|Of the three types of noir women, the femme fatale represents the most direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family. She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness
to gain her independence. As Janey Place points out, "She is not often won over and pacified by love for the hero, as is the strong heroine of the forties who is significantly less sexual than the film noir woman." She remains fiercely independent even when faced with her own destruction. And in spite of her inevitable death, she leaves behind the image of a strong, exciting, and unrepentant woman who defies the control of men and rejects the institution of the family.
|"He keeps me on a leash so tight I can't breathe." Double Indemnity (1944)
The classic femme fatale resorts to murder to free herself from an unbearable relationship with a man who would try to possess and control her, as if she were a piece of property or a pet. According to Sylvia Harvey, the women of film noir are "[p]resented as prizes, desirable objects" for the men of these films, and men's treatment of women as mere possessions is a recurring theme in film noir. In a telling scene from an early noir thriller, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), three men sit in a bar lamenting their unsuccessful attempts to seduce the femme fatale, clearly resenting her inexplicable refusal to be possessed. When one man complains that "Women are all alike," another responds simply, "Well, you've got to have them around — they're standard equipment."
In Out of the Past (1947), Kathie Moffett shoots her way out of a confining relationship with gambler Whit Sterling, but Whit hires detective Jeff Markham to retrieve her. When Jeff asks Whit for some assurance that he will not harm Kathie if he gets her back, Whit answers by comparing her to a racehorse that he once owned. Whit obviously thinks of Kathie as his prize possession. Similarly, Rip Murdoch (Humphrey Bogart) in Dead Reckoning (1947) wishes aloud that women could be reduced to pocket size, to be put away when not desired and returned to normal size when needed.
This attitude is not lost on the women themselves. They feel trapped by husbands or lovers who treat them as "standard equipment" and by an institution — marriage — that makes such treatment possible. Marriage for the femme fatale is associated with unhappiness, boredom, and the absence of romantic love and sexual desire. In Double Indemnity (1944), Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) feels like a caged animal in her husband's home and is driven to murder him largely because he shows no affection for her, only indifference: "I feel as if he was watching me. Not that he cares, not anymore. But he keeps me on a leash so tight I can't breathe." As Sylvia Harvey suggests, film noir attributes the femme fatale's violent behavior at least partially to women's lack of status and fulfillment in conventional marriage:
Other imagery in these films suggests that a routinised boredom and a sense of stifling entrapment are characteristic of marriage. . . . The family home in Double Indemnity is the place where three people who hate each other spend endlessly boring evenings together. The husband does not merely not notice his wife, he ignores her sexually . . . .
In some films, the husband's lack of interest in his wife seems almost sadistic. The elderly husband of young and beautiful Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) encourages his wife to spend time with Frank Chambers (John Garfield), as if he enjoys tempting Frank and frustrating Cora. Rita Hayworth receives similar treatment in both Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). In the latter film, Hayworth is married to a much older man who compensates for his physical paralysis and spiritual ugliness by arranging and then frustrating her relationship with Michael (Orson Welles). Even his insistence on calling her "Lover" has ironic and sadistic overtones, considering her obvious aversion to him.
The image of disabled, paralysed, or elderly men married to much younger women is a further indication that marriage and family life restrict sexual desire and romantic love. Sylvia Harvey sees this recurring image as a critique of traditional family relationships, which appear dull and lifeless, particularly from the point of view of the young, sexually exciting femme fatale:
It is perhaps most clear in this movie [Double Indemnity] that the expression of sexuality and the institution of marriage are at odds with one another, and that both pleasure and death lie outside the safe circle of family relations.
Moreover, there is clearly an impetus in film noir to transgress the boundaries of this circle; for the presence of husbands on crutches or in wheelchairs (Double Indemnity, Lady from Shanghai) suggests that impotence is somehow a normal component of the married state.
Another sign of the sterility of film noir marriages is the absence of children produced by these marriages. Childless couples are far more common in film noir than the traditional father-mother-children nuclear family. The husband of the femme fatale may have a full-grown child from a previous marriage (Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet), but the child's age implies that the father's sexual activity is long past and that his current marriage is empty of sexual desire.
The family home only intensifies this atmosphere of coldness and entrapment for the married femme fatale. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis paces the living room as she describes the routine of her life to Walter, crossing and recrossing bars of shadow cast by a window blind — like a prisoner in her own home. When Walter first enters the house, he notices a pair of framed photographs of the father and his daughter — no pictures of Phyllis are displayed, as if she has been frozen out of the family unit. The family home in Murder, My Sweet (1944) is a vast, marble-floored mansion, where echoes drown out people's voices and statues outnumber human beings. Detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) remarks sarcastically that the house is somewhat smaller than Buckingham Palace, and he later describes it as a "mausoleum" and a "fun house."
The lighting and mise-en-scène of the family home contribute further to its image as a trap or "mausoleum," particularly for the femme fatale. Nina Leibman writes that the living space inhabited by the married femme fatale and her husband creates an atmosphere of alienation between the characters:
In Double Indemnity and The Lady from Shanghai, the family home is a huge gloomy mansion. Stairways, room dividers, and davenports split the rooms and the characters. The lack of light gives a haunted feeling to these homes, which are invariably filled with too many knick-knacks, oversized portraits, and fishbowls.
These visual cues contradict the myth of the family home as the center of safety, fulfillment, and love. The benefits normally associated with marriage and the family - especially in conventional Hollywood films — are conspicuously absent from the film noir family.
In stark contrast to the visual and narrative representation of the family home is that of the femme fatale herself. She exudes a unique sexuality, which she uses to define herself and manipulate men in order to gain independence from an oppressive family life or relationship. Her body, her clothing, her words, her actions, and her ability to hold the camera's gaze create
a highly charged sexual image that defies attempts by the men in her life and by the film itself to control her or return her to her "proper sphere" as a woman. Although she often is destroyed in the final reel, she lingers in the audience's imagination as a sexually exciting, living character who never accepted the role that society had chosen for her. Even in the few films in which she is actually converted to a more traditional role, the violence and power of her rebellion against that role earlier in the film overcomes the contrived ending, so that the dominant image of the femme fatale is one of defiance against the traditional family and woman's place in society.
|The inevitable (and ineffectual) destruction of the femme fatale. Double Indemnity (1944)
Noir films create this image of the strong, unrepressed woman, then attempt to contain it by destroying the femme fatale or converting her to traditional womanhood. But the femme fatale cannot be made to serve the status quo so easily — even if that is the film's intention. Both Sylvia Harvey and Janey Place suggest that the femme fatale effectively undermines the supremacy of the traditional family and its values in spite of her final punishment or conversion. Harvey argues that the femme fatale's transgressions against the traditional family constitute a far more enduring image than her final punishment:
Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained. Narrative resolutions cannot recuperate their subversive significance.
Place agrees, asserting that the audience remembers the nontraditional female as free and powerful, not punished and neutralized:
It is not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all exciting sexuality. . . . [T]he final "lesson" of the myth often fades into the background and we retain the image of the erotic, strong, unrepressed (if destructive) woman. The style of these films thus overwhelms their conventional narrative content, or interacts with it to produce a remarkably potent image of woman.
Place attributes the femme fatale's unique power to her willingness and ability to express herself in sexual terms. The femme fatale threatens the status quo and the hero precisely because she controls her own sexuality outside of marriage. She uses sex for pleasure and as a weapon or a tool to control men, not merely in the culturally acceptable capacity of procreation within marriage. Her sexual emancipation commands the gaze of the hero, the audience, and the camera in a way that cannot be erased by her final punishment. Place writes that "the visual style gives her such freedom of movement and dominance that it is her strength and sensual visual texture that is inevitably printed in our memory, not her ultimate destruction."
Noir films immediately convey the intense sexual presence of the femme fatale by introducing her as a fully established object of the hero's obsession. Since the camera often represents the hero's subjective memory — revealed via flashback — it projects his privileged knowledge about her dangerous sexuality even before he actually acquires that knowledge. Thus, according to Janey Place, the femme fatale's visual and sexual dominance — and the threat that she poses to the hero — are felt from her very first scene:
The femme fatale is characterised by her long lovely legs: our first view of the elusive Velma in Murder My Sweet (Farewell My Lovely) and of Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice is a significant, appreciative shot of their bare legs,
a directed glance (so directed in the latter film that the shot begins on her calves, cuts to a shot of her whole body, cuts back to the man looking, then finally back to Lana Turner's turban-wrapped, angelic face) from the viewpoint of the male character who is to be seduced.
|Visually dominant and unrepentent to the end. The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Her ability to hold both the hero and the audience spellbound continues throughout the film to the point of her death and beyond. In The Lady from Shanghai, director Orson Welles uses the camera to roam over the tanned, swimsuit-clad body of his real-life wife, Rita Hayworth, engaging the audience in the hero's growing obsession. Later in the film, when Elsa (Hayworth) and Michael (Welles) confront each other in an amusement park hall of mirrors, the gun-wielding femme fatale fills the screen via multiple reflected images — at once supremely powerful, cold, and vulnerable.
Even after her death, the strong female character has the power to intrude visually on the narrative, often continuing to "live" through her portrait. In Laura (1944), certainly the most famous illustration of this point, a striking portrait of the dead woman commands the center of every scene in her apartment. The detective assigned to solve her murder actually falls in love with her portrait without ever having seen her alive. Thus, Laura actually re-asserts her independence and power from beyond the grave.
|The hero and camera are visually obsessed with the femme fatale. Laura (1944)
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) features a less celebrated but more extreme example of the femme fatale whose portrait commands the gaze of the camera and the other characters even after her murder. In many key scenes, Vicki's photograph appears at the center of the camera's field of vision. She seems to be watching each character as the investigation of her murder places that character in danger. In the final scene of the film, the camera reveals the full visual power of the murdered femme fatale — the detective's entire apartment is filled with her photographs in a shrine to his obsession.
Attempts to neutralize the power of the femme fatale by destroying her at the end are usually unsuccessful, because her power extends beyond death. But film noir does not always deal with women's transgressions against the family in this way. A handful of noir films add conventional happy endings, in which a converted femme fatale or a "good" woman marries the hero and restores the status quo. In The Lady in the Lake (1947), the supposed femme fatale — an independent, gold-digging career woman during most of the film — suddenly abandons her dream of money and a high-ranking position to become the wife of seedy private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery), who has spent the entire film demonstrating his misogyny at her expense. In Dark Passage (1947), Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) escapes from prison to clear his name of a murder charge, but decides in the end to flee the country for a romantic rendezvous with Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall). Yet, such resolutions
seem tacked-on and contrived, and they cannot compensate for the disturbing images created earlier in these films. Rather than reinforcing the status quo, these last-minute reversals merely emphasize the more subversive elements of film noir's visual style, characterization, and narration.
|The lingering image of the exciting femme fatale. Out of the Past (1947)
In the majority of noir films, however, the femme fatale remains committed to her independence, seldom allowing herself to be converted by the hero or captured by the police. She refuses to be defined by the male hero or submit her sexuality to the male-dominated institution of the family; instead, she defines herself and resists all efforts by the hero to "put her in her place." As Kathie Moffett explains to Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past, "I never told you I was anything but what I am — you just wanted to imagine I was."
It is not surprising that Kathie — alive, independent, and defiant — exerts a much more powerful hold on our imagination and our memory than her ultimate destruction. Even when we acknowledge that the femme fatale is killed at the end of the film, we are more moved by how she is killed. Kathie controls even her death. She chooses to die rather than be captured. Her death is essentially a murder/suicide, because she shoots Jeff while he is driving the car and while she is caught in a police crossfire. Thus, unlike the independent women of non-noir films, the femme fatale remains true to her nature, refusing to be converted or to accept capture, even when the alternative is death.