Forget ''Basic Instinct 2" and other melodramas of wheezy modern kink. The most dangerous woman on Boston-area movie screens this week is Barbara Stanwyck, and the film she's in is 73 years old.
''Baby Face," in which Stanwyck's Lily Powers literally shtups her way up the executive ladder floor by floor, was such a shocker in 1933 that the New York State Board of Censors rejected it outright, forcing Warner Bros. to make extensive cuts and reshoots before the film could be released. That bowdlerized version was the only available print for decades, and it's still punchy enough to sear a viewer's eyeballs.
The original cut, discovered in the vaults of the Library of Congress in 2004 and showing at the Brattle starting today, is even more caustically amoral, and it's something else besides: a fascinatingly conflicted artifact of Depression-era do-me feminism. Lily Powers is one of the screen's great bad girls, and ''Baby Face" can't decide whether to celebrate her or string her up.
The film begins in classic Stanwyck working-girl territory: the back streets and gin mills of Erie, Pa., where Lily's sleazebucket father (Robert Barrat) runs a speakeasy that caters to the local steelworkers and where the heroine is known as ''the sweetheart of the night shift." Lily's already a hard case, and when dad tries to sell her favors to a local politician, she bolts for New York City, following the advice of a fire-breathing immigrant cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) who urges her to read Nietzsche and cultivate her will to power. ''Exploit yourself!," he exhorts her. ''Be strong! Use men to get the things you want!"
Bonus points if you guessed this scene didn't make the cut in the reedited version.
Neither did the sequence in which Lily gives it away to a railyard man in exchange for a boxcar ride to the city. Throughout, ''Baby Face" bluntly insists on a woman's right to use sex as a commodity -- a fundamental, even necessary quid pro quo. You could cut yourself on the breadline cynicism.
In Manhattan, Lily sets her sights on the Gotham Trust Co. and seduces her way into a secretary job (the other applicants hope their references will be enough, silly girls). From there, the camera cranes up and up the skyscraper's exterior, from Personnel to Filing to Mortgages to Accounting, pausing as Lily settles in and eyes each new target like a prime cut of veal. They're boobs and saps to a man, from the vain middle manager (Douglas Dumbrille) to the rising junior executive (Donald Cook) to the aw-shucks office boy played by a barely formed John Wayne (the Duke had already been in dozens of films by 1933, but he still looks like a baby).
Lily weathers scandals and a murder-suicide, dressing more grandly with each scene, but the moral equivocation kicks in when playboy Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) assumes control of the bank and her rent. He's not a hypocrite like the rest, but does she love the big lug enough to bail him out of trouble? No surprises there, although the original cut does stop short of punishing Lily with the revised version's lame O. Henry twist.
Stanwyck is beautifully hard in the lead. Another actress might have simpered or sighed a little, just to let us know she wasn't really like that, but the former Ruby Stevens from Brooklyn seems to have had no such illusions. The larger message of ''Baby Face" is entertainingly schizoid, trapped between admiration for Lily's nerve and horror at her soullessness. Some have held the movie up as a proto-feminist screed, but that's just nuts -- the heroine's goal is merely to be the best-kept mistress in New York.
Lily may have issues with men, in other words, but ''Baby Face" has weirder issues with women, and they possibly stem from the original story written by Darryl F. Zanuck, the Warners producer who'd leave later that year to start putting together 20th Century Fox. Zanuck's biographers have long since revealed the mogul's pathological womanizing -- a different starlet a day in the little room behind his office -- and he seems to have viewed the entire gender with a mixture of loathing, reverence, and lust. If Lily Powers did spring from the demons in Zanuck's head, no wonder the censors quailed.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.