No question about it: we absolutely love the women of film noir, those tough but alluring femme fatales who run then ruin the lives of the men they encounter.
Long before the feminist movement took shape, these women were shown onscreen as independent, smart, brassy and sexy all at once. Few if any victims here.
Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor (pictured above), Coleen Gray, Jane Greer and Gloria Grahame are perhaps the queens of the genre. But there are other femme fatales as lethal as these that you may not have heard of. We’re thinking specifically of Peggy Cummins’ vivid interpretation of the pistol-wielding murderess in Joseph H. Lewis’ crisp 1950 thriller, Gun Crazy.
Today’s blog is inspired by an earlier, even chillier performance delivered by an even less-well-known noir empress, one Jean Gillie (pictured below).
In 1946’s Decoy, she portrays a pretty, polished (complete with a British accent) villainess of clinical cruelty who sets up a prisoner on death row to reveal the details of a stashed $400,000 — after he has been gassed. (Don’t ask, but there is cyanide gas involved and an antidote to its effects.)
The character is, says Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s encyclopedic reference Film Noir, “the most vicious femme fatale of the noir cycle,” a unregenerated sadist who “uses men without qualm.” What could be better than that!
Why, then, haven’t we heard more about Jean Gillie?
Well, for one thing, she didn’t live long. She was born Jean Mabel Coomber in London in 1915, and died in 1949 of pneumonia. For another, her screen career was centered in England with the exceptions of Decoy and her other Hollywood movie, 1947’s The Macomber Affair costarring Gregory Peck, Joan Bennett and Robert Preston.
She was married to Jack Bernhard, the Hollywood producer whom met Gillie in England during World War II and married her in 1944, a union that lasted three years including the time Decoy was shot at Monogram Studios. Bernhard co-produced and directed the picture to introduced his wife to American audiences. Thus the British accent you hear from Gillie in the movie is real.
There no question that Gillie comes off impressively. Her character is the mastermind of the action told in flashback after she is shot by a lover (Herbert Rudley), a doctor of high ideals brought low by money and, yes, sex. Another lover (Edward Norris) is run over multiple times by a car driven by you know who.
Even as she dies, Gillie’s character hysterically mocks a proud but horny police sergeant (“Jo-Jo,” played by one of our favorite character actors, Sheldon Leonard). A grim end for a tough woman superbly played by a British actress who taker her material very seriously, and who believably states that she would do anything to avoid returning to that “little English mill town” she fled.
Decoy and Jean Gillie. Remember them both.