The film noir genre is easily recognized by a dark mood, a high-contrast setting, or a protagonist with a tight tongue and a loose code of ethics. It reeks of doom and stale cigarettes, and is always about a bad idea, a bad guy, a bad girl, and a bad outcome. It is insistently pessimistic.
Recently, however, the pessimism of noir has peeled away to reveal new potential. Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express deflects noir impulses with ‘90s music video sensibilities. The Coen brothers have made mincemeat of noir, playing it straight for one movie (Blood Simple), slapstick the next (Raising Arizona), and then being very meticulous about not being meticulous at all (The Big Lebowski).
And most recently, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice drops Raymond Chandler’s famous shamus Philip Marlowe into the burning joint roach of the 1960s, makes him a doper, and lets him fumble through a haze of drug smoke and red herrings. Similar to the way Marlowe was shunted from his comfortable inter-and postwar domain to the excesses of the 1970s in Robert Altman’s adaptation of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice’s P.I. Doc Sportello finds (albeit unconsciously in his case) that he is always two steps behind a world that is literally changing right before his eyes.
These contemporary films noir are united in their intent to push conventional noir boundaries, upsetting the tropes that allowed noir to become so alluring in the first place. One of the best of this new breed is the criminally underrated Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 caper noir. While Tarantino’s name is synonymous with stylistic flourishes, Jackie Brown[i] is one of the most straightforward films he’s done. But it’s most interesting quality is its sense of play between the actors: the film world they inhabit, their prior film history, and how it can subtly change the power relations of a scene. By examining this dissonance and confluence throughout the Jackie Brown soundtrack, we can see how Tarantino aimed to subvert the femme fatale role so codified in the genre.
The film’s plot provides just enough space and ambiguity for the soundtrack to engage in its interplay. Pam Grier plays Jackie Brown, a 44 year-old flight attendant who smuggles gun money to and from Mexico at the behest of badass gangster Ordell Robbie, played with the suave lack of sophistication that can only be achieved by Samuel L. Jackson. As the movie opens she gets caught in the act by Special Agent Ray Nicolette (played by Michael Keaton with just the right amount of smarminess) and he gives her the option of languishing in jail or cooperating to bust Ordell. Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman past his prime, helps bond Jackie out of jail, and their murky positions with regards to the law help them develop an earnest yet imperfect relationship. Stuck between the demands of Ordell, who wants Jackie to give him his gun money, and Ray, who wants to catch big-time crook Ordell in the act, Jackie sets up a plan with Max to swindle both parties and run off with the money, a cool $550,000. She plans to do this by using sleight-of-hand during a money hand-off in a mall. In typical noir conventions, Jackie would be the femme fatale; Ordell, the unsavory bad guy; Max, the private eye over his head; and Ray, the cop whose own allegiance to the law is flexible.
In Tarantino style, the soundtrack of Jackie Brown is full frontal, funky, and self-referential. More to the point, however, the soundtrack highlights a slew of connections between the characters, the actors who play them, and the genre films in which they’ve starred. This interplay, and its ability to evoke multiple references from a single scene, ultimately makes Jackie Brown an optimistic noir because it allows the eponymous lead to not only get out of her predicament alive but do so triumphantly. This noir still has its dark turns, unexaggerated violence, and moral ambiguity, but it’s ultimately about successfully navigating these traps, rather than pessimistically falling to them.
The soundtrack is split between two genres: soft soul music that plays for Jackie and Max, and tainted rock music that plays for Ordell’s posse, which includes Louis, a goon played by Robert DeNiro, and Melanie, a surfer chick of his played by Bridget Fonda. The cool, smooth and sensual feel of the soul music is meant to endear us to Jackie and Max, to make us long not only for them to get out of this mess, but to do so together. The rock soundtrack, by contrast, is vaguely unnerving, from the incessant horns of “Midnight Confessions” to the bad acid trip of “The Lions and the Cucumber”. Like the drug-addled characters they play for, these tracks are brash but murky, suggesting threat but uncertain how to carry it out. The film’s central conflict is emblemized by this clash of cool and collected with angry and anxious.
This is why another song that plays in the movie, “(Holy Matrimony) Letter to the Firm”, is so interesting. The song plays in a record store that Max visits; he is already smitten with Jackie not long after bailing her out. He’s clearly looking for some music to impress her, as their earlier conversation hovered around music and Jackie’s substantial record collection, which she couldn’t update because she “can’t start all over again” with CDs. Max is looking for some old hits to help him connect with Jackie.
It makes sense that Max is greeted in the store by this song, a contemporary (at that time) hip-hop track by rapper Foxy Brown. If that name sounds familiar, it should — not only does it echo Jackie’s own last name, but it is the exact same as the character Pam Grier played in the 1974 film of the same name. The song is harsh and asynchronous to Max, whose own sensibilities tend toward the safer soul tracks played both diegetically by Jackie and felt non-diegetically by him. Its lyrical content is off-putting as well, with its provocations to the singer’s lover (we’ll be “forever hand in hand”) being undermined by prior, and more pressing, commitments (“I’m married to the Firm, boo, you got to understand…”). These points establish tension with the similarity of Foxy’s name to Jackie’s/Pam’s, the effect of which is to throw Max into an in-between space where he has Jackie’s confidence, but not her trust. Whereas most noirs keep the intentions of their characters held tight until the end, Max runs into his central dilemma near the beginning of the film: the woman he can’t get out of his head, who he’s going to a music store to impress, is already two steps ahead of him (“her” genre of music is too far ahead of Max’s sensibilities).
The song that resonates most powerfully in this sense is the one that plays during the opening and closing credits: “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack. When the movie starts, the song kicks in over the opening credits, and Jackie only enters the screen, moving from right to left, when the lyrics begin. She’s on a moving walkway, standing profile to the camera, clearly going forward but without any effort.
Tarantino, in an interview with The Guardian, sets up how this scene initially configures Jackie: “[Pam] is walking down the airport and she just looks like the baddest creature a guy ever created. She has just got all this power and strength — and she is Foxy Brown 20 years later, she is Coffy 20 years later — and she has all this womanness, and it is great . . . [but] after the big bad ass opening credit sequence, two minutes later she is serving peanuts. So it starts off as this mythical, super hero figure and then by the end of the credit sequence we have brought it back down to earth.”[ii]. Pam’s own Blaxploitation background, alluded to by Tarantino, pushes her toward a position of power that Jackie just can’t live up to, at least not yet. Whereas most femmes fatale flaunt their power when we first see them (think Barbara Stanwyck’s insouciant Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity), Jackie instead cedes it almost immediately.
By the end, however, Jackie has completed her plan: she’s duped Ray out of the extra gun money, set Ordell up, and left Max in the dust. Once again, “Across 110th Street” plays and Jackie appears on the screen only when the lyrics start. Except this time the blocking is different: Jackie is at the wheel of a car, driving forward, and the camera is right on the hood so that Jackie is looking directly at it. But she’s not looking at it, she’s looking through it, past it, at the future she’s just created for herself. While the song begins insistent in its concern, it ends triumphantly as Jackie mouths the lyrics, subtle lip movements giving way to brazen pronouncements. The song has moved from a non-diegetic source that imposed itself on her to a diegetic one that she now embodies. The last lyrics we hear before the end credits, “You can find it all / on the streets”, symbolize Jackie’s newfound mobility. Instead of ending the film with one determined outcome (her death), Jackie navigates to an indeterminate one: we don’t know where she’s going, but boy, is she getting there.
It’s the use of the soundtrack that signifies the play between Jackie Brown and its many references, and these subtle allusions allow the film to transcend the doom-filled noir conventions it seems to set up. The femme fatale role in particular is irresistible, alluring in its danger and potential. Yet really, femmes fatale are more often trapped in their roles, stuffed there by the male characters who surround them, and as a response must use their remaining power (their sexuality) to navigate. Julie Grossman, in her excellent book Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close Up, notes this misidentification of the role of women in noirs and concludes that “In the end, the opaque powerful woman persists in objectifying female experience: the ‘femme fatale’ is a symbol of fears about absolute female power, not a representation of complex female experience…” (Grossman, 5)[iii] For Grossman, the traditional femme fatale role is not strong because of the sexual power she can exercise; she is weak because it is the only power she can exercise.
This clarification is important because it allows us to see how, as with the soundtrack, Jackie projects one perspective while having access to a multitude of others. She is able to navigate through the webs cast by Max, Ordell, and Ray without being trapped by any of them.
Max’s ability to connect with Jackie has to do more with his feelings for her, as explained earlier in the essay. While Max can be seen as the ‘private eye’ of the film, he is so at the behest of Jackie, who he feels affection for, both emotionally and physically[iv]. When he visits the record store, he ultimately ends up with a cassette version of “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” by The Delfonics, the band that Jackie played for Max in her house. With the movie coming out in 1997, this purchase can be seen as the middle point between CDs, a newer format, and records, which were out of vogue. While Max wants to look ahead, his connection to Jackie compels him to compromise and choose an older musical format. This sense of lingering ultimately prevents Max from leaving with Jackie after they manage to swindle Ordell and evade Ray. Max could buy into the fantasy of helping Jackie, but not running off with her, a decision contingent on a relinquishing of prior responsibilities. Jackie herself points out this impossibility: “You’re running a business, Max.” Far from being powerless, Jackie willingly chooses to give up a life with Max that, it seems, would’ve been great. This sacrifice is not without heartache, but is done with certitude: Jackie feels loss, but not as much as Max.
For Ordell, the crucial scene is when he comes to visit Jackie in her home and interrogates her over what she did or didn’t tell Ray and the police about her money smuggling. The scene starts with Ordell outside her house, in his car, putting on gloves while Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud” plays. Cash’s song is about a horse that seems worth more than its rider, and in conjunction with its stylistic difference from every other song in the film, the implication is that Jackie is a weak link that must be roped in. Ordell gets inside her place, keeping the lights off and the mood ominous, and begins questioning her, getting closer and closer to her.
Then the screen splits, with Max (who had just dropped Jackie off) coming into view from the left. What results is a bisected screen, and while Max is on the left by his lonesome, the cutting of the other scene results now in Ordell literally trapping Jackie between he and the screen’s edge. Not only is Jackie enclosed, trapped between these two men; she is beginning to get physically choked by Ordell. This is traditionally the femme fatale’s gruesome end.
It’s at this point that the two scenes, which hadn’t been clearly connected beforehand (are they taking place at the same time? Are we meant to sympathize with Max, or with Jackie? Is Jackie imagining Max?), now converge. On the left, Max checks his glove box and realizes he’s missing something: his gun. On the right, Ordell’s hands close around Jackie’s neck right as we hear a recognizable clicking sound: the gun. At that point Jackie and Ordell’s scene opens back up on the left side, pushing Max out of the scene and opening up the space for Jackie. From the tightest position imaginable she has made her way out, playing both Max (for his gun) and Ordell (for his delusion of power). At that moment, she starts dictating the terms, coming up with the plan that will ultimately net her $550,000 and leave everyone else in the dust.
For Ray, it’s simple. She dupes him. She dupes everybody, actually, in a move that shows Jackie’s true intentions. She tricks Ray into thinking Ordell was only transferring $50,000 when in fact $500,000 was at play. At the handoff, she betrays Ordell’s confidence by giving Melanie and Louis a suitcase filled not with the gun money, but with a plethora of romance novels. Those novels then foreshadow her duping of Max, as they represent her decision to give up the fantasy of a romantic life with Max for the freedom that money allows. They can also be seen as reifying the fantasy that she’s been portraying, of a tool to Ordell, of a woman out of options to Ray, and of a romantic partner to Max. Jackie makes the hard decision that she’d rather have the powerful and enabling future rather than the comforting-but-powerless one.
But an earlier example would be at the beginning, when she first gets caught smuggling Ordell’s gun money. She’s interrogated by Ray and it initially seems Jackie is down on her luck, as emphasized by Ray’s partner Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen): “If I was a 44 year-old black woman working a shitty airline job, I wouldn’t have a year to spare.” Again she seems trapped, like most femmes fatale. While she does exhibit some power, by smoking in Ray’s office, he’s really in control, his squeaky jacket and almost-audible cartoonish brow furrowing providing his own soundtrack.
All of this doesn’t seem to matter, because Jackie ends up in jail anyway. As Jackie is incarcerated, “Long Time Woman” plays. The song is the opening credits song of the 1971 movie The Big Doll House, a supercharged exploitation film where lesbian prisoners battle sadistic guards in a tropical setting. The singer of the song is none other than Pam Grier herself, who plays a role in the film as a convict who helps the lead characters escape. While we’re visually seeing Jackie down on her luck and in jail, we’re aurally treated to Pam Grier singing a song about another heroine who escapes from a much tougher prison. The scene that culminates visually with Jackie on a prison bench culminates aurally with Grier singing “Look at me, I’ll never be free.” Yeah, right. Instead it’s “been there, done that, no big deal.”
The connections don’t stop there. Also in The Big Doll House is Sid Haig, a staple of many exploitation films. But another of his acting credits just happens to be in Jackie Brown, as a judge who lowers Jackie’s bond by $15,000 — but only after looking up from her rap sheet to get a look at her. Haig helps Grier’s posse escape in The Big Doll House, and the favor continues on here. Tarantino configures Jackie as part of the lineage of ass-kicking strong women, but she is the pinnacle because she is able to flaunt her sexual and physical power without relying on it. By flaunting her exploitation roots she owns them, surpasses them, and in doing so presents herself as a complex character able to navigate dangerous crossroads to a path she forged for herself. It’s not a completely victorious path, as her sorrow over leaving Max testifies, but it is one that’s been forged by her own efforts.
Tarantino’s films have a number of noir-ish elements, but nowhere has he so invigorated the genre as in Jackie Brown. Though the story seems ordinary on the surface, Tarantino is able to subvert noir expectations by using the intertextual play of the soundtrack to hint at Jackie’s fluidity, which allows her femme fatale to redefine both the role and herself. Film noir is most often played as a style, some high contrast lights and quick-witted dicks talking to bombshells in red dresses, but the dire mood and pessimistic perspective of the genre can do with some revitalization. And as Jackie drives away, triumphantly mouthing “Across 110th Street”, we see not only the potential of where she could go, but the potential of where film noir can.
[i] Jackie Brown © 1997 Miramax, A Band Apart
[ii] “Quentin Tarantino interview (I) with Pam Grier, Robert Forster and Lawrence Bender,” The Guardian, accessed January 12, 2015.
[iii] Grossman, Julie. Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close Up. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 5. Print.
[iv] The best line in the movie might be an endearing bit of play between Max and Jackie/Pam. Max highlights that, besides an afro, Jackie doesn’t look any different from she must’ve been when she was 29, which was when Pam was hitting her Blaxploitation highs. Jackie frets that “my ass ain’t the same,” and when they both agree that it’s now bigger, Max fires off a satisfied “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!”Continue Reading Issue #35