Three dangerous men, but who rules this noir? Two women. That’s right.
Start with Bertha Duncan: the story begins when she finds her husband slumped over his desk from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She shows no heartbreak, no pity, not even surprise. She slides her husband’s confession from beneath his dead hand and makes a call to Lagana, the gangster. “Tell him, it’s Officer Duncan’s widow,” she says. Lagana takes the call.
Her husband’s confession in hand, the widow Duncan negotiates with Lagana off-camera. The result is she’s in clover. Name another story where the blackmailer lives in wealth and harmony. She deals just as effectively with Sgt. Bannion. All it takes is a call to City Hall and Bannion’s blocked from questioning the lady. She has Lagana, Stone and Sgt. Bannion all bending to her will.
Moving on to the second woman in this story: Lee Marvin’s girlfriend, Debbie Marsh, played by Gloria Grahame. She’s young and beautiful and full of sass. Watching her needle Marvin, in front of Lagana’s other toadies is what I’d imagine bear-baiting to look like. Debbie even taunts Lagana ("His Highness".) She says, "He's a man with a big hat that holds up the hoop, cracks the whip and the animals jump through."
Marvin orders Debbie to retreat to the kitchen. Lagana sadly shakes his head. Says, "She's a young girl, Vince. Don't let her drink so much." He can’t believe anyone would talk to him with disrespect. Marvin replies: "She keeps it up, she goes out of here on her ear. She's got no claim check on me." Really? She’s been yanking on his chain since the beginning of the story.
Debbie crosses the line with Marvin when she’s seen getting in a taxi alongside Sgt. Bannion. Marvin retaliates in a shocking act of violence. Debbie is broken— or is she?
She pays a visit to Bertha Duncan. The two women face one another, each clad in fur. Debbie tells the widow Duncan, “I’ve been thinking about you and me, how much alike we are. The mink-coated girls… We’re sisters under the mink.” I imagine Debbie is referring to their connection to the mob, but it’s more than that. Both of them are smarter than the other characters in the story, and that makes it interesting. You have to watch the movie to find out how Debbie brings down the crime syndicate. I can’t think of another noir where the woman wrests the glory from the designated hero.