Those who know me well can tell you two things about my character. One of the reasons I enjoy reading crime fiction is because I enjoy it in all its various incarnations. There are two things I admire about these crime novels: First, I adore when the characters break into some type of dance. Exuberant, revelatory, and/or highly uncomfortable dances are preferred, but I’m open to anything where the hips are allowed to swing. Noir has a reputation for being gloomy and depressing, but there is also a dark, subversive wit running through the genre that has always been part and parcel of the genre’s allure. That’s what I’m saying, at least in terms of what I believe. A dance may also convey an entire existence in a few deft movements, which is why it is so effective. There are those times in films like To Have and Have Not or the dying days of a free Paris when you get an odd chill down your spine, like Lauren Bacall shimmying. Twelve of my favorite moments in the history of crime and dance have been compiled here for your perusal. Choreographed routines range from a few steps to full-blown routines. All of them are a sight to behold.
1. To Have and Have Not (1944), dir. Howard Hawks
Bacall possessed “a born dancer’s fluency in movement,” according to novelist James Agee in his review of To Have and Have Not for Time. When she shimmies to Hoagy Carmichael’s piano at the end of the film to complement her final lines, it may be one of the most brilliant and memorable moments in the film. In one fluid movement, you learn everything there is to know about the character. For one final time, she’s hurled off the screen and you get the impression that she’s a person. The film was directed by Hawks, the script was written by Faulkner, and the novel by Hemingway, but Bacall may have outdone them all with this stunning artistic exuberance of her own.
2. Bande à part / Band of Outsiders (1946), dir. Jean-Luc Godard
One of the most recognizable dance routines in film history, and one that has a special place in the hearts of the team at CrimeReads. The reason for this, I believe, had to do with our editorial vision. The video was shot in front of a live audience in a cafe in Vincennes, France, with a TV crew on hand to document the occurrence. However, “Shake It Baby” is the song that they are actually dancing to, but the sound has been removed and it was not used in this film. It’s possible that this is a budget or rights issue. A post-production dubbing process was used to add sound effects such as claps and stomps to the video. One of my favorite aspects of this is that all the dancers appear to be off the rhythm. Let’s give the cast a little more credit now, huh? I’d always assumed it was because they were French. It turned out that Godard himself was the one who was having difficulty getting into the flow of the music. An outsider in every sense of the word.
3. Gilda (1946), dir. Charles Vidor
For Gilda, Allen Roberts and Dora Fisher wrote “Put the Blame on Mame,” which offers as the ideal, subversive counterpoint in this legendary femme fatale film. There’s an ironic twist at play here, which is that the story of this song is around how one woman’s sexuality is blamed for all of history’s misfortunes, all of which are traced back to one lady. Combined with Rita Hayworth’s energetic performance of both song and dance, the tensions in the room are escalating to a dangerously high level. We hear echoes of “Mame” throughout the soundtrack as the movie progresses.
4. Asphalt Jungle (1950) dir. John Huston
One of the most poignant scenes in the annals of film noir is the one in which Doc stops at the diner on the road to Cleveland and overhears a conversation between the local youths and decides to hand out a fistful of quarters to the girl so that she can dance, despite the fact that the police are following him. And she’s a talented dancer, too. Helene Stanley plays the girl with a haunting energy, and while Doc and the others watch, the temperature in the diner appears to rise as she does a captivating succession of fairly bizarre actions. This is one of Huston’s most memorable endings.
Between 1950 and 1989, you’ll notice that there’s a huge swath of time in this timeline.) As far as I know, I couldn’t find any dancing moments worthy of inclusion in the intervening thirty-nine years, and it’s nice that Spike Lee and Rosie Perez were reviving a tradition straight from John Huston. Our next stop is Bed-Stuy (from Asphalt Jungle)
5. Do The Right Thing (1989) dir. Spike Lee
It’s impossible to open a film better than that. Summertime in New York City can’t be captured any better than that. On a sidewalk in Bed-Stuy, New York, Rosie Perez is dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” as the song plays in the background. This is one of those unforgettable film moments that will stick with you forever. Yes, I’m sure I remember the first time I saw it. Since then, Perez has claimed that she almost had tennis elbow from all of her punching. The rest of the world was aware of what had happened. In the same way as Do the Right Thing solidified Spike Lee’s place in the film canon, Do the Right Thing revealed Perez as a star to watch. To no one’s surprise, Public Enemy was pulled in at the last minute instead of the planned song choice, “Cool Jerk,” with Perez dancing to it. “I need you to kill it,” Lee reportedly told Perez, according to reports. Eight hours of filming were required to complete the day’s work.
6. Pulp Fiction (1994), dir. Quentin Tarantino
This is one of the most memorable scenes in a film that defined cool in the 1990s. “I was more afraid of the dancing than practically anything since it was directly to my absolute insecurities,” says Thurman, who has later revealed that she was terrified of filming. When I was a kid, I was still fairly large and awkward. So it was a dream come true for me once I started dancing.” If you’d want to watch some behind-the-scenes footage of Tarantino’s dancing and gyrating during filming, go here. That day, they felt the presence of Chuck Berry’s spirit.
7. The Big Lebowski (1998) dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
In the Coen Bros. universe, there are a lot of dancing scenes in The Big Lebowski, but does any of them truly equal to this, John Turturro’s unforgettable portrayal of Jesus, the crack bowler / sex offender / Gypsy Kings enthusiast?? Realistically, the “dance” should also encompass the lead-up, a seductive tribute to bowling’s subtleties and artistry. Will anyone who saw this scenario ever forget it, despite the horrific information that was revealed to us afterward?
8. Thomas Crown Affair (1999) dir. John McTiernan
Sure, you could definitely find some interesting subtexts in this scene between Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan, or you could simply give up and acknowledge the thing is pure sex between the two actors. In case you were unsure, the dance quickly transitions into an eye-openingly uninhibited sex scene when the two of them crawl up a marble staircase as an entangled, clothing-shedding entity. It’s a beautiful piece of work, in large part due to the fact that neither of them are especially talented, but they still manage to command the dance floor with their charisma. This number has all the information you need to know about the unusual and rewarding interaction between an art thief and an art insurance agent.
9. The Tailor of Panama (2001) dir. John Boorman
Pierce Brosnan was an objectively terrible dancer during this point in his career, but he was determined to keep dancing, and one of the acknowledged screenwriters on The Tailor of Panama is John le Carré, the author of the novel The Tailor of Panama. It is possible that the dancing number was actually the idea of le Carré, who saw the sequence in The Thomas Crowne Affair and went to his co-screenwriters to say “dammit, we need to let Pierce do his thing.” I have no way of knowing for sure, but I prefer to imagine that it was his idea. This is the story I’ll tell my children and grandchildren. There’s a reason why this scenario is here: it was created by the man who also came up with George Smiley’s character.
10. Dogtooth (2003) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
Dogtooth is one of the most disturbing thrillers ever conceived. It tells the story of a family who keep their children isolated except for the woman they bring in to sleep with their son, who soon ends up bartering with the other children in exchange for sexual favors, giving them VHS tapes to watch secretly. The sum total is considerable. Towards the end of the film, one of the daughters performs a bare-knuckled version of the legendary Flashdance number. There are few words to describe how magnificent this moment is, especially in light of all the horrifying events that have gone before it and the few that yet remain.
11. Inland Empire (2006) dir. David Lynch
The Locomotion segment takes the cake in a film loaded with odd moments of uncertain relation to this spatial plane. What do you know about these women? Which past Inland Empire high school dance queens are still in the running? There there ghosts haunting Laura Dern? Is there a local dance group? Most of the best and most surreal scenes in the body of work of an enigmatic director lurk someplace in David Lynch’s subconscious.
12. Ex Machina (2014) dir. Alex Garland
Ex Machina director Damien Garland apparently wanted to experiment with “gear adjustments” in order to “make something that absolutely smashes up the tone and woke people.” Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno were able to pull off a completely bonkers disco scene following a stressful, horrible late-night encounter. That aim was surely accomplished.