Stepping Out: On Watching Women Walk
Walking, like breathing, is something we do without thinking, an activity so commonplace that pedestrian has as its second meaning uninspired, ordinary, dull. Movies, however, reveal this action as more than just the original mode of getting from here to there; it is a language inscribed on the screen. There is a special pleasure in the kind of traveling shot that follows an actor on foot, when the camera glides along at the pace of someone’s stride or saunter, taking in the world at eye level. These passages represent cinema at its most human—mimicking our daily experience of the world—and humans at their most cinematic. They harbor the ghost of Eadweard Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion” studies, which first solved the mysteries of how we move, showing what is known by the body but invisible to the eye.
Each person’s gait is unique, like a fingerprint, and movie stars tend to walk like themselves no matter what role they are playing. Jean Gabin always rocks a little from side to side like a sailor on dry land; even in modern dress, Toshiro Mifune always stalks like a samurai. Robert Mitchum, who had the best walk of any man in the movies—a slinky panther tread whose movement rolls through his massive shoulders—and who was a far more analytical thinker about his craft than he usually let on, once explained in an interview that one of the secrets of movie acting was to “set the pace of the pictures.” He both moves and speaks behind the beat, the way Sinatra sang, and the unhurried pace is deliberate: by moving more slowly than the action around you, he theorized, you dominate it. Other stars march to different tempos: James Cagney’s is allegro con brio, poised on the balls of his feet and propelled by the forward tilt of his body. Fred Astaire’s easy, swinging rhythm, accented by one hand in his pocket, creates its own music wherever he goes.
Plenty of female stars have captivated with their walks. Barbara Stanwyck’s long, springy stride is boldly assertive and sleekly alluring; she is “built for speed,” as Ralph Meeker, more than a decade her junior, admiringly purrs in Jeopardy (1953). Of Ginger Rogers, James Harvey has written that her “stroll is one of the glories of film history,” noting how her squared, tensed shoulders form “a counterpoint to the fluid line and motion of her lower body.” Garbo’s rangy, slouching lope is all the more powerful for being slightly clumsy. But beyond the delights of individual gaits, and the pure cinematic pleasures of humans in motion, films that devote time to watching women walk are troubled and enriched by a further, inherent complexity. A female pedestrian can be seen, like a cubist figure, from different angles at once: as spectator and spectacle, subject and object, consumer and commodity, free agent and fair game. She trails behind her a history of hard-won female mobility—of foot-binding and hobble skirts, evolving public spaces and behaviors—and its reflected progress in art, literature, and cinema.
In movies, the walking woman comes in many guises. In the twenties, silent pictures, especially comedies, exploded with jazzy kinetic freedom: women in their new short skirts run, skip, scamper, and kick up their heels. Thirties Hollywood brought fast-walking dames like Rosalind Russell who swagger into offices with their heads thrown back, leaving doubters to eat their dust. Emerging a few years later, the reigning queens of film noir—Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Ida Lupino—walk with similar brazen assurance, but cross over to the dark side of the street, where their high heels echo on wet pavement. Here, women are stalked through nightmarishly empty streets, like the fragile girl chased by a knife-wielding killer in The Seventh Victim, but they can also do the menacing, like Ella Raines in Phantom Lady (1944). Dressed in a filmy white raincoat and armed with an unnervingly baleful glare, she follows a bartender (trying to intimidate him into changing his false testimony in a murder case), through studio backlot streets that are eerily depopulated. Her heels ring loudly in the quiet, and the air is thick with humidity and risk; at any moment, hunter and quarry might change places.
Femmes fatales on the prowl hypnotize their prey just by entering a room. Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944) is doomed from the moment he stares at Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet as she enacts the greatest staircase-descent since Duchamp. In Out of the Past (1947), Jeff Bailey describes the way Kathie Moffat bewitched him: “Then she walked in out of the sun,” “Then I saw her walking ahead of me in the lights,” “Then she’d come running up, like school was out . . .”
The balance of power changed in the 1950s when the spotlight moved to women like Marilyn Monroe, with her “jello on springs” wiggle, shaking her money-maker with each step, and Jayne Mansfield, whose every pneumatic sashay across the screen was treated as a punchline. The sixties and seventies brought a different kind of hyper-sexualized walk. In Taxi Driver (1976), all the women in the streets look like Saul Steinberg’s legs-up-to-their-necks cartoon hookers, strutting in miniskirts or hot pants and go-go boots, looking powerful when they are actually powerless. What a relief and joy to arrive at the galumphing gait of Sylvie (Christine Lahti), the restless, lonely, free-spirited hobo in Bill Forsyth’s 1987 Housekeeping, who instructs her shy niece not to mind if people stare because they are different. Lahti has said she developed the character’s space-devouring walk with the image of each step taking in the curvature of the earth.
The extent to which time and place shape styles of walking is even clearer when you look at films from other countries. The title character in Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952), played by Kinuyo Tanaka, locomotes in the manner imposed on Japanese women of the feudal era by tightly wrapped kimonos, flopping sandals, and social expectations: delicately, deliberately, sliding her pigeon-toed feet across the earth, bending forward and modestly shielding her face with a scarf or veil. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Oharu padding daintily along a street in a wisteria-patterned kimono; we discover at the end of this scene that she is an aging prostitute vainly trawling for a customer. But after two hours of harrowing cruelty and humiliation, the film ends with a stately lateral traveling shot that follows Oharu, now an itinerant Buddhist pilgrim, spiritually liberated from a life of suffering and exploitation, as she patiently, serenely puts one foot in front of the other. This, perhaps no less than Sylvie’s mannish stride in Housekeeping, is the walk of an emancipated woman.
It is not surprising that France, the nation that coined the term flânerie for a distinctively modern mode of urban wandering, also captured some of the greatest cinematic documents of this activity. When it came to women walking, French directors and actresses distilled the essence of a particular kind of solitary female perambulation. Eric Rohmer, for one, seemed always interested in the interplay between liberation and loneliness as represented by a woman in transit. His early short Nadja in Paris (1964) follows a foreign university student as she explores the city, floating with balletic lightness and poise along the trottoirs, walking and watching other people walk. Two decades later, the heroine of Le rayon vert (1986) meanders around France in its August lull, simultaneously aching for companionship and evading every effort made to connect with her. In the examples that follow, women walk alone for many different reasons, and the films capture the complicated, dynamic ambivalence of this radical act.
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