Film Noir Femme Fatales

Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 6:42 pm

It’s time to salute some of the greatest film noir femme fatales in the history of cinema. Whether they’re speaking in a husky voice, wielding a pistol, or convincing an amorous dupe to break the law, these sultry vixens have provided decades worth of gentle eroticism and cautionary tales.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “femme fatale” can literally be translated as “deadly woman.“ Film noir femme fatales are often described in the following ways: predatory, mysterious, hard-hearted, treacherous, seductive, amoral, manipulative, beautiful, desperate, promiscuous, and irresponsible. The first example of such a role was Theda Bara, whose portrayal of the appropriately-named “Vampire” in 1915’s A Fool There Was would land her the real-life nickname of “Vamp” for the remainder of her career.

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The character archetype picked up steam following World War II, when the film noir genre exploded and cynical tough guys would routinely be forced to choose between the good girl and the scheming tramp. If he chose the former, he would often find love and redemption. Choosing the latter, however, usually resulted in either death or a lengthy stretch in prison.

The film noir genre waned in popularity as the 1960s came around, but the concept of the femme fatale is still alive and well today. While this list focuses on characters appearing in the 1940s and 1950s, here are a few more modern examples:

Now that you know a little more about what makes film noir femme fatales tick, let’s take a look at 10 notable examples. Please note that these descriptions are loaded with SPOILERS, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) from The Maltese Falcon (1941) – With somewhere around 50 aliases, this film noir femme fatale was one twisted cookie. First she kills the partner of detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) by shooting the poor chump at point-blank range, then she hires Spade for a job and offers to pay him in more than just cash (hint, hint). The ever-cynical Spade sees through her act from the beginning, but he still can’t help but be drawn to her. As he famously notes, “The schoolgirl manner, you know, blushing, stammering, and all that…if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” As it turns out, she’s working for a ruthless treasure hunter named the Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet), and their goal is to obtain a legendary jewel-encrusted statue known as the Maltese Falcon. They fail, of course, because they’re going up against Bogie. In a desperate attempt to save herself from a murder rap, O’Shaughnessy professes her love for Spade and once again throws herself at him. But our world-weary hero is having none of it, remarking to her, “Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over.”

Cora Smith (Lana Turner) from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – It’s hard for a woman to make a turban look good, but seductive Cora Smith does so admirably as drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) first gets a look at her. He’s instantly smitten, of course, and he proposes that the bored waitress run away with him for a life of adventure. But first they must get rid of her hubby, a good-natured goof played by Cecil Kellaway. The first attempt fails, but the unwanted spouse bites the dust on the second try. As the murderous couple heads home, Cora promises him “kisses, kisses with dreams in them. Kisses that come from life, not death.” Moments later, the distracted Frank accidentally runs off the road, and Cora is killed in the ensuing crash. Ironically, Frank is sent to death row for her murder, not that of the husband. But even as he prepares to meet his maker, the love-struck dope is still fantasizing about an eternity with the platinum-blonde temptress (even if it‘s in Hell). Lana Turner’s first film role.

Veda Pierce Forrester (Ann Blyth) from Mildred Pierce (1945) – A spoiled little troublemaker, Veda is the classic case of someone who has everything but doesn’t appreciate it. While her mother (Joan Crawford) bakes pies and cakes to keep her daughter in clothes and piano lessons, Veda views her with nothing but contempt. As she remarks during one famous argument, “You’ll never be anything but a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing.” But Veda is just getting warmed up. She slaps the hell out of dear ‘ol mom, fakes being pregnant and uses the lie to extort money, dances at a seedy nightclub, and even convinces her mother to marry the man Veda is having sex with. Oh, and she’s also a murderess, having gunned down her step-father/lover after being called a “rotten little tramp.”

Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) from Out of the Past (1947) – After she steals $40,000 from crime figure and former lover Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and heads to Mexico, the ice-in-her-veins Kathie Moffat is tracked down by former private investigator Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum). Once he spots her, Jeff is instantly smitten, remarking, “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that forty grand.” The duo are soon making love on a moonlit Mexican beach, and Jeff’s employer later gets gunned down by Kathie, who then remarks sensually, “Don’t you see, you’ve only me to make deals with now.” In one of the classic lines of film noir, Jeff replies, “Build my gallows high, baby.” But the pressure of living on the run gets to Jeff, especially when he realizes that Kathie is “like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.” He makes a deal with the cops and leads her towards a police roadblock, but Kathie realizes his betrayal and calls him a “dirty, double-crossing rat” before shooting him dead. Moments later, this femme fatale crashes into the roadblock and perishes in a hail of gunfire.

Ellen Berent Harland (Gene Tierney) from Leave Her to Heaven (1945) – There’s nothing scarier than a woman obsessed, and the character of Ellen Berent Harland certainly falls into that category. She’s absolutely nutty over her novelist husband (Cornel Wilde), confessing to him that “I can’t bear to share you with anybody.” True to her word, she throws herself down a flight of stairs in order to kill the child she’s carrying, and she watches calmly from a rowboat as her paraplegic brother-in-law drowns in a lake. To top herself, she takes a mouthful of cyanide and commits suicide, attempting to frame her half-sister in the process. Now that’s what I call dedicated.

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Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) from The Big Heat (1953) – When the wife of honest cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is killed with a car bomb, he goes off the rails on a one-man quest for revenge. He’s eventually joined by Debby Marsh, the smart-mouthed girlfriend of brutal hood Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). At first, Debby simply wants to hump Bannion’s brains out, but she changes her mind when the jealous Stone throws a pot of scalding coffee in her face (disfiguring her in the process). Wanting revenge of her own, she provides a sort of moral support for Bannion before gunning down a cop’s widow who’s on the take (thereby setting in motion a chain of events that will bring down the city‘s top crime figure and corrupt officials). She gets back at Stone by throwing hot coffee in his face, but the wounded gangster manages to plug her in the back twice. As she lies dying, Bannion describes his wife to her, something Debby had inquired about on multiple occasions. “You and Katie would have gotten along fine.”

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) from Double Indemnity (1944) – Tired of her marriage, blonde temptress Phyllis Dietrichson seduces insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into murdering her husband so they can split the money from his double indemnity life insurance policy. The act is planned carefully, and Phyllis betrays no emotion as her husband’s neck is broken while riding next to her in their car. But Neff is soon approached by Lola (Jean Heather), the step-daughter of Phyllis who mentions that her own mother died mysteriously while Phyllis was serving as her nurse. To make matters worse, Neff also learns that Phyllis is carrying on a relationship with Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr), who happens to be the boyfriend of Lola. Realizing that’s he’s been manipulated by someone who cares only about herself, he heads to her house to kill her. But Phyllis is expecting a double-cross, and she wounds Neff in the shoulder. He moves towards her, telling her to shoot again. But she can’t, confessing that she never loved him “until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot.” Neff isn’t buying it, and with a final “Goodbye, baby,” he fires two shots into her side.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) from Sunset Boulevard (1950) – One of the nuttier character ever committed to celluloid, Norma Desmond is an aging silent film star who longs for a return to greatness. After a chance encounter, she hires down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) to move in and polish the dreadful screenplay intended to put her back on top. But as Norma lavishes him with parties and gifts, Joe feels increasingly trapped behind the walls of her decaying mansion. Finally, even her attempts at suicide can no longer keep him around, and Joe packs his bags to leave. Norma cries out, “I can’t face life without you, and you know I’m not afraid to die.” With that, she shoots Joe and leaves him floating face-down in the swimming pool (from where he narrates the bulk of the story as a flashback). Retreating into a delusional fantasy world where Cecil B. De Mille is directing her comeback, Norma leaves her home surrounded by cops and reporters, pausing long enough to look directly into the camera and grandly exclaim, “All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) from The Big Sleep (1946) – While detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) spends much of the film flirting and trading double entendres with Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), it’s her sister Carmen who really steals the show as a film noir femme fatale. When she’s not biting her thumb seductively or getting dope up, she’s coming onto the unmoved Marlowe. She’s apparently into porno, as well, since more than one person is involved in a blackmail scheme centering around compromising photos. After she’s found looking disoriented, wearing a Chinese dress, and sitting next to the body of a dead man, Carmen is rescued by Marlowe and later receives the treatment that she needs. Most femme fatales don’t make it through the film, but this seductive trollop proves the exception to the rule.

Gilda Mundson Farrell (Rita Hayworth) from Gilda (1946) – While the film’s ending was ruined by the wrong-headed Hays Code, Gilda still manages to feature one of the most memorable film noir film fatales to ever toss her hair seductively. I’m talking about silver screen hottie Rita Hayworth, and her introduction remains one of the most famous in cinematic history. She plays the new wife of a South American casino owner (George Macready). He asks his recently-hired casino manager, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), to keep an eye on her, having no idea that Gilda and Johnny were once man and wife. This sets off a tense rivalry for her affections, and Johnny becomes increasingly jealous and abusive. Of course, it doesn’t help when Gilda utters lines such as “Didn’t you hear about me, Gabe? If I’d been a ranch, they would’ve named me the Bar Nothing.” When her husband dies mysteriously, Gilda and Johnny marry for a second time, and their relationship is salvaged peacefully in order to appease the censors.

That concludes our look at ten of the best film noir femme fatales. Be sure to join Netflix if you haven’t already, as they have all the films listed above. We do get a commission if you sign up, but it adds nothing to your price.

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