Wanda (1970): Barbara Loden’s film as a noir

The highlight of my Noirvember viewing so far has been Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970). Most of the writing about Loden’s sole directorial effort has understandably focused on the marginalisation of women in the American film industry and Loden’s role as an, until recently, unacknowledged pioneer in this regard. But I want to discuss another reading I think can be made of the film, Wanda as a noir.

When I ventured this opinion on social media several people questioned my characterisation. But it seems a pretty solid interpretation to me. It is not just that Wanda contains the strong elements of a heist thriller. Its central narrative, a woman dealing with a world in which she has little control and getting slowly sucked into committing a serious criminal act, seems like core noir territory. I wonder whether the reticence to see Wanda in this light comes from the perception that a film can’t simultaneously be feminist, a serious piece of art and a noir crime film.

Wanda first came to my attention while I was attending 2016 Noircon in Philadelphia. One of the panels was about little seen crime films of the 1970s that deserved to be better known. Among the panelists was a film maker called Jennifer Dean, who nominated two female directed crime films – the only two American crime films directed by women I am aware of from that era – Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976) and Wanda.

I sought both films out. Criterion Collection had yet to release Wanda and the film was incredibly difficult to find and very expensive to buy when I did. I did manage to get a copy of Mikey and Nicky on DVD and, as much as I like May’s work and the film’s two stars, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, was unimpressed. It felt bloated and self-indulgent, the crime story of Nicky being on the run from the mob and turning to his old friend, Mikey, completely buried under the weight of the seemingly endless improvisation between Falk and Cassavetes.

Some time ago I borrowed a copy of the Criterion release of Wanda from a friend but only recently got around to watching it. Wanda is the story a poverty stricken young woman who leaves her husband and two small children and drifts aimlessly through Pennsylvania coal country. She eventually hooks up with ‘Mr. Dennis’, a tightly wound small-time stickup man. They hit the road together and she seems happy because she perceives that he treats her better than anyone ever has. This only shows just how poor her self-esteem is because, amidst occasional flashes of warmth, Mr. Dennis is pretty terrible to her; impatient, domineering and borderline abusive. His main interest in wanda is to enlist her in his attempt at a big score, robbing a large bank, a plan which of course goes terribly wrong.

As critic Amy Taubin points out in her excellent essay for the film’s Criterion release, the response to Wanda when it was released by second wave feminists was far from glowing. Female critics dismissed the film, led by Pauline Kael who referred to the main character of Wanda as a slut and expressed disappointment that she was such a flimsy and passive character in the thrall of abusive men. Obviously, the current period sees the film get a much more sympathetic hearing.

Loden came to New York in her teens. She got a job on the chorus line of the Copacabana night club and modeled for various men’s bachelor magazines. You can find some of her cover shots on-line for long gone titles such as Mr. and Pose!. She began acting and was discovered by the famous director, Elia Kazan who gave Loden her first big break through, a small part in his film, Wild River (1960). She got a larger part opposite Warren Beatty in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961). But her burgeoning career hit a snag when her first co-starring role, opposite Burt Reynolds in the Face-In (1973), flopped at the box office. She married Kazan and, publicly at least, went into semi-retirement from acting.

But all this time she had been working on her own scripts and found the money and energy to write, direct and star in Wanda. Shot for an estimated $115,000, the film was an art house hit and went onto win the Venice Film Festival International Critics prize. It is not clear to me why she didn’t follow it up. One factor that has been mentioned was the lack of support from Kazan, whose own career was by then on the skids and who appears to have been threatened by her success. He wasn’t the only man to treat her badly in the film business. A small but significant role in opposite Burt Lancaster in Frank Perry’s 1968 film, The Swimmer, was cut post-production. According to one story this was because she upstaged Lancaster in their scene and he objected, although another story attributes the cut to the film’s troubled production. Loden and Kazan were in the midst of getting divorced when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978. She died in 1980 at the age of just 48. Far too damn young. She had been working on another film when she passed.

Wanda was apparently influenced by a real-life story Loden had read in a newspaper about a woman who was an accomplice to a heist gone wrong. He male partner was killed, and the women was given 20 years jail. The woman thanked the judge for the sentence. “That’s what struck me,” Loden said. “Why would this girl feel glad to be put away?”’

The aesthetic of Wanda is incredibly stark and gritty – the result of its low budget – but it works to the film’s advantage. Most of the characters were non-actors with the prominent exception of Mr. Dennis, played by Michael Higgins. It was not until halfway into Wanda that it occurred to me where I had recently seen Higgins. He played the morphine addicted doctor who was Harry Angel’s first murder victim in Angel Heart (1987). Indeed, he had had a lengthy career as a bit part player and supporting role going back to 1948, including The Conversation (1974) The Stepford Wives (1975), The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) and Rumble Fish (1983). Isn’t it interesting how you can never notice someone and then when you do you find they are suddenly everywhere?

Like Wanda, Loden had had a rough working-class upbringing and you can feel it in her performance that she strongly identifies with the character. We aren’t really told anything about Wanda. She obviously has little in the way of formal education or skills – early in the film she tries to get work in a textile factory only to be told by the manager that she is too slow. She lets herself be picked up by men in bars and in the hope of getting money for sleeping with them. She has no ambitions – because that’s the way she has been conditioned by society to be – makes bad decisions and lets herself get pushed around by men. But through the strength of Loden’s performance the viewer can’t help but come to deeply care about Wanda and what happens to her.

I don’t think any of us have the time or desire to engage in another discussion about the nature of noir and, in any case, there are so many potential definitions as to rule out any one interpretation. But for the sake advancing the argument in this post, Charles Ardai, founder of publishing company Hard Case Crime, describes a noir story as one that is ‘steeped in emotional (and often also literal) darkness. There is a feeling of dread and doom that suffuses the action; the story typically features a protagonist who’s in trouble, who often doesn’t deserve the trouble he’s in (even if he’s a bad guy, he often doesn’t deserve the *particular* trouble he’s in), and whose trouble just gets worse as the narrative grinds inexorably toward an unhappy — often tragic – ending… A noir story can be grim and suspenseful or grim and melancholy or grim and paranoid or grim and fatalistic — but it’s pretty much always grim.’

This sounds to me pretty much like a description of Wanda. Only in this case the protagonist is a woman. Wanda is the type of female character that we are increasingly seeing in crime fiction and film. If you looked hard, there were probably quite a few Wanda’s in classic film noir, but we seldom saw characters like her, and certainly not leading characters before Loden’s groundbreaking film.

Taubin describes Wanda as a corrective to Arthur Penn’s take on the nomadic criminal, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the film that more or less kicked off New Hollywood. And certainly, Wanda and Mr. Dennis are as far removed from the glamorous, highly sexed duo of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as it is possible to get. Towards the end of Wanda Mr. Dennis is killed mid-robbery by the police. Wanda escapes being captured only because she was late arriving in the getaway car. Despondent, she goes to a bar where she is picked up and narrowly escapes being raped by a soldier. The final scene sees her drinking with another group of men, one of which will no doubt pick her up. Perhaps he will treat her well. But probably not. It doesn’t get much more noir than that.

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