#52FILMSBYWOMEN is a campaign launched by Women In Film in an attempt to raise awareness of female filmmakers. Their initiative asks cinephiles to watch a female-directed film once a week for an entire year, and in this series I will document the films I watched as a part of this pledge.
With a few fedora hats thrown in, it’d be easy to mistake Death is a Caress as a generic Hollywood film noir from its initial setup, but, aside from the obvious fact that the characters speak Norwegian, Edith Carlmar’s twisted debut feature is far from your conventional noir.
Adapted from the 1948 novel by Arne Moen, this romantic crime drama opens with the sombre Erik (Claus Wiese), being taken into custody where he is questioned by his lawyer in relation to an unknown crime. They don’t directly clarify the reasoning for his arrest in their conversation, but considering the nature of the genre, you could probably hazard a good guess. The film then takes us into a flashback as Erik recounts his story, beginning with the day he met Sonja (Bjørg Riiser-Larsen), a flirtatious high-society woman. He’s engaged, she’s married, but not long after meeting one another, they break off their previous relationships and begin a passionate, tumultuous love affair.
Intense lighting, a male voice-over and a mysterious female seductress – there’s no denying this has the familiar markings of a traditional film noir, but, as previously hinted, not everything is as it initially appears. Sonja, while sultry and proudly aware of her own attraction, isn’t the manipulative femme fatale we’re accustomed to. She’s troubled, confused, closer to the disturbed figure of Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim than of Joan Bennet in Scarlet Street. Her sophisticated lifestyle and high-status is palpable, yet her interest in the blue-collar Erik, who works as a lowly auto mechanic, appears deceptively genuine.
Their romance is tainted from the start. Though Sonja never looks entirely satisfied with her marriage, Erik is shown to have a beautiful loving fiancée in Marit (Eva Bergh), who he promptly abandons (along with his job) soon after the affair. His actions are impulsive and reckless, driven by mindless lust, but despite their obvious mismatch and their numerous break-ups, their attraction to one another seems strangely honest. They end up seducing each other and they’re both ultimately unfortunate to get caught in the other one’s web.
With its engrossing narrative and astute camerawork, it feels unjust to see Death is a Caress and Carlmar overlooked when discussing film noir, especially when Ida Lupino is usually credited as the only woman to have directed one. But with the recent popularity of Scandi noir TV dramas, I’m hopeful rediscovery could be forthcoming. That would surely be the least it deserves.