Noir’s Affinity for Femmes Fatales

Paper by Violet Mitchell.

The genre of 1940s American Film Noir is brimming with perplexing investigations, trans-Atlantic accents, ill-natured wrongdoers, seduction, murderous intentions, and Femmes Fatales. The perception of the feminine portrayal has been altered drastically throughout American cinema history, especially in the characterization of women in Film Noir. Inspired by German Expressionism, the genre American Film Noir is categorized as crime-fiction, “typically identified by a variety of thematic and stylistic conventions: unsettling or otherwise odd camera angles, the dramatic use of shadow and light, “hard-boiled” dialogue, settings that emphasize isolation and loneliness” (Skoble). Opposing the preconceived stereotype of 1940s American women being loyal, submissive, and empathetic, the Femmes Fatales illustrated on the silver screen were seductive, deceptive, and lethal. Noir women often took on the role of the Femme Fatale of “an extremely attractive woman who deliberately tries to lead men to their destruction” (Skoble). The Fatal Woman not only manipulates the men in her life, but in addition the path the narrative is to take. The role of Femme Fatale in Film-Noir played a significant role in 1940’s American cinema, inspiring a plethora of Femme Fatale archetypes in pop culture and film history. This archetype is a historical symbol of the era of American women veering from their domestic roles as housewives and entering the workforce, playing part in American gender politics (Lewis 204-205). I will be focusing on the origins of the “Femme Fatale” archetype in American cinema, the historical significance of this persona in correlation with World War II, the role the Femme Fatale plays in 1940s Film Noir, famed pioneers of this feminine archetype, films that encapsulate the Femme Fatale including Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946), and the fatal woman’s influence on feminine roles in film history.

The term “Femme Fatale” emerged in the late 1800s, originating from the French term “femme” meaning “woman,” and the Latin term “fatale” meaning “decreed by fate”. The “Fatal Woman” has been illustrated in various cultures’ folklore, artwork, and literature. The term was at first used to define sultry yet monstrous women in the forms of supernatural beings such as vampires, or historic women of power such as Cleopatra. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary currently defines the “Femme Fatale” as “a seductive woman who lures men into dangerous or compromising situations” (Walker-Morrison).
This feminine archetype was introduced to American mainstream media as a cinematic character, especially popular in 1940s Film Noir. The fatal woman “combines physical seductiveness with lethal ambition: a drive for personal independence within which the man is no longer a romantic object of desire” (Walker-Morrison). This feminine persona was tantalizing, sensual, and alluring yet manipulative and egocentric. She often only has her own best interest at heart, using those around her to her advantage.

This siren on-screen juxtaposed the stereotypical traits of women during this time period, being that women were to be passive, empathetic, and devoted to their significant other. (Walker-Morrison). The Femme Fatale defies these stereotypical traits and uses men to her advantage while oftentimes pretending to be a “helpless” woman. Some attribute the popularity of the Femme Fatale in film because many men had an affinity for her seductive nature, while women admired her power and defiance. Others found the prominent sexualization of her persona to be concerned as the demonization of women (Walker-Morrison). Whether one views the 1940s Femme Fatale as moral or not, it is evidence of her influence on feminine roles in the film industry and beyond.

The Film Noir and the Femme Fatale had great historical significance during the post-war period. World War II had a significant impact on women’s transition to the workforce. While American men headed to war, women took their place in the workforce where women were encouraged to join the war effort by becoming employed and creating war supplies. “On their return, American men, already emotionally scarred by the direct experience of war, suddenly found themselves having to compete in the workforce with those whose roles had previously been limited to those of sweethearts, wives, and mothers” (Walker-Morrison). This opportunity for women to enter the workforce provoked a newfound sense of importance within many, resulting in a multitude of women not wanting to return to the cult of domesticity. This was one of the first steps towards the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s.

The resurgence of the powerful and bold Femme Fatale in 1940s Film Noir was not coincidental, aligning with WWII’s effects on women’s roles. “The widely accepted sociological explanation for the emergence of this spider-woman fatale figure in American Noir of the 1940s and early 1950s sees her as emerging from a crisis of masculinity precipitated by the nation’s traumatic experience of the Second World War, especially as ex-servicemen readjusted with great difficulty to civilian life” (Walker-Morrison). This feminine archetype was a direct contradiction to the modest stay-at-home wife of the 1940s. The Femme Fatale resulted as a “nightmare version of the sexually and economically emancipated woman of the post-war period” (Lewis 204). Many Noir films during this era reflected the effects of the war present in themes of moral ambiguity and corruption.

The 1940s films Double Indemnity and Gilda demonstrate classic Film Noir, from the hazy shadows and low-key lighting to the Femme Fatale and her immoral intentions. Being the epidemy of American Film Noir, Double Indemnity is narrated from the perspective of the wrongdoer, recalling the events that led to the state he is currently in. Double Indemnity follows its narrative from the point of view of male protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), describing the events that led to him bleeding out in his low-lit office from what appears to be a gun wound. The film follows the classic guidelines of Film Noir, incorporating low-key lighting, dominating shadows, voice-over, flashback, and witty banter into a premise that explores desire, murder, and complicated relationships.
The Femme Fatale archetype is crucial to the narrative of a Noir film, as seen in Double Indemnity. This persona is in charge of distracting the male protagonist’s attention with her alluring charm, persuading him to assist her in some criminal deed, and eventually leading the protagonist to his demise as a direct result of her manipulation. When the male protagonist discovers the Femme Fatale’s deceit, it is often too late and he is already doomed.

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is considered to be one of the best-known Femme Fatales in Noir history, being simultaneously seductive and duplicitous. Phyllis’s introduction alludes to her power play with Walter. “Moreover, the fatale’s ruthless agency and narrative power are often signaled by her visual dominance within the frame, as in Double Indemnity, when Neff meets Phyllis Dietrichson: the mise en scène has the insurance salesman in high angle, looking upstairs towards a scantily clad Phyllis, framed in commanding reverse low-angle” (Walker-Morrison). The first time Walter lays his eyes on Phyllis, she is wrapped in a small towel at the top of the flight of stairs in her house. Her visual positioning conveys her dominant role over Walter, but he is oblivious to her manipulation and clouded by her seductive demeanor.

Walter claims that he had stopped by to see Mr. Dietrichson, her husband, to inquire about renewing the Dietrichsons’ car insurance. Phyllis informs Walter that Mr. Dietrichson was not home at the time, but that she can inform her husband of the information regarding their car insurance. While bantering in Phyllis’s living room, Walter’s eyes along with the camera are drawn to the seductive detail of the petite anklet glimmering on her ankle. After figuring that Phyllis’s inquires into purchasing life insurance for Mr. Dietrichson were stemming from her planned murder of her husband, Walter agrees to assist in Mr. Dietrichson’s murder. “Beginning with his initial response to her, the male protagonist’s moral character is tested until he meets a fate that reflects his choice to embrace or reject the wicked woman, along with the darkness within himself that she embodies” (Sunday). The premise then follows Walter and how his affliction for seductress Phyllis Dietrichson leads to both of their demises.

Alluding to the time period in which Double Indemnity was released, Phyllis craves more than the modest housewife that was expected of married women like her. “In these works, gender, particularly as expressed in body language and character positioning, is neither stereotyped nor determined in conventional ways, but instead produced within acts of violence and sex, and through portrayals of the breakdown of familial, socio-economic and cultural relations” (Mallon). Phyllis craved independence, deviating from society’s stereotypes. Commonly personas in Film Noir are morally ambiguous, but Phyllis may be considered as blatantly selfish and maleficent. This Femme Fatale convinces Walter to create a plan in which her husband can be murdered and she would be able to collect the utmost amount of money from his life insurance. Walter not only creates a plan that appears to be flawless in theory but murders Mr. Dietrichson with his own two hands. Although Walter commits the heinous act of murder, his character stays morally ambiguous as opposed to the Femme Fatale because he is evidently corrupted by Phyllis’s endless charm.

Nearing the film’s finale, Walter confronts Femme Fatale Phyllis in her low-lit living room. Sitting across from the seductress with a cigarette clinging to her lips, Walter claims that “I’m getting off the trolley car right at this corner…I just got into this thing because I happen to know a little something about insurance didn’t I? I was a sucker. I’d have been brushed off as soon as you got your hands on the money” (Double Indemnity). The fatal woman shoots Walter with a gun she had hiding under her chair cushion but misses and wounds him in his shoulder. In a turn of events in classic Noir fashion, teary-eyed Phyliss admits to her deceit but pleads that she could not fire a second shot at Walter because she loves him. Walter does not buy her manipulation and kills her with the same pistol that she shot him with.
Not only did involvement with the Femme Fatale lead to Walter’s demise, but the Femme Fatale’s too. Following the classic cinema formatting of the “bad guy” being held accountable for their actions, Phyllis is led to her death at the hand of who she manipulated into murdering her husband. Although Phyllis’s death is acknowledged in the film, Walter’s never becomes confirmed because of his morally ambiguous character. Walter is never formally deemed as a “bad guy” or a “good guy”, so he must be held accountable for his actions but not to the same extent as the Femme Fatale.

Gilda is another notable cult classic Film Noir. Starring the unique relationship where Gilda (Rita Hayworth) as the untamed, seductive, cold-hearted Femme Fatale drives her previous lover Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) mad with antipathy and lust. Gilda is rampant with 1940s American Film Noir techniques, including limited lighting where characters are engulfed in shadows and witty banter between Jonny and his Femme Fatale. Gilda is primarily from the perspective of Johnny, but not in entirety because on occasion Gilda’s narrative ventures beyond Johnny’s vantage point. The film follows the Noir themes of greed, cruelty, and lust as seen in the love triangle between Gilda, Johnny, and Johnny’s employer. Both Johnny and Gilda’s characters seem to be morally ambiguous, having emotions of ambivalence towards each other. In addition, Gilda follows the classic theme in Film Noir of the Femme Fatale strategically marrying a wealthy man for his finances and nothing else.

The film, Gilda, includes an abundance of sexual innuendos consistent throughout the film. Styled to present herself as the ideal Femme Fatale, Gilda struts across the casino floor with soft curls and fitted gowns. She classically presents herself as sophisticated and softhearted to her wealthy husband, Ballin Mundson (George Macready), while her ex-lover, Johnny, knows the manipulative game she plays. Since Gilda knows she will be sexualized by the men in her life no matter the circumstances, she uses her glamour and beauty to her advantage to gain financial comfortability. Before introducing Johnny to Gilda for what he believes is the first time they will meet, Ballin calls to his newly-wed seductress, “Gilda, are you decent?”. The camera focuses on just the head of Gilda, as she flips her luscious curls up and flirtatiously responds with “Me?” (Gilda).

Fueled by lustful hate, Gilda uses her womanly charm to make Johhny jealous throughout the film. Gilda runs around with other men, inferring promiscuous actions that are later revealed to be untrue. Gilda’s licentious burlesque dance with her black silk gown and matching elbow-length gloves is the peak of Gilda’s sexualization within the film – even calling out to the crowd for random men to unzip her. Johnny has had enough of her promiscuous play, tears her from the stage, and slaps her. Gilda craves sexual independence and financial freedom but is “corrected” by the men in her life. The policing of Gilda’s sexuality correlates to the suppression of anything lustful in the film industry censored by the Hay’s Code. “She has thus been read archetypally, and not unproductively, as an agent of cruel fate or as the man’s own lust, greed,and criminal violence displaced and projected upon the aspiring modern woman” (Walker-Morrison). Although Gilda plays the role of a woman who craves liberation, in the end, she is corrected to be a woman of decency but will always have a passion for chaos at her core. Each of these alluring women was a pioneer in developing the persona of the Femme Fatale in cinema, playing the part of a seductive yet dangerous woman marvelously.

The impact of the resurgence of the 1940s Femme Fatale was monumental in the expansion of the persona women could play in films. The Femme Fatale can now be seen throughout a plethora of film genres in a multitude of films. She is not only a core feminine archetype but inspires a style of film that is still seen today. Modern directors who are heavily influenced by 1940s Film Noir such as Quentin Tarantino incorporate a Femme Fatale into most of their Neo Noir work. Modernizing the Femme Fatale, instead of being the source of conflict with the protagonist she is now allowed to be the protagonist herself. The audience can view the experience of the modern version of this archetype through the eyes of the Femme Fatale herself. To only name a few, films in later years such as Charlie’s Angels (2000, Joseph McGinty Nichol), Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino 2003), and Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria 2019) were all inspired by the 1940s Femme Fatale caricature. Charlie’s Angels consist of a trio of private investigator Femmes Fatales who use their sex appeal, intelligence, and mastery of martial arts to manipulate their enemies. Kill Bill follows the murderous revenge assassin Femme Fatale, “The Bride” seeks on those who have done her wrong. Hustlers is a much more modern take on the Femme fatale archetype, consisting of Femme Fatales who steal from wealthy men who go to the club they work at.

Whether one views the influence of the Femme Fatale as beneficial in women’s empowerment or malicious due to its sexualization of women, it is evident that Femmes Fataleshad played a significant role in 1940s American Film Noir in addition to having a great influence on a multitude of Femme Fatale icons in pop culture and film history. Overall, Film Noir and its themes of morally ambiguous personas and ominous visual cinematic techniques represent post-war anxieties and gender politics. The characterization of Noir women was especially unique for the time, defying preconceived stereotypes of the American woman. Both films, Double Indemnity and Gilda are exemplary demonstrations of the American Femme Fatale through seductresses Phyllis Dietrichson and Gilda. These manipulative women not only toyed with the men in her life, but controlled the path the narrative took. In conclusion, the popularity of Femmes Fatales reflected the historic movement of women moving into the workforce, and their struggle to maintain their newly found freedom post-war. The role of the Femme Fatale in Film-Noir played an influential role in 1940’s American cinema, inspiring a multitude of feminine roles in history, pop culture, and the film industry.

Work Cited
Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder, performances by Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson, Paramount Pictures, 1944.
Gilda. Directed by Charles Vidor, performances by Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, and George Macready, Columbia Pictures, 1946.
Lewis, Jon. American Film. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2008.
Mallon, Christopher. “Double Indemnity: Film Noir and the Dark Side of Masculinity.” Screen
Education (St Kilda, Vic.), no. 79, Australian Teachers of Media, 2015, pp. 124–28. Skoble, Aeon J. “Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy.” Film &
History, vol. 45, no. 2, Center for the Study of Film and History, 2015, pp. 47–48.
Walker-Morrison, Deborah. “Sex Ratio, Socio-Sexuality, and the Emergence of the Femme Fatale in Classic French and American Film Noir.” Film & History, vol. 45, no. 1, Center for the Study of Film and History, 2015, pp. 25–37.

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