I’ve been looking at some favourite films again over the last week. All of them could loosely be described as detective stories, though that is more the setting than what they are mainly about. I started with Anatomy of a Murder, then watched Basic Instinct, and last night watched The Big Easy. One theme they all had in common that surprised me was women’s underwear.
James Stewart was 51 when he starred in Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, originally a novel based on the reminiscences of a real life Supreme Court Justice about one of his cases when an attorney. The year before Stewart had worked with Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo, and he was to go on to make films with John Ford, but Anatomy of a Murder is probably his last significant film: he was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor for his work.
The film was an account of a trial for a revenge murder after the rape of his wife by a US Army lieutenant, and broke boundaries in its day for frank discussion of topics like traces of spermatozoa inside a woman’s body and other details pertaining to forced sex. It also discussed a significant article of missing evidence, the raped woman’s underpants. There was much discussion in the film as to how to refer to the article, and it was settled that the word to be used was “panties”.
I was intrigued to read on a discussion panel on the net that apparently many women don’t like the word panties. It is considered derogatory and sexist, underwear as the subject of male erotic fantasy. Where do women get these ideas! I thought it referred to the flimsier construction of the garment made possible by the female shape. A woman once confided to me, “there’s nothing much down there”. I guess on the outside that’s true. The sensitive equipment is all kept tidily on the inside. There is more on show now many women keep their pubic hair shaved or trimmed for bikini wear, but it’s no showier than a Y-front. In the film the prosecuting attorney Claude Dancer (played with an effective sneer by George C Scott) mentions there is another word for the garment he learned in France, but he doesn’t tell the court what it was. Might be “lingerie”, which is a general word for all underwear (means “linen” apparently).
It seems the garment in question only came into fashion in the 19th century, as pantaloons, before which women didn’t wear panties or anything but a form of corset and lots of petticoats under their dress. During the trial of Lt Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who had murdered the man who raped his wife, Mrs Manion (24 year old Lee Remick in her first significant film) is called to the stand, and during his interrogation attorney Dancer asks her if it is true she sometimes did not wear panties. Mrs Manion says yes, that it was true. This was an attempt by Dancer to character assassinate Mrs Manion and suggest she flirted provocatively with the owner of a bar, luring him on to later rape her. She would then be responsible for the rape. This is actually a defence of rape made in courts in the 50s. I can remember reading about men being exonerated because the woman they had raped had dressed in a short skirt. It was a man’s world then I guess. Not wearing panties is I think a common erotic fantasy men have about women, based on the fact they often wear skirts and dresses, and without panties would be completely naked if the skirt were to be raised. I think the fantasy is based on a misconception about accessibility. Nakedness does not make a woman sexually available except to the male gaze; her sexual arousal does, and that has nothing much to do with nakedness. Still something to learn about women guys, even after all these years.
While on the subject of panties it is notable that Mrs Manion declares the missing pair were made of nylon. Finding that chic is very 1959. Women I don’t think wear nylon underwear now (though I haven’t ventured into a lingerie shop to find out). One man’s erotic fantasy is another woman’s steps for comfort and support.
Lee Remick in the height of 1959 lingerie fashion
The film is also notable (just to get away from panties for a while) for the unashamed depiction of legal trickery entered into by both prosecuting and defending attorneys. These guys lead witnesses, put words into their mouths, confuse them with misleading details, and mislead the jury with claims that are supposedly struck from the record. The justice informs the jury it must forget the claim that has just been made and disallowed. “How can they forget something they’ve just been told” asks someone of Paul Biegler (James Stewart). “They can’t”, he replies, with a wink. It is apparently a film in good repute with members of the legal profession for its accuracy about court procedure. It’s also fascinating as a depiction of how a “case” is made and contested in court, and the degree it is made by counsel, not events in the lives of accused or witnesses.
James Stewart is superb as the wily country attorney with a mania for fly fishing. He has more than a similarity to Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) from the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite his cleverness in manipulating the trial of Lt Manion, Biegler is in turn manipulated by both Manion and his wife. Mrs Manion plays up to him and discomposes him with provocative behaviour and revealing clothing, as she is alleged in court to have done with the man who raped her, bar owner Barney Quill. Though Biegler asks her to dress modestly in court, wear her glasses and keep her hair covered, he falls victim to her allure. Mrs Manion is in fact a version of the femme fatale, though she is also a beaten and intimidated wife, as ambiguous as Kim Novak in Vertigo. Lee Remick, one of the sexiest actresses of the 50s and 60s, gets the idea across perfectly. Ben Gazzara is also good as the brutish Lt Manion, just smart enough to take advantage of anyone he can find.
It’s a fascinating 160 minutes watching the film. A superb score by Duke Ellington helps a lot.
Sharon Stone caused a sensation in 2006 when she declared she had been misled by her director Paul Verhoeven during the shooting of one scene in Basic Instinct. Verhoeven had asked her to remove her panties before filming the scene, and cross and uncross her legs while wearing a short white dress. Stone was reportedly furious because, she claimed, the shot exposed her vagina, sending millions to the pause button of their copy of the tape or disc to see if it was true. It wasn’t (though her vulva may have been exposed if you didn’t blink for the crucial millionth of a second). Women who wear short dresses sometimes can’t help but flash, and men are supposed to politely look aside. The group of middle aged detectives in the scene didn’t do that, and their intensity adds a lot to the scene and the viewers’ awareness of Catherine Tramell, the character played by Stone. Verhoeven asserted that the shot, Stone’s actions, and the reactions of the men, had all been talked over with all the actors concerned before the shot was made. A moment’s reflection tells me that a sitting woman can’t really expose her vagina unless she spreads her legs. Merely crossing them without panties on will show pubic hair, perhaps part of the vulva, or upper thigh. At least with the women I know. Interesting that women’s sex organs are still taboo on film while men’s are not (aside from Sharon Stone, perhaps). While not a sight for the merely curious, the vulva should not be shamefully hidden away either.
Writer Joe Eszterhas was paid three million dollars for his script for this film. Even though he lost control of the screen adaptation, and material was added and changed by other writers and by the director, Eszterhas deserved the money for the sheer intricacy of the plot, in which events parallel and reflect on each other, motivation is revealed then concealed in the same way the leading character wrote her books, and the way the mystery elements of the plot are constantly being undermined by the relationship story, and vice versa. Of course the story is not likely, plausible nor realistic. Not many are.
Sharon Stone with underwear; a bit over the top no?
The times have changed. In 1959 not having any panties on made Mrs Manion a vulnerable character, liable to rape. In 1992’s Basic Instinct Catherine Tramell dominates and manipulates all the men around her by taking hers off. She’s the one in control. The sight of her naked body leaves men discomposed and out of control. At the same time this is exposed in a film which offers female nudity for male titillation (it offers Michael Douglas naked for female titillation, but this is not a fair swop). Verhoeven gives the impression of being an extremely intelligent man in the interviews with him I’ve seen, and I think the contrast between types of exploitation (that of the character and that of the film) would have been intentional on his part. This is neo-noir, and it of course subverts the genre.
Basic Instinct takes the femme fatale character and makes her the hero of the story. Catherine Tramell is a millionaire, a psychology major and a best selling author who is tempted to commit crimes because she enjoys outwitting and confusing the police investigations. That makes her the hero, and the villain, of the film. True, there is a nominal hero, Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), but he’s a coke addict, heavy drinker, under investigation for shooting suspects, unable to sustain relationships, has a violent temper, gets suspended, and fails to stop five killings in the case he is supposedly investigating. And he is being manipulated by Tramell from the opening scene of the film till after the last one has faded. Some hero. Douglas is subdued in the role, and in all the scenes with Stone it is she who dominates, not only him, but the scene. It helps that Stone, who was 34 when the film was made (it is her first major film), is easily one of the most beautiful actresses of the time, and as her nude scenes reveal, had an absolutely perfect body equal to someone ten years younger. She is presented (and dressed) by Verhoeven as a Kim Novak look alike.
Sharon Stone without panties crosses her legs and gets everyone’s attention
The real star of the film, despite the acting ability shown by Stone, is Paul Verhoeven. Basic Instinct is above all a superbly directed film. Again and again Verhoeven, like a wily attorney, throws up immaterial event to distract and confuse the viewer and does so with a command of pace and narrative that prevents the action from becoming too diffracted. The ice pick murders are gratuitously violent, but they prevent the viewer from suspecting the (admittedly unlikely) culprit. The lesbian scenes are gratuitous, but they confuse the viewer about Tramell’s intentions about Curran. The club scene is pointless, but it also reveals how helpless Curran is where Tramell is concerned.
One thing I did like on reviewing the film was the ending. At first viewing I wanted to see a noir film turning into a relationship drama, and a shock horror ending throwing all that went before into irrelevance really disappointed me. Second viewing, when Tramell is revealed as the killer who has removed Curran’s best friend the ice pick way and manipulated him into shooting the woman who loves him, all without him having a clue, we realise she is a hopeless psychopath, a thrill killer, no matter it was arrogance that began her criminal career. Curran wants to marry this monster and have children with her. How dumb can you get. She’s going to kill him. It’s in her already completed book. But she holds back. The film doesn’t end with a symmetrical bloodbath similar to its beginning. Tramell holds back, and we don’t know for how long. The suspense goes on after the film has ended.
Basic Instinct is as perverse as Vertigo, as insulting to gays and as violent as Hawks’ The Big Sleep and portrays psychopaths as extensively as Little Caesar or The Public Enemy. In other words it is a pretty good film. It has an enticing soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith. There’s no truth in the rumour that sales of panties slumped across America when the film was first released. And it is a warning to young girls everywhere what can happen if you go out without your underpants on. Anyway, just taking your bra off usually does the trick.
The Big Easy is obviously a film about New Orleans. It’s not just set in New Orleans, but it celebrates it through spectacular aerial photography and great character actors who just happen to be from New Orleans. It shows how things are done in the Big Easy, and it drives along at a swinging pace with a fabulous soundtrack of zydeco and cajun music not to be missed. The music is an important part of the movie and adds a dimension to the central romance.
It’s the story of Detective Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid), a son of a famous policeman and the youngest Lieutenant on the local force. He’s in the middle of investigating a series of mob killings when he starts to suspect the police may be involved in the killings. Then he gets investigated himself for corruption by an Assistant DA, Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin). The trouble is, he is corrupt, in a minor way, but is still very good at his job. Remy investigates his colleagues, fends off the ADA, then finds he’s fallen in love with her, and she with him. Despite its crime setting the film is actually a relationship drama, and explores what the main characters think of family, honesty and commitment. Director Jim McBride keeps things light and lively though, there’s plenty of action, and the romance really sizzles. Lots of people get shot, Remy learns the error of his ways. There’s a happy ending of course. It’s as good as LA Confidential which came along ten years later in 1997.
Ellen Barkin not having much success with sex but wearing the right colour panties
You know you’re in fantasy land when a beautiful actress like Barkin plays a shy, under confident woman who at one point says “I’ve never had much luck with sex”. It’s in the love making scenes in the film, which have a habit of being interrupted, that we learn a little more about panties. Barkin, as befits her role of sexually inexperienced attorney, is dressed in white (did someone mention Kim Novak)? When Remy attempts to make love with her he pulls up her skirt and we see she’s wearing white panties. White for purity. Remy’s underpants are black. It’s a symbolic conflict between good and evil. Unlike the heroines of the first two films I’ve mentioned, Anne manages to keep her panties on. But we see colour is important. If you’re wearing a little number with purple teddy bears on them or ones with little bouquets of flowers you’ve clearly disqualified yourself from the romance stakes. Serious lovers wear black, experienced lovers wear white (for that innocent look). Don’t tell that anonymous caller anything about the colour of your panties.
In one episode of would be lovemaking in the film Anne also manages to demonstrate that taking down a man’s underpants is harder for a woman to do than it is for a man to remove a woman’s panties (we won’t go into the matter of pesky brassiere clips). There’s more to negotiate on a man’s body, you have to be careful with the zip of his trousers, and lovers always take these things too quickly anyway.
The film is notable for excellent acting. Barkin and Quaid light up the screen as a would be couple, but the acting excellence doesn’t stop there. There’s great acting from Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Lisa Jane Persky, Charles Ludlam, Grace Zabriskie and soul singer Solomon Burke. It’s the density of the acting that help transform the film from a routine thriller into an exciting one, as well as a fascinating look at relationship politics.
As neo noir as Basic Instinct, The Big Easy subverts the form with a sexually inexperienced femme fatale, Anne Osborne the ADA. It’s her basic honesty that saves Remy from the consequences of his petty dishonesty. The Big Easy is the happiest of the three films, and because it’s a romance, makes sure it all comes out OK for the couple. But even if it didn’t, you’d still enjoy the soundtrack.
Iko Iko by the Dixie Cups; Ma ‘Tit Fille by Buckwheat Zydeco; Tell It Like It Is by Aaron Neville; Tipitina by Professor Longhair, and many more, make for irresistible listening.
Three great films, three important actresses in convention shattering roles, three crucial pairs of panties. All three films exposed men’s fantasies about sexually desirable women while simultaneously indulging them. And all three films obscured the fact that sexual fantasy and sexual desire is only the prelude to the real job, which as Curran in Basic Instinct says, is to raise lots of children. Mother Nature is so neolithic!
Can’t leave the subject of panties without a brief mention of the most famous pair of them all, those worn by Marilyn Monroe in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. It is said that the subway scene required more takes than any other scene in film history. Can’t understand that; all she does is walk over a subway grating. And they didn’t show the panties in the final cut after all!
The dress sold for millions but the panties were never put on the market
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.