Monday, June 21, 2010

Femme Fatales Go Down Under

Original Lobby Card From
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

(All Images Courtesy of The Justice and Police Museum, Sydney.)

Call her a wicked woman, a bad girl, a gun moll, a dangerous doll, a vamp, a vixen, a Jezebel, or a black widow. That seductive siren whose steamy sex appeal hides a heart as cold, dark, and deadly as a .38. With her dangerous curves, blood-red lips, and come hither looks, she's death in four-inch stilettos. But does this pulp fiction dream-girl-turned-nightmare have anything in common with real-life female criminals? A traveling exhibit created by Sydney's Justice & Police Museum, and now on show at The National Archives of Australia in Canberra, tries to answer that question by comparing the archetypal pop culture Femme Fatale with the real histories of female inmates in New South Wales's Long Bay Gaol from 1914 through 1930.

A Banner Created For The Femme Fatale Exhibit.

Australia has a unique history when it comes to female convicts. The first non-aboriginal women to settle the continent--all 25,000 of them--were convicted criminals deported from Great Britain and forced to live in what was then a penal colony. Despite a British officer's famous branding of these women as "damned whores," most were in fact guilty of minor, non-violent, non-sex-related crimes. such as petty theft, pickpocketing, or shoplifting. The curator of the Femme Fatale exhibit, Nerida Campbell, says nevertheless, "the pairing of criminality and loose sexuality became deeply ingrained in the colonial psyche."

Biblical Femme Fatale Lilith.
Oil On Canvas By John Collier,

The first section of the exhibit plays off of that pairing by examining the femme fatale in history and popular culture. From Lilith to Eve to Delilah to Cleopatra, women who were mad, bad, and dangerous to know have always been a part of myth, culture, history, and literature. But their high water mark was in the first half of the twentieth century, when detective fiction and the silver screen teamed up to bring us the all-time, world-class, champion glamour-girls gone wrong.

Detective Book Magazine,
Summer 1940.

Dashiell Hammett's Brigid O'Shaunessey (The Maltese Falcon, 1930), and James M. Cain's Cora Papadakis (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934) and his Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity, 1936), all made the transition from page to screen. A tragic trio of she-devils in the flesh, embodied by Mary Astor, Lana Turner, and Barbara Stanwyck, respectively. All three ended up dancing with the same dark stranger--The Grim Reaper--but only after leading a succession of male saps down primrose path to the gates of hell. And all of this without smudging their lipstick, mussing their marcelled hair, or snagging the silk stockings sheathing their glamorous gams. Their stories are told through vintage pulp paperbacks and detective magazines, and original motion picture ephemera, such as lobby cards and posters. Raymond Chandler's shamus, Phillip Marlowe, knew all too well the irresistible allure of these underworld goddesses with hearts of lead: "I like smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin."

Real Life Femme Fatale,
Dulcie Markham,
ca. 1940.

The real-life femme fatales captured in the mug shots from Long Bay Gaol bear little resemblance to Hollywood's film noir queens. Curator Nerida Campbell, who also wrote a companion book to the Femme Fatale exhibit, sums up the difference: "The seductress we see in films is attractive, independent and intelligent, and uses her sexuality against men who are unable to resist her. The reality for most female criminals turns out to be a hard, dysfunctional and violent life..." But this is not to say that the women featured in the real world section of the show are any less fascinating than their fictional sisters. Film noir's baddest bad girls had nothing on Aussie hooker Dulcie Markham, the "Angel of Death," arrested clad only in her best lingerie, as she chased a client down a city street wielding an axe. When asked what the fuss was about she replied: "The bastard insulted me about [my] price!"

Spicy Detective Stories Magazine,
July 1936.

And the juicy stories don't end with the somewhat temperamental Miss Markham. Who could resist the tale of Iris Webber, "The Most Violent Woman In Sydney," a masochistic lesbian who fell for a young prostitute, and became determined to free the girl she loved from a life of sin. (Or at least a life of sin with men...) The aftermath of this twisted love triangle was a dead pimp, a client with a gunshot wound, and a thug whose wounds from a meat cleaver forced him into a new line of work. His meeting with the lovestruck Miss Webber left him unable to regain the use of his hands.

Eugenia Falleni, 1920.

And what fiction writer could have invented a more bizarre crime story than that of Eugenia Falleni, AKA "Harry Leo Crawford," AKA "The Man/Woman Murderer?" Falleni began successfully passing as a man in her early twenties, and at age 38 made widowed Annie Burkett the first "Mrs. Crawford." Four years later (!) Annie finally discovered that her husband was a "she." It appears she was better off living in blissful ignorance: her charred, battered, and unidentifiable body was found at a Sydney picnic grounds in 1917. Meanwhile, "Harry Crawford," insisting that his wife had left him for "another man," married for a second time, to Elizabeth King Allison. But by 1920 Annie Birkett's name was finally attached to the picnic grounds corpse, and "Harry Crawford" was arrested on suspicion of murder. The jig was finally up when "Harry" asked to be held in the women's wing of Sydney jail, as Eugenia Falleni. Falleni contributed what is undoubtedly the most unusual piece of memorabilia in the Femme Fatale exhibit: the leather dildo she used to keep her two wives in the dark (so to speak) about her gender.

Annie Gunderson, Booked In 1922. The Charge?
Theft Of A Fur Coat From Winn's LTD.,
A Posh Sydney Department Store.

The mug shots in the Femme Fatale exhibition were uncovered at Sydney’s Justice & Police Museum which houses more than 130,000 forensic negatives – originally created by police between 1912 and 1964. Even when dressed in what appears to be their flashiest attire, including fur coats, patent leather Mary-Janes, gaudy faux jewels, and ostrich-plumed hats, these true-life criminals are the antithesis of film noir sirens like Veronica Lake. Most look disheveled, despondent, degraded, and decades older than their years. But the fantasy version of the female criminal still holds a uniquely hypnotic appeal.

Mystery Book Magazine,
Fall 1947.

As Mae West, who knew a thing or two about bad girls, once said: "When women go wrong, men go right after them." Nerida Campbell notes that the even the title of her exhibit has a subtext: "The charm of the French phrase femme fatale disguises its true meaning, 'fatal woman,' just as the glamorous version of female criminality portrayed in literature and cinema of the period belies the unfortunate reality of female offenders."

1 comment:

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