Femme Fatales in Film Noir

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In 1944′s Double Indemnity, the first glimpse we get of Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Phyllis Dietrichson, is of the femme fatale dressed in nothing but a towel, having just returned from a sunbath. She’s looking down on Fred MacMurray from atop a landing.

On her next entrance, the camera takes a close-up of her legs descending those same stairs. When the camera pulls up, she’s in the midst of buttoning up her blouse, suggesting what we just missed seeing.

It’s as good a point to start with as any for examining the role of the femme fatale in noir cinema. Phyllis’s sexuality is not placed in the position of power, it is power — feminized. Or at least power as envisioned by the likes of Raymond Chandler.

By way of explanation, we should look at the prevailing atmosphere when film noir was at its peak. American women entered the workforce during the Second World War.

Women’s role in the “film noir” society

It can be argued that this was more empowering than the right to vote, for here was the challenging of the notion that women not only had the power to influence elections, they could also, should they decide to of their own accord, be breadwinners for that stronghold of American society — the family.

It can be further argued that the successful rising to this challenge may have appeared as a threat to the American male consciousness.

Could the casting of women in the role of femme fatale, using the one thing the American male could not control — his lust for her — to lead him to ruin, be a response to this?

When Stanwick’s character is complimented on her anklet, she uncrosses her legs and self-consciously curls one angle around the other. And yet, after she’s made up her mind as to her devious plan to off her husband, she sits down again and unabashedly recrosses her legs, apparently aware of the power of this one move.

Compare this introduction to our introduction to Rita Heyworth in Gilda, in which our first glimpse of the woman is marked with a licentious sweep of the hair, and a devilish smile to match.

Beware, says the noir genre, the beauty you see here could be your downfall. Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe seems to exact a temporary revenge against this notion when he thwarts the advances of Carmen, the sultry vixen who is to be responsible for much of the ensuing drama in The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep is notable for providing a female character that defies noir conventions. Or does it? Lauren Bacall’s Vivian, like Phyllis Dietrichson, is confident. However, Bacall’s is confidence of a different sort.

She’s beautiful, and by noir’s standard she is to be feared for this. But her response to Bogart is to engage in a true dance of anger with him during their first encounter. Unlike Phyllis Dietrichson, she shows no intent to seduce, at least not yet. In other words, she’s a whole different kind of danger.

In the end, Vivian is proven to be a victim, allowing for a sort of reversal of the femme fatale archetype. Nevertheless, the nature of Bacall’s character is, at the very least, enigmatic throughout the film. The story winds up using the familiar femme fatale trope against our expectations. That wouldn’t have happened had those expectations not been in place to begin with.

Femme Fatales and the neo-noir

Lauren Bacall role can not be seen as the tangential inspiration for Rachel in Blade Runner, the movie that reimagined film noir and created the retrofuture genre. Rachel is strong and sensual, she is a victim as well, she shares (or more properly continues) many of Vivian’s traits. From the hairstyle to the smoking habit, to the dualism with which she approaches Deckard.

It’s tempting to view the femme fatale as just another incarnation of the mythical siren. Phyllis leads Walter Neff to his downfall (to the end, Neff defends himself as powerless to her). Gilda does not undo Johnny Farrell altogether, but certainly comes close. Throughout the genre is an inherent dread of female beauty as a conduit toward personal ruin.

It says much about the postwar attitude, when the postwar communist scare took shape as a fear for the dissolution of the family unit, and when the mother was looked upon as the symbolic unifying member. The relinquishment of this much power to them was indeed something to be feared.

However, to characterize the femme fatale as a siren is misleading. She’s much more than that. She is there to exploit the male struggle to resist her. As we see time and time again, this fate can be worse than death by siren.

At the very best, the men get away, but never unscathed. At the worst, the femme fatale earns her moniker several times over.