Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal. A Review

12 Jul

A few years back now, I leafed through City of Shadows, Peter Doyle’s bestselling collection of Sydney police photographs, with a kind of uneasy fascination. Dating from 1912 to 1948, the photographs depict crime scenes in lucent sepia, their period fittings and unnatural stillness making them uncomfortably like an artwork rather than a documentation of bloody violence and death.

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Doyle is just about to release a new collection, Crooks Like Us, which focuses much more on the mugshots taken by Sydney police in the same era: more shots of the razor-slashing prostitutes of the 1920-30s, more louche con-men and hard cases. These mugshots have the same sense about them as the crime scenes – that of hovering between retro artwork and gritty historical record, with touches of fashion photography thrown in: a horrible but beautiful and thus woozily fetishistic mix.

Many of the photographs used in City of Shadows and Crooks Like Us come from an archive held by the Justice and Police Museum in Circular Quay, housed in a sandstone building down by Sydney harbour which was once the Water Police Court. More such mugshots may now be seen in the Museum’s latest exhibition, Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal.

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As exhibitions go, Femme Fatale is a small affair, comprising only two rooms. One of these is devoted to female abortionists convicted after botched jobs back in the day, which I walked through hastily, eyes only half on the walls. The other room alone is worth a trip to see, however: that is, if one is in Sydney, as I currently happen to be. Its eclectic exhibits include clay pipes used by convict women, trashy 1950s book covers, features on the underworld queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, the leather dildo used by ‘the man/woman murderer’, Eugenia Falleni, and trailers from 1940s films starring – yes, femmes fatales.

The most compelling exhibit by far, however, is the series of mugshots of women imprisoned in the State Reformatory for Women at Long Bay (Sydney), taken predominantly in the 1920s. Every one of these photographs is immanent with imaginative suggestion. They were taken, I gather, when the women were first apprehended by police. Each includes a front-on shot, an oblique shot, and a full-length shot of the woman in question, standing against a curtain in her come-as-you-are street clothes.

Here is 19 year-old Annie Gunderson looking sullenly at the camera, for example, dressed in a rather luxuriant fur coat. One reads that she was imprisoned for stealing a fur coat from a department store – could it possibly have been the same one?! Here, too, is 20 year-old Jean Wilson, also committed for larceny. With her lovely dark eyes, fur stole and long white dress, she could be attending a studio photography session – until you remind yourself that she was probably hauled out of a police wagon only a short time ago.

As the inclusion of the fur coat and stole suggests, the State Reformatory photographs are a record (among other things) of low and flash female fashion in 1920s Sydney. There are plenty of cloche hats, high-heeled Mary Janes and drop-waist dresses a la Angelina Jolie in Changeling; plenty of bobs and hair done up with pins. The resemblance to a period film stops there, however, because there are other details which would not occur to current-day costumiers and make-up artists, and less still to Hollywood casting agents. Most of the women’s hair is dishevelled or badly cut. Most, too, look years older than their years. And the clothes, though in most cases making more than a stab at glamour, are almost all crushed and untidy. 19 year old Vera Purcell is dressed in a shiny coat which falls to her knees, for example – but the satiny material is greatly crumpled, almost ridiculously so. Others have high-heeled shoes with busted straps and dresses with wonky hems. Even the dark-eyed Jean Wilson, with her curled bob and fur stole, wears a dress that looks vaguely boxy, evidently inexpertly home-made.

The final note of Femme Fatale is struck by a notice containing contemporary statistics on female prisoners in New South Wales. While women make up only 7% of the state’s prison population, the number of female prisoners has apparently increased by 82% in the past ten years, with an average age of 33. Not only that: a full 50% of these women have a mental illness. That sombre and not at all glamorous fact is more uneasy to contemplate, perhaps, than all of the exhibition’s images combined.

You can see Femme Fatale at the Justice and Police Museum, cnr Albert and Phillip Sts, Circular Quay, Sydney, until 18 April 2010 (open 10am to 5pm on weekends only, and daily during Jan/school holidays). Peter Doyle’s Crooks Like Us will be launched at Gleebooks Katoomba in early August 2009.

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One Response to “Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal. A Review”

  1. Lefty E 6 August 2009 at 1:52 am #

    Looks groovy, and if I may, another fine example of how well you write – for an academic! Its a pity good prose isnt more highly valued in the profession.

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