We’ve been dealing with weighty issues of late and so I think it’s time for another list. After all, lists make the blogosphere fun. I know when I think of fun, the first thing that comes to mind is the femme fatale.
It being NBA finals time here in the USA, this one will employ a basketball metaphor.
If you do a quick internet search on film noir bad girls, you will find dozens and dozens of lists. After all, noir is known for its femme fatales; sexually predatory, amoral, greedy women (in other words, women who act like men). Most of these lists repeat the same names. The starting five, if you will (basketball metaphor alert). If the list is focused on the classic noir period from the mid ‘40s into the mid ‘50s, that list will include Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). You can quibble about your favourites. Turner would not be in my starting five, for instance, but that’s generally your first team.
But sometimes your bench players are better than your starters, and with that in mind, I’d like to suggest another strong half dozen, somewhat less obvious choices. In chronological order.
Joan Bennett as Kitty March, AKA Lazy Legs, in Scarlet Street (1945)
Bennett had the good fortune of working with director Fritz Lang and fellow actors Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea twice in 1945. In The Woman in the Window, Bennett is basically decent. Here, she is wonderfully evil.
Ann Savage as Vera in Detour (1945)
There are those who would put Vera at the top of their list. She is only on screen for about thirty minutes, but she leaves quite an impression. Unlike all the others, there is nothing appealing about Vera. She is not particularly attractive or seductive, cultured or smart. She simply uses her will to dominate a weaker man. So if you’re into that…
Hedy Lamarr as Jenny Hagar in The Strange Woman (1946)
A very strange movie. Like Detour, it was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the king of low budgets and a hero to cheap film lovers everywhere. Lamarr’s Jenny seduces anyone in sight in order to achieve what she desires and Ulmer’s brilliant use of lighting complements her intense performance.
Jean Gillie as Margot Shelby in Decoy (1946)
Gillie was primarily a comedienne, but shortly before her tragic death in 1949, she created this extraordinary villainess. It’s standard procedure for the femme fatale to use sexuality to get what she wants, but Margot Shelby added cold-blooded murder to the repertoire.
Claire Trevor as Helen Brent in Born to Kill (1947)
If ever a couple was made for each other, it was Trevor’s Helen and Lawrence Tierney’s Sam Wild. She actually has traces of nuance and humanity, which only serve to make her more interesting in this case study of a love/hate relationship.
Lizabeth Scott as Jane Palmer in Too Late for Tears, AKA Killer Bait (1949)
Unfortunately, the second half of this low budget noir turns away from Scott and the ever ready sleaze Dan Duryea to focus on the good guys. Classic noir no-no. But it still gave Scott a great amoral character to work with.
And now, since lists are all about fun, the thirteen year rule. From 1955, roughly the end of the classic noir era, there has been a great femme fatale on screen every thirteen years. So, in keeping with the triskaidekaphobic belief: Joan Crawford in Queen Bee (1955), Tuesday Weld in Pretty Poison (1968), Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (1981), Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1994), and Nikki Reed in Thirteen (2003) – not thirteen years later, but cut it some slack – it got the name right.