Dahl: The Last Seduction (1994)
By the mid-1990s, the femme fatale trope was on the verge of vanishing into a new era of corporate femininity. If, as James Naremore argued, the femme fatale had emerged in response to anxieties about women entering the workforce, then the corporate woman was an exhaustion of the trope as it was once deployed by Hollywood noir. The Last Seduction plays with that possibility by envisaging the last femme fatale, the final girl of noir misogyny, as she migrates from a trope to a regular part of our everyday professional world. In doing so, it tapped deep into the most primal fear of noir – that women might one day possess enough professional capital to treat men as sex objects. The fear of loose women and the fear of professional women was one and the same in classical noir, at least as The Last Seduction sees it, since director John Dahl and screenwriter Steve Barancik reduce the lurid overtones of the femme fatale to a more banal fear – of men being commodified and objectified by women.
Conversely, that involves a fear of men being suburbanised, or reduced to exurban fringes, while the city they once commanded shifts to a female domain and regime. We start, accordingly, with a particularly volatile vision of New York, mediated through an especially precarious couple – Bridget Gregory, a telemarketing manager, played by Linda Fiorentino, and Clay Gregory, a trainee doctor just completing his residency, played by Bill Pullman. They live in a neighbourhood that straddles the very cusp of urban renewal – there’s just enough gentrification to really glamourise the grime – while they’re on the cusp of “making it” as well. To give them a head start, Clay is selling pharmaceuticals to drug dealers to tide him over until he becomes a specialist, at which point he plans to begin making serious money of his own.
This all means that Bridget is keeping them afloat financially – and she’s the first character we see in the film, although at this point she’s just a disembodied torso, hounding her telemarketers to make quicker and better sales. In the first of many references to David Mamet’s lifeworld throughout the film, Bridget seems to be channelling the hard-talking machismo of Glengarry Glen Ross, challenging her male workers as to whether they’re man enough to close the sales, or whether they’re eunuchs, too castrated to survive in the big city. By contrast, we first meet Clay hunched under an overpass, waiting for a group of black dealers, who pretend to rob him, but only for the pleasure of seeing him cower like a baby by the East River. By the time he returns to the apartment he shares with Bridget, it’s clear that he’s the beta in the relationship, and he knows it, playing the part of the fool as he turns to greet Bridget with his shirt full of cash, puffed out like a clown with no one to laugh at him.
Nobody, that is, except Bridget, who tells him he looks like an “idiot,” prompting him to slap her in the face. This slap, which would be de rigeur in classic noir, sets the entire film in motion, since Bridget now takes the money while Clay is in the shower (along with his condoms, for good measure) and leaves New York City, eventually shacking up in the small upstate town of Beston, near Buffalo, while she decides what to do. It’s unclear whether she was planning to grab the cash all along, but she certainly attributes her actions to the slap when she calls Clay on the phone a day later: “Give me the money back.” “It’s mine. You hit me.” In a sense, it’s more powerful that we never find out exactly how much the slap factored into it all, since it suggests that Bridget’s drift away from the gender dynamics of classical noir occurs largely as a result of her own volition, rather than being determined by her husband.
After a call with her lawyer, Bridget realises that she can’t return to New York, or even seek out a conventional divorce, since this will mean having to split her property and assets (including the cash) with Pullman. This sets the second act of the film in motion, as Bridget decides to stay in Beston, get a job (under the pseuodnym of Wendy Kroy) and use the first man she meets as a pawn in her war with her husband. That man turns out to be Mike Swale, played by Peter Berg, a perfectly pitched parody of the noir everyman, who’s animated by precisely the anxieties that Bridget embodies, meaning that he’s drawn to her from the moment they meet. If Clay is afraid of imminent suburbanisation, then Mike has already been suburbanised – we learn that he moved to Buffalo (not even New York), but couldn’t make it, and so retreated back to Beston, his tail between his legs. Bridget, who first draws his attention while ordering a Manhattan at the local watering-hole, forms a kind of horizon to his rural-urban aspirations, even as she promises to help him leapfrog Buffalo to Manhattan.
In order to cement her control over Clay, Bridget draws on and reiterates the primal fear of noir in an even more dramatic way – as a fear of the male sex organ being exposed, quantified and commodified. In fact, she disposes of the three main male threats, apart from Clay, through this process. When she first meets Mike, he boasts that he’s hung like a horse, prompting Bridget to put her hands in his pants, then and there, in the bar booth, to see if he’s right. Later on, Clay sends a private detective, who she disposes of by encouraging him to show her his junk while he’s driving her back to Manhattan, allowing her to engineer a car crash that kills him, and from which she only narrowly escapes herself. Finally, she gets rid of Clay’s second P.I., who stakes out her house, by telling police he has been exposing himself.
Throughout all these encounters, The Last Seduction brims with a potent paranoia about women manhandling men in the same way noir men once manhandled women. This is a new and more literal kind of manhandling – handling men – that’s encapsulated in Bridget’s first one-night stand with Mike. Bypassing any semblance of romance, she checks his medical history, makes sure he has plumbing and electricity, and refuses to engage in anything resembling smalltalk. When he gets up the next morning, she’s already in professional gear (we never see her in anything other than professional gear) and she has taken control of the morning routine, effectively suburbanising him in his own house. Yet Bridget’s capacity to regulate urban and suburban (or exurban) space only reiterates Mike’s feeling that she is his meal ticket to Manhattan, his chance for the “big time,” if he can just manage his cards right.
In order to maintain her control over Mike, Bridget only has to dig deeper into this primal noir fear, articulate it in different ways. Shortly after their one-night stand, she frames it slightly differently – as a fear that the male body will eventually be as susceptible to market forces as female bodies. Not only does she objectify and functionalise men, she sees it as a business opportunity. Upon learning that Mike works in a credit card centre, she encourages him to break into the office at night, and examine which male credit card users have several women on their account. From there, she rings the wife of one of these users, reveals the evidence of her husband’s sordid escapades, and offers herself as an assassin-for-hire if she wants revenge. This is all carried out with a playfulness that makes the underlying point more potent – that Bridget can display her command of the market, and her urbane taste for commerce, at any moment, precisely at the expense of Mike’s sense of masculinity and bodily autonomy.
The more that Bridget stokes Mike’s fears, the more he longs to traverse her as the horizon of his own frustrated masculine self-image. He frames this as wanting a “deeper” connection, but it’s more like he can’t bear being her sex object – or can’t bear the way it precludes her becoming a mere sex object for him. Like all the men in the film, he seems to have penis envy around Bridget, whose last gesture, before leaving Clay, was to also take his condoms, as if to make the point that she had a better chance of wearing them than him. When Mike first sees Bridget, he sees her as promising a “new pair of balls,” but this turns out to be more true than he thought, since instead of providing him with “balls,” Bridget turns out to possess them herself – reiterating, rather than assuaging, his chronic emasculation. The more she frankly reminds him that “fucking doesn’t have to be anything more than “fucking,” the more petulant and anxious he becomes: “You can’t stop reminding me that you’re bigger than me.”
Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Clay’s body language and spatial orientation grows more dissociative and arhythmic, as if he is gradually breaking away from the city, and becoming suburbanised despite himself. From the moment Bridget leaves him, he never leaves their apartment, and only pretends to leave it as a series of spatial subterfufes that never come together, such as when he tries to convince Bridget he is calling from a payphone down the block, rather than from his own living room. When Bridget’s plan finally comes together, and she convinces Mike to kill Clay, she also specifies that she wants him to gag and cuff Clay to a chair beforehand, as if to reiterate his disempowerment in the space they once cohabited. This is the final stage in Bridget’s revenge – to suburbanise both men and consolidate her hold over New York, which we learn, in one closing twist, is an anagram for her alias, Wendy Kroy.
In another kind of film – especially a Mamet exercise – this could easily play as so much misogynistic fantasy. And there are many Mamet-like elements here – the “scheme” as a noir trope, the pleasures of the long con, an escalating sense of genre as a game, and a demonstration of genre mastery that, in Mamet’s world, usually signals his assurance in regulating gender relations. Similarly, Bridget wouldn’t be out of place in a classic noir film, since she intensifies and naturalises the femme fatale, rather than departing from or subverting it. The final genius of The Last Seduction, then, lies in the way it shapes its ending.
In a kind of middle ground between these two pitfalls, Dahl avoids the endless convolutions of noir, which in retrospect feel like so many lines of flight from female subjectivity, but also avoids the tight formalist closure of Mamet, which is really just a different way of shutting down this kind of flamboyant femininity. In their place, the film ends with an incredible final twist – that Mike accidentally married a trans woman in Buffalo, in a drunken frenzy, and only found out about on their wedding night. Between this aborted effort to urbanise his masculinity and his desperate willingness to conduct Bridget’s revenge for him, he discovers that own his fantasy of femininity is the horizon that has been keeping him in place – and Bridget captures this fantasy right as it ruptures, right when he’s promising to resolve the situation in the only way he can, by assaulting her, as a 9/11 call records the entire exchange.
This is both a tighter narrative ending than classic noir and a more conceptually provocative ending than Mamet’s typical formalist closure – and Dahl enhances its freshness and openness by cutting to Clay as he realises that one final clue might sink Bridget. Yet in the final shot of the film, we realise that Bridget has already disposed of this clue, as she sinks into a limousine that takes her out of New York, but also back into New York, as a line of flight both away from and towards the city that suddenly feels entirely provisional in this last beat of the film. Rather than affirming the femme fatale trope by “subverting,” it The Last Seduction intensifes and exhausts it, bundling us into a feminine mobility that feels foreign to both classical and neo-noir – a vision of the future that still feels futuristic all these years later.
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