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                                                        Flickhead
Cinema Considerations
By Irene Dobson

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Spanking Babs Stanwyck

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di1bb.JPG    Men behave badly towards women in older films and it makes me miserable! Barbara Stanwyck was born very nearly 100 years ago on 16 July 1907. In Meet John Doe her character, Ann Mitchell, gets put across John Doe’s knee and spanked for some misdemeanour. In Double Indemnity Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) is seized by the shoulders while her lover kisses her roughly on the mouth. In Adam’s Rib or in Pat and Mike (I forget which), Spencer Tracy slaps Katharine Hepburn while he is giving her a massage. Even the heroine of the refined art hit is not immune. In a quite shocking moment in Hiroshima mon amour, Eiji Okada slaps Emmanuelle Riva soundly across the cheek when she emotes over her dead lover back in Nevers. Meanwhile back in America, Dr Samuels in Carnival of Souls grips Candy Hilligoss’ Mary by the arm on the street in full view of passing strangers. In countless British and American films of the ‘40s and ‘50s their men refer to women as “you little fool” or “you silly little fool.” In Breakfast at Tiffany’s George Peppard tells Audrey Hepburn in the back of a New York cab that “I love you! You belong to me!”
    In all of these films these men love these women. All of these films are substantially about how much these men love these women. So why do they keep slapping them, seizing them, bruising them on the mouth, and telling them they belong to them? I am vexed by the way men in older films clutch, seize and get possessive towards the women they supposedly love. Double Indemnity is perhaps a bad example, since its affair is deemed illicit from the start, therefore inauthentic, compared with the Hollywood notion of ‘true love.’ The affair is just sex from the off, with the emphasis on her hair, anklet, sweater, body, as opposed to her eyes, her smile, her kindness, traditional Romantic signs of healthy, hence loveable, femininity. Perhaps Double Indemnity is a bad example because it’s about bad people coming together, a ‘bad’ couple. Film noir is a ‘bad’ genre. Hardly surprising that he treats his lover roughly then. In the days of the Production Code, screenwriters got so worked up that sex might be sublimated in cruelty.
    There was always violence against women in the film noir. But violence against women crops up in many other old genres too. Hiroshima mon amour is a pillar of old-time arthouse The other films I mention are not crime thrillers. They are, in the main, romantic comedies. But if Spencer Tracy slapped me like that I wouldn’t speak to him for a month! And if Eiji Okada slapped me as I became upset over an old flame, I wouldn’t speak to him again! And if George Peppard said those things to me, I would jump out of the cab and go and find my cat! And if a man put me over his knee and spanked me, I would bring charges of assault against him! (And no man calls me a silly little fool without getting cut off socially!)
    Barbara Stanwyck died on 20th January 1990. Phyllis Dietrichson is left to die after getting shot in the stomach twice!! They say that, from the silent girl on the railroad track to the final girl in the slasher horrors, the film is the modern altar of female sacrifice. Recently, I watched Munich and the scene in which Jeanette (Marie-Josée Croze) is murdered and the last thing she does is to stroke her cat made me ache. The sad thing is that I feel moments of violence against women, casual or otherwise, are spoiling films that I have loved… Am I becoming jaded with films?

—Irene Dobson