Ms. 45: the crude stylings of early Abel Ferrara
“Eros and Thana(tos) in Manhattan, a feverish vision.” – Fernando F. Croce
Editor’s Note: Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) (the alternate title is Angel of Vengeance) was unjustifiably maligned by critics when it came out. Since then it has become a favorite of Ferrara fans many of whom have been able to revisit the film on various home video releases, the best version (uncut) was put out by Aquarelle in France.
On the surface, Ms. 45 is a low-budget exploitation revenge film, filled with obscene sexual imagery and over the top violence like so many exploitation films made after the Production Code was discontinued in the late sixties. What makes Ms. 45 stand-out is the way it deals with feminine sexuality, gender politics, and genre-subversion that simply does not exist in many other exploitation films made during this time. Ferrara takes the ideology of the revenge-film and the corresponding cinematic codes used by this sub-genre to create an apocalyptic nightmare where misogyny is exchanged for misandry and male fantasies are turned upside down in this unabashed politically incorrect thriller.
While Ferrara’s film contains many ideological subversions and modernistic touches resembling the best work of the various New Waves, Ms. 45 is also an incredibly simple and tight narrative that clocks in at a brisk 80 minutes. The main character is Thana, a mute seamstress working for a fashion company in Manhattan. On one fateful day she is raped twice and then kills the second rapist. This trauma transforms her into a man-hating killer.
Ms. 45 uses several tropes of revenge, exploitation, and action films that by 1981 would have become recognizable for audiences. The strong, silent, and stoic lead-characters reminiscent of characters like Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon the Time in the West (1968) or Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in the Dirty Harry franchise are men of few words. Silence in place of talky, loud-mouth characters has the effect of turning a character into a cypher. Because the main character’s speak much less than the rest of their characters in the film, a mysterious haze exists around them, subsequently putting more dramatic and emotional weight on their actions. All of their emotions, thoughts, and desires are sublimated through violent actions: punches, kicks, and firing bullets are the building blocks of the lone-hero’s cinematic language in post-classical Hollywood cinema.
Ferrara takes the strong-silent archetype as the model for Thana, but makes this character trait more extreme by making Thana mute. The cause of her muteness is not explored (however, later in the film she screams implying that her condition is psychological rather than physical) and exists as a “zone of mystery”, the definition of the woman in the male-centric discourse of symbols and codes. Thana is shy, keeps to herself, and lives a simple, seemingly happy life. Ferrara distills the strong-silent genre trope into Thana’s psyche and way of being-in-the-world.
Thana’s muteness connects to an essential component of the film’s meaning which is silence as the ultimate way of being-in-the-world of the phallo-centric symbolic realm. Thana’s muteness symbolizes, in this case both literally and metaphorically, a fantasy of the male symbolic order. The quiet woman that does not complain or nag or criticize but simply accepts whatever the man does to her, an extreme depiction of this male-fantasy. Thana’s silence, for example, her inability to scream when she is raped twice is this male fantasy committed to celluloid. How else could a pervert successfully rape someone in public unless she was mute?
Thana’s silence is mistaken as consent and defeat; the perfect woman for a rapist. The first rapist revels in his mastery over Thana. The theme of silence is made explicit by the second rapist as he holds Thana at gunpoint, demanding she uncover a stash of money not knowing that she is mute. The burglar begins to rape her, asking for confirmation “does this feel good?”, and whispering in her ear “this might make you talk” before Thana smashes his head. Asked to respond but unable to speak Thana must express herself through violence. After smashing his head, Thana gets up and looks around her apartment for something to finish him off. She takes her iron (typically associated with women’s housework) and strikes the rapist dead. Lacking a female equivalent in the male symbolic order for a gun, Thana must use a household item to make her force known and upgrades her weaponry with the dead rapist’s 45 caliber pistol.
The gun is a symbol for the phallus in action/revenge movies. The lone-hero archetype (i.e. John Wayne’s characters) is commonly depicted in such a way that he cannot relate to the rest society through words and emotions, expressing through his pistol. This idea was taken up by many New Hollywood directors in the seventies but Martin Scorsese made the penultimate deconstruction of the lone-hero myth in his seventies classic, Taxi Driver (1976). Travis Bickle spends hours in front of the mirror “playing with his gun” and fantasizing about using it on his imaginary enemies. When he encounters Sport at the end he tells him to “suck on this” right before shooting him in the stomach.
Thus, the gun is a symbol for the phallus while there is no female equivalent in the cinematic symbolic of Hollywood cinema. Thana begins with no gun (i.e. no penis) and is subjected to literally two penises and a metal-phallus before she can acquire a gun (phallus) of her own. Lacking an equivalent weapon she must use the phallic object supplied by the male symbolic order.
The gun gives Thana power and mastery. Thana gains entry into the economy of male discourse of desire and then slowly tears this discourse apart with her newly acquired phallus. Before entry into this domain the woman does not exist except as a signifier in the male discourse. Thana begins as a shy seamstress, dominated by every man she comes in contact with and exists solely as a symptom of men which means that her existence is defined entirely as the desired fantasy object of the male discourse. Acquiring the gun she is transformed into a man. With her newly acquired phallus she is no longer a zone of mystery, a symptom of the man, but an aggressive pistol-waving body in action.
Thana’s fashionista boss invites her to the work Hallowe’en party. Her boss, dressed as Dracula, and Thana as a nun, tapping into the male fantasies involving the sexually repressed women of the cloth that so many low-budget skin-flicks have used to this day. Before the party, Thana prepares for the massacre by playing with her gun. Striking poses and aiming at imaginary enemies in her apartment. At the party, the Dracula boss takes Thana up to second-level and tries to get fresh with her but Thana pulls out her weapon, rejects his attempt and kills him for wanting her. She brings her rampage to the main level, expiring every man in sight, right before she is stabbed in the back by her colleague. She screams as the knife, another phallic object, goes into her and mouths the word “sister” in her last moment before she takes the big sleep.
Ms. 45 takes these exploitation and action-movie tropes as narrative raw material. The “(wo)man with no name” in a nun outfit becomes the scourge of New York City and her violent exploits make headlines. Thana’s misandry has no limits and eventually her violent inferno swallows her up in the brutal conclusion shot in exquisite slow-motion, recalling the operatic gunfight in The Wild Bunch (1969) except this time their are men in drag running around like little girls.
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Ms. 45 will be re-released by Drafthouse Films in 2014.