The Last Seduction March 18, 2017
When a filmmaker strives for a sleek film noir homage and a femme fatale’s the kind of villain they’re most intent on putting forth, there’s a certain type of expectation that hangs in the air. If an actress can’t live up to the smoldering (and deadly) heights set by Rita Hayworth’s Gilda or Lauren Bacall’s Slim, then they might as well consider themselves a personality playing dress up. Fail to reinvent a done-to-death character staple and there’s scarcely an excuse for a pastiche to exist at all. There’s a reason why so few noir tributes – think 1990’s The Hot Spot or 2006’s The Good German – stand as much more than exercises: the majority don’t have the performative fuel to make themselves interesting. A femme fatale’s oftentimes the trick to make the best components of Double Indemnity
(1944) pump through another feature’s veins.
John Dahl, the writer/director backing the wonderful The Last Seduction (1994), recognizes that style isn’t everything when harkening back to the days of Billy Wilder and Jules Dassin. Everything, in actuality, is dialogue that burns, scenes that sizzle, and performances nourished with a plentiful amount of feverish desperation. As evidenced by his first three films, Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1993), and, of course, The Last Seduction, Dahl is noticeably at ease when it comes to sliding into a seemingly phantasmic genre and making it distinctly his own.
And the finale of this unofficial trilogy is arguably the one that takes his various artistic masteries and cohesively brings them together with big bang explosiveness. Whereas Kill Me Again was a pictorial muscle flex for an inexperienced newcomer and whereas Red Rock West was a glistening and tenacious (albeit minor) noir delicacy, The Last Seduction hoists itself up as a relative masterpiece, a piece of mean, moody pulp that can dish it and take it.
Its key ingredient is leading actress Linda Fiorentino, an exquisite amalgam of Phyllis Dietrichson, Margot Shelby, and Kathie Moffatt who perhaps needs not be called an amalgam because she never appears to be an actress trying on the clothes nor inflections of a quintessential femme fatale. Instead she gives expectation a lethal dose of arsenic, duping the cynics crying over the apparent death of bona fide film noir and coming out the other side as a creation Kathleen Turner might’ve killed to embody back in ‘81. In The Last Seduction, to take our eyes off Fiorentino is an impossibility.
In the movie, she is Bridget Gregory, a schemer so vile and so conclusively evil that we can’t help but fall under her spell of beautiful ugliness. When we first meet her, she’s a telemarketing manager, slinking around her small-time corporate headquarters getting her jollies by snarling at vulnerable employees about their not working fast enough. She’s also a wife, the wife of an aspiring doctor she persuades to deal pharmaceutical cocaine for high payoff. But even in our first few moments of getting to know Gregory (if that’s even her real name) are we skeptical of her standing as a successful businesswoman with domesticity awaiting her. Her duplicitous cat eyes tell us otherwise.
And we’re right. Shortly after the workday ends, when most wives would be thinking about dinner, she lifts her husband’s briefcase full of coke money as he’s in the shower and hits the road. Her plan: head back to her hometown of Chicago, Illinois and live as a rich lady and not an elegant grifter.
But first she stops in Buffalo, New York, where she devises a plot that’ll rid her of her looming spousal issues way out west. Putting on her best Barbara Stanwyck costume, Gregory seduces Mike Swale (Peter Berg), a hapless young local recovering from a wildly unsuccessful whirlwind romance, and eventually comes to drag him into the center of her web of lies.
All he must do for them to be together, it seems, is kill her soon-to-be ex – deceitfully but smartly characterized as an immoral tax lawyer fleecing old ladies of their homes – and they’ll be set to live happily ever after, money never a problem. Unscrupulous glee rumbles in Gregory's eyes.
Yet we never do anything but compulsively watch as our anti-heroine venomously (and carefully) strategizes her every move. What monstrous thing she’ll do next, and how she’ll get herself out of whichever obstacle comes her way as a result of that said next move, is something to relish, especially since Fiorentino is so magnificent and since Dahl never descends into the formulaic trappings of the genre he’s sending up. Whether Gregory is simply such an adept plotter that even a blip in the execution seems planned or if she really is the enviably lucky villainess we think she is hardly matters. What matters is how quickly we conclude that a being as compellingly cruel as Gregory can exist in our unforgiving world. It's startling how much we enjoy watching an ethereally beautiful woman living outside society’s lawful box make her viciousness work. Luckily Dahl and his leading lady know how to sell a product: not a minute of The Last Seduction’s run time goes by without our interests superglued to the slithering storyline.
Enhanced by a snappy, flirtatious, and utterly dangerous score, this is the sort of movie that instantaneously warrants a rewatch. Its clever machinations are so pleasuresome we find ourselves wanting to relive them a second time. That it, like Red Rock West, has stayed waiting in the wings for a more mainstream appreciation for the last two decades remains a tragedy. Had distribution not been so crummy circa 1994 and had Fiorentino secured the Oscar nomination she should have received (both October Films and ITC Entertainment sued the Academy after it was revealed that the actress would not be eligible for a nod due to the HBO screening that came prior to theatrical release), it’d in no doubt walk alongside Body Heat (1981) and Basic Instinct (1992) as the present day’s premier examples of neo-noir. I guess existing as a luminous hidden gem will have to do for now. A