Feminist Fatality: An Analysis of Female Characters in Film Noir

Paper by Nina Telesco.

The general public opinion is that the 1940s were a decade of traditional family values. In the year of 2023, this is often how we look back on the male and female gender roles of this time in history. This is why it may be surprising as a viewer to see how the female “femme fatale” characters are represented as the manipulative villains in the film noir genre. Despite this villainous power, these women are not freed from the patriarchal values of the time. On surface level, it may appear that the Film Noir genre depicts women in a progressive way due to the power that the “femme fatale” characters hold over the male protagonists. However, these women are still represented through the male gaze, and cannot escape their connection to their male interests. The contrasting “wholesome” female character leads to a further misogynistic comparison of a “good” versus “bad” woman. The films, Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), and The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946), have contrasting femme fatale and wholesome female characters that display the misogynistic lens in which women were being judged and compared.

To deeper understand how these female characters are portrayed, first one must understand the tropes of each character. A good explanation of these opposing characters is written by John Harvey in his piece Out of the Light: An Analysis of Narrative in “Out of the Past.” Harvey explains, “The country/city opposition is a familiar one in both American literature and film and is clearly linked here to the differences between the two women. For Ann, Bridgeport is the home she wants to stay in; Kathie would like to escape from Lake Tahoe but only as long as she can take with her those elements which attracted her to it – money and power” (Harvey, 79). As highlighted in this example from Harvey, the femme fatale character is compared to the urban, city life and the wholesome character is compared to the simple, rural life. This comparison explains how the “city” femme fatale is centered around greed and lust. The big city is often synonymous with people who live a faster life, and who care about money, power, and status. The “rural” wholesome female values a life of family and simple pleasures. She does not desire money and power. This is clear in the representation of Ann in Out of the Past. She is dressed simply and homely. She wants to be with Jeff, and she does not mind that he is only a gas station owner. Kathie is the opposite. She is glamorous and wears eye-catching dresses and make up. She uses her seductive nature to lure Jeff into her plan. These characters are also depicted in Double Indemnity and the Killers. In Double Indemnity, the femme fatale is Phyllis. She is barely clothed in her entrance, and at this point is already portrayed as seductive. Once again, she is trying to manipulate Walter. The wholesome female is Lola. She is unique in this movie because she is the daughter of Phyllis. She represents an innocent figure, who just wanted her dad to be happy and her boyfriend to love her. In the film the Killers, the femme fatale is Kitty. She is a dark, glamorous character. In her introduction, she wears a long black dress and the Swede cannot keep his eyes off her (which she knows and uses to her advantage). Lily is the Swedes former girlfriend, and the wholesome character. She is seen later in the film, taking care of her new husband and living a simple life of being a housewife. These character types have starkly different influences on the men’s lives as well as having different fates. The difference in their stories is what shapes this comparison of women. These two female characters highlight the ideas about the female gender at the time. These ideas shape what made the right kind of woman and what kind of woman deserved their unfortunate ending.

These opposing female characters represent the “good” and the “bad” parts of the male protagonist’s life. In Mark Jancovich’s piece, “Vicious Womanhood”: Genre, the “Femme Fatale” and Postwar America, he discusses how the femme fatale represented what society deemed shameful characteristics in a woman. He states, “These “vicious” women were not associated with the independent women, but rather with the figure of the ‘slacker,’ the greedy, selfish, ‘Mrs. Stay-at-Home,’ who refused to ‘subordinate her personal concerns’ to the war effort, despite warnings that ‘a soldier may die if you don’t do your part’” (Jancovich, 101). The fact that the femme fatales had a negative impact on the men’s lives displayed this attitude. They were looked down-upon for wanting quick money and power. This was an extreme representation of the fear of the housewife being lazy and failing at her “job.” The wholesome woman was doing it right. She cared about her family and taking care of her husband. That is why they got a second chance at a good life. These women also represent the male protagonist choosing the wrong woman and the wrong life. In the Killers, the Swede had a good life with his girlfriend Lily, but fell under the spell of Kitty and dropped everything to turn to a bad life of crime. He broke up with his good life, and fell in lust with the bad. He took the fall for Kitty, and ended up in prison. This led him further down the path of crime and ended in his death. In Out of the Past, the viewer sees how Jeff had a chance of redemption in his relationship with Ann, but could not resist going back to Kathie and falling victim to his old mistakes. His choice to go back to Kitty was the choice that sealed his fate. He chose the wrong woman and he lost his chance at a happy ending with Ann. This leads to him and Kitty’s death, while Ann gets another chance at love. In Double Indemnity, Walter sees an example of wholesomeness in Phyllis’s daughter Lola. Despite her opening his eyes to Phyllis’ character, it is too late. He already murdered the husband and chose the life of a criminal. Like the other male protagonists, he dies. The women are the choice; good versus evil. By having a moral judgment assigned to their role, these women exist under the guise of giving meaning to the lives of the men in the films.

These women do not stand on their own, but are instead used as narrative devices to highlight the conflict in the male protagonists storyline. They fall victim to the patriarchal society in which they were created. As stated by Karen Hollinger in her piece, Listening to the Female Voice in the Woman’s Film, “As feminist critics Laura Mulvey, E. Ann Kaplan, and Mary Ann Doane have adequately demonstrated, in classical Hollywood cinema the gaze is male. Women are situated as objects of spectacle to be viewed from a male perspective” (Hollinger, 35). Without Jeff, Kathie would have no one to manipulate. She would not have anyone to help her steal money and run away. Without Walter, Phyllis does not have anyone to help her kill her husband. Without the Swede, no one would take the fall and save Kitty from prison. What connects these women and their criminal behavior is the way in which they get what they want. They are beautiful, glamorous, flirty, and sexual. This is the male gaze. The fixation on their sexuality and this being a defining character trait of the femme fatale. These women are criminals who deserve their fate, but they are sexy. They are not powerful and manipulative because of their brains. The wholesome characters may not be characterized by their sexuality, but their lack of it shows how they have been created through the lens of a male brain. Their innocence could never lead a man astray. They represent what men see as safe, and good. However, the existence of the femme fatale acknowledges how men think that a woman’s appearance is their strongest weapon. Both of these women, whether good or bad, are reduced to what they represent to men.
The femme fatale and wholesome female characters are not progressive representations of women in film because they have been created under the male gaze. They represent what is positive in a man’s life, and how falling for the femme fatale woman leads him to a life of crime and ill fate. These women are characterized by their connections to these male protagonists. The films Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and the Killers all feature clear representations of these character tropes. The femme fatale is characterized the way she is because of her manipulation of the male protagonist. The wholesome female is characterized the way she is because she represents what the male protagonist left behind. These women are parts of a male story, not a whole story in themselves. These characters would need to be able to stand alone and with true agency in order to claim that they give power to female characters. The film noir genre may have a specific way in which it represents its female characters, and this may be a surprising portrayal, but this does not negate that these characters were created in a time of traditional gender roles and misogynistic ideas of what makes a good woman.

Works Cited
Harvey, John. “Out of the Light: An Analysis of Narrative in ‘Out of the Past.’” Journal of American Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 1984, pp. 73–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27554401. Accessed 16 Nov. 2023.

Hollinger, Karen. “Listening to The Female Voice in the Woman’s Film.” Film Criticism, vol. 16, no. 3, 1992, pp. 34–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44075969. Accessed 16 Nov. 2023.

Jankovich, Mark. “‘VICIOUS WOMANHOOD’: GENRE, THE ‘FEMME FATALE’ AND POSTWAR AMERICA.” Revue Canadienne d’Études Cinématographiques / Canadian Journal of Film Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, 2011, pp. 100–14. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24411857. Accessed 16 Nov. 2023.

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