Good, Bad & Mad women-in-Crime: Women-in-Action (2)
This sub-collection, focuses on women as lead characters in crime/thriller films, both as the ‘Good’ cop detectives, or as the Bad or Mad (or both) villainesses.
From her first appearance in nineteenth-century novels, the female detective/sleuth has been enormously popular with women audiences, including an impressively large collection of lesbian crime-mystery stories. In contrast to their Magical Amazon sisters, these women are not presented with having magical unique powers, but are women using their wits and intelligence as their primary assets, as well as having a focus in life beyond the boringly domestic. The heroine is often presented as a successful, self-confident woman whose determined inquiries, intense curiousity, refusal to take No for an answer, and attention to detail, often outshines the work of professional (male) detectives. Many of the most famous in pop-culture fiction are spinsters ( Jane Marple), widows ( Jessica Fletcher), very young (Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars), or lesbians (Kate Delafield, Stoner McTavish).
One common theme in all these types of women is that their professional interests and romantic ones rarely compete for attention. In other words – their minds are usually focussed on the job, and not entirely unhappy about it. They are ‘Outsiders’ and do not seem to bear much conflict between ‘career’ and ‘womanhood’ as defined through a relationship with men. Possibly, as good as it gets for genuinely independent female role models in pop culture under male supremacy. Like their Magical Amazon sisters, you don’t see these women behind a keyboard or a mop. The large sub-set of lesbian crime fiction however, does usually include more successful blending of career with romance, than main(male)stream versions do. Possibly because for lesbians in romantic partnerships, conflicts between ‘work’ and ‘home’ is less problematic.
For women readers/viewers the popularity of violent crime fiction, I suspect it is even more complex. Julie Bindel once wrote on this topic at The Guardian “Many of the most gruesome crime thrillers are written by women – and lots of us love to read them too. What attracts us to these violent stories?”
On the flip side to the ‘good’ girls in crime-fighting, are the ‘bad or mad’ girls who commit crimes, and I have grouped the good, the mad and bad together because they do share the characteristic of some degree of self-confident independence, on either side of the crimes, and women audiences also find a relief from standard sex roles for women in the crime genre, whether playing the good girl or the bad, along with sharing the personality traits of using their wits, cunning, intelligence and courage to stand-out from the crowd (instead of their sexuality, or “powers” however derived). Some of the best ‘bad or mad’ girl films, are biopics of real-life characters (eg Monster:Aileen Wournos; Sister, My Sister (1994) and Murderous Maids (2000) : both portraying the Papin sisters).
Some are girl ‘buddy’ films, with pairs or groups of women engaging in criminal adventures of one kind or another. (eg Thelma & Louise, Set it Off) . Others I have included here, are films which I personally call ‘Ned Kelly Syndrome’ stories — stories about women involved with rebel bad boys.
Another group included here is Women-In-Prison films (unfortunately, most of the W-I-P films are largely subsumed into malestream po*nculture) but with a few high quality standouts worth an honourable mention in my collection.
The good women grouping appears to be far more popular in TV series, than in feature films. One of my many personal all-time favourites would have to be the British TV police crime drama series Prime Suspect, starring the wonderful Helen Mirren, as DCI Jane Tennison of Scotland Yard. The first series features sexism in the workplace as a significant subplot. Institutional racism in Prime Suspect 2 and paedophilia, child abuse and prostitution in Prime Suspect 3. Tennison’s difficulty in achieving a balance between her work and her relationships are recurring themes within the series. Toward the end of Prime Suspect 3 she arranges to have her pregnancy terminated.
And the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency (Botswana) is rightly a popular classic of the genre.
An almost equal favourite, is the recent Danish TV series Forbrydelsen I (2007) and II (2009), aka ‘The Killing’ re-made in the USA in 2011, although Season 1 has left us on a cliffhanger! While the American remake is quite good, the original Danish version is much better.
Other notables, was Murder, She Wrote with Jessica Fletcher, Ruth Rendell Mysteries and more British crime series, like New Tricks with DS Sandra Pullman, and not forgetting the delightful fun of Rosemary and Thyme, with the pair of gorgeous women gardener-sleuths. On the other hand, we have the soap-opera versions of W-I-P stories, with Prisoner (Australia – 1979-86) and Bad Girls (1999-2006 – UK).
Getting back to films, here’s my own personal listing of watchables:
Midnight Mary (1933)
A young woman is on trial for murder. In flashback, we learn of her struggles to overcome poverty as a teenager — a mistaken arrest and prison term for shoplifting and lack of employment lead to involvement with gangsters. In a brothel, she meets a young lawyer, scion of a wealthy and prestigious family, who falls for her and helps her turn around her life. But her past catches up with her, and she must face the music.
Nancy Drew …Reporter (1939)
The classic first Nancy Drew film, still a lot of fun.
Lady Scarface (1941)
A detective pursues a Chicago gang to New York unaware that its scar-cheeked leader Slade is a woman.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
A drama critic learns on his wedding day that his beloved spinster aunts are homicidal maniacs, and that insanity runs in his family.
Black Market Babies (1945) based on an article that appeared in “Woman’s Home Companion” and later reprinted in “Reader’s Digest.” An alcoholic doctor and friend set up a maternity home with free facilities to unwed mothers, with the babies sold in illegal black-market adoptions. An already sold baby is stillborn, and with no intention of returning the money, he swaps the child of his wife’s sister. There is a slip-up on the filing of the certificates and the law gets involved.
The classic award-winning WIP film. Excellent acting and well-made. A naive 19-yr old widow becomes bitter and cynical when she is sent to a woman’s prison and is exposed to hardened criminals and a cruel system.
Teenage Doll (1957) – an early look at teenage girl-gangs. Seems “bad girls” always wore slacks, “good girls” wear dresses. Very much a “message” movie preaching to girls to know right from wrong. However, it is very well-made with good performances. Barbara a good girl, falls into bad company when she rebels against her parents. She accidentally kills one of her tough-babe rivals, and then is pursued all over town by the femme gang leader Hel and her henchgirls. Barbara runs to her punk boy friend Eddie for protection, setting the stage for a climactic rumble and tragic ending.
I Want to Live! (1958)
Susan Hayward’s award-winning performance of Barbara Graham’s life, trial and eventual execution.
It Takes a Thief (1960)
Jayne Mansfield stars in this crime melodrama as Billy, the leader of a gang of thieves.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s classic film. In a decaying Hollywood mansion, Jane Hudson, a former child star, and her sister Blanche, a movie queen forced into retirement after a crippling accident, live in virtual isolation.
One of the first US made ‘feminist’ films, exploring female isolation and disconnection. In grim, rust-belt Pennsylvania, Wanda is down and out. She works sporadically, has abandoned her husband and children, sleeps on her sister’s couch, drinks and smokes too much, and goes home with men just to have a roof over her head. One night she walks into a bar after closing and finds a nervous Mr. Dennis pacing. She takes up with him, and he proves to be a criminal. They go on the road, visit his father, and he plans a robbery. He’s rude and demanding; Wanda accepts his abuse docilely.
The Maids (1975), Sister, My Sister (1994 – UK) and
Les Blessures Assassines ‘Murderous Maids’ (2000 – France)
All three of these films are loosely based on the real-life story of the Papin sisters’ murders of their employer and her daughter, in Le Mans, France in the 1920s. The first one made originally as a stage play by Jean Genet, was the least based in fact and primarily explores the intense relationship between two women – the last one a real-life dramatisation.
Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) – Elizabeth Montgomery stars as Lizzie Borden, a 19th-century Massachusetts woman, who is put on trial for the brutal slaughter of her father and step-mother in the family mansion. She was accused of hacking her parents with an axe after carefully removing her clothes to avoid bloodstains. Based on fact and considered shocking at the time for a TV-movie.
To Be Twenty (Avere Vent’anni) (1978) Italy
Lia and Tina are two girls who meet, both young, pretty and pissed off, so they decide to hitchhike their way to Rome to find a hippie commune,… or so they think. Things don’t go as they have planned though, and soon they become involved in prostitution, the police and an aggressive gang.
Long thought to be the inspiration for Thelma & Louise (1991), and Baise Moi (2000), Messidor is a road movie with a pair of young teenage women who abandon their traditional place in patriarchal culture, a transgression that at first seems trivial but soon turns them into gun-toting outlaws and that ultimately leads to death. While in Thelma & Louise the women are two close friends distinguished by age and marital status, in Baise Moi and Messidor they are two single strangers of the same age (18 and 19) who meet on the road. In all 3 films the “turning point” comes with rape, which the women avert and avenge with violence.
Agatha Christie novels turned into films with Miss Marple:
The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – A Caribbean Mystery (1983) –Murder with Mirrors (1985)
Love and Larceny (1983) is a Canadian version of The Sting. The film is set at the turn of the century; its protagonist is Betsy Bigley, an accomplished con artist, Betsy tires of fleecing the provincial suckers. She heads to New York City to seek her fortune–or anyone else’s fortune, for that matter.
Vagabond (1985 – France)
In winter in the south of France, a young woman is found frozen in a ditch. She’s unkempt, a vagabond. Through flashbacks and brief interviews, we trace her final weeks as she camps alone or falls in with various men and women,
Thelma & Louise (1991) – The classic mainstream Hollywood hit of a pair of women on the run after a rape-gone-wrong. Personally, I didn’t like it that much, there are far better quality movies (and more feminist ones) made before and since on the same theme.
Silence of the Lambs (1991) A classic with Jodie Foster as Cadet FBI Agent Starling who must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer.
Mi Vida Loca[ ‘My Crazy life’-USA] (1993)
‘Mousie’ and ‘Sad Girl’ are best friends, from a poor Hispanic neighborhood. But when Sad Girl becomes pregnant by Mousie’s boyfriend, a drug dealer named Ernesto, the two become bitter enemies. While their dispute escalates towards violence and crime, the violence of the world around them soon also impacts their lives. A great story of resolving girl-friendship.
Heavenly Creatures (1994) New Zealand
Film based on the true story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker in the 1950s. Two young girls, develop a close friendship and share a love of melodramatic fantasy and literature, and killed Pauline’s mother when she tries to end the girls’ intense and obsessive relationship.
Bonnie and Hillary are two young lost girls who meet one day and make a friendship. They talk about their lives and run around playing pranks. Their day escalates into an eruption of violence and rage leading to the death of an elderly woman.
Bad Girls (1994) –Modernised western. Four former bad women (gangster girls) try to leave the wild west and head north to make a better life for themselves. Unfortunately someone from Cody’s past won’t let it happen that easily, and the all-girl gang reunites.
Sister, My Sister (1994 – UK) – As mentioned above, a fictional account of the Papin Sisters story. Excellent film, and an all-woman production.
La Ceremonie (1995 – France). Vaguely reminiscent of the Papin sisters, but set in modern France. Sophie is a quiet shy maid working for the upper-class family Lelievre, and hides her illiteracy under the cloak of a perfect obedience. She finds a friend in the postmaster Jeanne, who encourages her to stand up against her bourgeois employers. Things start to escalate as the Lelievres find out that Sophie can’t read and has brought Jeanne into their house against their wish.
Bound (1996) Delightful personal favourite lesbian romance/crime thriller. Corky, a tough female ex con working as a plumber, meets Violet living as a gangster’s mistress. As their secret romance develops, they concoct a scheme to steal millions of stashed mob money and pin the blame on Violet’s crooked boyfriend Caeser.
Set it Off (1996) Some classic girl-friendship scenes. Four Black women, all of whom have suffered for lack of money and at the hands of the majority, undertake to rob banks. While initially successful, a policeman who was involved in shooting one of the women’s brothers is on their trail. As the women add to the loot, their tastes and interests begin to change and their suspicions of each other increase on the way to a climactic robbery.
Jackie Brown (1997) FBI agents bust stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), who was smuggling money into the country for an arms dealer – Ordell. Ordell springs Jackie, but when middle-aged bail bondsman Max Cherry picks her up at the jail, he’s attracted to her. Mistrust and suspicions surface after Jackie pits Ordell and the cops against each other, convincing Ordell that she’s going to double-cross the cops.
Under Ytan ‘Beneath the Surface’ (1997 – Sweden)
23-year old Sandra has been doing drugs for many years and has realized that she is in need of some kind of treatment. At the clinic she is told that her pimp / boyfriend Roffe has turned his attention to Sandra’s younger and well-behaving sister Jannika
Montana (1998) [ aka ‘Nothing Personal’] Claire is a tough gang member that has to find the Boss’ mistress, Kitty, who ran away from him. She is accompanied by Boss’ trigger-happy son Jimmy. Claire’s colleague gangster Nick is terminally ill and cancer starts to take him.
Run, Lola, Run [‘Lola Renndt’] (1998) Germany
Delightful caper, with mixed film techniques including animation and split screens. Lola gets a call from her frightened boyfriend who has lost a large amount of gang money he was smuggling into the country. His only chance of staying alive is if she can get replacement cash to him in twenty minutes. Lola decides to try her father at the bank where he works. But exactly how things will turn out depends crucially, almost to the second, on how she sets off on her errand, and her run needs several replays to get it right.
Drool (2009) Light-hearted comedy. An abused wife’s plan to escape her husband goes awry when she accidentally kills him, causing her to split on a cross-country drive with her best friend/lesbian lover and his corpse in tow.
The Monkey’s Mask (2000 – Australia) Another personal top-10 favourite of mine, of the classic lesbian detective story. Jill is a lesbian, ex-cop, out-of-work private investigator wishing she wasn’t celibate. She accepts a job investigating the disappearance of Mickey, a young female uni student. Jill quickly strikes a spark with the seductive Diana, Mickey’s poetry lecturer. But it is not long before Mickey’s strangled body is found. Distrusting the cops, Mickey’s grief-stricken parents ask Jill to find her murderer.
Baise Moi (2000) France . Two young women, each alienated and emotionally disconnected from a lifetime of abuse, develop a close friendship as they go on the run, on a nihilistic killing spree. Warning explicit sex and violence.
Johnny Greyeyes (2000 – Canada) Story of a native-american lesbian released from prison, and returning to her family – her story told in flash-back.
By Hook or by Crook (2001) Another classic. Shy, a small-town butch with a nagging messiah complex, heads to the big city to immerse herself in a life of crime. On her journey, she meets Valentine, a smartarse adoptee who is searching for her birth-mother. The two lonelies join forces and embark on a journey through the skid-row streets of San Francisco and learn the true meaning and importance of friendship.
The Business of Strangers (2001). An unusual delight. Two businesswomen bond for one crazy night in a hotel on a business trip, and reveal their inner natures while getting carried away on a revenge attack against an accused rapist.
Hot Money (2001 – TV movie, UK) Based on real life events, a group of women workers at the Bank of England, start stealing. Things go well until their menfolk are involved.
Benzina [‘Gasoline’] (2001) Italy
Lovely lesbian road-movie. Stella, an intense mechanic, and nervous, blonde Lenni are young and in love lesbians, though from opposite ends of the social class. They operate a gas station together until Lenni’s mother appears and voices her disapproval of their lesbian romance. When Stella takes action in the heat of the moment, the young women end up with a corpse on their hands. The lovers realize they must flee in order to stay together.
Civil Brand (2002)
Women prisoners strike up a friendship with a young law student who works as a part-time prison guard. Together they discover that a corporation funds and is profitting from the plantation-like work environment they are forced to work under. In a botched attempt to organize a protest against their “slave labor”, the women take over the prison – A rare glimpse of the effects of the prison industrial complex on female inmates.
A.F.R.I.K.A. (2002) South Korea.
Gorgeous, delightful, fun romp – as four young women, all with different anti-men/misogynist stories to tell, find themselves with a car, and revolvers lost by gambling cops desperate to get them back. When the girls get together, events snowball out of control.
Morvern Callar (2002) UK
A supermarket clerk, Morvern Callar takes her recently dead boyfriend’s money and travels to Spain along with her best friend to live the life of a hardcore raver.
‘Tan De Repente’ [ ‘Suddenly’] – Argentina (2002)
Unusual, off-beat lesbian road-movie with a coming-of-age twist. Marcia is fat, short and dark and stuck in a working class job staffing the counter of a tiny lingerie store in Buenos Aires with almost no customers. With few friends there’s little likelihood that anything will ever happen to change Marcia’s life. Suddenly, Marcia’s tedious routine is interrupted by the arrival of “Mao” and “Lenin”, two young lesbians who approach her on the street. The three women spend a long weekend together that takes them to Mar del Plata, Rosario, and back to Buenos Aires and teaches everybody involved lessons about the pleasures and pains of life.
Documentary chronicling two young female inmates – victims of horrific violence and tragedy – who are serving time in a Maryland juvenile detention center.
Robin’s Hood (2003) Another one of my personal favourites, combining lesbian romance/crime thriller. Robin is a Black social worker in Oakland on the verge of losing her job for getting too close to her clients as she grew up in the hood. She falls for Brooklyn, a white Frenchwoman, who’s a thief with dreams of having enough money to start her own motorcycle repair shop. Robin is not only willing to be Brooklyn’s lover, she’s willing to join in the robberies because she sees community projects that need money: she becomes an anonymous Robin Hood.
Show Me (2004 – Canada)
Fascinating indie film (psych thriller) from Canada. When two French-Canadian street-kids descend upon Sarah and her luxury sedan, the fuse is lit on a tense cat and mouse tale of captors and captives. Sarah is forced to continue her trip to an isolated cottage where the twisted trio bait and entice one another in a reckless search for truth. An amazing journey, with a powerful ending.
(also see documentaries: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993) and
Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
Dramatised account of the story of Aileen Wuornos who survived a brutal and abusive childhood in Michigan. Homeless most of her life, Wuornos subsisted by working as a street prostitute; later, when she was in Florida, she met Selby Wall and moves in with her supporting them both through petty crime and prostitution. One night, after a john attacks her, Aileen pulls a gun and kills the man. Although her first murder can be categorized as self-defense, Aileen begins killing more of the johns.
What I Want My Words to Do to You:Voices from Inside a Women’s Maximum Security Prison (2003)
A documentary on Eve Ensler’s writing workshop inside Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.
A Tout de suite[ ‘Right Now’] (2004) France
Exploration of the women allying with men in crime genre. A young middle-class ‘nice girl’ is caught up in a bank robbery and on an impulse runs off with the criminals.
Keeping Mum (2005) – UK
A British dark comedy, it covers the arrival of an elder nanny/housekeeper for a vicar and his family, who manages to sort the family’s problems out with murder and mayhem.
Karla (2005) Canada. Dramatisation of the “ken & barbie” killers, surrounding Karla, the woman who assisted her partner in the killing of several young women.
Little Fish (2005) Australia
Cate Blanchett stars as Tracy, – an ex-prisoner/drug abuser trying to better her life but unable to with her past constantly dogging her footsteps–is told interestingly and well, with some of Australia’s top talent in the whole cast.
I’ve Loved You So Long (2007) – France.
Two sisters wage an emotional battle to rebuild their relationship, when the elder sister Juliette is released after serving 15 years in prison.
Person of Interest (2007)
Two lesbian cops in this one. Three women have disappeared from a small New England town in a period of just 18 months. Nickie Welles, who has learned that state budget cutbacks will soon eliminate her job as sheriff, is determined to find out who’s behind the crimes. In an act of desperation, Nickie asks James Hart, a local psychic, to help solve this tragic mystery before her tenure comes to an end. However, Detective Sandra Franks, Nickie’s lover/partner, believes James is a fake and that her girlfriend is in over her head.
Four of a Kind (2008 – Australia) Stunning film debut by Australia’s Fiona Cochrane. Four different women, each with a well-hidden secret with which they are coaxed, tricked or forced into revealing. Loosely structured into four related vignettes of four women, including a homicide detective, all with a connection to a murder, it starts and ends in the police interrogation room.
Mad Money (2008) Hollywood remake of British made-for-TV film “Hot Money” (2001). Light fun comedy, of a group of women on a bank heist, with Queen Latifah and Diane Keaton.
Leonera [Lion’s Den] –(2008 – Argentina)
Powerful film about a mother’s struggle with raising her child in a prison, the lesbian love she finds, the bonding of mothers-in-prison (children stay with jailed mothers until they are 4 in Argentina), and with a strong ending.
Journal of a Contract Killer (2008)
One of my all-time favourite films, although I don’t know why. Exceptionally well-made. Stephanie Komack was a high-class hooker and assassin for the Italian Mob. Now working in London as a waitress, and a single mother to her seven year old daughter, the Mob track Stephanie down and persuade her to do one last job. The hit goes wrong and Stephanie soon realises the stark reality of her failure. They snatch her daughter as punishment.
B&W modernised story of the classic 1950s women-in-prison flicks. Young Daisy feels stuck working as a shop girl by day and caring for her ailing mother by night. A suicide gone wrong leaves Daisy wrongly imprisoned, while the neighbor whose testimony put her away struggles with guilt. A fascinating homage to 1950s women-in-prison films.
El Traspatio (‘Backyard’) (2009)
Possibly the best most well-made fictionalised account of the border town of Juarez, Mexico where since the mid-90’s thousands of women have gone missing or turned up as sun-burnt corpses in the desert.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)
On a suburban street, two masked men seize a young woman. They bind and gag her and take her to an abandoned, soundproofed apartment. She is Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton), daughter of a millionaire. Her kidnappers, the coldly efficient Vic (Eddie Marsan) and his younger accomplice Danny (Martin Compston), have worked out a meticulous plan. But Alice is not going to play the perfect victim shes not giving in without a fight.
The Owls (2010) Two middle-aged, lesbian couples accidentally kill a younger lesbian and hide the body, without reporting it to the authorities. Their guilt and long-kept, dark secret comes back to haunt them, as an unexpected stranger shows up in their lives, bringing tension and discord. Little do they know that this mysterious stranger has a plan which includes all four of them.
Detour (2010) Not well-made indie film, but interesting story. 27 year old surgical resident, Kendal Lawrence of middle-eastern heritage is abducted, on route to meeting her same lesbian partner, Lauren and their mutual friend, police officer, Maria Rossetti. The question of terrorism arises several times throughout the story, but with an unexpected medical twist, to the plot.