Canon Entry - The Last Seduction (1994)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
The Last Seduction is a nasty, briskly-paced noir that should have been consigned to Cinemax hell. Indeed, it actually had a release on HBO during its run, disqualifying it for Academy Award consideration. According to the screenwriter Steve Barancik, the filmmakers had every intention of making a quality piece of work under the guise of cheap, pulpy entertainment.
And cheap, pulpy entertainment it is. Linda Fiorentino plays Bridget Gregory, a ruthlessly mercenary woman working at a telemarketing position. She has convinced her husband Clay Gregory (Bill Pullman) to steal pharmaceutical cocaine and sell it illegally for $700,000. She takes off with the money and hides out in upstate New York. She hooks up with a local man Mike (Peter Berg) who becomes infatuated with her. Soon, however, her husband Clay gets on her trail and she uses every bit of her considerable cunning to hold onto the money and her newfound freedom.
I have the feeling that Bridget loved old noirs such as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Big Sleep. Often, it is the femme fatale who is the most memorable character in those films. They are often the instigators of the action that precipitates the plot, and also very often, they are usually the smartest characters. Why commit a crime when you can get someone else to do it for you? Though the femme fatale has been fairly called a sexist trope, for a long time, they were the most brilliantly realized characters for women, in the early Hollywood era when most women had to play either starry-eyed ingenues or bitter spinsters.
The Last Seduction’s first scene is one of the most effective pieces of visual and narrative storytelling I have ever seen in any movie. It starts with Bridget at work, trying to whip the other telemarketers in shape by belittling them and then dangling cash rewards in front of them. The camera pans across a smoky room following Bridget until she stops in front of a hapless employee. The camera finally reveals her face and we see her, hovering like a bird of prey.
This scene is intercut with Clay and his attempts to sell the cocaine that he stole. Unlike the smoky interiors common in noirs that we meet Bridget in, Clay is outside in broad daylight. While Bridget is the physically intimidating in her scene, Clay cowers in fear as the gangsters he is dealing with physically intimidate him. He crouches, stationary in the middle of the frame while the camera follows Bridget slither to her next prey. Even if Clay is doing the clearly more dangerous thing, we have no illusion about who is the most powerful one here.
I can just imagine Bridget spending afternoons after school watching reruns of these movies on TV and memorizing their style, their swagger and their mannerisms. At least this is how I imagine it because Linda Fiorentino’s performance as Bridget is highly mannered and artificial. I do not mean this in a negative way in the slightest. The dialogue is sharp and snappy like you would expect in a noir. When Bridget meets the somewhat naive Mike for the first time there’s this little exchange of dialogue:
BRIDGET: Could you leave…please?
MIKE: I haven’t finished charming you yet.
BRIDGET: You haven’t started.
MIKE: Give me a chance.
BRIDGET: (sighs) Go find yourself a nice little cowgirl and make nice little cow-babies and leave me alone.
MIKE: I’m hung like a horse. Think about it.
BRIDGET: Let’s see.
MIKE: Excuse me?
BRIDGET: Mr. Ed, let’s see.
Of course, no one talks like this except in the movies. Except, I honestly believe that Bridget could actually talk like this because of Linda Fiorentino’s performance. Fiorentino is so dextrous at handling this dialogue, it almost feels like it’s flowing from her character naturally. It would fit with her character too because I do not remember a single moment in this film when Bridget wasn’t performing for somebody, even when she’s alone.
And while Steve Barancik never claimed that he was writing a movie about female empowerment or that he had some sort of feminist agenda, it is certainly not difficult to read this film that way. As weak-willed and weasel-like Bill Pullman’s Clay is, he isn’t above hitting his wife. Mike sounds and acts like an entitled, rapist frat boy in the aforequoted dialogue, until Bridget runs him through the wringer. Even a scene that stretches credibility when Bridget convinces a private investigator (played by Bill Nunn) to literally take his private parts out for reasons you can’t easily predict can be seen as a dig at machismo and the insecurity that it hides. I give full credit to all the male actors for embodying their weaknesses so well, even if their main role is to be eaten alive by Bridget.
If Bridget loved the noirs of old, I feel that the one thing that she never liked about them was the fate of her favorite characters, the femme fatales. Because of the Motion Picture Production Code disseminated by William Hays, immoral characters in old Hollywood movies could not ultimately get away with their crimes. Perhaps this is at the heart of feminist criticisms of the femme fatale characters in these old movies. In The Last Seduction however, whatever fate Bridget ultimately meets, it won’t be because some man or anyone took her down the wrong path. She makes her own damn decisions.
1994 was the year when Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction were duking it out for the best picture win, but I do feel Linda Fiorentino had an excellent chance to take home Oscar gold, considering how almost none of the movies nominated for Best Actress have stayed in the public consciousness. Jessica Lange won that year for Blue Sky (a movie unfamiliar to me). The only one that has maybe stayed in the popular consciousness at all is Little Women, for which Winona Ryder was nominated. Bridget would have rolled right over all of the nominees and then smoked a cigarette while bathing in the carnage.