Season 3, Episode 9: “Femme Fatale” (Francis Delia, director; Jeffrey Bernini, writer)
A 1940s film director gets off on his own creation, and the two guys of Curious Goods “bond” over some “hot videos.”
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: A little bit of Sunset Blvd. here, slightly flipped, with famous 1940s director Desmond Williams (a name that evokes that film’s Norma Desmond) bringing in the young ingenue to watch a film that will transport her onto the screen to die in place of the director’s beloved creation. Lilli Lita is the star of A Scandalous Woman, in which the heroine dies in the end, and she is also the director’s aged wife, an invalid sick in bed, largely (we presume) because she’s being gradually poisoned by her husband, who prefers the character she played to the person she now is. “As long as she’s alive I’ll never be free of that damned film,” says the younger femme fatale version of Lilli, thus establishing the logic of the cursed film print: if current Lilli dies, film Lilli lives.
The concept is fun, as is the episode. But I’m not sure it goes much further than this for me. For one thing, the actress who plays the younger Lilli, stuck in a femme fatale character from a film noir world, is only occasionally a convincing presence. Her successes occur mostly in the black-and-white film in which she’s “stuck,” saying juicy lines like, “I came for the only thing you can give me … a light.” In fact, I wish the manifestation of Lilli from the print were to appear in the show’s reality in black-and-white, as well. That would have been an extra reason for director Desmond’s wish for her not to be seen in his reality.
Erin: Ooh, that would have been so cool. They may not have been able to manage that, technologically.
K: I’m pretty sure they did something similar with the episode “13 O’Clock” (2.9).] Given that Desmond’s films were still being shown, hiding her away seemed ridiculous; anyone who saw her at the screening would have probably thought she was just cosplaying.
E: I’d have to look it up, but it might have actually been a practical effect; ie, body paint and grey clothes.
K: Micki, of course, gets trapped in the film, to live out its scripted scenario where the femme fatale meets her doom, gunned down at the end of a car chase. The climax of the episode runs parallel with this, played out in Desmond’s private screening room (where several others have met their fate). I love that Lilli shows up after Desmond tries to kill her by smothering her with a pillow: “Death scenes were always my forte,” she intones. Awesome! Though her subsequent lines are unnecessary and force a reading on the proceedings that isn’t necessary: “You said you loved me. But what you really loved was that pathetic coward that I portrayed. … I am not that slut you created for your movie.” More effective perhaps is Micki’s comment about being trapped in a genre film (or a semi-anthology horror TV series?): “I was completely at the mercy of everyone around me. I never felt so manipulated.”
E: I actually wrote, “Way to go, Lili!” And yes, loved Micki’s line at the end.
*At the beginning of the episode, Jack appears after a long night “partying,” according to Micki. Jack says they were playing chess, but Johnny has told Micki they stayed up until 4:45am watching “hot videos.” I’m not sure what to make of this detail, on a number of levels, aside from the fact that it ties together the episode’s focus on the moving image and erotic desire.
*Also, I guess this is partly why Johnny seems so resistant to seeing a film noir (in Johnny’s words, a film “they play all the time on TV”) with his new girlfriend. (Incidentally, if there were any more reason not to like Johnny, this works for me.) I’m glad his date ditched him. I’m also pleasantly surprised to see that Johnny’s date, who idolizes director Desmond, doesn’t become a victim of the cursed film print. I guess it’s because it wasn’t Ryan she was dating!
E: Snort. Maybe Gen X Ryan will have greater luck than Baby Boomer Ryan; the curse that made him a kid cures his peen of death!
The Verdict: Fun, but ultimately a bit inconsequential. Probably like having a sex date with Johnny.
E: Hee! And yes, EWWW on the idea of Jack and Johnny watching porn together. Is that a thing straight guys do?
K: It is. As a queer guy, I find it totally hot. But maybe not so much with Jack and Johnny.
E: Hee! I get to learn something new every day!
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): I’m not sure it’s possible (and certainly not by 1989) to have an episode about film or television and not have it be even a little metatextual. Certainly they did here, from fun little Easter eggs to the more serious thread of Desmond’s use of young women to feed his fantasy (and thereby literally destroy them).
I appreciate it when it’s clear the writer did his or her homework: Desmond’s “A Scandalous Woman” says it was released by Paramount, who, of course, co-owns CBS (which produced and aired Ft13th: TS), but it was also known for its noir output. There’s also a fun little Easter egg in the opening credits of the film; it lists “Frederick Mollin” as the composer of the film score; indeed, Fred Mollin is the composer of the series’ score.
What I found really fun (and a bit subversive) was the Sunset Blvd.-ness of it, down to naming the main villain Desmond.
K: Yes! Although his name should have been Norman Desmond, to riff on both Sunset Blvd.’s Norma Desmond, and Norman Bates.
E: Old Lili may wear the turban, but Desmond is the real out-of-touch diva here.
K: Haha, totally.
E: Gender-swapping the one who felt like “it was the pictures that got small” and retreating further and further into his own fantasy allows the episode to say some pretty on-point things (at least for the late 80s) about power and control. Older Lili has accepted that she has grown older and changed; Desmond has not. He needs constant attention and adulation (as did Norma). The real surprise, however, is Film Lili’s realization and assertion of her own autonomy, and being enraged at how he objectified her and diminished her contribution. “You’re mine! I created you!” (Pity it’s followed up by her dying due to exposure to horrible special effects.). There’s a deeper point to make about the predatory nature of studios/directors/producers and the actors/actresses they too frequently used, abused, and discarded. Micki’s “I felt so manipulated” while in the film is both apt and could be looked at as a commentary on how the show treats Micki overall.
K: Yes, I say the same thing above, as you know. We share the same brain sometimes.
Verdict: Fun (so much better than the last one) but with surprisingly deep moments.
PS. Geez, I can count on one hand the amount of characters named “Erin” in films or books or TV shows, and I had to get the whiny one who thinks noir is romantic? GRRRR. Still, she was smart enough to ditch Johnny.
Season 3, Episode 10: “Mightier than the Sword” (Armand Mastroianni, director; Brian Helgeland, writer)
A smart take on true crime, celebrity, and the lust of retribution, with the incomparable Colm Feore.
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: This episode is tightly constructed and deftly written around the fascination the general public has for serial killers. The cold opener (quite long at 6.5 minutes) nails the complexity of this, with its group of protesters outside a prison having a tailgate party with ice-cold beer to support the death of a killer. “Die, Fletcher, Die! … Gas him, gas him, gas him! … Time’s up, buddy!” (Side note on a little inconsistency: Arizona, California, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri and Wyoming are the only states that use the gas chamber, placing this episode’s events somewhere not where the shot takes place.)
Colm Feore plays Alex Dent, a crime biographer who uses the cursed pen to turn innocent people into killers whose murders he turns into bestselling true crime books. It’s a smart concept. Feore is an excellent actor, conveying the cold cruelty necessary for his particular use of the cursed fountain pen. Dent’s best line (outside of the juicy passages he writes) is directly related to his wicked greed. After rendering a priest an eventual killer with his “poisoned pen,” he intones: “He’ll be more than a new man; he’ll be a bestseller.”
Erin: He was SO good!
K: Micki, who will become Dent’s final victim, inadvertently sets herself up for the victim role when she intones early on, “Serial killers aren’t my idea of a good read.” Reluctantly, she attends a talk by Dent with Jack and Johnny (who, we’ve learned in a prior episode, is a budding writer of trash—his source of inspiration is a publication like The National Enquirer or Weekly World News). At the talk, Dent’s “Evil is a disease” thesis is an interesting comment considering that the pen requires the transmission of fluids. (This is the 80s, after all, and anxieties around the Reagan-denied HIV-AIDS crisis would still have been rather high.) Dent advances evil as a biological process, a disease. And considering his cursed pen requires blood, a blood he writes with, the metaphor is compelling, even as the HIV-AIDS context makes the idea of “evil” biological transference deeply problematic.
It’s interesting here that the cursed pen allows Dent to create his own true crime serial killer narratives using real men (and eventually Micki) as his “protagonists.” The brother of one of Dent’s victims who has an outburst at his talk (“You glorify serial killers!”) notes as much. But on a more nuanced critical level the episode suggests that true crime books do in fact manufacture the kind of fascination that, if it doesn’t create serial killers, certainly centers them and not their victims. The man at the talk says, “You didn’t even know my brother!,” here perhaps inadvertently tagging the notion that true crime almost never focuses on the victim, despite the fact here that victim and victimizer are at least partly one and the same.
The Cheese, the Beautiful Cheese:
*I love the scene with Marion, Alex’s estranged wife, watching the news conference in curlers, plotting blackmail, and putting out her cigarette in her coffee.
*Another scene where the Curious Goods team is allowed to wander onto a police operation scene—this one where Dent is poised to meet the killer. They lose Dent when he unplugs his wire, and yet Johnny and Jack are allowed to lurk in the background.
* The address on Micki’s driver’s license: 666 Druid Ave / Hilldale, USA / 90039 (a Los Angeles zip code).
*The artist’s rendering of Micki as “female slasher” pictured on a TV newscast is fantastic! (See image below.) I hope Robey got to keep it.
*As they break into Micki’s murder of Dent, Johnny’s line to Jack, who has the pen: “Pull the evil from her neck!”
The Verdict: One of the better ones, top 20.
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Pardon the pun, but that was definitely more than a few cuts above the usual episode. In some respects, it’s touching on the same material as both “Poison Pen” (the writing implement that lets you control others) and “Double Exposure” (guy gains popularity through creating the crimes he reports on). Yet the blend actually transforms the material here into a highly enjoyable, beautifully cheesy episode.
There is an element here that initially seems to suggest to me, as a child of the 80s, the PMRC [K: I don’t catch the acronymic reference!] [E: Sorry! It stands for the Parents Music Resource Center; it was headed by Tipper Gore and claimed bands like Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest were corrupting kids’ minds. It’s why we still have “Parental Advisory” stickers on music releases.] [K: Ah, yes. I remember Tipper’s righteous campaign. I never knew it was called that!] stuff: that violent imagery, books, or music lead to violence. (Just one of the innumerable ways the 1980s were “1950s: The Sequel”.) I say suggests: Jack straight up says it with regard to Billy/Alex, that writing pulp novels made him violent. Yet the rest of the episode seems to undermine that reading. It isn’t just him; from the very first scene, the writer/director seem to purposefully suggest Alex is tapping into the general bloodlust of the population. I absolutely love the cross-cutting between inside the prison walls and outside, where the crowd is shouting “Gas him!” while drinking beer and dancing. (A little close to the current reality.)
K: Agreed. Mind-bending, that.
E: That Alex monetizes and gets off on it doesn’t make the others’ behavior better. (And to go full Freudian for a minute: “get off on it” is exactly how it’s shot, as he sweats and stops and rubs his sore hand. Yup.)
K: Get yer mind outta the gutter! (Also, agreed.)
E: Hee! Never!
The plot here moves fast and the dialogue is crisp. Not once did my attention flag; this was a remarkably well-constructed and well-written episode. Too many times it’s glaringly obvious what the cursed object does, and thus makes the Curious Goods team look slightly idiotic for not getting it right away. But this wasn’t entirely clear at the first instance, and it remains slightly mysterious at the end. (In a good way.) Was there a first killer Billy met with and jabbed with the pen, or did Billy/Alex make the first one, and then continue to “create” them? It suggests the “disease” metaphor quite well, with Billy/Alex as the vector and the pen as an infected needle. (As an AIDS metaphor, it’s both subtle and not subtle, but the conflation with “evil” is troubling, to say the least.)
Robey did a pretty good job with the empty-eyed serial killer bit [K: Agreed. I love her performance.], and I loved the connection to the slasher genre not only in Alex’s naming of her, but the final jump scare at the end. For once, the episode doesn’t hand wave the negative/lasting consequences of the work. Of course, the real gem is Colm Feore’s Alex, who brings the same intensity he had as the ballet maestro in “The Maestro” (2.23) to Alex’s smirking “king of sleaze.”
This is a top 20, if not top 10 for me, even with the clear green-screening during Micki’s breakdown.
K: It has to be intentionally unreal. There was no reason for this except to suggest a destabilizing of Micki’s reality. I see it as a conscious choice to turn a familiar space, the Curious Goods’ overstuffed display floor, to an uncannily compromised space of off-kilter nightmare.
E: I meant to say above: I really like your take on this!
Critical Rewatch #1
Friday the 13th: The Series aired in syndication from 1987 to 1990. It boasts a large fanbase but almost no scholarly commentary. This episode-by-episode critical blog on the series is part of a research project by Erin Giannini and Kristopher Woofter that will include the series in a scholarly monograph on horror anthology TV series in the Reagan era.