Turner takes steady aim as she shoots the thug. Here the camera’s shallow focus draws our eyes to hers.
This shot of Eugene bridges shots of Megan and the thug; his eyes dart between them, prompting the editing to do likewise.
The thug (stunt double) is sent flying through the supermarket’s large glass window by the force of Turner’s bullets. The excessively violent and bloody image is shown from a number of different angles and is rapidly edited together to emphasize the force in Turner’s action.
As the gun lands in front of him, Huntís eyes are shut. He admires Megan for her ability to shoot the thug without blinking.
Hunt finally sees the thugís gun. Although it is in the foreground, the focus and depth of field encourage the viewer to look first at Hunt before looking at the gun, replicating his mirrored desire for Megan.
Eugene contemplates his new gun while the ready chessboard signals his desire for someone to play with.
The first image of a man holding a gun to a womanís head turns out to be faked, although it sets off a recurring visual theme ...
... Megan and best friend Tracy mugging for the camera on graduation day ...
... the thug aiming at the supermarket cashier ...
... Megan arresting a compliant Hunt ...
... Hunt threatening a captured Mann ...
... and Huntís helping Megan aim at him, finally revealing his true desire.
As Eugene works out in his apartment, the viewer sees the icons of yuppie devil life — modern art on the wall, mirrors in the background, exercise equipment, gorgeous skyline views, and a doubly-reflected television report on the ď.44 Magnum Killer.Ē
Mirrors play an important role in Eugeneís fantasy life, until he can get Megan to be the image in the mirror.
Hunt shoots Tracy in the hallway of her apartment building, dragging Megan along into the act. Despite her effort to look, Hunt has her pinned so she is unable to see or stop him.
Staring in Meganís bathroom mirror, Eugene pulls her bullet out of his arm with his fingers. The yuppie devilís drive to success gives him almost superhuman strength.
Cavalierly waving his .44 Magnum, Tom Sizemore’s creepy thug does not take the female officer seriously: “I didn’t come here to fuck with you, bitch.” Like the yuppie, his mind is on money, not sex.
Hunt shoots Turner in the same spot she shot him. The bloody special effects evoke a visceral response and set up the bloody finale.
This idea of reflected gazes also gets picked up narratively as Megan must acquire a new kind of vision herself. Megan and Eugene are the only two who saw the thug’s gun. She at the beginning makes a double mistake by not seeing where either the gun or the yuppie witness went. This is a mistake in Megan’s rookie police vision, and in this way, the holdup scene recalls the film’s precredit sequence, where Turner responds to an emergency with a man's holding a gun to a woman’s head (the first of a number of such images in the film). Megan successfully shoots the man and rescues the woman, but she ultimately fails her test when she does not notice the man’s “wife” pull a gun from her purse and “shoot” Turner. At this, when Megan rolls her eyes and curses, viewers realize that what they have seen is actually only a training scenario. Megan’s instructor admonishes her with the supernatural wisdom:
It's a warning that Turner next fails to remember in the supermarket when she does not see Hunt take the thug’s gun.[open endnotes in new window] After Turner graduates and this scenario plays for real in the supermarket holdup, the film slots Megan back into the student role, explicitly connecting the faked reality of the training sequence with the true reality of “the field” of New York City. Since the holdup precipitates Megan’s mentored relationship with homicide detective Nick Mann, it is striking that from the outset Blue Steel so carefully equates faked, “educational” violence with real, “field” violence. It's the same trick played upon the viewer in the precredit sequence. From the first, Blue Steel asks us to question the easy visual identifications we might make with regards to male visual desire, feminine violence, and yuppie devilry.
After the holdup, Megan is introduced to Detective Nick Mann, whose suggestive name sets off a series of male characters who question the acuity of Megan’s vision. After she identifies the make of the thug’s gun, Mann questions how Turner could have known that from the forty feet distance between her and the thug. Megan unequivocally responds,
Mann finds this unsatisfactory and performs another version of the earlier training scenario. Asking her to recreate the standoff, he quickly reaches into his coat, and when she draws her gun, he reveals he was merely holding a comb. For Mann and their boss Chief Hoyt, her response serves as proof of Megan’s “overreaction” in the supermarket, and it destabilizes again the relation between reality and training. Like the earlier test scenario, Megan fails here because her eyes are not yet quick or keen enough. Ironically, she has a quick draw and good aim, but the men identify her as a washout since her eyes do not have the acuity of her gun. As Mann leaves, Megan shows she is beginning to understand this, pointedly saying to him, “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Are you seeing anybody,” Megan’s best friend Tracy asks early in the film. Tracy introduces Megan to potential suitor Howard, who provides one version of a repeated scene where Megan is asked why she chose to become a cop. In each case, Megan gives a jokingly violent answer, and in each case someone is told to “lighten up” their visibly horrified look. In this case, Howard noticeably blanches when he finds out she is a police officer, and she calls attention to this: “You look bad.” Before asking her, “Why would you want to become a cop,” he questions her looks:
For Howard, as for others, the incongruity of Megan’s beautiful “look” with the violent seriousness of her job is confusing. She gives Howard one joking answer — “I like to slam people’s heads up against walls,” echoing what she earlier told her partner, who, moments before the holdup, asked the same question. There, she responded,
But these defensive, joking answers drop away when she is later asked a third time by Mann, to whom she replies with one word, “him.” The most obvious referent for this is Megan’s alcoholic father, whom she has just threatened to arrest for spousal abuse. Yet since Eugene has becomes another possible “him,” we can see Megan as only realizing her fate after the fact, after she has met “him” in her new conflicting role as a beautiful female police officer unafraid to use her gun.
This conflict raised both by Megan’s good looks and her ability to look is exacerbated by further sexual punning. In the scene in Chief Hoyt’s office, Hoyt characterizes Megan’s shooting as masturbatory, criticizing her for how she “emptied an entire load” into the thug. The comb Mann pulls from his pocket adds a further detail in his character’s feminization; his long curly hair stands in contrast to Turner’s short, masculine cut. Doing so, Mann adds another layer to Turner’s mistake, suggesting that not only did she misrecognize the thug’s dangerous potential, but also that she is unable to recognize friendly images of femininity. The relationship between Mann and Turner involves, then, a double training; he will teach her both how to solve a homicide and how to be a heterosexual woman as he improbably beds her near the film’s conclusion.
Mann and Turner’s relationship is also based exclusively around the theme of vision, and mirrors the one of reflected gazes that Hunt develops for Turner. Mann wants to use Megan as bait to lure the unknown killer, telling Chief Hoyt,
After the next killing, with the media looking on, Mann begins training Megan, instructing her to examine the crime scene and to read its forensic evidence. From the position of the body, she decides, “Maybe [the killer] likes them to see it coming,” a reading reinforced when Megan does discover who the killer is, and his fascination with reflected gazes. Megan also must “like to see it” — since she is the only lead the police have, Mann has her looking at the file cards of past criminals. “Keep looking,” he demands, to which she wearily replies,
Later, abandoned by her department, Megan begins to pursue Hunt on her own, staking out his apartment and following him. Since the police have no concrete evidence against Hunt, Mann tells her to “just watch,” and interestingly Mann too begins to pursue and follow Megan. Naturally, when Turner discovers that Mann has been following her as she follows Hunt, she is upset, asking,
Mann’s response is identical to one Eugene would give:
For Eugene, looking plays a crucial part in his obsession with Megan. The film refers often to the attention or inattention he devotes to his surroundings. Directly before the first murder, Eugene walks aimlessly through a “Don’t Walk” sign; the driver of the car that almost hits him shouts,
Eugene next does not see a crack in the sidewalk. When he trips over it, his gun falls out and he shoots an accidental onlooker. Later, walking aimlessly, he is startled as if by a ghost when a prostitute comes on to him. In particular, mirrors make up an important part of his mental world. At home after work at the New York Stock Exchange — as we see him staring at a mirror, pointing the stolen gun at himself and mimicking a “pow!” — his eyes dart between himself and the door, recalling the way his eyes darted between Turner and the thug during the holdup. Later, Eugene sits on his exercise machine, watching a television report about “the .44 Magnum killer’s” fourth victim. Facing the camera, he looks at the television on the lower right of the screen, the reflection of which we can see in a mirror to the left of the screen. Finally, at the film’s climax, Eugene pulls one of Megan’s bullets out of his arm while staring in her bathroom mirror. In these instances, the film does not portray Eugene as unseeing or engrossed by his own image, rather as having only one image in mind—Megan's using her gun during the holdup.
Thus, because of this kind of complexity in Blue Steel’s visual theme, we need to look more closely at Hunt. Unlike in a traditional thriller, the yuppie villain is not attempting to hide from the police or escape detection; in fact Hunt is desperately trying to get Turner truly to see him. As Megan develops eyes in the back of her head, and as Eugene strives to get Megan to see him better, Bigelow links both sides of the spectator’s role — as gazing subject and as subject to the gaze. In Blue Steel, these two ambivalent readings of cinematic vision are linked narratively to the possession of the gun. Since there are two guns in Blue Steel, a legal one, properly owned by the improper female police officer, and an illegal one, passed on from a street thug to a male yuppie, we see again how objects like the gun or the cinema are on their own neutral in meaning. Only in their use or misuse can viewers locate narrative significance. Both Eugene and Megan are novices at gunplay, and both must work to sort out the proper and improper uses of their guns. Hunt, we realize, steals the gun not to repeat the thug’s male violence but rather to take part in the spectacle of feminine, authorized violence he has just witnessed.
It is significant that this first shooting occurs in the economic sphere of the supermarket. The gun represents for Hunt the possible tool for a reconstruction of the supermarket scene where an authorized act of violence replaces and becomes symbolic of public power. As he practices on strangers or in the mirror, he unsuccessfully replicates that initial scene. It becomes increasingly clear that what the yuppie devil wants is not Megan, or the gun, or more power, but rather all of these contained in one cinematic scene: watching Megan unblinkingly shoot the thug.
Bullet with her name on it
The thug’s gun, then, is primarily a tool to help Eugene recreate the original supermarket scene. In this regard, he fetishizes the gun as a privileged object, and he soon puts it to ceremonial use. In one ritualistic gesture, Hunt engraves Megan Turner’s name on the bullets he uses to shoot his random victims. This inscription develops and literally marks the gun’s libidinal economy, but also at the same time seems pathetically shallow. If Hunt has no clear reason for taking the gun or for shooting his random victims, then the laborious name-carving seems to be but a simple cinematic signifier of “psycho” behavior. Yet, as we saw, Blue Steel's credit sequence worked to connect Megan’s uniformed body with her gun’s blue steel. Eugene complicates this image by assigning Megan’s name to the bullets, thereby associating her with his killing spree. Doing so, he both names his bullets for Megan as well as threateningly addresses them towards her. This is a complex gesture. I read Eugene’s inscribed bullets as yet another literalized reproduction of the supermarket scene. We see again that what Eugene wants is more complex than masculine violence or authorized feminine violence. It involves compulsively replaying the spectacle he witnessed earlier.
Eugene’s idea to inscribe these bullets is contained in a detail from the holdup, when the thug twice says to the cashier,
With the pronoun “it,” the thug refers both to a joking invitation and to the waiting bullet. It is not far-fetched to later hear the thug’s words in Eugene’s imagination as he carves his bullets. This provides another example of the overlapping of faked violence and real field violence, suggesting to Eugene that engraved bullets would offer a suitably formal invitation to Megan. But Eugene’s romantic inscription of “Megan Turner” on the bullets backfires slightly since the misaddressed bullets arrive at the police department, setting up two competing relationships — Megan and Eugene’s, and Megan and Mann’s. Working on the mystery of the carved bullets, Megan and Mann become much closer. Even though Turner does not “think of myself as the kind of girl who gets her name on a bullet,” Mann reads the engraved bullets as a threat to Megan and wants to protect her. Just as Mann positions Turner with “high visibility” in order to attract Hunt, it seems that Hunt likewise uses Megan’s name to attract Mann. The triangular sexual relationship that develops among Megan, Eugene, and Mann is bridged by their exchange of looks and bullets. At the end of the film the inscribing of names on bullets is matched by the inscription of bullets on skin when Megan and Eugene are shot in the same place on their upper left arm. But, oddly enough, Eugene never takes any of the many opportunities he has to shoot Megan until the closing moments, and there only after she first shoots him. Indeed, we strangely see Eugene soliciting Megan to shoot him, pulling her gun lovingly to his forehead.
Blue Steel offers another mini-narrative to illustrate the engraved bullet’s significance in representing the film's exchange of sexuality. Bursting in on Megan’s meeting with Chief Hoyt just after the holdup, Mann is first seen as he tells Hoyt a sensational “true crime” anecdote. Mann, oblivious to Turner’s presence, describes a man from New Jersey who, receiving oral sex from a prostitute in a cab, had his penis bitten off when the cab hit a pothole. The punch line of the story is that while “she’s still got a dick in her mouth,” the man “don’t want to go to a hospital because he’s somebody,” and so “the hooker pulls out a needle and thread [and] sews his dick on backwards.” Turner, disgusted, interrupts with, “I wonder what he’s gonna say to his wife,” at which point Mann notices her and turns professional, critiquing her handling of the holdup. This is an important scene, since the story which Mann tells demonstrates a model for structuring sexual relationships that is charged with both economic and patriarchal power. The john (“he’s somebody,” just like the yuppie Eugene) cannot go to the proper authorities, and thus is a sympathetically comic figure to the police, who can relate, as men, to the difficulties in regulating their sexual life with their social life. But while the john is the butt (or the dick) of the joke, Mann makes the hooker’s stupidity the point of his telling. Intended as a bonding moment between male buddies, Mann’s story pointedly reveals Megan’s uneasy role in her new job. Mann, speaking exclusively to the other male, Hoyt (“you gotta hear this, you’ll piss yourself”), effectively excludes Megan from police life. Although he will, in partial redemption, become her mentor, we must wonder how Turner, already forced to defend her actions in the supermarket, could possibly mount a defense against this kind of world.
Not only does Mann’s story exclude Megan from the force, but the detail of the hooker’s well-intentioned misplacement of the man’s penis also appropriately captures the film’s construction and critique of women’s roles in men’s affairs. The cabbie — the other accessible male — was only upset about the blood in his car. So having lost his penis because of a woman (and in an illicit relationship he must hide in order to protect the privileged status which allows such women in the first place), the john has no recourse but to turn to this hooker in order to help him put it back on. The hooker’s ever-ready needle and thread and her expected skill at sewing recall the familiar feminine trope of the weaving woman and the trope of male desire for the domesticated whore. Her getting it backwards, though, and then being laughed at later by two men, demonstrates a troubling confusion between the sexes. The passing back and forth of “somebody’s” penis, signaling the appropriate and inappropriate use of phallic authority and referring to the loss of the thug’s gun, points out Blue Steel’s anxiety over women's taking part in homosocial relationships. But this lesson is entirely lost on Mann and Hoyt, who share the story between themselves. Unwittingly leaving Turner out, they simply recirculate their own masculine anxiety.
The point, which the men miss but which Megan relies on from the start, is that the phallus is mobile. The film’s exchanges make this clear: the passing back and forth of guns in the first half of the film (Eugene taking the thug’s, Chief Hoyt taking Megan’s) is matched by the passing back and forth of bullets at the end.
The passing back and forth of the guns, the passing back and forth of bullets, and the passing back and forth of the penis all represent the same thing: the inaccessible economies operating between genders, and the use and care men and women should have for their phalluses. I wonder here if Blue Steel does not set Megan up to be the hooker with the penis in her mouth, or if it is possible that she is rather, in Hunt’s eyes, the john with the penis on backwards.
Eugene, in naming the detached bullets after Megan, asks a related question, as did the thug, when he dismissed Turner as a hooker by saying,
If we reread the holdup scene with Mann’s joke in mind, we would conclude that Megan is the castrating hooker, but one who loses the phallus due to her inexperience or due to the fact that she has no interest in sewing it back on anyways. Blue Steel elsewhere pointedly demonstrates that Megan is very un-domestic. Early in the film, Mann criticizes her for not having food in her apartment, saying,
Later, in a scene with Tracy just before she is murdered, Megan mock-proudly tends Tracy’s stove, saying,
So, reading Mann’s joke in light of Megan’s domesticity, the film’s plot presents her with another challenge. In recovering the thug’s stolen gun, she is also asked to successfully restore the phallus to its proper place. We are again confronted with ambivalent readings. Is Megan foolishly ignorant of the authority invested in the gun and its bullets, or is she intentionally working against patriarchal signification here? Eugene’s inscription of the bullets avoids answering these questions directly. His lovingly aggressive behavior towards Megan suggests that the aim of the phallic gun is not the condition of authority, but rather the repeated, ritualistic expression of authority. If anything, Hunt wants to give the phallic gun back to Megan, not so she can have it, but so that she can sew it back on in order to bite it off again.