On the Femme Fatale: Where did She Come from & Where is She Going?
It is incredibly amazing how something as simple as a basic psychological archetype in a short piece of art (a thirteen minute short film) can implant the seed of an idea in one’s head that takes root and becomes a two-thousand word essay. More on this point can be read at the end of this essay.
Film noir and its elements are enjoying a renaissance in the twenty-first century, thanks in no small part to the character archetype that is the femme fatale. We know her as pure, lethal, beauty and brains: the predator to the hapless, foolish men in classic noir, and the foil to the ingénue’s girl next door naivete in many film and stage productions.
She has been deconstructed ad nauseam by film critics as nothing more than post-WWII male fears over the growing power and influence of women in politics and the work place. As such, to these critics, the femme fatale is often viewed as the ultimate display and embodiment of misogyny.
I take a very different view. While yes, many times the femme fatale is the archetypal “ice queen,” she is also (by necessity) so much more. She is pure lethal beauty, but she is intelligent enough to use that beauty and her cunning and intellect to her advantage. In this way, the femme fatale shares some characteristics with what we would call “strong women” today. This is hardly a “misogynist” view of the character type. If anything, it has a more overtly feminist message: women can and should take control, even in a male dominated world.
That is why I love the femme fatale. She might not be moral, but she captivates with the sheer force of her will and she hypnotizes with her lethal beauty.
Yet, where exactly did the femme fatale come from in modern cinema? More importantly, where is she going? Those are two questions that will be examined here.
Baby Face (1933)
One of the earliest examples of a femme fatale, and one of the most ruthless in Hollywood history, is undoubtedly the great Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933). The film, while predating the commonly accepted definition of when “classic film noir” came on the scene, is nevertheless a tour de force of sin in transition as the Hays Production Code was not yet in force with the studios in Hollywood.
Lily Powers starts life as the lowly daughter of a poor speakeasy owner during Prohibition in the city. She has incredible drive and determination to leave her squalid surroundings that is nurtured by an elderly patron of her father’s establishment who reads Nietzsche religiously and shares his “take control” message with Lily. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever seen a movie or television show that so focuses on Nietzsche since the first season of True Detective (2014).
Nietzsche’s message, as conveyed to Lily by the old man, ultimately inspires her and her colorful African-American Chico (Theresa Harris) friend to hop a train, with very little money in hand, to New York City. It is here where Lily finds work at a big Manhattan bank and gleefully sleeps her way to the top, ruining everyone up to the bank president on her way and even causing one to attempt suicide (an even more taboo subject in the 1930s). Look for a very young John Wayne as one of the men to be decimated in her path.
The film is profoundly dark and had to be toned down especially for the New York state Board of Censors before it could be shown. Luckily, a dupe negative was created to preserve the film before the censor-demanded cuts were made. This dupe negative cut was only shown in 2004 in London.
Scarlet Street (1945)
Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street is quite possibly the darkest film noir on this (admittedly incomplete) list — my look at it can be found here. Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is a middle-aged cashier in Greenwich Village, New York who paints and avoids his rather surly wife in his spare time. One night, after a workplace party, he happens upon Katherine ‘Kitty’ March (Joan Bennett) being beat up on a street corner by her boyfriend (and probable pimp) Johnny (Dan Duryea).
Yet, all such fantasies eventually have a point of detonation. This one does when Christopher ultimately catches Kitty with Johnny, and she (in no uncertain terms) rejects Christopher. The results are earth shattering and the film’s end is Christopher attempting to cope with the guilt over his grave sins.
The film was based on Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), meaning “the bitch” in English. Renoir’s film felt like an exercise in futility when the end denigrated into a laugh over something that is not even darkly funny. Lang’s version of the story is vastly superior in structure and execution.
The other element of Joan Bennett’s femme fatale in Scarlet Street that sets it apart from other iterations of the archetype is Kitty’s sympathy factor. The audience is made to sympathize with her as a “woman in trouble” and not just a woman manipulating, because of Johnny having his psychological claws into her and just the general feeling that she does not want to be where she is in life, yet she is hopelessly stuck there.
Rita Hayworth was one of the most visually stunning women ever to grace the nitrate in Hollywood. An accomplished dancer and musician (while vocal artist Anita Ellis recorded the big band performance of “Put the Blame on Mame,” Rita’s voice can still be heard during the performance of the song with just the acoustic guitar at the bar), she came upon acting as something close to second-nature. Gilda was arguably her breakout performance and what ultimately cemented her amongst the femme fatale goddesses in their pantheon. Gilda was even the inspiration for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).
From the first scene of her dancing to the last chorus of “Put the Blame on Mame,” she absolutely oozes sexuality, truly unlike any other actress then or now. When ex-gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) lands in Buenos Aires, the vision of his ex-lover Gilda slams back into his brain (if indeed she ever truly left) when he meets her again as his new employer’s wife. Indeed, Gilda slamming into Johnny is not just metaphorical: in the scene where Rita Hayworth slaps Glenn Ford, she really broke two of his teeth.
Gilda is probably the best example of sheer passion and fire in a femme fatale. As a character, she has danced, immortal, like a sprite through the visions of men for over seventy years. For, as Gilda herself says in the film, “I am a dancer!” The vision of her will never die.
Out of the Past (1947)
We have now seen the ruthless, the sympathetic, the passionate, those in need of an escape, and the cold and calculating. Yet, we have yet to examine quite possibly the most intriguing variant of the femme fatale: the ghost, the waif.
Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is as good a place as any to start in examining the ghost-like femme fatale. Former private detective Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is forced to face his past when his partner and an ex-client find him in the small California town he is trying to make a new life in. He recounts the story of meeting Moffat in Mexico, where he was sent by gambler Kirk Douglas to track her after she planted a few shots from the Gambler’s .38 into him in New York City and ran off with a sizable sum of his money, to his new girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston).
The magic of the ghost-like Moffat in Out of the Past lies both in Greer’s seminal performance, Tourneur’s direction, and how the story is structured. Bailey’s memories of her are sexy, steamy, and very dream-like as he recalls waiting for her outside a cantina on many balmy Mexican nights. Being dream-like, they are by definition very malleable too; that is, until he is forced to face her again in the present.
Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography in Out of the Past elegantly develops Kathie as a femme fatale. We see her in 3 stages, the innocent stage marked by white clothing and very soft lighting:
Stage 2 sees moral ambiguity entering the picture, with pallid greys and harsher shadow:
And Stage 3, complete moral debasement, marked by blacks and very harsh shadow:
These very conscious wardrobe and cinematography choices act as deceptively brilliant device in their simplicity to accentuate Kathie’s descent into oblivion.
My extended look at Out of the Past can be read here.
Kim Novak’s portrayal of two characters (Madeline Elster / Judy Barton) in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is the essential study in the psychology of the waif-like femme fatale. James Stewart plays San Francisco detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, who suffers from debilitating vertigo as a result of the acrophobia (fear of heights) that struck him as he was hanging from a rooftop while on duty, when one uniformed police officer subsequently died while trying to save him.
Scottie is subsequently recruited by a friend to follow his wife (Kim Novak), who has been acting strangely. This whole situation and Scottie’s ensuing obsession with her drags him into a murder plot as a hapless witness and rattles the poor man even more so than he already was rattled and ends very badly.
Scottie’s obsession with Kim Novak’s characters greatly colors how Hitchcock chose to show her both as Madeline Elster and the more ingénue like Judy Barton. Scottie observes her closely and sees really just what he wants to see: she is not so much a woman to him as a composite of what he believes a woman should be — indeed, Madeline Elster never truly existed at all. She is an archetype to him, a waif, and a ghost. As Judy goes, so will Madeleine.
Vertigo also delves rather deep into psychology and neurology, touching on the idea of the Doppelganger and even Capgras Delusion (believing a person one is close with to have been replaced by an imposter). Indeed, Scottie does not know what to believe through many of the film’s more pivotal scenes.
My expanded look at Vertigo can be read here.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Hitchcock laid much of the artistic and psychological groundwork for David Lynch’s surrealist magnum opus about dead dreams, decaying love, and the rotten underbelly of Hollywood.
The depiction of the femme fatale in Mulholland Dr. must be examined in the form of really four in two people: Betty / Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) and Rita / Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring) because they are essentially composites of these people. It must be done this way because the entire film is really a dream sequence followed by a post-dream sequence, all taking place in Diane’s subconscious. Rita is very much the femme fatale in the dream as she is the mysterious, amnesiac, “woman in trouble,” while Diane is the femme fatale in reality (the post-dream sequence) as she plots and carries out the murder of her lover Camilla Rhodes. The entire film is dream-like: thereby, the characters will also be.
Mulholland Dr. (along with Vertigo) is the supreme, elegant example of the femme fatale as a waif. Read my in-depth look at Mulholland Dr. , “The Beauty is in the Ambiguity” here.
As shall be shown in the next entry though, the return of the purely ruthless femme fatale is upon us.
Gone Girl (2014)
Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is the bored and unsatisfied wife of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), living in the tiny town of New Carthage in the Missouri boot heel. Amy was destined for great things: a great academic pedigree, an accomplished children’s author, coming from money. She never anticipated that fate would beat her and her then-doting husband down.
So, she decides to put her absolutely scary and ruthless mind (as we shall see with the plot developing) to work one day, faking her own murder and disappearance and blaming the lazy Nick for it. She gets away with it for some time, and the end of Gone Girl is really poetic justice of a very morbid sort upon her husband.
The magic of Gone Girl lies in director David Fincher’s bold creativity behind the camera, he sought to make it more of a “European film” with some very elaborate and non-constrained sex scenes and also not skimping on the use of blood. Gillian Flynn, the writer of the screenplay, also penned the Gone Girl source novel, and her contribution and building of the character simply cannot be overvalued.
Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of the brilliantly calculating and cold femme fatale Amy Dunne was absolutely groundbreaking in so many ways. Her brutality was monstrous, her moves in the game she set in motion in framing her husband and misleading the public was extraordinarily detailed, and her ambition boundless.
The Amy Dunne character heralds a return to the straight ruthless femme fatale not seen since Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, yet at the same time, taken to a new level of depravity. If independent cinema is any indication of future mass trends in Hollywood, we may be seeing a return to the Vertigo / Mulholland Dr. waif-like femme fatale as well.
Play Violet for Me (2016)
Play Violet for Me is the short film that inspired this look at the evolution of the femme fatale: to see where she came from and perhaps where she is going. It is very much in the Vertigo / Mulholland Dr. tradition, with Najarra Townsend absolutely nailing her dual characters in the film. Play Violet for Me also has one of the most inventive story lines ever seen in a short noir piece. A loner obsesses over Violet as his life unravels around him. The film manages to accomplish something close to what Vertigo did, yet only in thirteen minutes. A bold statement, indeed, yet it is true.
See Violet below.
It is truly astounding how something as simple as a thirteen minute short film can be so profound and sow an idea like this essay. We have seen where the femme fatale came from. If Gone Girl and Play Violet for Me are a solid prognostication, future iterations on her look very, very bright (or very, very noir?).