Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ms. 45 and the Urban Vigilantes

This is a film that I might never have heard of if not for a chance mention in one of my textbooks and one I might have forgotten about if not for my innate curiosity and an unprecedented intrigue that came with learning about a major trend in 1970's action films, specifically the "urban vigilante" idea, also known as an "urban western". Typically the way these films work is they combine the classical western hero with the street and back alley settings prevalent in film noir and gangster pictures of the 1940's and 1950's.

Usually the way they work is that you have an anti-hero protagonist who is torn between two worlds. Much as the classical western hero is caught between the "civilized" world and the "savage" wilderness, the urban western hero (or in this case, heroine) is in between both the law and the crooks. They're typically civilians, as is the case for this film along with other films such as the Death Wish series featuring Charles Bronson. Other times they are rogue cops, a role made famous by Dirty Harry, or even crooks themselves as seen with Snake Plissken in Escape From New York.

In any case, they are a character who sees themselves as above the law. They find the police are too much of a hindrance for justice, and decide to take matters into their own hands. Dirty Harry continues to pursue Scorpio long after he is taken off the case and Snake Plissken screws over the ungrateful President by destroying the tape he was supposed to retrieve for him (and that was in the first movie, don't get me started on what he does in Escape From L.A.). There are even echoes of this phenomenon in more contemporary works such as Christopher Nolan's Batman films.

The movie we watched in class was Dirty Harry, and a lot of the focus was on that along with Death Wish. Escape From New York was one I only later concluded fit into the "urban vigilante" trend based on what I'd learned. One thing it didn't take me long to notice was that the vigilante character was usually a man, so naturally when the chapter on the urban vigilante films in my textbook referred to one with a female lead I became curious. That was my introduction to Ms. 45, also known as Angel of Vengeance. I eventually decided to pursue this movie and found a copy last week. I had some time during the weekend to watch it and it turned out also to be quite fitting for Halloween.

Thana (Zoë Lund) is a seamstress who happens to be mute. She happens to be living in 1980's Manhattan, a world where it is not easy being a woman, and even harder being a woman who can't talk. While walking home from work one day, she is helplessly abducted by a street punk (Abel Ferrara, the movie's director) who sexually assaults her. The experience of it happening once already leaves the poor heroine severely traumatized, but after getting home she encounters another punk trying to rob her apartment who also tries to rape her. This time Thana snaps and murders her attacker.

From then on, things are no longer the same. Thana starts to grow paranoid of every man she sees and the trauma of her experiences begin to bleed into her job as she starts to slip up more frequently. Most notably, she takes the gun off the punk she murders and begins carrying it around with her. Numerous men try to sexually harass her and subsequently meet their ends at the barrel of a 45 caliber pistol.

It's really a shame that Zoë Lund's career was cut short so early (she only went on to do five other features before dying of a drug overdose in 1999) because if this role was anything to go by she had extraordinary talent. She never so much as utters a single line at any point in the film, meaning she has to rely more or less purely on facial expression and body language to convey the emotions that come with her character's downward spiral. The fact that the emotion is purely visual makes her character stand out all the more from the rest of the cast (all of whom do talk). It gives her a lot more depth than it would to have her speak, but at the same time adds an enigmatic quality as we never learn her full backstory or why she has this disability.

I also liked the fact that unlike many other films both then and now Thana isn't glamorized or oversexualized, at least not as much. For most of the movie she looks like a very average young woman except when she is trying to make herself attractive to men in order to get close enough to kill them. By making her look like an everyday person, it makes the story of a civilian trying to take the law into her own hands all the more meaningful.

The rest of the cast is also pretty good. The interactions between Thana and the other characters are definitely believable, something not easy to pull off when you have to pretend your lead actress can't actually talk. There are two other major characters she interacts with: her landlady Mrs. Nasone and her boss Albert (Albert Sinkys), both of whom come into conflict with her over the changes in personality that come with her choice to become a vigilante while she simultaneously tries to keep them from finding out what she does during the night. She also has an emotional relationship with the other seamstresses, who are more or less the closest thing she has to friends and the only ones who really give her any kind of comfort.

Naturally for a film like this there's plenty of action to be found. Zoë Lund gets several scenes to herself where she gets to be tough and show off her newfound skills with a pistol. Even when she isn't pulling out her gun the film still manages to create tension. Knowing the protagonist just about every scene where she interacts with a man builds up a sense of tension because you know how paranoid she is and how she is very easily provoked into murder. Then of course there's the incredibly tense climax which I won't spoil for you.

I would strongly recommend Ms. 45 as a dark action film. It is an effective spin on the whole idea of the "urban vigilante", with a strong and indeed very memorable action heroine and plenty of tension. It's also a good movie to see in October, since while not an outright horror story it can be disturbing and even features a sub-plot surrounding a Halloween party. It was worth the thirty dollars I spent on it, and now I'm glad I kept up with the readings for that one course since otherwise I'd never have found out about this film. I don't know how easy it will be to find, but if you get the chance it is worth checking out


  1. I've been meaning to watch this forever. Thanks for the reminder. A recent urban vigilante flick with a female protagonist is The Brave One starring Jodie Foster. It's pretty underrated in my opinion. I think it's definitely worth a look.BTW, as of right now YouTube has the full movie of Ms. 45. Whenever I get a chance I'll check it out, providing it's still there.

    1. I didn't know anything about it being on YouTube, but if it is and you're morally okay with that than definitely take a look. I've never seen The Brave One but it does sound rather interesting. I might have to consider seeing that one if I get the chance.

  2. I have never heard of this film but it sounds interesting. The shame is that rather than sounding like someone who is a vigilante seeking justice, the horrific abuse she suffers seems to make her snap and she becomes a serial killer. This may be really wrong as I am going by what you wrote. I have to see the film to see if it is along the lines of Death Wish (for example)

    1. Well, do most vigilantes not get started because they can't take the abuse they suffered any more? Dirty Harry was after Scorpio from the start but the latter framing him for police brutality crossed the line. Paul Kersey was motivated by the murder of his wife. Snake Plissken did what he did because he watched a lot of people died and pissed that the president showed no gratitude for everything he had done for him. In fact while it may have taken longer the major catalyst for Batman's actions was watching both his parents murdered as a child.

      The thing about vigilantism in these kinds of films is that it is often morally ambiguous because of their extreme methods of justice. In this case, the heroine's problem is her fear of men in general, seeing as she can't distinguish the good from the bad.

    2. Ahhh and that is the key! The others can distinguish and therein lies the difference