One of my friends asked me about the inspiration for Jessica Minton and Elizabeth Hennessey in my novel Bait and Switch. I explained that I love creating characters in the vein of those smart-talking gals from films of the 1940s (sometimes ’30s and ’50s, too) — especially film noir. Lots of ink has been devoted to the femme fatale/innocent girl split of women in noir, but not enough has been devoted to the women created by writers and actresses who cannot be easily relegated to either the “whore” or the “Madonna” category. What I’d like to do is focus on a more nuanced character, the smart talking gal.
First, though, what is a smart-talking gal? She’s too sharp witted, independent, and experienced to be the virginal, innocent. Still, she has too much wit and class to be anyone’s moll. Further, she’s definitely not a femme fatale. She doesn’t so much use wiles as wit, and her strength, smarts, and experience serve to get at the truth, solve conflicts, and protect herself and those she just might let herself care about — if they prove they’re worth it. She has a heart, but hard knocks have taught her to armor it. She may be sexually experienced or she may not be, but she’s definitely not an innocent. This type redefines what it means to be a “good girl.” Some actresses who best personify the smart-talking gal include Joan Bennett, Claire Trevor, Ella Raines, Lynn Barrie, Ida Lupino, Veronica Lake, Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russell, and Lizabeth Scott.
Joan Bennett has to be my favorite, and in many ways, she inspired the wit and independence of Jessica Minton in Bait and Switch. Now, Joan could play the evil femme fatale with the best of them. Think of Kitty March in Scarlet Street. Still, even some of her “hydrochloric dames” (as a NY Times critic put it) revealed genuine humanity behind caustic smart talk and ostensible manipulativeness. In The Woman in the Window, The Macomber Affair, and The Woman on the Beach, her characters act in defense against the bullying of men. In fact, their seeming femme fatale status is a projection of a man’s fears and darker nature. However, in other films she’s a lot more fun — or at least clearly not the villainess. This is definitely more like Bait and Switch’s Jessica. In House Across the Bay, Joan’s a show girl not about to let anyone reduce her to a kept woman “dressed up in furs” who “takes a Pekinese for a walk around the block.” She’s also no pushover for a tough broad, either. When a jealous dame calls her, “Cheap, cheap, cheap,” she laughs back, “Where’s the bird seed?” And when that same dame pushes her luck, Joan’s Brenda Bentley nails her with the rejoinder that she has a voice like “four panes of cracked glass.”
The Man I Married finds Joan getting away with kicking Nazis in the shins and telling a German-born husband who has let German imperialism go to his head, “Heil, Heel!” In Confirm or Deny, she forestalls Don Ameche’s passes with dry humor and upholds national security with determination as the London blitz rages on. While in The Secret Beyond the Door, when faced with almost the same problems as the second Mrs. deWinter, rather than turning to whimpering mush, she uses common sense, humor, honesty, self-confidence, and a healthy dose of Jungian analysis to set everyone, including herself, straight.
The Scar shows Bennett at her most incisive and tart, deflating Paul Henreid’s attempt to charmingly snow her with, “First comes you, second comes you, third comes you… and then comes you.” When he later calls her “a bitter little lady,” she shoots back a cool, “It’s a bitter little world.” And yet Joan’s Evelyn Hahn has the heart to trust him when he finally does try to be on the square with her, only to have that heart smashed when fate, not his duplicity, makes it seem he has deserted her. In my film noir class, all the students, upon seeing her shadowed expression of resignation at the end of the movie, call for a rewrite.
Quotations from the Joan Bennett films can be found in the films noted. I remember them. What can I say; I’m a movie geek — but I don’t live in my parents’ basement. So there! Photos of Joan Bennett from the author’s collection (mostly bought from Jay Perino’s The Mint).
Sharon Healy-Yang teaches about literature and film at Worcester State University. An aficionado of 1940s cinematic and written mysteries, she loves to recapture their wit, adventure, and suspense in her own fiction. Known at Worcester State for her 1940s hats, she has the great fortune to share her love of literature and cinema with students in her courses. And now she’s excited to share her love of mysteries with readers through her own writing, recapturing the smart-talking heroines, suspense, and sharp wit of 1940s films and novels.
Check out her website, Sharonhealyyang.com, for more on her writing and other classic film and literature mysteries.