy intimacy with Cassavetes in The Killers, we are witnessing a woman entitled to her desires. In many of Hepburn's important films she starred opposite much older men without a younger one available to pleasure her: Sabrina, Funny Face and My Fair Lady. In The Killers, Reagan is as we've noted the sugar daddy but Dickinson gets her candy fix elsewhere. In Dickinson's performance everything is sexualised: when she and Cassavetes arrive from a ride around the track the camera cuts from the mechanic with his back to us as the sports car comes to a halt and we get a frontal shot of Dickinson and Cassavetes in the car. Dickinson looks like she is in a state of post-coital pleasure, with the film's use of rear projection during the sequence indicating that this has little to do with Cassavetes' racing driving skills and much more to do with the thrill-seeking as metaphor for Dickinson's desire. In both The Killers and Point Blank when she uses the word love she offers it with the breathy authority of someone who knows what pleasure is.
In The Killers as she whispers into Cassavetes' ear she says "I love you", repeating it as the camera is in close and she offers it almost as a caressive kiss. In Point Blank she has just been woken up by Lee Marvin whom she hasn't seen in a long time. As he asks her about her life determined to find a man Reese who has double-crossed him, she says she has no interest in Reese: he makes her skin crawl. She then talks about the man she loved who is now dead. "You know. I loved him" she says, though we have no idea exactly how long they were together. When she says "I love you" in The Killers, the feeling would seem to pass through her entire body; and the same here: it is an orgasmic declaration. While Don Siegel's The Killers gives us the moment in extreme close up; in Point Blank director John Boorman keeps his distance, offering the exchange in a medium shot, with Lee Marvin on the left hand side of the frame sitting on the bed, Dickinson slightly further away on the right hand side lying in it. In both instances, the love she expresses is concupiscent even if in The Killers Johnny is alive and in her arms, and in Point Blank her ex dead.
"Except for her eloquent faceand at 48 she was at the peak of her beautythe scene is played with a body double, but it's her face that delivers the erotic charge. " So says Sam Kashner in Vanity Fair, speaking of Dressed to Kill. We wouldn't want to disagree and partly why we insist that though Dickinson did occasionally disrobe it could exist as a look and a promise. Brian De Palma's use of a body double might have protected Dickinson's modesty but it insulted her gift for sexual metonymics: the ability to convey the sexual with but a part of her own body and not the prosthetic of somebody else's. The scene works due to Dickinson's lascivious gaze, just as her roles in The Killers andPoint Blank do likewise. Yet we shouldn't ignore completely Dickinson's voice. It is somewhere between Monroe's breathless need to convey her enthusiasm for the company of a man, and Fonda's trace of resentfulness that can give the voice a tight frigidity. Dickinsons's is resolute yet warm, yearning and present. It suggests a woman in control of her feelings but keen to share them with someone else. We can return to the moment in The Killers just before Ronald Reagan slaps her as the gang discuss the bank heist. She was far from the first noir figure to get a slap for her temerity, but she might have been the first who could easily convey to the audience the pleasure on her mind over the pain just received. In The Killers when the films cuts away to Dickinson after Cassavetes punches out Reagan the look on her face isn't too different from the one we saw earlier after the racing car comes to a halt.
At the beginning of this essay we started by questioning how dubious some of Cavell's claims happen to be, and he adds another we have touched upon in passing when he says "the interchangeability of the new performers - and of course, not merely of their faces and trappings, but of their demeanor and postures and cadences, and the way they inhabit their trappings - is a perfect negation of that condition of movies I described as one in which individuality is the subject of film." (The World Viewed) Cavell does not see in the films of the sixties the same individuality he sees in the films of the thirties and forties, but we could say that we did not see in the films of the thirties and forties the individuality we find in the films of the sixties. This wouldn't make Cavell wrong on the question of taste, but it could make us question his judgement: that it is subjective; no less than ours. When Thomson says "why would I rather see this, the 1964 television remake, in drab red-sauce color, than the magnificent Siodmak-Bredell original? Well, you can call it perversity, and I can hear the dirty-minded whispers that this guy could never resist five minutes of Police Woman just because Angie Dickinson was in it." (Have You Seen...?) Here Thomson augments his claim that Dickinson is his favourite actress with a lascivious gaze of his own. Thomson the critic need not give philosophical weight to his pleasure principle; Cavell feels under more of an obligation. Yet whether critic or philosopher what counts is creating a perspective that justifies one's own prejudices without reducing them to the most meagre of opinions. Our own attempt has been to suggest that for some strange reason neither backed up by biographical ambition or box-office success, neither by lead roles nor feminist ideals, Dickinson represents as well as any other actress of her time the promiscuous possibilities of the period. She was vital to a new look that wasn't only a question of style - though we can view the publicity stills for Dickinson's fifties films and then view too the sixties and seventies ones to see a major difference. It was also the look in Dickinson's eye, quite distinct from a previous era. As Joyce Carol Oates says in her fictional account of Marlyn Monroe, Blonde, Monroe could see that what mattered wasn't the desire in her eyes but the desire in the man's and that her purpose was to react to it. As feminism goes Dickinson's insistence that the desire is her own might not seem like much, but emancipation and individuation take many forms, and we can do worse than look at Dickinson's work to see that changes were indeed afoot, and that Dickinson well captures them.
© Tony McKibbin