Armchair Cinephile

8 Women (scheduled to open November 1) may be laden with ladies, but most of the film's manipulations are directed toward a man who — lucky him — is no longer around to endure them. It's an extreme example of a narrative theme dating back to Eve: women goading men into doing something tragic.

Film noir wouldn't exist without the conniving femme fatale, and The Grifters has two of them. Possibly the best of all the modern noirs, the Stephen Frears film is definitely the finest adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, and has just been reissued on disc by Miramax. Thompson's '50s and '60s books made explicit the kind of nastiness the original noirs could only hint at, and this one finds a man caught between two women — his lover and his mother — who look and behave too much like each other to be healthy. In every way, even down to the sexpot surrealism of Annette Bening's dialogue, Frears and screenwriter Donald Westlake capture the writer's wicked world.

Like John Cusack's character in The Grifters, Ben Affleck is to blame for choosing a trouble-prone profession in Changing Lanes (Paramount). Here, though, he's managed to live in denial, refusing to see that the top-dollar law firm where he works is up to its ears in dirty deeds. This recent film had a lot to recommend it, particularly a fine performance by Samuel Jackson, but is handicapped by its own Lady Macbeth. In a crucial scene, where Affleck is coming to terms with a moral dilemma, his wife (Amanda Peet) sits him down and explains that all their creature comforts depend on his ability to do the wrong thing. It's the truth, but it smacks of dishonest screenwriting; it's impossible to believe that a person in Peet's position, at her age and with her advantages, is capable of that level of self-awareness. Maybe a better actress could have pulled it off, but one look at Peet and you know that this is a person who won't acknowledge her diseased lifestyle until she's old enough to excuse herself from fixing it.

There's a mirror to that situation in In The Bedroom (Miramax): Sissy Spacek makes her husband do something horrible, but here she never fully realizes what she's doing. Spacek's an astonishing actress, and her character is in some regards a wise woman, but grief over her son's murder has taken over her psyche. There's no way to talk more about this without ruining some surprises, but watch the last scene closely — see the role reversals, the way burdens are re-allocated, coping strategies swapped. Those last few minutes contain enough emotional drama for two more movies, which is pretty impressive considering that Bedroom was already one of the more thoughtful and gripping films to come out last year.

In High Noon (Artisan), at least, Grace Kelly is motivated by an honest, righteous conviction. She's a Quaker (in the Wild West, she might as well be a Martian), and can't accept Gary Cooper's decision that the villain coming to town on the noon train must be confronted. She demands that he run away with her, and when he refuses, she says she'll leave without him, regardless of the fact that they were just married. Cooper, who is insane with virtue, stays put to defend a town full of fair-weather friends.

That women's-wiles thing doesn't hold true in High Noon; Kelly turns out to be in Gary's corner. What's remarkable here is how disillusioned the film is. It's not that Cooper finds himself alone in trouble, but he's alone among friends, and the only reason he's in trouble is because he put himself there to help those very friends. The bulk of the film, which occurs almost in real time, follows him as he tries to convince his fellow citizens to do the right thing — and the only ones willing are those who're unable to be of any help. The great thematic tension of the Western is the conflict between civilization and lawlessness; High Noon, finding both unsatisfactory, is practically a nihilist parable. Not to mention a masterpiece of efficient storytelling; not to mention one of the great examples of a film using the same song in every other scene, creating a maddeningly claustrophobic dramatic world. Kind of like that snow-bound house in 8 Women — but at least that film has eight songs to spice it up.