I just finished a fascinating class taught at the Princeton Adult School. We saw several films in the “noir” category, with an emphasis on the “femme fatale.” Most of these films came from the ’40s and ’50s, with one example of a more updated, neo-noir.
What is a femme fatale? The literal translation is “fatal woman,” and has examples from the beginning of history. Lilith, Salome, the Sirens, Cleopatra, and Mata Hari are all examples from literature and history.
But the femme fatale in film noir is a little different. Basically, she is a woman, wittingly or unwittingly, who uses her seductive wiles to gain what she wants, usually money or status, while leading a man to his doom. There are many variables on this theme. Sometimes she gets away with it, sometimes she ends up dead. Sometimes the man, though smitten, never trusts her, sometimes he’s a complete dupe. Sometimes he ends up dead, sometimes in jail, or sometimes victorious. The woman can be a murderous psychopath, a compulsive liar, or just a beautiful woman who can’t help that men do stupid things for her.
Sociologically, the ’40s was a ripe time for the femme fatale. Her existence in literature has always had a basis of misogyny behind it, as the men writing these stories expressed their fear of powerful, independent women. In some ways Eve herself could be considered a femme fatale, responsible for the whole being banished from the Garden of Eden thing. The ’40s saw a revolution in how women were perceived, as they had to go to work during World War II. Rosie the Riveter became a powerful symbol. A seed was planted–no longer would women be satisfied with just being homemakers, or nurses, secretaries, waitresses or teachers. Women wanted more, and men feared the repercussions.
The women in the films we saw had some common characteristics. Many were from the wrong side of the tracks. They had dubious backgrounds, and used men to get what they wanted. More than one said: “I’ve been bad.” We can assume some were prostitutes, who have graduated to becoming kept women, with an eye on the ultimate goal of being independently wealthy. The femme fatale today is quaint, in an age when women can become CEO’s of the top companies, but back then, earning a fortune on the backs of men, whether by marrying into society or being vamps, was the only way for women to become rich.
We saw many of the best examples of the genre, including what I think is the standard, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Barbara Stanwyck starred as Phyllis Diedrichson, the second wife of a well-to-do businessman. She meets an insurance man, Fred McMurray, and they hatch a scheme to kill him and make it look like an accident, earning double indemnity on the life insurance policy. Of course things go wrong, and they end up killing each other. Stanwyck’s character is a psychopath, with hints that she killed her husband’s first wife.
Essentially a remake of that film was Body Heat (1981) by Lawrence Kasdan, this time with Kathleen Turner, in her film debut, again as a the wife of an older, rich man. She’s devious at any turn, using poor dumb chump William Hurt to kill her husband. He realizes too late he’s been used, and ends up in jail for the crime, while she’s off to some exotic island.
Another of the classic type of femme fatale was Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947). She is the kept woman of gangster Kirk Douglas, but uses Robert Mitchum, a private eye, for her purposes. Here Mitchum never really trusts her, but can’t help himself, a common trope of the genre. Like many other films, this one was based on a pulp novel, and many of those writers specialized in depicting women as seductive monsters, with them incapable of resisting the temptation. Today we’d call that thinking with your dick.
This could be said of John Dahl in Gun Crazy (1950). He was probably the dumbest sap we saw all semester, a man obsessed with guns. He becomes a trick-shot artist, performing with a sinister Annie Oakley called Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). She loves danger even more than money, and leads Dahl into a life of crime, where they become bank robbers. Though he knows he’s doing wrong, he can’t help himself. She must be a tiger in the sack. The original title of Gun Crazy was Deadly Is the Female.
Sometimes the guy didn’t fall for it. In two films featuring famed detectives, we have some great femme fatales, but they are defeated. In Murder, My Sweet (1944) Claire Trevor stars as Velma Valentino, who was once a girl of the lower depths who has transformed herself into Helen, now the trophy wife of a rich art collector. She’s involved in a caper, but detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), while certainly interested, doesn’t fall for her wiles. Instead, he goes for the femme fatale’s counterpoint, the “Good Girl,” (in this case Anne Shirley) who is virginal and sweet and usually too good to be true.
Sam Spade is also above falling for the femme fatale. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Mary Astor plays one of the great femme fatales, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who is incapable of telling the truth. She will do anything to get what she wants, and professes her love for Sam. But Spade, played brilliantly by Humphrey Bogart, never trusts her, and in the end does what he has to do and sends her over for the killing of his partner.
Sometimes the femme fatale changes her spots. In The Big Heat (1953), Gloria Grahame plays a gangster’s moll. But she is impressed by the honesty of a cop, Glenn Ford, and ends up helping him. In this way, Grahame’s character comes off as more feminist than the others, because she rebels against the way she is kept like a trophy (a great scene has her showing how she has to hop whenever her gangster, Lee Marvin, says hop), but instead of turning to crime, does the right thing instead.
One of the things we discussed after almost every movie was whether the woman really loved the man. I suppose the romantics thought that they did, but I don’t know. Did Mary Astor really love Sam Spade? I don’t think she was capable of love. Did Kathleen Turner love William Hurt? Certainly not, though some in the class thought she ended up loving him and felt bad about it. They may have had passion for the victim–I’m sure Jane Greer did for Robert Mitchum and Barbara Stanwyck for Fred McMurray, but when it became necessary to kill them, they didn’t flinch. Most femme fatales don’t feel love the way most of us do–it’s only an emotion of convenience.
There are some great femme fatales we didn’t see, like Marie Windsor in The Killing, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Anne Savage in Detour, and Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears, and in more contemporary times, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, Nicole Kidman in To Die For, and, of course, Rebecca Romijn in Femme Fatale. But again, these contemporary films exist more as homages to the old, and don’t have the same power.
Not all noir films had femme fatales, but it was a basic element of the genre, and provided a lot of work for many actresses who played many such women.