The femme fatale, French for “fatal woman,” is one of the most recognizable archetypes of American cinema. She is usually characterized by creating sexual tension in the narratives, by having an independent or rebellious spirit, by desiring wealth and control, and by being punished at the end (161-163 Dickos). Historians and film scholars alike have put forward the idea that this type of character was created as a form of backlash against women entering the workforce in the post-WWII years. In fact, Haskell in From Reverence to Rape argues that the image of the femme fatale— just like the image of noir protagonists—“takes its shading from the general Zeitgeist: in this case, the alternating optimism/pessimism, […] and, from the standpoint of sexual politics, the influx of women into the job market (and their obvious success)” (194). Even though most femme fatales share the aforementioned characteristics, there are still some nuances between the archetypes due to society’s ever-changing beliefs. For the purpose of this paper, the evolution of the femme fatale will be examined by looking at the femme fatale of the 1940’s, 1950’s and of contemporary neo-noirs.
In the 1940’s, the femme fatale truly illustrates the misogynistic attitudes found in post-war American society. Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity is the quintessential femme fatale: seductive, cunning, manipulative, and evil. Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) and her stepdaughter—the only other female character in the story—truly exemplify the virgin/whore dichotomy. Although the male protagonist is morally ambiguous and complex in Billy Wilder’s film, there are no gray areas when it comes to the women; they are perceived as either good or evil. Phyllis represents the suburban wife, whose scheme involves killing off her husband in order to claim some insurance money. She lures our noir protagonist, Walter Neff, into the criminal world by using nothing less than her seductive powers. Although at first they seem united by the crime they have committed, Phyllis, being the femme fatale that she is, figuratively stabs Walter Neff in the back. Jack Boozer in “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition” claims that the fact that the woman is represented as a primary sexual deceiver is something worthy of study because it also relates to the idea that women of the era had fewer options (both behavioral and financial) than their male counterparts (21). This seems to explain why she opts for a manipulative approach and why she thinks sexuality is her only available weapon.
Additionally, as with most femme fatales of the 40’s, Phyllis does get “what she deserves” in the end when Walter Neff uncovers her treachery and confronts her at her house. After going back and forth, Neff suddenly closes the window, which makes Phyllis foreshadow he is about to harm her. As a result, she stands up and aims a gun at him, but is only able to shoot him in the arm. Neff, realizing she “missed,” challenges her and tells her to try again. He comes closer so Phyllis can get a get clearer shot, but she fails to act and lowers the gun. A key moment in the film happens when Neff takes the gun away from her and asks her why she could not shoot. He says, “Don’t tell me it’s because you love me” (Double Indemnity). Phyllis Dietrichson replies she does not love him or anyone and that she is rotten to the heart, making it one of the most misogynistic lines of the film. Although she does seem to repent in the end, Walter Neff does not “buy it” and shoots her. It is interesting that although both Neff and Phyllis die at the end of the film, the viewer is expected to feel sympathetic toward Neff, but not toward Barbara Stanwyck’s character. Regarding the death of the femme fatale, Boozer further notes that she “appears to be punished as a result of her sexual betrayal of patriarchy” even when the crime was dependent on a man’s help (23). In accordance with Boozer’s proposition of why most femme fatales of the era are punished, Lota in “Cool Girls and Bad Girls” points out how postwar women were perceived as femme fatales in their respective societies due to their new-found success; this ultimately caused the necessity to both see them on screen and, most importantly, to see them “contained” (153). By looking at both Boozer and Lota’s theories, the issue of punishment becomes quite clear: she had to be disciplined as a result of her quest for independence.
Because the classical film noir period is understood to have taken place somewhere between 1941 and 1958 (The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil respectively binding the era), by the 1950’s the genre already begins to decline. In addition to the shifts in narrative structure and plots, “the sexualized greed of the siren figure already shows signs of weakening in the 1950s as America’s economy boomed while Cold War and nuclear paranoia pervaded national concerns” (Boozer 23). Pickup on South Street (1953) exemplifies this idea by presenting the audience with a much more politically aware plot than those of the 40’s. Despite the departure from earlier noirs, Fuller’s Pickup on South Street still makes use of the femme fatale archetype. This time, however, the female character gets a better treatment than most ‘classic era’ sirens. Candy (Jean Peters) gets caught up a series of unfortunate events as a result of her involvement with her ex-boyfriend, and gets pickpocketed by Skip McCoy (the anti-hero of the story), who steals a microfilm containing sensitive government information. As opposed to luring our male character into the criminal world, she is the one getting thrown into a crime, which is already a significant departure from classic noirs. In fact, her ex-boyfriend, Joey, claims the stolen microfilm relates to some business of his; in reality, he is a communist spy. Candy’s situation is complicated because she is being manipulated in order to commit illegal acts; this detail almost makes the case for interpreting Joey as an homme fatal.
Contrary to earlier femme fatales, Candy seems quite naïve and is unaware of the gravity of the situation until she gets more involved with the case. However, she still possesses some of the characteristics of the femme fatale because she uses her sexuality and charm to get out of unfavorable situations. When she is trying to recover the microfilm for the first time, Skip discovers her and knocks her out. She later wakes up, tries to negotiate with Skip, and attempts to seduce him, all while lying to him about the nature of the microfilm. Candy’s tactic is similar to the one Phyllis uses when she meets Neff for the first time, but the difference is that Skip immediately reciprocates. Candy’s most significant femme fatale moment comes after Skip and her kiss. When it seems like Skip is finally going to “fall into her trap” and give her the microfilm, he realizes she is being dishonest and pushes her away. What makes Candy redefine the archetype is that, besides having more depth, she is quite transparent about her manipulative methods and ends up being one of the least malicious characters. This seems to indicate that due to the political climate of the 1950’s, communists, not women, became the bigger threat.
In neo-noir, which has proven to be a long-lived genre, the evolution of the femme fatale archetype continues. Having lasted “more than twice as long as the original run of film noir,” neo-noir tends to redefine generic conventions in order to appeal to contemporary generations (Lota 154). For this reason, a femme fatale who mirrors different gender anxieties appears. “Cool Girls and Bad Girls” further explains that, much like her predecessors, she represents and reflects current discourses around women, making her not only a fantasy, but also a historical construct (qtd. in Lota 154). One of the most notable examples when looking at neo-noir works is Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s film that seamlessly blends science fiction and noir. Although Deckard (Harrison Ford) embodies the noir protagonist in several ways, the female characters in Blade Runner are quite different from the ones found in classical films noir.
In this film, Rachael (Sean Young) is the object of our protagonist’s affection, but in comparison to narratives of the classical noir period, she is a positive character. At the beginning of Blade Runner, Rachael seems quite cool and in complete control of the situation, but Deckard is able to break down her walls and uncover her emotional side. Even though she is noble, she still has a dangerous quality to her, which prevents her from becoming a two-dimensional character. Although the viewer’s first encounter with Rachael might suggest she is the femme fatale type due to her attitude and wardrobe— which is actually evocative of 1940’s fashion—Pris (a female replicant/android) is closer to the archetype. When Pris meets the genetic designer, Sebastian, outside his apartment, she uses her femininity to trick him. More specifically, Pris manipulates Sebastian to make him believe she is homeless and defenseless, which causes him to bring her into his home. Even though Pris seems to genuinely like Sebastian, she realizes he is fairly naïve and uses that to her advantage. However, her motivations are more complex than simply killing off a husband to collect some insurance money. She is aware of her own mortality and acts out of self-preservation.
The classical archetype of the femme fatale evolves throughout film history due to the anxieties of each era. In the 1940’s, the female characters reflect male anxieties related to women entering the workforce and their desire to be independent. As a result, they often get punished in the form of prison and sometimes even death, just like Phyllis in Double Indemnity. While she is quite manipulative, noir scholars argue that due to women’s limited power in this decade, the femme fatale’s only weapon is her sexuality. Nevertheless, representations of women slightly improve in the 1950’s, as the nation’s main concerns revolve around nuclear weapons and Communism. Candy in Pickup on South Street still has some of the characteristics of the classical femme fatale, however, she turns out to be a noble character in the end. Finally, in neo-noir, much of the conventions of the genre change due to the need to appeal to contemporary audiences. One of the most notable aspects that evolve in the genre are the female characters, who, in comparison to the ones found in earlier periods, possess a greater depth and have more complex motivations. Since film usually reflects the common attitudes and beliefs found in specific time periods, one can only wonder what future representations of women will look like.
Boozer, Jack. “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition,” Vol. 51, no. 3/4, 1999, pp. 20–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20688218. Accessed 6 May 2017.
Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir, Kentucky, University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.
Lota, Kenneth. “Cool Girls and Bad Girls: Reinventing the Femme Fatale in Contemporary American Fiction,” Interdisciplinary Humanities, vol. 33, no. 1, 2016, pp. 150-170. EBSCOhost.