Bridget Gregory, the scheming vixen at the heart of John Dahl's neo-noir thriller The Last Seduction, is already undergoing feminist scrutiny, and her credentials are said to have come up short in some quarters. I find this hilarious. For while those breakout queens of the road, Thelma and Louise, may have sat still for months of tedious debate about their political correctness, and while the self-reliant, white-watering heroine of The River Wild might tether her raft to a tree and courteously await her turn to speak, Bridget just isn't that kind of woman.

If this contemporary femme fatale actually existed (alas, she is but the seamless dramatic creation of writer Steve Barancik and talented actress Linda Fiorentino), she would probably squash her defenders right along with her critics: She gives no mercy to man, woman or vegetable. That, in fact, may be Bridget's real strength in this dark, witty film. She doesn't take guff from anyone, and she doesn't need the jangle of gender ideology to prop her up.

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Director Dahl, the young Montanan who burst onto the scene last year with a down-and-dirty sleeper called Red Rock West, is clearly intrigued with the kind of crime picture in which Lana Turner or Barbara Stanwyck used to turn her feminine wiles loose to get the safe open, then stiff her man for the loot--or try to. These wonderfully malevolent movies were energized by compelling women, but Dahl is not content, as are the perpetrators of soggy, weak-kneed imitations like Body of Evidence or Basic Instinct, to simply mimic the manners of 1940s film noir. Instead, he's busy reinventing the genre, just as Quentin Tarantino is: Dahl's films are salted with dark wit, but they don't mock the classics. He manages to wed contemporary black comedy with the old cunning, and both partners benefit.

That brings us back to Bridget Gregory, who's not only a tough cookie but a kind of genius sociopath--not a bad calling in these bewildered times. From the first moment we see her, she's in charge, savaging a roomful of beleaguered phone salesmen (and we mean men) in a Manhattan office building. She's got a stopwatch in her fist for high pressure, and she's calling these eunuchs names like, well, "eunuch." Later in the day Bridget drops by the apartment to make sure her nasty husband (Bill Pullman), a sleazy doctor who writes illicit prescriptions for a living, has completed their half-a-million-dollar pharmaceutical cocaine deal. He has. Guess what. Before you can say "double indemnity," our heroine is on the road to Chicago with the money. Hubby is left at home to deal with the loan shark who financed the project.

Happily for connoisseurs of treachery, Bridget's brilliant criminal mind is just getting into second gear. As demonstrated by Red Rock West, Dahl apparently has a thing for the melodramatic potential of small towns, so he strands our crafty big-city thief in a sleepy upstate burg called (what else?) Beston. Naturally, this sleek, icy stranger turns every hayseed head, and Bridget is always thinking. Mike (Peter Berg), the local fool she picks to prey upon, is so far out of his league that we don't quite know what we're laughing at--the way she uses him as a sexual appliance and an unwitting partner in crime or the way he jumps at the steaming bait. Meanwhile, one of the things likely to infuriate doctrinaire feminists is the way Bridget (who's cooked up an alias by now) manipulates their issues, too: After staging a pivotal car crash, she makes self-serving noises about rape; cutting her way through a platoon of insurance-company squares, she drops hints about an abusive husband--which are not entirely false.

From here on, director Dahl, first-time writer Barancik and the leading lady have a lot of fun fooling with old crime-movie conventions. You can almost see the larcenous plots hatching behind Fiorentino's cool blue eyes. But the film never declines into spoof. The sheer plot mechanics of The Last Seduction are more complex than anything Nicholas Ray or Sam Fuller dreamed up, and Bridget's sexual extortions, you won't be surprised to learn, are far more graphic. The new Republican majority may not like it, but these moviemakers, like their forebears in film noirdom, remain blessedly unwilling to pass moral judgment on the most underhanded acts of amoral crooks. Instead, they delight in every tawdry turn, and so do we. Even when she's supposed to be lying low, Bridget can't help cooking up murder-for-hire scams involving computer databases and unfaithful husbands.

Fiorentino, who has appeared in half a dozen mediocre pictures (After Hours, Gotcha, The Moderns), may have found her breakaway role here. Bridget is so alluring and so smart, you almost can't wait for her to sow the next thorn along the path of the innocents. Her motives? For the classic description of the femme fatale, let's defer to Lizabeth Scott, the cool blond who played a few of them herself back in the Forties: "She's smothering inside," Scott once explained. "She's driven to do the things she does, driven by other people and by something inside herself."

That may not pass muster in feminist-dynamics class. By the time Bridget steers her victims back to the city for the suitably bleak finale, those incapable of being entertained (nay, enthralled) by the diabolical wit of her schemes will probably be out on the sidwalk painting protest placards. For the rest of us, though, Fiorentino has created one of the most sublimely devious creatures in the history of movies. When she sniffs, then licks, a stack of stolen C-notes, it's like she's discovered an exotic perfume. When she manipulates the men around her, we're sure she's found her true self. As we watch her, we can't help grinning in wonder--despite what's left of our higher instincts.


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