Great Femme Fatales: 6 Underappreciated Film Noir Villains

femme fatale scarlet street film noirWe’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.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

12 thoughts on “Great Femme Fatales: 6 Underappreciated Film Noir Villains

  1. A fine piece, Jon. What do you think about Alida Valli’s character in The Third Man–would she count as a femme fatale? I’ve wrestled with how to categorize her–is she bad or good…or just flawed for loving a bad man? And how in the world can she like Harry Lime? Thoughtful list.

    • Thanks, Simon. I’ve been told many times that my definitions of many things — noir, screwball, femme fatales among them — are too rigid. To me, a classic femme fatale is characterized primarily by greed and sexual manipulation. She may or may not genuinely love her man, but her own self-interest will always win out. So I don’t consider Valli a classic femme fatale, just someone who in an impossible situation is willing to bend her sense of morality. As to how she can like Harry — why does Holly like — probably even love — Harry? Harry is extraordinarily charming and that goes a long way, especially in post-war Vienna where there are many desperate people. That’s my thought anyway.

  2. I would have included Gene Tierney (“Leave Her to Heaven”). Recent femmes fatales that come to mind are: Kathleen Turner (“Body Heat” / 1981), Virginia Madsen (“The Hot Spot” / 1990), Sharon Stone (“Basic Instinct” / 1992), Linda Fiorentino (“The Last Seduction” / 1994), Mia Sara (“Caroline at Midnight” / 1994), Neve Campbell (“Wild Things” / 1998), and Rebecca Romijn (“Femme Fatale” / 2002). Like Pete, I’m a big fan of Rita Hayworth (“Gilda” / 1946).

    • Great choices. I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a concentration of movies and roles like we did in the post-war years, but as you’ve noted, bad gals will hopefully never go totally out of style.

  3. What a great post and an awesome list!

    Might I add… Jane Greer (Kathie Moffat) in “Out of the Past” — Full-on noir and those looks she gives. Awesome… VERY, VERY few women on the screen today can even hold a CANDLE to any of these glorious gals. I’m sure you have seen the film, but on the off-chance you haven’t… It’s quintessential noir!

    Marilyn Monroe in “Niagra” is another favorite of mine as well. The strangulation scene is absolutely gorgeous in the classic noir sense and Marilyn is super sexy throughout and so easy to hate at the same time.

    Anyway… Great post!

    • Thanks David. I put Kathie in my starting five, and for my money, she is the single most seductive character in the noir universe. It’s probably a commentary on how actresses have been viewed in Hollywood that Jane Greer (as well as Gillie, Savage, Trevor, Peggy Cummins, who was mentioned in another comment, among others) hardly ever got the chance to play other meaty roles … Not even as femme fatales in most of their cases. But they sure made the most of these limited opportunities. One of Jane Greer’s final film roles was playing Rachel Ward’s mother in the rather pale remake of Out of the Past called Against All Odds in 1984. Kathie Moffat, essentially playing her own mother.

  4. Ahh…lists…
    This is a good one though Jon, and a good theme too. Quite a few I have never seen, which is always nice.
    I have a soft spot for ‘Gilda’ (Put the blame on Mame), and then there is the calculating Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Double Indemnity’ of course. You got me thinking with this one.

    More recent favourites have to include Theresa Russell in ‘Black Widow’, and the overwhelming sexiness of Jennifer Tilly in ‘Bound’.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I have to admit I was mostly baffled by Black Widow, but I did like Bound quite a bit. I hope you get a chance to see a few of these. Other than the first one, which is Fritz Lang, they tend to be strange, cheap, and flawed. And yet, they are all great to watch.

    • Excellent choice. Both she and John Dall are so good in that. I think I saw the remake with Drew Barrymore but I hardly remember it. I remember Peggy Cummins very clearly.

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