A nightclub floor show with dancers kicking and tapping under a scrim of cigarette smoke and the murmuration of an indifferent crowd. Couples listlessly swaying in a second-floor ballroom, the men clutching rolls of tickets and the ladies gritting their teeth against sore toes and the press of sweaty palms. A woman strutting on the stage of a burlesque house, ogled by a hot spotlight and accompanied by catcalls and growling horns. These are some of the most common ways that dance shows up in film noir, but not the only ones. (A whole subgenre, which I won’t talk about here, dwells on the dark side of ballet: The Red Shoes, Specter of the Rose, Black Swan, etc.) Film noir flourished in the 1940s and ’50s, a time when dancing was woven into everyday life, and noir uses dance in many ways: for its stylization and its unruly energy, its power to seduce and its capacity to humiliate. It appears as a degraded and exhausting routine, a bewitching spectacle, a romantic interlude, or (yes, even) an expression of irrepressible, if usually temporary, joy. When Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall glide in each other’s arms to the strains of “Too Marvelous for Words” in Dark Passage (1947), enjoying a respite from the angst and dread of living in the hostile noir universe, they embody the romance of dancing in the dark. But it can also be the other way around: sometimes the darkness is in the dancing itself.
Tough Guys Do Dance
In 1948, the American modern dancer Daniel Nagrin choreographed Strange Hero, a brief solo built from the postures and gestures of the movie tough guy, revealing that they require only a modicum of exaggeration to become dance moves. “Constructing this dance was a cinch,” Nagrin said. “The nearest movie house was my source material. The simple, monotonous plot shaped the form of the dance: enter the tough guy armed to the teeth, cigarette drooping from arrogant lower lip. He calmly greets his enemies, smashes one, struts a bit, then the chase, the killing and being killed and killing and being killed and so on, ad nauseam.”
Strange Hero compiles a movement vocabulary for the celluloid hoodlum: a tense, almost rigid body, projecting control through languidly prolonged, repetitive gestures like removing a cigarette from the lips or reaching menacingly towards a pocket. Taut stillness gives way to sudden flicks and jabs of motion, hair-trigger reactions, and then a crescendo of stylized violence against phantom enemies. A similar vocabulary appears in the funniest and most elaborate dance parody of film noir, the “Girl Hunt Ballet” from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), and again in the titular nightclub number from Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955). In the latter, Magali Noël sings a masochistic ode to an abusive lover while behind her a man in a suit and fedora dances in silhouette in a lighted frame, a shadow-puppet taking the repertoire of hard-boiled gestures to its purest level of balletic abstraction. Angular, tensed, he spins on his toes and strikes hieroglyphic postures, knees bent, dukes up. Fred Astaire brings a loose, jazzy swagger—and steamy duets with Cyd Charisse—to the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” a send-up of Mickey Spillane pulp detective stories. But here once more is the clenched, crouched-to-spring physicality of guys in broad-shouldered pinstripe suits; the ritualistic gestures of reaching for a gun or flicking open a knife; the rigid, spasmodic, Frankenstein’s-monster-like movements; and the orgies of choreographed violence, guys punching and shooting and falling ad nauseam.
This kind of terpsichorean satire was “a cinch” because film noir and gangster movies were often as stylized as kabuki. When, in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Delon or Jean-Paul Belmondo pauses in the midst of deadly violence to meticulously adjust his hat-brim, they are honoring a tradition that goes back at least to George Raft’s coin-flipping, patent-leather-haired henchman in Scarface (1932), and to the volatile hoods played by James Cagney, whose compact body was charged with energy that might explode at any minute—into a crackling tap dance as likely as a burst of aggression. Both actors, of course, had gotten their start as hoofers. Raft’s style was smooth as oil, whether steering a lady through a foxtrot or cutting loose in a sinuous, rubber-legged soft-shoe (see Rowland Brown’s Quick Millions). Cagney’s mode was staccato, his body pitched forward, knees locked, behind jutting out, looking more like an animated cartoon than anything flesh and blood. Jean Gabin, who in his poetic realist films of the late 1930s was arguably the first great noir antihero—doomed, steeped in romantic fatalism—also started as a song-and-dance man in French music halls. As a fugitive gangster in Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le moko (1937), he is a fashion plate in black dress shirts, elegant scarves, and snazzy two-toned shoes, showing off his outlaw glamour not with guns, fists, tough talk, or daring crimes, but by the debonair way he strolls down the street and owns it. When he takes Mireille Balin for a spin on the dance floor, he moves with the unshowy precision and authority of a Swiss watch; later he expresses his love-struck elation by bursting into song on the terrace of his apartment, strutting in rhythm as if back on the stage of a Paris music hall.
For these men of the thirties, dancing was another way of flaunting their prowess, as much as firing a gat or delivering a poke in the nose.
In the postwar years, movie tough guys grew more constrained and buttoned-down, though there is still ample grace to be found in the big-cat prowling of Robert Mitchum; the silky élan of Richard Conte, who recalled taking classes with Martha Graham; and Burt Lancaster’s circus-acrobat athleticism, which gave his huge, muscular body both lightness and menace. The quintessential forties men, though, are those like Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, and Dana Andrews, whose minimalist body language speaks of ease painstakingly achieved and sustained, who wear their boxy suits and trench coats like armor. Dancing starts to be suspect (“You know, a man looks sort of silly doing this,” John Garfield complains while essaying a rhumba with Geraldine Fitzgerald in Nobody Lives Forever ), which explains why those prancing gangsters in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” or Guys and Dolls come off as cute, defanged caricatures.
In Strange Hero, Nagrin subversively brings out hints of femininity in his wasp-waisted, snake-hipped tough guy. If there is discomfort (in white, Western culture) with the idea of men dancing, it has to do most obviously with the puritan association of dancing with sex and erotic spectacle, but also with the body moving in ways that are playful, sensual, uninhibited—and hence vulnerable.
Ten Cents a Dance
Erotic spectacle is what nightclub floor shows and burlesque turns are all about. In Melville’s films, squads of leggy women in matching costumes and headpieces strut and sashay in the background of nightclub scenes, mere animated wallpaper. PG-rated burlesque performances are glimpsed in Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Crimson Kimono (1959): cookie-cutter routines of vamping and boa-twirling before a crowd of howling, slavering men. One of the saddest floor shows appears in John H. Auer’s City That Never Sleeps (1953), which keeps circling back to the Silver Frolics, a tawdry nightclub with pretensions (“International Follies! Paris in Chicago!” the huge signs outside trumpet). Inside, on a cramped little stage, women parade in elaborate, flouncy gowns and enormous headpieces, spinning flowered parasols or flapping butterfly wings in a cut-rate imitation of the Ziegfeld Follies formula, which presented women less as dancers than as living statuary. These productions are an effort to dress up—pun intended—a strip joint: although we never see the main attractions, we hear brassy bump-and-grind music and see garments tossed into the wings. Every time the movie returns to the Silver Frolics, the floor show is still going on—later in the evening, it morphs into a frenzied calypso number—a forced, maniacal charade of energy and fun that goes on, again, ad nauseam.
The creepiest thing about the club is the Mechanical Man: an actor in a top hat, tails, and silver makeup who impersonates a robot in the window, a gimmick to attract customers who are invited to guess, “Is he a machine, or is he flesh and blood?” The actor, Greg (Wally Cassell), copes with this lonely, degrading stunt by separating himself from his body, mentally escaping into fantasies about the stripper he hopelessly loves. He hides his emotions and humanity behind a jerky imitation of an automaton, while the women onstage go through a cold, mechanical presentation of flesh, intimacy, and sexual excitement. Angel Face (Mala Powers), one of the performers, bitterly tells her married cop boyfriend about how she came to the city with dreams of being a ballerina, “And now I’m ground down to this. Four shows a day. Sweat and more sweat and leering eyes.”
In Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), set during Tokyo’s swampy summer heat, women in skimpy costumes gyrate onstage in a cheap, un-air-conditioned theater, then stumble off and collapse into a heap of panting bodies streaming with sweat. This is a noir vision of dance: exhausting, transactional, going through the motions for pay like a coin-operated toy.
The term taxi dancer makes this literal: women paid by the minute to shuffle around the floor with strangers. (Men, too, once served as “tea dancers,” paid by establishments to partner women—Rudolph Valentino was pursued by rumors that he had once held this job.) At Dreamland, the ballroom in Felix Feist’s Tomorrow Is Another Day (1951), male customers exchange a ten-cent ticket for each minute of a hostess’s time, a buzzer sounding every sixty seconds to remind the women to collect their fee, out of which they earn a nickel. The sign outside promises “A Refined Place for Refined People,” but the reality seems more or less like the one Lorenz Hart described in the Rodgers and Hart song “Ten Cents a Dance,” the lament of a woman who earns a living by having her toes crushed and her gowns torn by any man with the price of a ticket.
“A depraved place, a human zoo,” is how the Times Square dance hall in Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955) is described by one of the hostesses who works there. It looks more depressing than sleazy: couples sway lethargically to slow, mournful saxophone music, aging men paying to wrap their arms around the bored, somnambulistic hostesses. Kubrick intercuts the first scene in the ballroom, where Gloria (Irene Kane) works, with a boxing match that is a humiliating defeat for Davey (Jamie Smith), the protagonist. Drawing inspiration from his Look photo essays on boxer Rocky Graziano and showgirl Rosemary Williams, Kubrick makes a connection between women and men whose bodies are on display for money, the dancers enduring ogling and pawing, the fighters absorbing violence and verbal abuse. At the end of the film, the famous brawl in a mannequin factory—when Davey takes on Gloria’s predatory boss—pushes this image of objectified bodies into delirious realms of over-the-top symbolism.
Dance plays other, more eccentric roles in the film, thanks to the involvement of Kubrick’s then-wife, the ballerina Ruth Sobotka, who also served as the movie’s art director. She performs a long ballet solo that accompanies Gloria’s recounting of a messy family tragedy involving her sister Iris. Filling the place of a traditional flashback, it is an ingenious money-saving strategy for this shoestring production, and the dance—on a bare stage, against a dark curtain—deploys the melodramatic intensity of ballet, and the contrast of its purity with the degraded shuffling in the dance hall, where Gloria seems to work partly as a kind of atonement or revenge against herself. Sobotka’s solo was choreographed by David Vaughan, who would go on to become a distinguished dance historian and associate of Merce Cunningham, and who also cavorts as one of the two drunken shriners who steal Davey’s scarf as he waits outside the dance hall.
It may have cost a dime to dance with a weary hostess, but it only cost a nickel to play a record on a jukebox. This is the downfall of Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the sage ex-con who plans a masterful jewelry-store heist in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). On his way out of town with his share of the loot, he lingers to watch a teenage girl jitterbug in a roadside diner, plunking a heap of coins on her table when her cheapskate boyfriend claims to be broke. (The eye-catching dancer is Helene Stanley, whose varied career ran from Poverty Row B flicks to modeling for Walt Disney’s Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and whose first husband was the ill-fated gangster Johnny Stompanato.) As she jives exultantly, Doc sits stone-still watching her, his expression not leering but intent, mesmerized, almost like someone gazing at a religious icon. The time it takes to spin a record is how long it takes for cops to show up and spot him; he pays for the dance with a handful of nickels and the rest of his life.
Moths Around a Flame
The complex, electric, and often dangerous charge between female performers and male spectators is a common motif in film noir. Exhibit A is Gilda (1946). It takes some effort to detach Rita Hayworth’s performance of “Put the Blame on Mame” from its freestanding, “iconic” status and see it in the context of the story. Try to look past the Hollywood polish: the witty song by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, the creamy vocal by Anita Ellis, the smashing Jean Louis ensemble of long black gloves and a shimmery black gown that seems to be sliding off Hayworth’s body. The choreography by Jack Cole gives Hayworth, a trained dancer, far less to do than she was capable of, as she showed in movies where she easily kept up with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. But Cole’s minimalism was potent, and Hayworth makes something electrifying out of the simple routine of swaggering, swishing her hips, spreading her arms wide, and tossing her hair; she gives herself to the dance with abandon. Gilda’s performance feels triumphant, defiant, and elated, yet she offers this would-be striptease—throwing aside her wrap, slowly peeling off a glove, even inviting a volunteer to help remove her gown—to torment her ex-husband Johnny (Glenn Ford) and, in some perverse way, to punish herself by earning his contempt. The camera keeps cutting away to Johnny watching her, looking sick and numb, like a man who’s just been slugged in the stomach and is holding still to keep from vomiting. In the end, he has her dragged off the floor and viciously slaps her, leaving her in tears. And yet, Hayworth’s joy in dancing is so natural, radiant, and spontaneous that she makes this misogynistic framework seem flimsy and contrived.
Affair in Trinidad (1952), which thriftily recycles elements of Gilda (grafting on some bits borrowed from Notorious and The Third Man), replays this scene at a party, where Hayworth’s character taunts Ford’s with a sexy number called “I’ve Been Kissed Before.” Again, he responds by slapping her. In this and Hayworth’s nightclub number from the same film, “Trinidad Lady,” Valerie Bettis’s choreography shows off Hayworth’s rhythm and the infectious pleasure she takes in dancing. All of these songs are about a woman’s power—to cause earthquakes and fires, to stir “mad desire” in viewers, to slay men, figuratively and even literally. The tone of the lyrics is knowing, teasing, following the template established by Marlene Dietrich’s gloriously insolent performance of “Falling in Love Again” in The Blue Angel (“Men cluster to me like moths around a flame / And if their wings burn, I know I’m not to blame”). Hayworth’s movies never resolve their own inner conflict, wanting to unabashedly celebrate her sexuality and also to tame or condemn it. They want to cast Ford’s punitive jealousy as the normal reaction of a healthy, red-blooded man, even as the dynamic of the musical scenes—she in her glory, he an onlooker frozen in impotent rage—makes him seem pathetic, lashing out because he can’t control her or cope with the feelings she arouses.
This same sturdy formula turns up halfway around the world in Wang Tianlin’s The Wild, Wild Rose (1960), a noir musical about a nightclub performer in Hong Kong. The star, Grace Chang, is a tall, shapely knockout with an exultantly confident style. The film opens with her performing a jazzed-up version of the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen in a smoky, noir-lit nightclub. The lyrics, in Mandarin, say that love is an illusion, nothing special, that men are just for fun, and anyone who falls in love with the singer is asking for trouble. She slinks around in a tight, side-slit dress, flirting with male patrons; her voice ascends siren-like from a low growl to a suggestively breathy soprano, as the arrangement mutates into up-tempo Latin jazz. Her performance is interspersed with reaction shots from a helplessly smitten new customer (Zhang Yang). In the end of the movie, he will stab her to death.
Just as the stylized posturing of tough guys can be pushed a little further into dance, the musical numbers by Chang, Hayworth, and Dietrich reveal something essential about the seductive demeanor of the femme fatale: an intensely performative awareness of female power that seduces with a show of being wise to the game, brandishing a threat that is also an invitation—and vice versa.
During the course of The Wild, Wild Rose, Chang performs a cultural mash-up of European opera—including Puccini’s Orientalist Madame Butterfly—flamenco dance, and mambo, all in Mandarin. Dance, like the film noir style, bleeds across borders. Swing dancing spread from the Black American communities where it originated, conquering white America and then the rest of the world. Migrant farm workers in Northern Italy Lindy Hop in the woods at night in Giuseppe de Santis’s Bitter Rice (1949), copying moves coined in Harlem ballrooms. Yakuza and their bar-hostess girlfriends do the same steps in a sweaty Tokyo dance hall in Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948).
Latin styles were a global craze in the postwar years: in Hollywood noir films, when people go to nightclubs the band is as likely to be playing Cuban or Brazilian rhythms as American jazz. In Criss Cross (1949), for instance, when Burt Lancaster steps into a local LA hot spot and sees his ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo), she is dancing to Esy Morales’s rhumba band. (Her partner is an uncredited young Tony Curtis; we mostly see the back of his head, glistening with hair oil.) This is yet another scene of a woman sensually absorbed in her movement—twirling, shaking her shoulders, caught up in the rhythm—and a man watching, immobile and helplessly entranced.
The genders of performer and spectator are reversed in a singularly disturbing dance scene from Yves Allégret’s Les orgeuilleux (The Proud and the Beautiful, 1953), which also gives an unusual slant to the “cultural appropriation” motif of a white European copying an Indigenous dance form. The film stars Michèle Morgan as Nellie, a French tourist stranded in a Mexican village after her husband dies in a meningitis outbreak. She is first repelled by, then attracted to, Georges (Gérard Philipe), a former doctor who has sunk into a squalid existence as a homeless drunk. At the bar, the locals make him dance in exchange for tequila, splitting their sides at his clumsy impression of the huapango, a Mexican folk dance. Like a broken marionette, he kicks out his heels and stomps his feet, his body jerking back and forth, leaping into the air, faster and more spasmodically until he collapses with heat and exhaustion. But when he sees the haughtily beautiful blonde Frenchwoman watching, he redoubles his efforts, grinning grotesquely, yelling, leaping, and flailing until he falls to the floor. He wants to shock and disgust her, to flaunt his degradation in a frenzy of self-hatred and self-punishment. Rewarded with the promised bottle of tequila, he smashes it on the bar, telling Nellie, “I only did it for you.”
This is an upsetting scene, especially given Philipe’s delicate beauty and romantic persona. In one way, it is like Rita Hayworth’s striptease in Gilda: a performance enjoyed by an audience but aimed at one spectator who looks on in horror. In both cases, the performer is deliberately enacting an apotheosis of that viewer’s worst suspicions of him or her. Georges’ huapango is also an example of something that lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from the choreographed polish of Hollywood musical numbers. Bad dancing can also be riveting. (It can even be at once embarrassing and charming, like Marcello Mastroianni’s heroically dorky dance in Luchino Visconti’s 1957 Le notti bianche. Trying to impress a date, his shy character takes the floor in a café where young hepcats are jiving to “Thirteen Women,” and launches into a solo so crazy and awkward that it becomes, in its own way, cool.) In the dance-hall scene from Drunken Angel, the ailing yakuza played by Toshiro Mifune sits slumped over a table, wasted by both liquor and TB, his pinstriped suit jacket unbuttoned, tie rumpled, greasy hair hanging in his face. Defying his physical weakness, he grabs a partner and gets up to dance, jitterbugging with hunched-over ferocity. Egged on by the wild strains of the “Jungle Boogie,” he wiggles his butt at the camera, then does a funny, lurching walk, grimacing and raising his clawed hands like a cartoon monster. Uninhibited, undignified, desperate, these amateur efforts show the risks of dancing—looking foolish, losing control—but also the way that dance can be a release from conventions, restraint, and the prison of self-image.
Though song and dance were key ingredients of American and European noir, as should be clear by now, they were usually parceled out in limited quantities and segregated within nightclubs or dance halls. Other parts of the world, however, produced true noir-musical hybrids. In Mexico, the genre of cabaretera fused feverish, sordid crime melodramas with sizzling music and dance in settings of smoky, neon-smeared bars and cabarets. The stories are cast in as stark a moral chiaroscuro as the black-and-white cinematography, pitting female entertainers-cum-prostitutes against the pimps and gangsters who exploit them, the grinding forces of poverty and injustice, and the disdain of polite society.
Emilio Fernández’s Victims of Sin (1951) is an exemplary masterpiece of the genre, starring the white-hot Cuban performer Ninón Sevilla as a dancer who rescues a baby abandoned in a trash can by one of her coworkers. Sevilla was one of the so-called rumberas who brought Afro-Caribbean rhythms and dance to Mexico. At the beginning of the film she performs an elaborate nightclub number in full costume, but later on—after she has been fired and reduced to streetwalking—she spontaneously steps in to dance in another club, a basement bar frequented by working-class laborers. In street clothes, she dances for and with a group of Afro-Cuban drummers, goading them on as she shakes her hips and shoulders and adds her own rapid, percussive footwork, pulling one of the drummers onto the floor for a frenetic, playfully competitive duet. The camera cuts to close-ups of the bar’s owner (Tito Junco) watching, at first impassive, then gradually smiling, but even though she is in effect auditioning for a job, she is not dancing for him. Her performance is raw, ecstatic; this is not dance as spectacle but dance as an embodied experience.
Of all national cinemas, India’s Hindi-language film tradition may be the one in which song and dance are most integral, and its urban crime thrillers are no exception. Take Baazi (1951), the noir-stained directorial debut of the legendary actor and filmmaker Guru Dutt. A huge popular hit on its release, the film blends dark visions of corruption and betrayal—complete with seedy alleys, shadow-drenched basements, sleek villains, and incessant cigarette-lighting—with melodramatic romance and light-hearted comedy. The protagonist, Madan (the handsome and charismatic Dev Anand), is a poor young man who reluctantly takes a job as a nightclub tout because he needs money for his invalid sister’s care. Luring suckers to be fleeced in the club’s illegal gambling den, he grows cynical and disillusioned, adopting an amoral view that crime and cheating are universal. He is loved by two women, one an upper-class doctor in a charity clinic, the other a voluptuous performer trapped like him in this sleazy life. The nightclub provides a setting for musical numbers performed by Leena (Geeta Bali), which are Bollywood takes on the familiar formula of a woman mockingly seducing—and seductively mocking—male spectators. (Like Dietrich in Morocco, Leena even flirts with female patrons.) In her first appearance, a saucy and irresistibly catchy solo, she concludes by tossing a fishing net over the gawking Madan, literally entangling and reeling him in. Toward the end of the film, just after Leena has been strong-armed by thugs into a plot against Madan, she leads a lively, belly-dance-inflected ensemble. The women’s dancing is punctuated by extreme close-ups of sinister men’s faces, ominously shadowed and sheened with sweat, and a tight shot of a gun being drawn from a white dinner-jacket.
But it is not only in nightclubs that people burst into song; they warble on beaches and in gardens; love scenes, in particular, are conducted through music rather than physical contact. (As was standard in Hindi cinema, the actors lip-synch to the voices of playback artists.) Even Madan at one point takes the cigarette out of his mouth long enough to sing a cheerful ditty, goofing around on a country road—an interlude that is unimaginable in an American crime thriller. And although he winds up framed for murder and faced with jail time, the overall tone of the film remains rather upbeat, carried along on a swelling tide of melody. Such exuberance might seem to be incompatible with film noir, but these musical hybrids demonstrate how the noir spirit can remain potent even when mixed with contrasting ingredients.
Dance can express almost anything, and have as many meanings as a body has ways of moving. Where it crosses into noir territory, it reveals some hard truths about how and why people perform for each other. And in turning the camera on the audience for dance, film noir exposes the costs, risks, and addictive pleasures of spectatorship. As we watch people watching, we may see ourselves on the screen.