Re-watching John Dahl's The Last Seduction (1994) with the intent of writing a review for the neo-noir retrospective, I initially thought I was going to be writing about Linda Fiorentino's femme fatale. I mean, how can you not think about her when watching the film? Those inky dresses and dark tinted sunglasses that happen to match her raven-colored hair, only making her skin seem that much milkier. That cigarette always dangling from her pursed lips, only opening to tell Mike (Peter Berg) that he's her "designated fuck." Watching Dahl's film, her character's bitchiness beautifully juxtaposed by her stunning beauty, Fiorentino is obviously the raison d'être. Yet, here I was, obviously attracted by her presence but, nevertheless, thinking about Beston.
That's right, Beston, New York. A piece of cow country; a small suburb outside of Buffalo where citizens greet strangers with a friendly "Hello," the cost of living is low, and everyone seems to work for the same insurance company. Mike, a romantic yokel from Beston, thinks he's better than his hometown and only comes back when things go south with his ex-wife in Buffalo. Given Mike's reaction, you can imagine how Bridget Gregory (Fiorentino), a dame accustomed to the culture of New York City, would react when needing to relocate. Essentially, the ninth circle of hell would be a preferable safe house location to Beston.
Two of the defining characteristics of film noir are the damning lure of the cityscape and, in the words of Raymond Chandler, streets darkened "with something more than night." Admittedly, sometimes the noir of film noir is broken by a Chesterfield being lit, a flame licking the barrel of a snub nose revolver just after the trigger is pulled, or a neon marquee flashing a night's entertainment, just like the women inside. The Last Seduction is different. The film largely takes place in the daytime, in a small town, while the whole endeavor is handled with a slight wink, tonally favoring comedic satire over murderous melodrama. It is, in the words of D.K. Holm, an "additional, potential, or honorary" film soleil (sunny film). Film soleil is essentially the inverse of many of noir's attributes, an evolution and deconstruction of classical noir. In this sense, it's synonymous with how I defined neo-noir in the review of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973): both genres exhibit a self-reflexive concern towards the characteristics of classical noir.
The Last Seduction starts out classically enough. Bridget's abusive husband, Clay (Bill Pullman), a doctor in his professional life, owes a loan shark $100,000 and decides to use his MD to sell prescription cocaine on the street. After a successful deal, Clay arrives home with $700,000 in tow. While Clay is in the shower, Bridget runs off with the money and soon finds herself gassing up and ordering a Manhattan at a local bar in Beston. Shortly after arriving, Mike attempts to make the moves on her in a hilariously depressing exchange.
BRIDGET: Could you leave, please?
MIKE: I haven't finished charming you yet.
BRIDGET: You haven't started.
MIKE: Give me a chance.
BRIDGET: Look, 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....I believe what we're looking for is a certain horse-like quality?
After inspecting Mike's goods, Bridget sleeps with him and decides to leave Beston in the next morning. When she discovers from her lawyer (J.T. Walsh) that Clay is looking for her and has sent out a private investigator (Bill Nunn), she decides to stay put. She takes a job, rents an apartment, and decides to shack up with Mike for protection, slowly trying to seduce him into murdering Clay.
While this description makes Last Seduction seem like the typical noir, Dahl and screenwriter Steve Barancik know the genre well, providing enough deviation to satisfy noir aficionados while surprising them at the same time. Obviously, Fiorentino's Bridget goes a long way in usurping the traditional depiction of a femme fatale as someone conniving but widely passive (after all, the idea is that the man will be the one to get his hands dirty). However, Dahl, as is often the case in his films (see also Red Rock West and Joy Ride) knows how to dish out the humor to misdirect our suspicions. Reflecting back on the dialogue exchange sampled above, Bridget does not in the slightest seem initially interested in Mike. Essentially, the humorousness of Mike's original proclamation and Bridget's rebuttal makes us unsure of where their relationship is initially going to go. While we are provided with hints that Mike is weak in the scene before Bridget's entrance, she only pounces when she reaches the same conclusion after witnessing him fawning over a faked love note. Dahl and Barancik also skew the small town mentality by including scenes like the one where Bridget's co-workers get so distressed at the sight of a black man on the street that they become oblivious to her own actions.
The Last Seduction, as wonderful a film as it is, has one contrivance that nagged me on the second viewing. When Bridget goes into hiding in Beston, she comes up with a pseudonym to throw Clay off her trail. The pseudonym that Bridget creates is sloppy and, given that she spends the entire film outthinking the men around her, it comes off as being uncharacteristic. A small criticism in the grand scheme of the film, but one requiring note all the same.
Reflecting back on the film, now sixteen years old, I cannot help but get a bit depressed after charting where the careers of the talent went in the years following. Fiorentino, allegedly difficult to work with, dropped off of celluloid for six years during the mid-2000s. Pullman, one of the most underappreciated actors in American cinema (Ruthless People and Zero Effect are great movies), never really broke beyond supporting roles. Barancik wrote the screenplay to one other film, No Good Deed (2002), and is credited with the story to Domino (2005). According to Wikipedia, he is currently a stand-up comic who, in his spare time, works to better the quality of children's books. Dahl, whose last film was You Kill Me (2007), has spent the last couple years directing television including True Blood, Dexter, and Breaking Bad. While far from a poor resume, I hope he finds himself working on a feature soon. Oddly enough, Peter Berg seems to have had the most successful career of the bunch, transitioning from actor to director (Friday Night Lights, Hancock, The Rundown). However, even for Berg, there is something to be depressed about (and this is coming from someone who actually owns Very Bad Things): His next film is an adaptation of the board game Battleship. Yet, in the end, we'll always have Beston; the small town where the sky is as light as the skin color of the population and a sexy ballbreaker waits for her cocktail.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.
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