Mock-biblical language to describe the perfidious seductions of Rosa Moline.
Rosa’s lover Neil Latimer (David Brian) leers down at her.
In Possessed, Joan Crawford is not a femme fatale, but, instead, the Fury, who enacts retributive justice on men who wrong women.
Rosa desperately desires an escape from small-town life to the Pleasure Dome of Chicago.
Rosa’s spends the money from her husband the Doctor’s impecunious patients to get to Chicago.
Few passages in classical Hollywood evoke a deeper sense of modern urban anomie, isolation, and despair than Rosa’s trip to Chicago.
Rosa has a lot in common with King Vidor’s other heroines who buck the system, such as the Mestiza Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) in Duel in the Sun.
The infamous self-induced abortion.
The femme fatale is figured as anti-Child: The miscarriage in Leave Her to Heaven.
Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten in Duel in the Sun: Mulvey doesn’t explore the theme of race in the female melodrama.
Lesbian discourse emerges in the film through its narcissistic themes.
The American Medusa intersects with race and lesbian discourses.
Rosa is a threat to patriarchal masculinity.
A title opens the film with suitably allegorical portentousness. Notably, this title does not make specific reference to the heroine, Rosa Moline (though on first glance it would appear to).
Notably, this title does not make specific reference to the heroine, Rosa Moline (though on first glance it would appear to).
The film then offers us shots of the setting, Loyalton, Wisconsin, a drab, dusty saw-mill town, that emphasize its alien-landscape barrenness. Immediately, the film suggests this mill town’s stifling atmosphere. We proceed, as if we have been indicted for our transgressive thoughts, to a courthouse, where a murder trial is being conducted. We see the audience, the jury, the judge. But we do not see the person on trial—until Bette Davis as Rosa leaps up and proclaims her innocence. As Rosa rises up, her figure, in a striking shot, bifurcates the frame. (The film was shot by the great Robert Burks, a Hitchcock stalwart.) Rosa’s strident declaration of her innocence—even though we know we can safely assume that she is “guilty”—has the power to snap narrative back from a seemingly objective, rational trajectory to a much more subjective one, Rosa’s experience of narrative.
Rosa’s husband is small-town Midwestern doctor Lewis Moline (Joseph Cotten). The film efficiently contrasts Lewis and Rosa right from the start. He cuts his leisure time with Rosa and their elderly friend Moose (Minor Watson) short in order to tend to a dying woman who has just given birth, engaging in an excruciating argument over money with the blood plasma-supplier, to whom the doctor is in debt because he neither demands nor accepts payment for his services. Only deepening his debt, Lewis pays for the plasma himself, administering it to the dying woman and saving her life.
In contrast, Rosa administers strong drink to Moose, getting him drunk so that she may escape his watchful guard and head over to the hunting lodge of Neil Latimer, a wealthy Chicago industrialist and millionaire. Rosa’s manipulation of Moose is doubly cruel, since he not only gets drunk but also becomes piercingly self-recriminating, weeping as he blames himself for walking out on his family. The self-sacrificing, kindly physician administers “warm blood” to restore the life of his patient; Rosa, a raven-haired femme fatale, feeds poison to a vulnerable old man. The good man denies his own happiness to help another; the femme fatale injures others to ensure her own satisfaction. The film plays with the tropes of the femme fatale, but ultimately produces, as I will show, a distinct figure whom I call the Fury.
Another great shot of the film—the medium close-up of Rosa lying in wait for Latimer, who discovers her, to his crudely titillated pleasure—deserves special scrutiny. Of all the ways in which Vidor may have chosen physically to present Rosa as an erotic visual subject, the manner he devises emphasizes the perversity of the male gaze and of erotic excitement.
In Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson emerges from sunbathing in the first shot of her in the film. Clad in a white robe, Phyllis stands above the hapless insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). We are invited to partake in his visual appraisal of her from a low angle perspective, moving from top to bottom so that we see her body in full.
In contrast, Rosa is not conventionally presented a vertical spectacle of femininity, standing up to be hungrily appraised from top to bottom by the camera, Latimer, and us. As Vidor frames Rosa/Davis, she is supine, in a fixed, stationary position. From this position, she imparts the sensation that only her lips are moving even as her body remains tautly, tensely immobile.
The famous film critic James Agee often expressed his fearful disdain of “Bette Davisism.” No doubt Agee would have attributed the absolute absence of erotic and sexual frisson in this would-be erotically charged scene to the miscasting of Davis as a femme fatale. Yet this is, in my view, precisely the point. It is Vidor’s use of Davis in such a role and his visual and thematic conceptualization of her that make this shot and scene both so oddly powerful and resistant—the deconstruction of the femme fatale’s ostensibly overpowering and irresistible sexual allure.
While establishing and demonstrating Rosa’s sexual magnetism would appear to be the point of this scene—certainly Latimer’s reaction shots would appear to suggest so—the manner in which Davis is directed and filmed thwart these apparent intentions. Her physical position; the cold, cryptic, Sphinxlike expression on Davis’s face; and the harsh lighting all contribute to a tone that is almost Kubrickian in its coldness. Far from erotic, the tone suggests the nadir of eros. If Rosa is the object of the male gaze here, she is, pace Laura Mulvey, an object that defies the gendered power structures of the gaze. Far from submitting to Latimer’s look, she unflinchingly stares it down, hardly engulfed by but, rather, exceeding it.
As Rosa proceeds to play pool, she and Latimer discuss their ostensibly torrid passion. As Latimer—in dialog that no doubt provoked frowns in the Hays Office—asks her if she enjoyed their last tryst, Rosa responds, “I’m back, aren’t I.” I have self-consciously omitted the question mark to reproduce Davis’s delivery of Rosa’s response. Throughout, Davis’s performance is taut, fixed, the entire scene affectless and mechanical. When Latimer takes Rosa in his arms, the screen fading to black (the classical Hollywood signal that sex is imminent), it’s a cold climax.
Both Rosa Moline and Phyllis Dietrichson are man-traps, icy, venomous, de-eroticized femmes fatales who use their sexuality clinically. What distinguishes Rosa, however, is that, while Phyllis plays Walter expertly, seducing him into believing that she loves him in order to enlist his aid in the murder of her husband, but having no intention of maintaining a relationship with him afterward, in fact, plotting the entire time to allow Walter to take the sole blame for the husband’s murder, Rosa never lies to the object of her adulterous ardor, at least not in a Phyllis-like manner. Her honesty is, in my view, significant.
Stanwyck’s Phyllis is pure unadulterated bleached-blonde evil, treated as a conniving (and scintillating) succubus who eventually destroys the men on whom she feeds. But Rosa does not appear to want to destroy Latimer; she genuinely wants to escape her husband and become, instead. Latimer’s wife. She views Latimer as a means of escape from domesticity. And it is her desire to escape domesticity, figured in her husband’s devotion to the normative order, that is presented as her chief interest.
The embodiment of stop-at-nothing, evil-for-evil’s sake mendacity, Phyllis is driven by a homicidal impulse to destroy those in her way, a point emphasized in the climax of the film, in which, in the neurotic manner typical of the femme fatale, Phyllis can only feel love for Walter at the exact moment in which she has fatally shot him (he does not die immediately but staggers to the office of his boss, played by Edward G. Robinson, to offer his dying confession). Pragmatically and rationally, Rosa wants to escape her stifling environment and suffocating marriage and marry Latimer, whom she does not love but recognizes as a much better match for her. It is the complexity of Rosa’s character and motivations that makes her, in my view, a Fury rather than a femme fatale—a woman who on some level has a kind of moral force and cause, however baroquely and poisonously she wields this office.
The best-known female figure of classical Hollywood is, without question, the femme fatale of film noir, whose spidery stratagems and coldhearted ambitions animate many a darkened cinematic landscape. As I develop elsewhere, I argue that another female figure, analogous to but also distinct from the femme fatale, exists, one that I call the Fury. When the woman’s film cross-fertilizes with film noir (The Letter, Leave Her to Heaven, Deception, Possessed, Flamingo Road) or with the western (The Furies), an important figure emerges: the phallic, avenging woman, a Fury who enacts retributive justice, primarily only on males, usually figured as misogynistic, and sometimes as sexually nonnormative.
An exemplary instance of the Fury can be found in Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947), one of the high points of 1940s films and the exemplary fusion of the woman’s film and film noir. Joan Crawford stars as Louise Howell, a woman slowly going mad over her unrequited love for a man, David (Van Heflin), an architect who has an affair with her but doesn’t love or want to marry her. Learning that David and Carol, Louise’s stepdaughter, are to be married pushes Louise to the breaking point. In one of the most memorable moments of genre film, Louise kills David by shooting him, smiling as she pumps him full of bullets. In her most radical deployment, the Fury explodes the confines of the femme fatale, striking a blow against the rigid cultural and social constraints of gender identity.
In another great shot of the film, Rosa sweats on the porch in close-up as huge, grimy, phallic mills belch smoke in the distance. “If I don’t get out of this town, I’ll die,” she says, with infinite weariness. “If I don’t get out, I hope I die.” This line, dramatically accentuated by Max Steiner’s agonizing, brooding score, acutely summarizes the desperation of Rosa’s situation and her gargantuan desire for escape. It also raises, again, the same question that the mystified Bette Davis herself raised: why would anyone want to leave Joseph Cotten’s Doctor Moline? He is kind, self-denying, compassionate…patient. Herein lies the audacity of Beyond the Forest. Its villain is not Medusan Rosa, the farthest thing from a Virgin Mary figure, but, instead, the Joseph-like husband.
Rosa’s bad manners, lack of taste or tact, witchlike black mane, and the general ugliness of her demeanor and person all distract us from the film’s unjudgmental sympathy for and identification with her. To be sure, she is not a charmer. Yet her desire for escape is powerfully evoked and made intensely palpable. If we think about Rosa as a more sympathetic figure than she would immediately appear to be, the tirelessly accommodating Lewis, conversely, comes to seem less attractive.
Indeed, upon deeper analysis, Lewis’s attitudes can be read as less than entirely selfless and generous. His sympathies extend wholeheartedly to his patients, to the mass-hordes of suffering townspeople. His ostensibly kindhearted patience with hissing Rosa actually masks his opposition to her desires for escape or enjoyment. Indeed, his opposition can be read as perversely staunch. He makes no plans to take her to Chicago, the mythic metropolis of her dreamy desires. Instead, he throws the money she has extracted from his patients in her face, telling her that if she leaves he will never take her back. (She does; he does.)
The scene in which Lewis supplies the dying mother with plasma is highly ambiguous in light of the film’s complicity with Rosa. As he saves the woman’s life, he mellifluously informs her that she drinks in “warm, rich blood.” Perverse though it will surely appear to some to argue along these lines, the film presents Lewis as an inverted vampire, feeding his victim blood rather than feeding on their own—a succubus of self-denial. In this way, he perfectly, appositely inverts Rosa. With her ugly appearance and demeanor, Rosa is a bracing heroine who seems like a monstrous villainess; with his kindly manner and benevolent aims, Lewis is a tyrant who behaves like a saint. Though fully the reverse of selfishness-espousing Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) in Vidor’s previous film, an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949)—another difficult film worthy of reappraisal—Lewis is similarly intractable.
Emblematizing the case made for the Beauty of Selfishness by Rand’s novel, Howard Roark despises charity, working for others, and, indeed, all communal values; he insists that each man must work for himself alone, never doing anything for anyone else. Lewis alternatively feels that his own life and needs must be renounced in order to help others. But both men share an intense personal vision that requires total commitment, from themselves and those around them. Luckily, Howard finds Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), who could hardly be more compatible with his ideals; unluckily, Lewis must contend with a wife who is his living antithesis.
Rosa’s eventual and abortive (in this film obsessed with abortion) escape to Chicago constitutes the most daring section of the film and a striking critique of patriarchal attitudes towards women in the postwar era. Her “shopping” trip—really the chance to meet up with Latimer—to Chicago made possible through the money from the Doctor’s impecunious patients, Rosa finally gets to go to the Pleasure Dome. Once there, she stays in a hotel room and makes increasingly desperate attempts to see Latimer, leaving endless messages at his office, harassing his secretaries, waiting by the phone for his call, going to his office, waiting for hours, only to be told that he left through his private exit.
Few passages in classical Hollywood evoke a deeper sense of modern urban anomie, isolation, and despair. There are evocative shades here of Vidor’s similarly themed great early work, The Crowd (1928). In her ungainly drab suit, Rosa jarringly contrasts against the high-gloss fashions of 40s films. Davis plays these scenes plainly and piercingly, never making a grab for our sympathies but, instead, presenting Rosa in her increasing isolation and disappointment with an extraordinary openness. (Completely overlooked when not parodied, this is one of Davis’s most thoughtfully modulated performances.)
When Latimer finally makes contact with Rosa, picking her up in his limo, she wears a more sexually provocative form-fitting black dress, which makes her look like a Goth chick avant la lettre. Her vampiric look conforms to archetypal images of the sexual succubus, the mythological female monster that drains men of their vitality, and therefore of its modern incarnation the femme fatale.
But the film also illuminates the class barriers that separate Rosa from the capitalist acquisition she fetishizes. Throughout the film, if Rosa has erotic urges, they are directed towards material possessions, signs and markers of wealth and pleasure. When Moose’s daughter (Ruth Roman) visits, improbably dressed in a fur coat, Rosa surreptitiously tries it on, and throbs from the voltage of pleasure wearing the fur gives her.
Rosa fetishizes objects, the acquisition of which Latimer can facilitate; naively, she fetishizes Capitalist kitsch. As Tomas Kulka writes,
Rosa both desires transgressively—objects rather than men—and enables her own subjugation by her erotic relish for the markers of dominant culture and material acquisition. She pines for her own reification.
Informed in the limo by Latimer that he will be marrying a young woman (realizing his own social-climbing ambitions), Rosa, devastated and angry, insists that he let her out. She roams the streets, looking haggard and lost, telling herself in voiceover “I’m Rosa Moline!” as if to remind herself of her own identity, which the urban vortex threatens to consume. Then, “for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril” (to lift from Melville’s Moby Dick), Rosa ducks into a dive bar, sitting down, probably hoping to order a drink to calm her nerves. The proprietor comes over to her and, all but calling her a whore, tells her that she cannot stay in the bar alone without an escort.
Denied refuge and respite, Rosa again walks the streets, soon accosted by a greasy man who wants to lure her into sexual perdition. Vidor films the section as a nightmare vision of urban alienation: Rosa is hopelessly dwarfed by powerful, immense, mysterious forces. No less than Loyalton, Chicago traps Rosa. Vidor’s vision is a powerful statement about female mobility and agency, or the lack thereof, in the postwar United States. Denied any independence, denied a drink, Rosa is trapped within a rigidly maintained and sweepingly coherent patriarchal order, spanning the rural and the urban. There is no place in this bleakly denatured world, lightless, dark, and oppressive, for this un-reverenced Fury who has clawed out from her earthly imprisonment. The film reflects the new desires of and opportunities for women during the WWII era, but more palpably, apprehensively, and pessimistically prognosticates the redomesticization of women in the 50s, while offering a vision of modern despair and aloneness.
Defeated, Rosa returns to Loyalton, to Lewis, with whom she conceives a baby, Lewis assuring her that being a mother will turn her into a real, fulfilled woman, healing her damaged psyche and repairing her insufficiently realized gendered identity. Davis, with amazing subtlety, conveys the sense that it is Rosa’s sense of her own defeat that makes her acquiesce to normative domesticity and reproductivity—with the faint hope that perhaps, in so conforming, she just might actually be happier. With prescience, Beyond the Forest anticipates the era of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the moment when modern women began to question the desirability of inevitable marital and familial destinies. Anticipating Adrienne Rich, Beyond the Forest critiques a culture of compulsory heterosexuality.
The split second that Latimer, returning to Rosa, tells her that he now wants to marry her, after all, Rosa instantly leaps at the chance. Many viewers will find Rosa’s subsequent behavior revolting. In an infamous gesture, she successfully aborts her fetus by jumping off a cliff, and murders Moose, who threatens to divulge her secret plans to Lewis. But it is precisely the despicability of Rosa, her moral questionability, that reveals the movie’s radical view towards patriarchy.
The film vividly suggests that a woman’s lack of desire for children, home, and husband make her socially monstrous. Rosa is merely a more garish, heightened version of any female—and, for that matter, male—who transgresses against normative gendered and social codes. In that her violent stratagems and machinations are linked specifically with her frustrations with compulsory gender roles, Rosa is a deconstruction of the femme fatale, typically figured as an embodiment of an archetypal evil that simply thrives, black widow spider-like, on destroying the male, on the one hand, and a kind of essential and inscrutable female neurosis, on the other hand.
The figure of Jenny (played by the Mexican-American actress Dona Drake), the American Indian maid hired by Lewis, despised by Rosa, intensifies the film’s argument about misogyny while providing a grim new version of the Demeter and Persephone myth, in which symbolic mother and daughter remain locked in enmity. Jenny, scowling and haughty, matches Rosa taunt for taunt, talon for talon. Like Rosa, she sports a long black mane of hair and similar dark eye-liner. Matched and mirrored, Rosa and Jenny engage in gendered, class, and race warfare. The lack of empathy between them suggests that the erosion of bonds between women derives from a culturally enforced misogyny then internalized by women. But having this “Indian” woman resemble Rosa so closely also suggests that the oppression of women cuts across all social lines and connections; despite their lack of connection, they are similar in their lack of options, their entrapment, their shackled sexuality.
In her fascinating essay (though one wishes it were lengthier) “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946),” Laura Mulvey famously argued, revising Freud, that the female spectator’s response to classical Hollywood cinema, organized around the male gaze, is transvestic. She identifies with this male gaze, which activates for her a nostalgic yearning for her own early stages of psychosexual development in which she had full access to phallic sexuality, before the onset of the Oedipus complex and its mythology of female castration. The biggest lacuna in Mulvey’s treatment of the film is that she ignores issues of race in an epic Western in which the “half-breed” heroine played by Jennifer Jones is caught between two brothers, one evil and carnal (played, against type, by Gregory Peck) and the other pious and upstanding (Joseph Cotton). A great deal needs to be said about Vidor’s 1946 woman’s film-Western, but for our purposes what I wish to establish is that Beyond the Forest extends this film’s interests in the race-related tensions of femininity in the melodrama, which, as both Duel and Beyond evince, was able to intersect with other genres, such as the Western and noir.
As Patricia White points out, the white actress comes to masquerade as the woman of color within the film’s diegetic world. As Rosa Moline, Davis bears an uncanny resemblance to her hostile Latina maid.” (Does her Indianness fall into a continuum of “Latina” stereotypes? More work on this issue must be done, I think.) White observes that this textual doubling culminates in the moment in which Rosa masquerades as Jenny in order to escape from Loyalton at the end of the film. White argues that Davis is either “unable or unwilling” to register this “expropriation” of a supporting female role subtly.
I would argue that the narcissistic elements here — the doubling/ mirroring — intensify the lesbian subtext in the women’s interactions. Moreover, the issue of race, rendered visible in Jenny but also in Rosa-as-Jenny, amplifies the political implications of Rosa’s rebellion. What the film suggests, in my view, is that the woman who defies patriarchy, even if she is “white” and heterosexual, threatens to align herself with a wide range of patriarchy’s enemies or undesirables—such as sexual deviants, non-whites, and the working and lower classes. Clearly, patriarchy is figured as the domain of the white father in such a reading. In defying the white father-husband, Rosa promiscuously aligns herself with queer and interracial desires as she threatens to cross class lines.
For these reasons, the last scene between Rosa and Jenny is especially interesting, and, in my view, moving. Confined to her bed, recovering from her improvised cliff-jumping abortion, and madly delusional, Rosa desperately attempts to get to Chicago, where she believes Latimer awaits her. Despite their diabolical history of enmity, Jenny appears genuinely concerned, for the first time, for Rosa’s well-being. Rosa, for her part, continues to hurl abusive comments at Jenny, even as she commands that her maid help her pack. Jenny’s compassion for Rosa in this scene, and the fact that she does help her to leave, poignantly evinces Jenny’s recognition of the legitimacy of Rosa’s desire for escape, a surprising feminine empathy in this tough, unyielding film.
Rosa’s lack of empathy for Jenny opens up a different feminist dimension of the film, which I will call Medusan discourse. In a variation on the theme of female-as-Fury, Rosa is Medusan in her synthesis of female sexual power and the terror of that power, culturally understood and registered. Freud famously interpreted the Medusa myth as representative of male fears over female sexuality. In Freud’s formulation, the head of the Medusa suggests the terror of accidentally viewing the primal scene. In the iconography of the Medusa, he saw the representation of the male child’s attendant revulsion—the writhing snakes being representations of pubic hair and also compensatory substitutions for the castrated penis.
Rosa and Jenny both wear the mark of Medusa: each has long, snaky hair (shades of the snake-woman Sin in Milton’s Paradise Lost as well); always arguing, they constantly hiss at each other. Rosa is clearly depicted as snakelike, in her elemental fusion of sinfulness and sexuality (even if this sexuality is as cold as ice). In the Ovidian version of the Medusa myth, Minerva takes out her rage against brute male power—Neptune’s rape of a woman in Minerva’s temple—upon the victim of that power, Medusa. Just as Minerva can exhibit no empathy towards Medusa, scapegoating her as the site of sexual contagion, Rosa incessantly berates Jenny, Jenny mocking her in turn.
Beyond the Forest’s innovative contribution to Medusan discourse is that it locates both Minerva and Medusa as victims along different lines of the same rigid, unyielding patriarchal system that constricts and categorizes both as Medusan monsters. Though Rosa fails in her operatic attempt to catch the train to Chicago (made all the more florid by Max Steiner’s riffs on “Chicago, Chicago”), there is something resistant and moving in her ruthless determination to escape, even if her attempt is a woefully unsuccessful one. Her corpse, discovered by Lewis near the tracks, lies there like some penitent offering to the gods.
I understand Beyond the Forest as not only a feminist but a queer film, and a very important one, in that it presents the harrowing personal costs of affronting our heterosexist, capitalist culture, which demands conformity, compulsory heterosexuality and reproductivity. Rosa Moline’s rage against normative domesticity and motherhood makes her a queer threat to the ordered, normative realm of Loyalton. By adamantly rejecting marriage and motherhood, Rosa comes close to symbolizing a queer subjectivity.
As Cynthia Morrill writes,
In a reading with relevance for the valences between the woman’s film and other genres (Rosa Moline evokes the troubled and troubling women of horror films as well as film noir), Morrill notes that the queer is “vampire-like,” casting no reflection in the Pop mirror.
Morrill writes that we should question
The film illuminates the ways in which the patriarchal, symbolic order relegates the messiness of female fury, female ties, longing, and despair to the chthonic recesses of “trash” culture. It also exposes the opprobrium engendered by gender nonconformity. In her vampiric monstrousness, refusal to accommodate regimes of normativity, indeed, her rapacious affront to them, Rosa refuses to conform to the social expectations of women. In its insistence upon the vitality and the legitimacy of non-Being, the film extrudes a queer sensibility, one that awaits a fresh queer as well as feminist appropriation.