French for fatal or deadly woman, the femme fatale is a staple of film noir and has also appeared throughout centuries of myth, art, and literature. Used in different incarnations from the Middle Ages to Victorian England, the femme fatale has appeared as a vampire, witch, enchantress, or demon. She has appeared in the bible (Salome), in Greek mythology (Circe and Medea), classical drama (Clytemnestra), and history (Cleopatra). (To learn more about these various incarnations, Bram Dijsktra’s Idols of Perversity comes with the highest possible recommendation.)
In addition to her historical, literary basis, the femme fatale is likely a further development from the ‘20s flapper and/or vamp, cinema’s first independent woman. Clara Bow and Louise Brooks are solid examples of this type, a sexually promiscuous, independent woman. These characters (as well as the real life Bow and Brooks) often had more tragic outcomes than their later, femme fatale counterparts. They had a certain wantonness, an innocent joie de vivre that was taken advantage of by men. Though the femme fatale was often trapped in unwanted relationships, she is never a figure of innocence.
So far in my film noir series, I’ve covered a number of films that focus on the femme fatale. Even an early film noir like I Wake Up Screaming (1941) has a beautiful, ambitious character who uses her sexually to get ahead in life. A number of men are obsessed with her and her rejection of them – she chooses her career over any of the available relationship – leads to her death. Though she is killed fairly early in the film, her presence -- and portrait -- haunt the proceedings.
Vain and ambitious, the femme fatale uses her beauty and sexuality as a lure to trap men in dangerous, often fatal scenarios, and relies on deception more than outright violence to achieve her aims. Insane and murderous at worst, morally ambiguous and sexually tempting at best, the femme fatale is contrasted with the good girl, an innocent hoping to marry the hero, but who is quite out of place in the noir world. The good girl represents an ideal that can never be attained, a dream that is little more than a distant hope in film noir’s unending nightmare reality. Unlike the good girl, the femme fatale specifically rails against the conventional family structure: marriage, child-bearing, housework. She is glamorous and free-spirited, and above all prefers sex and independence to a life of dull security and domesticity.
The truly subversive element of film noir is not that the femme fatale exists and plays such a major role, but that the good girl nearly always fails in her quest to tie the hero does -- and the hero himself almost uniformly rejects marriage. There is a certain type of femme fatale that is generally trapped in an unwanted relationship with an older husband or powerful, unlawful man that she cannot escape from. She strives for financial and sexual independence and would rather face death than relinquish her individual identity and live out the rest of her life as a status symbol, a pretty object.
Throughout film noir, women trying to escape from their husbands include Rita Hayworth in Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Ava Gardner in The Killers. In many of the earlier films noir, marriage is a paralyzing influence – the husbands are often aged, ill, or paralyzed due to a varied set of circumstances. If these women are married, they generally have large, castle-like, cavernous homes that are really ornate prisons -- Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and The Lady from Shanghai are all examples of this. In Murder, My Sweet, Claire Trevor plays a cold-blooded murderer, a woman who will kill, imprison, or blackmail anyone trying to remove her from her recently elevated station in life. She falls under the type married to an older, infirm man with a massive, tomb-like home and an older daughter from a first marriage who receives the lion’s share of his affection. Trevor’s character is of course not faithful to her husband and will seduce anyone worth manipulating. Barbara Stanwyck’s memorable Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity is of the same time and ranks as one of film noir’s most famous protagonists.
In Ace in the Hole, Jan Sterling plays the greedy, ambitious wife of a loving man buried in a cave-in. Though ready to immediately flee, she is persuaded to take advantage of the situation, making quite a profit, but is driven into a homicidal rage when she tries to seduce a reporter, her business partner, and he refuses and humiliates her. Ida Lupino, so frequently a femme fatale in her early career, is yet another woman with a clueless, older husband in They Drive By Night. She murders him to get the man she wants and, when he refuses her, tries to have him imprisoned as an accomplice.
Another type is the cold-blooded, financially-motivated murderesses, famous examples of which include Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon and Jane Greer from Out of the Past. Though these women feel emotion – at least jealousy and possessiveness – they are incapable of real love and often wind up dead or imprisoned. Another interesting version of this type is Ann Savage in Detour. Her character is hardboiled, tough talking, sexual but completely unglamorous, and quick to blackmail a complete stranger. Her attitude and recklessness eventually get her killed, when she accidentally pushes someone too far.
A third type of note is the mentally diseased femmes fatale, which includes Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, a horrible woman who kills in order to keep anyone from getting between herself and her husband. After coldly abandoning a fiancé (a young Vincent Price!), she kills her husband’s disabled younger brother by letting him drown, throws herself down the stairs to induce an abortion who she learns she is pregnant, and eventually commits suicide. With her final act, she frames her sister, who has struck up an innocent, warm friendship with her husband.
Sunset Boulevard is a another unique spin on this theme. While Norma Desmond is certainly a femme fatale, she is a more aggressive variety and holds the financial reigns, coercing a younger writer to become her paramour. The implication is that this independence has driven her mad, resulting in suicide attempts, delusions visions of grandeur, and murder. Carmen Sternwood from The Big Sleep is another – her actions, which include nymphomania, drug abuse, pornography, and murder – are depicted as the result of a real mental illness. While the latter is implied by the actions of many femmes fatale, it is not often openly addressed in the individual films.
Part of what makes the femme fatale so fascinating more than 70 years after the fact is that she represents a complex sort of duality. One on hand, scholars have seen these characters as early examples of liberated, independent women who strive for sexual and financial independence, who reject marriage simply because it hampers their autonomy. On the other hand, these characters exhibit cruel or evil traits; they are murderesses, poisoning, shooting, or drowning those who get in their way. Or, somehow worse, they convince unassuming men to commit murders for them and use their overripe sexuality as weapons. This dark fantasy is an aspect of fears due to changing sexual roles in WWII and post-war America.
Part of the problem is that WWII necessitated that women leave the traditional role of stay-at-home wife and mother and join the work force, since the majority of the country’s men were at work. The end of the war led to a strange rift; women were forced back into the home, but proved that they too could work, vote, play sports, and do everything that their husbands could (short of becoming soldiers – though some female nurses, journalists, and photographers insisted on traveling to the front lines). The perpetually threatened state of masculinity and heteronormative life that plagued the early ‘40s haunts both decades of noir cinema.
There are, of course, hundreds of these characters and dozens of well-known actresses who regularly took these roles, including Joan Crawford, Veronica Lake, Lizabeth Scott, and Gloria Grahame. In the next few weeks, I’ll be examining a number of female-centric entries in the film noir series: The Letter (1940) and Deception (1946) with Bette Davis, Mildred Pierce (1945) with Joan Crawford, Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945) with Gene Tierney, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) with Barbara Stanwyck, Gilda (1946) with Rita Hayworth, the films of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, and many more. Watch along to learn more about the femme fatale, or check out Ann Kaplan’s Women in Film Noir.