Canon Entry - Ms .45 (1981)
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.
Ms .45 is much better made than its material really merits. Thana (Zoe Tamerlis), a mute seamstress in New York, embarks upon a quest of revenge against all men after she is raped twice in one day. She manages to kill the second rapist, who had threatened her with the titular .45, which becomes her main instrument of death. It sounds like a pretty straightforward premise, but there are so many ways that this genre is subverted within the movie itself that I find it easier to view this movie as a dark comedy, and not even a particularly dark one at that.
Perhaps the best accomplishment of this film is that it presents the regular world and society as one that is hostile to women and threatening to their safety in a movie that I think has far more complicated attitudes towards vigilantism than one might first think. It’s telling that the first scene is Thana’s boss Albert (Albert Sinkys) trying to sell his designs to a clearly unimpressed woman of importance. If any man in this movie is going to be sympathetic to the plight of women, it would probably be him, but we also see how much he touches his employees (all women), especially Thana, which can’t help but come off as creepy. At least Thana seems intensely uncomfortable with it. There isn’t a lot of moral complexity in this movie, and Thana’s classification of Albert’s being like all men is in line with this dichotomy. Later, we see a more predictable scene in which random men catcall and leer at the female employees walking home to work.
The movie is also not devoid of humor. One of my favorite cuts occurs when Thana is being raped the second time. She is at home when a burglar forces himself on her. After an almost unbearably long lead up as Thana slowly grabs for a glass red apple to hit her rapist with, she manages to hit him and seriously injure with. She then grabs an iron and brings it down on his head. Cut to two eggs frying in a pan. It’s a brilliantly sick visual pun that also manages to introduce the most comical character in the movie, the nosiest landlady ever who comes closest to discovering what Thana is doing while remaining completely oblivious until the very end.
Ms .45 received many negative reviews when it was released in ‘81. Janet Maslin’s for the New York Times stands out to me. She praises the film for its execution and technical aspects. Her biggest problem seems to be with Zoe Tamerlis. “Thana….looks a little like Brooke Shields when she's made up and a little like Bianca Jagger when she isn't. In any case, Miss Tamerlis's exoticism is of the fashion-magazine kind, as opposed to the real kind. So she isn't very frightening, and neither is much of what she does.”
I think Maslin actually missed the point with Thana. She is never meant to be threatening. Before the rapes, Thana is a wallflower - dressed modestly, unassuming, never drawing attention to herself. After she gets her .45 she starts to dress and make herself up provocatively so as to start attracting men to her like a black widow spider. It is, yet again, the landlady who beholds Thana as her revamped self, with an over the top saxophone wail from Joe Delia’s score punctuating the reveal.
In a weird way, Thana’s transformation parallels a superhero/vigilante narrative - a traumatic event acting as a stimulus, a physical makeover, a clearly identifiable modus operandi, etc. And with this narrative comes the potentially weaker part of the movie when we see Thana embark on her quest against all mankind. The smartest thing about this script is that it does not give Thana a clearly identifiable sense of justice. She goes after all men, not just the pimp physically abusing a prostitute but also a guy who says good night to his girlfriend. Abel Ferrara has said how instrumental screenwriter and long-time collaborator Nicholas St. John has been to the creation of his films. Perhaps St. John wanted to show us the insufficiency of vigilante narratives and how intensely subjective and dangerous they are. It also makes this film to identify completely as either a feminist manifesto or as trashy revenge flick.
For what a lot people think is a straightforward genre picture, it has such a conflicted attitude towards revenge as real catharsis. Many of the most significant kills are exciting and almost pornographic in their fixation with gore. The last murderous spree at the party could be seen as one big orgasm. Yet, the way that she goes is almost comical. One of her co-workers stabs her in perhaps the most phallic shot in a movie that had two rapes in it. Even before she stabs Thana, she’s holding the knife near her crotch in a very suggestively phallic manner.
In an era when rank vigilantism is common in the most popular movies today, most of these movies do not examine the entitlement and the repressive power structures that such an attitude perpetrates. They go for cheap thrills and feeding our need to take revenge for even the tiniest slights against us. This attitude goes far beyond movies and permeates American society as well and is only worsened by deadlier ways to act out one’s own sense of twisted justice. Ms .45 does not offer an easy answer to this need for violent self-justice, which is why I think more filmmakers should look at this movie to see how it subverted those tropes far before the modern era while also remaining one of the best examples of the genre even today.