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Remaking Ourselves: Notes on Women in Crime Films "Thief" (1981) & "I’m Your Woman" (2020)
A reintroduction for new subscribers as well as a fun essay comparing the women of Thief (1981) and I'm Your Woman (2020)
It has been far too long, dear reader. As we get deeper into spring and Aries season (the best season, my season), I am finally coming back into my power. This year thus far has been marked by a return of my least favorite existential crisis concerning my work as a writer. I have felt unmoored, downtrodden, deeply unhappy, unable to see all that I have to be grateful for or even enjoy the fruits of my hard-won labor. When I am creatively disconnected, everything in my life feels off. It isn't a writer's block scenario. I don’t have that luxury since writing is my job and that has never really been a problem for me. I have published work recently like my ecstatic review of the slippery film Return to Seoul with its tremendous lead performance and my giddy celebration of John Wick: Chapter Four. I wrote about black women’s anger and Angela Bassett. I was also recently on NPR’s It’s Been A Minute discussing the failures of Blonde and the legacy of Marilyn Monroe. I am ripening creatively. I am reading and watching and absorbing art with voracious desire. But my fear — about my worth as a writer, my skills, the legacy I’ll leave behind — were getting in my way at the beginning of this year. Every choice we make in life is between love and fear. I had been choosing fear. This capitalist hell we live in has led me to believe on a molecular level that suffering is necessary for success. But in earning my place, it is imperative to question this foundational belief of mine. Mostly because it’s fucking bullshit. Instead, what if I choose to play with my writing? What if I make sure to prioritize my passion projects? What if instead of suffering, my current lot in life — full of connection and beauty — is a healthier foundation to create from rather than being in a place of scarcity? What if I get out of my own fucking way and enjoy myself, my life, and all my creative pursuits have to offer? I finally feel I am coming into such a space. I feel tapped into joy and pleasure and care in ways I never have before.
So, right now I am focused on finding pleasure in the process of creation. A few days ago on Instagram I posed a seemingly simple question in my stories, “How do you bring joy back into your artistic/writing process?” I got some great advice. From fellow writer Jasmine Sanders, “Other creative outlets! Reading, cooking, sewing, making things, sometimes sex lol.” My genius friend Maya Cade of Black Film Archive responded, “Nature walks, reading books from childhood to recenter, calling a good friend, journaling.” I was especially taken by writer Jessa Crispin’s response, “I think of it as a personal letter to someone I really love talking to. I picture spilling it out over drinks.” Now this is novel advice. It allows a writer to cultivate intimacy with the reader and craft a sense of play within their words. The use of the word spilling suggests a giddiness, a tipsy revelry, an energetic momentum. This is a piece of advice I am trying out going forward. (To the person this is written with in mind, can you feel the sweetness of my touch through the care I am putting into my words?)
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These moments of disruption and struggle that happens with artists is a part of the process. Sometimes a project tumbles from our grasp momentarily or its contours are obscured by the fog of our own conflicting desires. But I refuse to define the act of creation as inherently a painful one. This brings to mind when I would be on Twitter looking at off-the-cuff tweets from peers complaining about how hard writing is and how much they hate it. I don’t hate writing. I love it. Writing excites me, challenges me, moves me. If you don’t like writing, why the fuck are you doing it? If anything, my approach to my life as a writer and the art I make is an extension of an ethos guiding my life: Pleasure is my discipline. Since my last newsletter in October 2022 (Oh, lord!), On Being A Woman Artist & Further Notes on Blonde, I have continued to gain new subscribers. I’m not sure how you have found your way to my infrequently but passionately updated newsletter but I promise to write more regularly (aiming for once a month at least) to update you on what I’ve been working on and craft essays infused with the joy of creation.
So, allow me to reintroduce myself. I’m Angelica Jade Bastién, a film critic at New York Magazine’s site, Vulture. I’m Southern-rooted (by my way of rural Louisiana) and Miami-born. I’ve lived in Chicago for over fifteen years now. I’m passionate and vulgar and caring and a touch silly. I love cooking Creole food, listening to podcasts like We Hate Movies and You Must Remember This, caring for my cats, long phone calls, the sky when it is the color of bruises, floating in the ocean near the shore, comic books with an emphasis on works like Black Magick, Monstress, and characters like Wonder Woman and Catwoman, soaking in a hot bath the color of the sun shot through with glitter thanks to a bath bomb, the sound of my boyfriend’s laughter. This newsletter, like everything I do, is guided by my obsessions from film history to classic Hollywood to women with outsized personalities to the rhythmic beauty of blackness to the nature of memory’s failures to the fraught dynamics of being an eldest daughter raised by a single mother to horror films of the gnarly sort. I write with my whole body; I prefer my art to be visceral and embodied in kind. Lately, I have been thinking about the relationship between my art and labor and capitalist expectations which are all deep considerations in Michael Mann’s earliest film, the masterwork of noir complication Thief (1981).
Thief is the kind of film that feels so tailor-made for my liking it’s as if a part of my spirit has been put on the screen. There are so many details in the film that delight. The setting of Chicago’s Green Mill jazz bar which has existed in the city since 1907. The grit of this sturdy town and its gleaming asphalt. The machinations of men and women sifting through a criminal world where danger lurks at every corner. It’s bruising. It’s wonderful. Audiences and critics alike often talk about representation in the strictest terms of mirrored identity. But one of the most powerful aspects of art is finding yourself, your soul, your vibe in places where you least expect. I do not share much similarity on the surface with James Caan’s Frank, a crackerjack thief able to break into any damn thing he desires through a cunning blend of intelligence and physicality. He’s an ex-convict, a working class gent, a hard-edged figure making his way through the underbelly of the Chicago crime world.
What I see of myself in him is the wrestling with capitalist forces when your art is also your labor. Frank is an artist. That’s evident in the heist scenes — whether the one that opens the film or the fiery contours of the major one he commits with the help of his comrade, Barry (Jim Belushi playing a real one in undoubtedly his best role). Mann asks and answers a host of questions including, how do capitalist systems and powers break artists by devaluing their labor? This can be seen in the prickly interactions Frank has with the criminal figure, Leo (Robert Prosky); a man eager to use Frank’s talents wooing him with big jobs, money, and garnering him a child when he’s unable to adopt due to his prior conviction. Leo seems convivial on the surface after Frank agrees to do jobs for him as he’s eager for big paydays that would free him from this life of crime and allow him to settle down with the woman he loves, Jessie (a stunning Tuesday Weld). But there’s always an edge of danger when Leo is on-screen giving us the impression that for all his surface level kindness he’s really holding the end of the noose slowly being wrapped around Frank’s neck. Events go tits up after the big heist meant to free Frank from this life. Of course, why would Leo cut Frank loose given the talents he wants to continue to exploit? Blood is spilled. People are shot toward high heaven. Frank is able to survive, but at what cost? The intersections of art and commerce Thief interrogates through Frank’s sure grip on his own profession is merely one part of why this film is so alluring. What I’ve primarily been obsessing over is the relationship Frank builds with Jessie.
Tuesday Weld’s Jessie isn’t the most major character in the film’s cast. But she is crucial to understanding this world and what it asks of people. Consider the dynamite diner scene between Jessie and Frank. Against the silken blue evening outside the mammoth windows of the diner, they first spar then tease out a sweetness that exists within both of them. They trade stories and scars. They feel each other out, wounds and all. She talks about her dangerous past romantic partner, a criminal in his own right, and ending up drifting in Bogota. She was broke and lost, afterwards. Now her life is normal. But it’s a normalcy Frank can clock is unfulfilling even if it is “solid” as she says. “You’re marking time is what you are. You’re hiding out. You’re waiting for a bus that will never come,” Frank responds. “Where were you in prison? Can you pass the cream please,” Jessie says later, with matter-of-fact elegance. The abruptness of the last line is so juicy with meaning. This is a woman who can look at life head-on. Frank then discusses being twenty when he went into prison and thirty-one when got out. He bluntly expresses the rigors of his life inside and the horrors of it. Caan makes a meal out of scenes such as this. But the scene my mind keeps going back to is the last one they share together.
At this point, Frank’s life is unraveling and he realizes a showdown with Leo is necessary for his own survival. But he can’t have Jessie and their child by his side otherwise they will be in the line of fire. In the hushed darkness of their bedroom, Frank ends their relationship, “You’re going away. It can’t be this way. Don’t you understand? Do not take anything. Do not pack anything. [...] We’re not going. You’re going.” “Wait…we just disassemble it and put it back in a box,” Jessie is staunch in her refusal to minimize and destroy their life together. She can’t put this time spent with him away as he asks and act like it didn’t happen. She wants to hold onto it. “I love you,” she says “I’m not going anywhere.” She studies his face, pleading for the softness she witnessed before. But he’s closed down now. He’s solely focused on the task at hand and getting her out of the way for her own good. “I’m your woman and you’re my man,” she responds to his impassive listing of how her life will go now. It doesn’t matter what she says or the love between them. It’s over. Weld’s performance is one of my favorites in the noir pantheon. She’s tough, yearning, smart as fuck about the world and has a confidence that comes from precisely knowing your place within it. Imagine a crime film focused on a character like her. Imagine the possibilities and potentialities that bloom when noir focuses on women that too often are on the margins of the story.
I’m Your Woman, writer/director Julia Hart’s 2020 film, is in conversation with Thief. It concerns Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), a naive trophy wife to a thief-turned-hired killer named Eddie (Bill Heck). Eddie recently brought home an infant to Jessie out of nowhere, whose origin is murky at best. One night Jessie wakes to pounding at her door from one of Eddie’s associates who gives her a bag of money, no time to pack, and forces her out the door to be protected by Cal (Arinzé Kene), as Eddie has killed a criminal boss he was working under sending the lives of many into a tailspin. When I reviewed the film in 2020 I was pretty taken by it. But I recently rewatched it for the first time since my review and my opinion has shifted somewhat.
My review argued, “Jean quickly reveals herself to be a jejune figure who is so utterly dependent on men she doesn’t know how to function. It’s evident she is pulled toward Cal, or at least increasingly reliant upon him, as she attempts to demarcate the bounds of her new life. She can’t do it herself. “I’ve never been on my own,” she says, exasperated, to Cal at one turning point in the film. This need to define herself, to come into her own, gives the movie a rich arc that it treats delicately. Jean is forced to grow up. At times, the character grates with her entitlement and her inability to see beyond her own pain, but I found those qualities fascinating. She juggles being a new mother to Harry with the anxious pressures of her predicament. She’s occasionally a touch paranoid, looking for her fate to turn in every shadow and along every corner. When a neighbor, Evelyn (Marceline Hugot), extends her grace — with a suspicious, desperate edge to the kindness — Jean must follow her instincts. We learn about her miscarriages, which add a different contour to her loneliness. What makes the particulars of her arc intriguing is how much Jean stumbles toward some sense of independence and strength — a note that isn’t hamfistedly made but is handled with care.
Jean’s growth is hastened by the presence of Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), Cal’s wife, who brings along their young son, Paul (De’Mauri Parks), and Cal’s emotionally incandescent father, Art, (Frankie Faison). In many ways, the film’s spell could easily have been broken if it had fallen into the trap of using these Black characters merely as support for Jean’s awakening. But Hart demonstrates an awareness of Jean’s privilege and its material effects.” Most of this holds true. But how I look at Jean has changed in rewatching the film after experiencing Thief.
Jean represents the kind of woman many people think crime films are inhabited by: naive, lost, and weighed down by the oppression of a patriarchal world above all else. But Jessie in Thief is more accurate to how women in crime films in this country actually are: knowledgeable, holding onto hard-won joys, bristling with complication and an understanding of their place in the world. Jean is a glittering bauble, pure ornamentation within Eddie’s life. It’s why she doesn’t know initially that he turned to killing or that Teri was his first wife who left because of his controlling nature in order to protect the child they had together. There’s a moment between Teri and Jean, after the latter mentions she knows Eddie was her first husband. “Eddie did the same thing to you, before Cal…Except it’s worse because we have a kid,” Jean says as if it’s irrefutable. “Nothing is worse for you,” Teri replies pointedly. “You don’t know that.” “Yeah. I do.” This exchange limns the ways Jean is so wrapped up in her own pain she can’t see the suffering of others. She’s a quintessential white woman in many ways. Oblivious, pampered, unable to see beyond her own immediate vision of herself. Weld’s Jessie, on the other hand, has working class rhythms that reflect a life where every ounce of joy is fought for. She’s understanding of others and herself. Jean lacks such awareness. I spent much of the rewatch wishing Jean would grow a spine, wise up, and strike out on her own with a deeper understanding of the world. Yet everything becomes a confirmation of Jean’s own suffering, until the ending which shows her becoming a more well-rounded person. Jean is a woman in a state of becoming. Jessie grew up long ago. She didn’t have a choice. In a scene deeper into the film, at a criminal-friendly hotel for black folks they’re hiding out at, Teri converses with Jean about the nature of her relationship to Eddie. Jean (finally!) puts it together that Paul’s biological father is Eddie. Jean doesn’t apologize at first for how she treated Teri earlier but she does listen. “We would get to be together. We could get out. But one day Eddie would call and Cal wouldn’t be able to say no,” Teri says, extolling what it took to escape Eddie and how their regular life was interrupted by her former husband’s request. That call concerned protecting Jean.
It’s immediately apparent when actress Marsha Stephanie Blake is on-screen just how much more powerful she is than Brosnahan. It was glaring to me on rewatch how much better the film would be if we got Teri’s story as the focus, not Jean’s. Teri represents what draws me to women in crime films. Like Tuesday Weld’s performance and character, she’s on the level. These are achingly tender yet strong women, heartfelt yet with the keen ability to fuck someone up if need be. I’m Your Woman is a good film, filled with pools of amber light and a great recreation of its 1970s pure Americana setting. The costuming is splendid and specific. The score by Japanese composer Aska Matsumiya (who also worked on last year’s After Yang) twinkles with melancholy. But the creators behind the film trip by making a character as richly constructed and precisely performed as Teri, supporting when she has a gravitational force their actual lead lacks. Noir and crime works in general have been considered the province of men. But women are often their most intriguing figures. Their stories reflect what this genre is truly about: the strictures, complications, and yearnings that come with being alive in a world built to grind the most vulnerable into dust.
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