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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Damsels in Distress (originally published 4/02)

From the beginnings of the movie industry right down to today, most studio executives, film directors, and scriptwriters have been male. One consequence of this near total male domination of the industry is that roles for women, with the occasional shining exception, have fallen into a rather limited set of categories.

One of the most common ways of using female characters in movies has always been in the role of the victim: the damsel in distress. The recently released Jody Foster vehicle, "Panic Room," carries on this tradition, raising the ante by placing both a mother and her daughter in peril, a device that has also been used to good effect in the popular Fox television series, "24." For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have handled the theme of the damsel in distress, look for these titles on home video.

"Wait Until Dark" (1967). Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman who, like the women of "Panic Room," is menaced by three bad guys. It seems that these fellows are dope smugglers who have planted a quantity of heroin, hidden inside an antique doll, on the woman's husband. Now they want to retrieve it, so they contrive to have the husband called away so that they can search the apartment. Alan Arkin is absolutely terrifying in the role of Harry Roat. The other two are just your basic crooks, but Roat is a full-blown psychopath, loathsome and intimidating. Naturally, he's the one who ends up pursuing the blind woman through the apartment with homicide on his mind in the pulse-raising climactic scene.

"See No Evil" (1971). Once again, a blind woman faces a psychopath all alone. This time, Mia Farrow plays the menaced woman. This film, however, doesn't bother with any elaborate plot about drug smuggling. Here the formula is stripped down to its bare essentials. The bad guy is just a violent, boneheaded jerk who escalates a chance confrontation with the blind woman's family into a vendetta. Of course, she ends up alone in the house with him. The script was written by Brian Clemens, who wrote most of the scripts for the British television series, "The Avengers." He's in his element here, providing the viewer with a tight, well-crafted roller coaster ride.

"The Spiral Staircase" (1946). Dorothy McGuire plays a young household servant in the employ of an invalid older woman (Ethel Barrymore). Their small New England village has recently been plagued by a series of murders. All of the victims were young women, and all had some sort of physical handicap. This makes McGuire's character the object of some concern, because she happens to be mute. Will she be the next victim? The film was directed by Robert Siodmak, one of a number of outstanding filmmakers who left Germany to take up careers in Hollywood when the Nazi party came to power. Here he creates a moody, visually stylish film, with some real white-knuckle suspense.

"Sorry, Wrong Number" (1948). Barbara Stanwyck stars as an invalid woman who has been left alone for the evening by her husband. The phone by her bed is her only connection with the outside world. While trying to call her husband's office, the wires cross somehow and she overhears two men discussing a murder that is to be committed that night. It seems that one of the men has been hired to enter a woman's home and kill her at 11:15. Understandably upset by this, she tries to notify the police. (Of course, the police don't believe her. The police never believe citizens who report crimes in suspense thrillers. If they did, the movie would be over.) As she continues to make phone calls to try to track down her husband, an ugly picture begins to come together. More and more, it begins to sound as if her husband is not the docile, henpecked fellow she believes him to be. In fact, it begins to sound as if this murder plot might have something to do with her personally.

Naturally, I can't reveal how any of these films ends. It would be the worst kind of breach of movie etiquette. But just in case you're smugly saying to yourself, "You can't kid me - the heroine always comes out okay in the end," let me assure you that one of these endangered women doesn't survive. Which one? I'll never tell.

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