Film Noir and the Femme Fatale

July 16, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

High Heels on Wet Pavement

Los Ange­les 1948

Femme fatale—is defined as “an irre­sistibly attrac­tive woman, espe­cially one who leads men into dan­ger or dis­as­ter”. To me the most engag­ing sem­blance of a “femme fatale” is the stun­ning image of Lana Turner, as the cam­era pans from her ankles upward in that breath­tak­ing shot from The Post­man Always Rings Twice 1946.


Lana Turner "The Postman Always Rings Twice"

Lana Turner

The most con­sis­tent aspect of film noir, apart from its visual style, is its pro­tag­o­nists. If a usable def­i­n­i­tion of the noir pro­tag­o­nist is to be for­mu­lated, it must encom­pass its most intrin­sic char­ac­ter motif—alienation. The under­cur­rent that flows through most high noir films is the fail­ure on the part of the male leads to rec­og­nize the dis­hon­esty inher­ent in many of noir’s prin­ci­pal women. This tragic flaw destroys the cen­tral male char­ac­ters in films as diverse as Scar­let Street 1945, The Locket 1947, and Angle Face 1953. It’s embod­ied in the John Dall char­ac­ter in Gun Crazy 1949, whose youth­ful fas­ci­na­tion with fire arms even­tu­ally leads him into a rela­tion­ship with a woman who not only shares his gun crazi­ness but who also intro­duces him to the par­al­lel worlds of eroti­cism and vio­lence. A more extreme exam­ple of this con­fu­sion is exem­pli­fied with Dana Andrews in Laura 1944, and Edward G. Robin­son in Women in the Win­dow 1944. Robin­son and Andrews are fas­ci­nated ini­tially not by the flesh and blood women, but merely by paintings—images of them.

The overtly Freudian aspects of such rela­tion­ships func­tion as a foun­da­tion on which to con­struct a sequence of nar­ra­tive events that typ­ify the noir vision. Many of these male “vic­tims” are not trapped exclu­sively by sex­ual obses­sions. Fred Mac­Mur­ray in Dou­ble Indem­nity 1944, ini­tially con­sid­ers whether he is capa­ble of com­mit­ting mur­der for a woman. Then he thinks about effect­ing the per­fect crime (his entan­gle­ment with Phyl­lis’ phony insur­ance claim), “It’s beat­ing the house”, he thinks “sort of like the croupier that bets on the turn of the roulette wheel, when he knows the num­bers to play”.


Edgar Ulmer’s Poverty Row cult-classic, Detour, 1945, is fraught with out­ra­geous coin­ci­dences that in most accounts would be far too absurd to con­front, but in Ulmer’s skilled hands are accepted as legit­i­mate premises. Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, a dis­grun­tled piano player in a New York night club. When his fiancée walks out on him for star­dom in Hol­ly­wood, he decides to fel­low her, and sets out to hitch hike west to join her. He gets picked up by an odd­ball char­ac­ter played by Edmond Mac­Don­ald who is car­ry­ing a large sum of money and hap­pens to be dri­ving all the way to Cal­i­for­nia. Mac­Don­ald relates a story to Robert’s about a female hitch hiker he picked up ear­lier. In a blun­der­ing attempt to rav­ish her, she viciously attacked him, her fin­ger nail marks clearly dis­cernible on his face. As Roberts takes a turn dri­ving, the Mac­Don­ald char­ac­ter mys­te­ri­ously dies. Roberts think­ing that the police will not believe his inno­cence in MacDonald’s bizarre death, hides the body and dri­ves on alone. The next day Roberts picks up Vera, played with absolute aplomb by the very under­rated Ann Sav­age.

Ulti­mate Femme Fatale

Jane Greer "Out of the Past"

Jane Greer

Out of the Past, 1947, while not a per­fect exam­ple of the best of the noir cycle, con­tains many of the ele­ments of the genre. It is best remem­bered as the film that intro­duced the erotic and lethal Jane Greer. The beau­ti­ful dark-haired Jane Greer came to Hol­ly­wood in 1945, a B player, she appeared in such obscure nota­bles as Dick Tracy 1945, and The Falcon’s Alibi 1946. Out of the Past was one of only three noir films in which she appeared, the oth­ers being, They Won’t Believe Me 1947, and again oppo­site Robert Mitchum in the Big Steal 1949. Greer appeared in nine addi­tional films through 1957. She took a brief hia­tus until the mid-1960s, and has appeared off and on since.

Jane Greer was the “real deal”, unlike many of the friv­o­lous noir semi-goddesses (Lau­ren Becall, Martha Vick­ers, Jane Rus­sell, or Laraine Day), her sex­i­ness was derived from sheer cun­ning. She did not rely on the par­o­dis­tic flir­ta­tions so com­mon to the coun­ter­feits of the genre—while enter­tain­ing actresses, they lacked the appeal and dark­ness of the authen­tic femme fatale. A fine actress, I’ve always won­dered why Greer did not become an icon of the genre in the mold of Glo­ria Gra­hame or Liz­a­beth Scott. She pos­sessed the per­fect on-screen per­sona of a post-war des­o­la­tion angle. When Robert Mitchum firsts encoun­ters her in the Mex­i­can café, in an early scene from Out of the Past, she describes the com­plete night spot where he might feel more at home, and as she turns to walk away she tells him, “I some­times go there”. At that moment we sense the hero’s ulti­mate calamity. Later we wit­ness her bru­tally kill two men, and as Mitchum watches in ter­ror, we can­not be con­fi­dent that in the end he will not wind with her, such is the power of her sexuality.

Later Femme Fatales

Robert Siodmak’s,
The Killer’s 1946 and Criss Cross 1949 are fine exam­ples of Universal’s con­tri­bu­tion to the noir cycle. In both films it’s the deadly female who top­ples the hero. Another Siod­mak offer­ing is the much down­played, The File on Thelma Jor­don 1950. Bar­bara Stan­wyck por­trays a dif­fer­ent type of femme fatale than her Phyl­lis Diet­rich­son char­ac­ter in Dou­ble Indem­nity, whom Thelma resem­bles in method and moti­va­tion. This time she ensnares Wen­dell Cory, play­ing assis­tant dis­trict attor­ney Cleve Mar­shall. Mar­shall is much more inno­cent that Fred MacMurray’s Wal­ter Neff, who admits try­ing to beat the house, well before he meets Phyl­lis. From the begin­ning Thelma loves her vic­tim, whereas Phyl­lis was not smit­ten until the very end in Dou­ble Indem­nity. Where Phyl­lis and Wal­ter are chill­ingly log­i­cal in their scheme, Thelma and Cleve are guilt-ridden, and clum­sily roman­tic. In the end Cleve is not com­pletely ostra­cized, or dead as was his coun­ter­part Wal­ter Neff. He is how­ever, scarred immeasurably—an emo­tional Sisy­phus, he must now for­ever bear the weight of his misdeeds.

What Hap­pened

Gene Tierney "Laura"

Gene Tier­ney

The arche­typal model of film noir had run its course by the mid-1950s. The req­ui­site entry of that period, at least among most film crit­ics of the day, was Robert Aldrich’s take on Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly 1955, by then though Spillane had moved from the hard-boiled pulp hero of the post-war years to the new antag­o­nists of cold-war Amer­ica, the new great fear of the moment—the “Com­mies”. Kiss Me Deadly was a greater influ­ence on the French “New Wave” move­ment, than a fur­ther def­i­n­i­tion of film noir.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, strong, tough, inde­pen­dent women were being replaced by coad­ju­tors and con­sorts. “Lead­ing Ladies” who, though por­trayed as capa­ble and self-reliant had, how­ever, moved well into the back­ground. A prime exam­ple is Doris Day in Pil­low Talk 1959. And so to the male pro­tag­o­nists, who were now being por­trayed as gal­lant Don Juan’s or atten­tive Casanova’s, a fash­ion that was to reach it zenith with the James Bond films.

To me, the “clas­sic noir period”, spanned the inter­val just after World War II, until the early 1950s. The cen­tral fig­ures por­trayed in these films, were too often caught in their dou­ble binds, filled with exis­ten­tial bit­ter­ness. They were drown­ing out­side of the social main­stream. They came to rep­re­sent America’s styl­ized vision of itself, a cul­tural reflec­tion of the men­tal dys­func­tion of a nation in uncer­tain tran­si­tion. And often these char­ac­ters were women, the femme fatales of a film style dis­tinctly orig­i­nal, and wholly American.

by Michael Mills

¹Alain Sil­ver and Eliz­a­beth Ward, “Film Noir: An Ency­clo­pe­dic Ref­er­ence to the Amer­i­can Style”

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .


One Response to “Film Noir and the Femme Fatale”
  1. Ray Ottulich says:

    Very nice write up, love Film Noir, love Femme Fatales, we don’t get quite enough of the tra­di­tional slightly vul­ner­a­ble Femme Fatale these days too often they are now superwomen.

    When I can’t get enough of a Noir/Femme Fatale fix I cre­ate my own, enjoy: