One of noir’s most salient features is self-destruction. Some characters live and die by their own foolish hand; others are doomed by “fate.” And a very few escape the worst part of themselves triumph — or at least survive, mostly in tact — by film’s end. This means noir is chock full of hot shitty messes. While in real life we can’t afford to fall for criminals, alcoholics, and greedy two-timers, this type can be truly spellbinding in film. So, for a belated Thanksgiving treat, here are five hot noir messes I’m thankful for.
(Note: I got the idea for this post by adapting The Old Hollywood Garden’s “Likeable Characters in Film Noir.” Have a read/visit to this blog if you aren’t already following!)
5. Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) and Candy (Jean Peters) in Pickup on South Street (1953)
These two have to be one of the best couples in noir. The film doesn’t make clear what gets Skip to fall for Candy when he’s entirely hostile to and distrusting of her at first. And the absurd cold war microfilm plot is…well…absurd. But I absolutely cheer them on as they begin to work together and fall in love, and the final scene of the film is utterly endearing. Who can resist when tough-talking but warm and wonderful Candy bets the police she’ll keep pickpocket Skip from ever going to jail again. Not me!
4. Rita (Helene Stanton) in The Big Combo (1955)
Rita is the tough burlesque babe with a heart of gold. She loves the film’s protagonist, police officer Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde), and she alternately sleeps with him and gets ignored by him and puts up with it. Her beautiful darkness is contrasted to depleted blonde gangster’s moll Susan (Jean Wallace), for whom Leonard falls hard. Susan is sympathetic, but she lacks the street-wise sharpness of Rita. Most frustrating is that Rita’s purpose in the film is ultimately reduced to motivator for Leonard when she is murdered in his flat. Her death, not her life, inspire Leonard to bring down Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) and claim Susan. As I see it, Rita deserves more and better.
3. Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) in The Big Heat (1953)
She’s the mobster’s girlfriend with (it turns out after a pot of boiling coffee in the face) a heart of gold. Debby is sarcastic and sexy, then sympathetic and self-sacrificing, all in one movie. If that doesn’t make her a hot mess, I don’t know what would. It’s an iconic, unforgettable performance by Grahame, one of noir’s hottest messes.
2. Sam (Lawrence Tierney) in Born to Kill (1947)
If I hadn’t seen the film (several times) with my own eyes, I’d never have pegged Tierney for one of the hottest messes in noir. Sam (especially opposite Claire Trevor’s Helen) burns with a need to prove himself, to be “someone.” He wants power, but, even more, he wants to be admired. He lacks the social status or the brains to achieve his goals, so he marries into money, devastating the one hot mess of a woman who truly desires him. He’s a sociopath, to be sure, but he’s also viciously magnetic, with Tierney just devouring the role — as he would soon devour his own career in booze and violence.
1. Gilda (Rita Hayworth) in Gilda (1946)
There’s no hotter mess in film noir than Gilda. She’s bold, brash, determined, self-destructive, and stunning. She’s plastered with the femme fatale label, but she’s mostly lonely, restless, and driven by anger at having given her heart to Johnny (Glenn Ford), a man who doesn’t deserve her. Although the happy ending makes me cringe (because Johnny still doesn’t deserve her), I want Gilda to have whatever her heart desires…just as I wanted that for Rita Hayworth who portrays her.