Perfume pops up in movies a lot more than you realize. Usually, you blink and it’s gone. Like in the Busby Berkeley film I watched a few weeks ago, maybe FOOTLIGHT PARADE, where hopefuls are trying out for a revue and one tells – is it James Cagney? – that perfume helps her perform. She’s brought some with her and sniffs from it before her audition, standing there at the microphone. James Cagney or whoever it is rolls his eyes. I’d love to know which perfume she’s holding.
The other night I watched Andy Warhol’s BAD (1977), directed by Jed Johnson, Warhol’s boyfriend at the time and twin brother of Jay, also a Studio 54 era Warhol regular. Perry King plays a grifter who shacks up in Caroll Baker’s boarding house-slash-hair removal salon. Baker moonlights as a contract killer broker, employing various women to perform hits. She doesn’t like Perry much, and doesn’t much try to hide it. She doesn’t like him mostly because he blows her cover. She doesn’t exactly poor mouth but no one realizes just how much she likes the finer things. Perry does – first by sensing it, then by sneaking into her locked room.
The rest of the house verges on squalid. Baker’s room is like something out of one of the sixties films she once starred in, THE CARPETBAGGERS – plush shag, oversized rococo lamps, big fancy headboard. Her closet is a Brinks truck’s worth of luxury items, and among the furs and shoe boxes is quite a collection of expensive perfume. I froze the frame, trying to identify the bottles. She has them all sitting out on the shelves. I think I saw Dior. Perry sees Guerlain, what looks like an ounce of Shalimar parfum extrait. He steals it.
Later, he trysts with one of the contract killers in his bedroom, enlisting the Shalimar as a seduction tool. It doesn’t really seem to do much for his partner, but you get the idea it turns him on more than he hopes it will her. He keeps dabbing the perfume on her. Then his hand leaves the screen, descending below the frame, and she gasps, angry, telling him “it burns.” It’s probably the most explicit use of perfumery in film I’ve seen, and kind of funny too, the way it makes literal the fantasies people slip into with fragrance. Shalimar as sex toy.
Later, Baker discovers the empty bottle (empty! a whole ounce!) and confronts Perry as he’s taking a bath. She throws his pills (which he pilfered from her) down the toilet, and tells him he’ll be buying her another bottle.