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JOAN FONTAINE'S HEIRESS.

STAR IN TRANSITION

The following is taken from an essay on Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (tentatively titled "Vindication of an Heiress") which examines the film in terms of (among other things) its use of Brechtian narrative strategies as well as the film's feminist politics. The section below titled "The heiress" deals primarily with the crucial intersection of star persona and type but to place it within the proper context of the film's profeminist thematic I have included portions of the surrounding sections. (For those unfamiliar with the film, the plot involves a writer, Tom Garrett/Dana Andrews who, in an attempt to expose the potential for error in trying a capital punishment case, plots to have himself tried and convicted for murder, apparently falsely. He is engaged to Susan Spencer/Joan Fontaine, daughter of a wealthy publisher (and co-conspirator) Austin Spencer/ Sidney Blackmer).

Tom is the focal point for Lang's critique of masculinity but he is just one in a network of representative males. From the club owner (Dan Seymour) who initiated Patty into stripping to Mike Robinson, who would "rough her up just to keep in practice", the men are variously exploitive, opportunistic, and oppressive. One of the most ambiguous is Susan's father, whom the viewer comes to suspect of subterfuge, perhaps of setting Tom up to be executed. With Austin Spencer/Sidney Blackmer oppressive masculinity is taken into the realm of the bourgeois home and the incestuous possessiveness of the patriarch for his daughter. The grounds for rivalrous relations between Tom and Spencer are implied at the very moment of Susan's introduction where she bestows kisses in turn upon her father's head and then Tom's lips, implying a turning of affection from the father to his replacement. Tom's feelings for Susan being truly ambivalent (evidencing both desire and revulsion), mutual antagonism between the two men can be inf erred as mutual desire to possess Susan. In fact Tom and Spencer are further linked from the moment they agree to the plot, the instigation of which remains ambiguously attributable to both (a point underlined by Susan's late query, "But whose idea was it?"): Spencer, designer of the plot, reveals its details in response to Tom's preoccupation ("Become engaged to my daughter and all you can talk about is capital punishment") and Tom promptly provides the necessary body. Mutual antagonism is further suggested by two tantalizing bits of evidence: Knowing from the police report that the killer smoked a pipe Spencer (without Tom's apparent knowledge) leaves tell-tale evidence of pipe smoking (the stained matchbook covers) in Tom's garage; on the night of the murder, Tom, a non-pipesmoker, is seen smoking a pipe (as recalled by one of the strippers) in an apparent attempt to implicate (or emulate?) the pipe-smoking Spencer. As with Tom, the concrete results of the plot (the dissolution of the engagement) suggest S pencer's underlying motivation. (Although the discovery of the letter clearing Tom largely absolves Spencer of trying to destroy Tom, Lang makes clear that the letter is unusually inaccessible and Spencer's lawyer must get a court order to retrieve it).

The suggestions of masculine calculation and covert behavior that run throughout the film are in stark contrast to its opening moments which describe a state execution as an apparently impersonal judicial process carried out dutifully by impartial male functionaries, their implacably stern faces (with Spencer the one exception) testifying to their disinterest. This scene is easily read as symbolic of the world of masculine power that is potentially Tom's, whose current fame derives from having written one well-received book. It is a world characterized as so repressive that even the condemned man can barely muster a response to his own impending death (a lack of emotion that Tom will mirror at the conclusion). However, as in his interpersonal relations so in his institutional role is the patriarch governed by covert desires. Personal disinterest (the guarantee of the patriarch's fairness in the various professional roles that are nonetheless personally empowering to him) is challenged within the film's first few minutes when Spencer accuses the district attorney of pursuing capital cases because he aspires to the governorship, and nothing in Governor Thompson's subsequent behavior contradicts this interpretation. Similarly the reform-minded Spencer describes the latest execution in terms of personal competition between him and Thompson ("Score another one for Thompson"). By contrast, Susan, refusing to make a pretense of disinterest even when she temporarily runs the newspaper, instead insists upon using the paper to the fullest to free Tom. In the process she magnificently destabilizes institutionalized masculine power, her actions proving an affront not only to Thompson but to her veteran male staffers.

The heiress

Both Susan and her father are (so to speak) keepers of the metaphorical flame of economic power, a point underscored when, in the cocktail bar, first Spencer and subsequently Susan provide lights for Tom who, appropriately, never has a light. Susan's economic power, of course, derives from her inheritance of the father's. The heiress is a figure of recurring cultural interest, her fascination lying in her possession of the practical means (even when she lacks the personal initiative) to confound her secondary patriarchal social status as a woman. She is often the focus of unscrupulous designs to relieve her of her inheritance (Henry James is the obvious literary touchstone here) as well as exclusively masculine designs to rectify the perversion of Woman's "natural" destiny for which the heiress's possession of money allows. This is a theme that is carried over into Hollywood's Freudian-feminist dramas of the forties and the casting of Joan Fontaine as Susan underlines the intertextual connection, the specific referent being Hitchcock's Suspicion. The Lang film in fact inverts Hitchcock's plot: Where in Hitchcock Fontaine's Lina McLaidlaw marries a man whom she comes to suspect is a murderer (until a last minute disclosure reveals his innocence), in the Lang she is engaged to a man she believes innocent of murder (until a last minute disclosure reveals his guilt). In both cases Fontaine's heterosexual commitment results in hysteria and emotional collapse, both symptomatic of an irresolvable internal conflict.

The heroines of such melodramas as Suspicion and Cukor's Gaslight exemplify the heiress as ingenuous victim of her heterosexual commitment. What, however, of the heiress who, while submitting to the overwhelming social demand to commit to male-dominated heterosexuality also recognizes and accepts her advantageous economic position and asserts her power in the one option grudgingly guaranteed her, personal choice? In a society explicitly committed to democratic principles this is, at least in theory, acceptable. If, however, she additionally usurps the familiar privilege of the male to flex his economic might in all matters, including romance, and exploits her wealth in aggressive pursuit of her beloved, then all the cultural anxiety generated by the alignment of women and wealth quickly arises and the cultural conundrum that the heiress represents is suddenly settled and she becomes (in the wrong hands) the rich bitch. One should note that even when her clout is not presented in terms of upsetting the stability of male power in the culture's dominant sexual arrangement, as a woman the heiress often acts as a magnet for any cultural ambivalence that attaches to the inheritance of wealth and its attendant class privilege in a democratic society and she can find herself the object of criticism that is, at best, invalid and at worst mean-spirited (these respective tendencies are best exemplified by the text's ambivalence toward the Hepburn heiress in Stage Door and its outright hostility toward her in The Philadelphia Story).

The patriarchal fear of women and wealth is such that the division between assertiveness and manipulation is essentially non-existent (just as the rhyming of "rich" and "bitch" suggests that, where women are concerned, the former inevitably produces the latter). In the hands of a particularly sensitive artist, however, the heiress retains her victim status as a woman even when she is clearly manipulative. In Minnelli's An American in Paris, the heiress Milo Robinson/Nina Foch clearly maneuvers the hero (Gene Kelly) in very undemocratic ways. But in the film's memorable limo ride back from a Montparnasse cafe, Foch and Minnelli splendidly reveal the desperation of the woman who, though economically independent, is subject to the same ideological pressures as her less financially secure sisters. As Foch here upstages Kelly dramatically so too does Milo forever problematize our relationship to the male protagonist.

Foch's dramatic shift from poise to vulnerability captures beautifully the heiress's duality, a duality which will also come to characterize Susan, as the contrasting images of the poised woman in the cocktail bar at the film's start and the woman who collapses ("I can't, I can't!") at the conclusion make apparent. The casting of Fontaine has an added relevance, specifically in relation to the heiress as potential bitch. The partial inversion of the components comprising the Fontaine persona of the 1940s (social and/or sexual naivete, acute emotional and physical trepidation and vulnerability, a submissiveness to masculine dominance that Molly Haskell famously described as masochistic) into the poised, fashionable and often brittle sophisticate of some of her post-forties work testifies amply to the extreme disquiet Fontaine's earlier rendering of female victimhood had induced. In Katharine Hepburn: The Thirties and After (Tyneside Cinema, 1984, p.96, reprinted as Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist) the lat e Andrew Britton notes "the various phases of a star's career are implicit in the others" and any given phase "will be accompanied by the shadow...of its counterparts'. Thus the inversion of the largely superficial elements of the Fontaine persona is anticipated by the transformation her characters undergo from ingenuous youthfulness to knowing womanhood in her work for Hitchcock and Ophuls (Fontaine's recurring narrative maturation is familiar enough by 1945 that in the little-known The Affairs of Susan it can be subjected to partial parody).

Star careers also evidence a remarkable consistency which derives from the fact that (as Britton further notes) "each phase can be viewed as a specific attempt to solve the problems produced by the ideological material organized in the persona". From Rebecca to Tender Is the Night Fontaine is regularly cast as the patriarch's daughter, her oeuvre largely concerned with the problematic of a daughter's more or less affectionate identification with her father. Fontaine's early work for Hitchcock and Ophuls is primarily concerned with the critical bearing this relationship has on the development of the daughter's sexual/romantic fantasies, fantasies which the culture everywhere encourages but the text presents as detrimental to her. The texts define male-dominated heterosexual relations as confining, oppressive, and unfulfilling for women and the daughter's eventual entrapment in the culture's primary sexual arrangement (or, in Ophuls' Letter From an Unknown Woman, its imagined realization) is a direct result of her internalization of the culture's gender norms as romantic fantasy, a process instigated by a primary patriarchal agent, her own father.

Beyond is part of a trilogy of Fontaine films (which also includes Anthony Mann's Serenade and Robert Rossen's Island in the Sun) which is less concerned with Woman's inheritance of the culture's gender norms than their potential subversion as a result of Fontaine's social hegemony (deriving from family, income, race, etc.) over her lover. However the crucial narrative difference between the early work and these later films lies in the father's social position. In Rebecca and Ophuls' Letter the father's social insignificance (an unsuccessful artist in the former, a minor municipal bureaucrat in the latter) facilitates the daughter's seduction by the patriarch, his apparent impotence blinding the daughter to the real terms of his affection. In the Mann and Lang films (and Suspicion) Fontalne is the heiress and it is her identification, both personal and public, with a socially prominent father that problematises her heterosexual commitments. (In the Rossen, although there is no father, Fontaine is nonetheless heir to both class and race privilege and she essentially attempts to sacrifice her social prominence for her lover).

Both Fontaine and her respective collaborators are to be credited for preserving viewer empathy for the heiress, glacially self-possessed as the Fontaine heiress may be. In Serenade, for example, the heiress's manipulations of her lover clearly merit her the label "bitch". Yet even here an old family friend remembers watching her as a child "at the beach in front of her father's summer place at Newport, building beautiful castles in the sand--just for the exquisite pleasure of knocking them down". Thus, no less than in Fontaine's earlier work, the daughter's symbolic destruction of the home suggests that her adult distress derives from childhood experiences within that environment.

The adult heiress may also discover that additional means have been deployed to circumvent her agency. Like many a patriarch before him, Austin Spencer, through his will, has instituted the means whereby the heir's authority over the father's legacy will be inhibited even after his death: Susan will own the newspaper but it will be run by committee. With the greatest of ironies, the liberal-minded capitalist has hindered his daughter's access to power by forestalling the institution of democratic principles within the family business until after his own reign. Thus, whether the daughter opts to challenge the operations of capitalism at their institutional base or allow operations to continue status quo, she finds the decision has been efficiently taken out of her hands. The female heir finds herself in the paradoxical position of having access to a lot of money but nothing much to do with it that society validates. If she then drifts into the traditional female role it is not necessarily solely of her own vo lition. Under these conditions, Susan's analytical approach to compulsory heterosexuality acquires an aspect of radicalism, unique among Fontaine's daughters in being neither romantic nor malicious (as in Serenade). Exercising her right of selection to the fullest, Susan's choice of future husband is based both upon personal taste (she has already rejected the DA's assistant, a perfectly obliging nice guy) and exemplary logic: discovering Tom's involvement with Dolly Moore, Susan breaks with him not because he has betrayed the ethos of romance but because he has lied to her. Susan seems perfectly aware not only of the potential losses for women entailed in marriage but the threat posed to the heiress by opportunistic suitors and, consequently, truth is of considerably greater value to her than fidelity. With an austerity typical of the Fontaine sophisticate, Susan dismisses Tom's philandering as an exercise of the male ego and, while giving him ample opportunity to explain, ends the relationship.

One is not surprised that Susan's anti-Romance philosophy has been misinterpreted by critics. An oversimplified reading of the performance can be cited as partially causal: "Joan Fontalne...is icy and chilly" noted The New York Tribune at the time of the film's release. Twenty years after the film's release Gene Phillips made this assessment: "In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt for example, a woman [Joan Fontaine] finds out that her lover once killed his mistress, but she doesn't turn him in until she falls in love with someone else." ("Fritz Lang Gives His Last Interview", The Village Voice, Aug. 16, 1976). Certainly faulty critical faculties can be blamed for this reading which misinterprets Lang, in both letter and spirit, to a remarkable degree. I would propose, however, that the particulars of Mr. Phillips's construction betray again the cultures ambivalence toward (while not explicitly referring to) the heiress, for whom no degree of imagined anti-democratic behavior or Machiavellian calculation seems too ex treme.

The downfall of an heiress

Susan does eventually commit to Tom in the conventional sense. Strindberg's Miss Julie provides the prototypical example of the heiress who discovers, too late, the limited efficacy of her economic privilege as counterbalance to the ruthless terms of male-dominated heterosexuality, an opportunistic male, and her own indoctrination by the father's law. If seventy years after Strindberg's account of the tragic heiress class divisions as well as female chastity are of less consequence to the heiress, ideological constraints do continue to bear heavily upon her. The process whereby Susan's analytical powers are redirected from Tom's person to the efforts to save him is also that of her gradual ideological conversion as a woman "in love". Tom's trial is the catalyst for her transformation, providing as much an opportunity to try Susan as Woman as Tom for murder. Two instances during the trial are particularly suggestive: in the first Susan testifies that she can't recall when she last saw the gift lighter (she cle arly does recall and is lying on Tom's behalf); in the second, she lowers her eyes slightly in apparent shame when Tom, on the witness stand, recalls their broken engagement. The implication of these two moments is that Susan's ideological conversion takes place under the auspices of "love" and guilt: Susan lies because the codes of appropriate womanly behavior (to which, despite her emotional detachment, her heterosexual attachment had partially committed her) with their specific emphasis on devotion and faith even in the face of reasonable doubt, dictate this is what a woman does for someone to whom she had formerly committed in the name of love. Similarly, Susan experiences shame because the broken engagement apparently provides the evidence of blackmail (because of Tom's withdrawal and sudden redepositing of a large sum of money, which he falsely testifies was for the purchase of an engagement ring) that may convict Tom. The successful culmination of Susan's ideological indoctrination is signaled some tim e later in the film when she states "When you love someone you must believe in him", a conventional declaration of devotion that just happens to make explicit the ideological basis of being "in love".

Although the sentiment expressed here seems completely at odds with the Susan of the film's first half, Lang begins suggesting Susan's capitulation to a self-abnegating femininity even before the trial (countered initially by her clinical approach to love). The gift lighter for instance has a dual symbolic function: if it represents Susan's sexual assertiveness, by giving it to Tom as an engagement present Susan symbolically relinquishes future control of marriage's sexual component to Tom. Later in the film, Susan appears in the stereotypical costume of the odalisque (bared shoulders, sheer, billowing scarf, bejewelled hair) with the express purpose of enticing Tom ("I want to show you what you've been missing"). In fact one item of apparel--the veil--is used throughout to indicate Susan's capitulation to conventional gender behavior. Her donning of the veil corresponds in each instance to an action that indicates her commitment to compulsory heterosexuality (before and, incongruously, immediately after the ir implied lovemaking; her appearance on the witness stand) or a crisis generated by that commitment (the denouement and her subsequent breakdown).

It is finally a conflict between her commitment to an ideology of womanliness and her objective social obligations that precipitates the internal crisis that results in Susan's breakdown. The presence of her former lover Bob Hale/Arthur Franz after the revelation of Tom's guilt is vital both to our understanding of the internal conflict's gender basis and to project the possible course of Susan's future. In contrast to Susan, there is no question of either biological reproduction or that of social norms within the domestic sphere defining him: he can forego domesticity, form homosocial bonds and still fulfill a viable social role. Thus when Susan's dilemma is put to him hypothetically he can move fluidly between polar opposite positions, from "Loving you how could I not do anything possible to save you?" to "You must speak now!" (i.e. reveal the truth). There being no question of his role in bourgeois domesticity defining him personally, both positions seem equally credible.

As with Suspicion's Lina McLaidlaw the two positions are incompatible for Susan: denouncing her lover is a betrayal of her heterosexual obligation; her complicit silence allows a murderer to go free. Lang is no more concerned with the abstract moral implications of the dilemma than he is with capital punishment per se, but Susan's automatic response to Tom's confession ("And all you could think of was murder?") provides her own very personal indictment of Tom, with the additional implication that, should he go free and she remain with him, she too is potentially a victim. Unable to resolve the conflict, she breaks down.

Returning to Mr. Phillips, his reading is just close enough to actual narrative developments to mislead the inattentive viewer. As the governor's inquiry makes clear however ("Is Miss Spencer there with you?") it is not Susan herself who turns Tom in but, presumably, Bob Hale. The last, lingering image of Susan is that of a woman in a state of abject emotional collapse. To make the point that the information that leads to Tom's execution does not come directly from Susan but indirectly via Bob is not mere quibbling: it signifies the final abandoning of Susan's autonomous agency. Lang has also prepared us for the possibility that Bob might become the eventual focus of Susan's heterosexual commitment, not however in the calculated manner imagined by Mr. Phillips but rather in a spirit of final defeat. In an earlier scene Susan's gratitude to Bob expressed itself as atonement ("I never thought I'd be leaning on you, relying on you like this. I'm not sure I deserve it..."). This clearly links with the earlier de claration of her devotion to Tom as additional evidence of her capitulation to self-effacing femininity. The process whereby the imperious woman of the film's first half becomes the woman who relinquishes decision-making to a former lover is a process of patriarchal indoctrination.
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Title Annotation:actress, interpretation of "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt"
Author:Lightning, Robert K.
Publication:CineAction
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Words:3596
Previous Article:THE MAN IN THE PINK SHIRT.
Next Article:LETTERS.
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