Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition

Article excerpt

The sexual seductress of Hollywood cinema has a long and varied international lineage, 1 and alterations in her representation continue to the present day. Molly Haskell concluded that while the original Italian and French silent film versions of this "vamp" figure were allied with "the dark forces of nature," the version that gradually developed in America was from the beginning allied with "the green forces of capitalism" (197). In Hollywood's classic noir films of the 1940s and 1950s and in the noir tradition that followed, her role as femme fatale has tied her closely to undercurrents of sexual, social and ideological unrest. While she has continued over the years to have a destabilizing effect on film narratives, her incarnations are also at times nonviolent and/or supportive of the protagonist, such as those in The Big Sleep (1946), Point Blank (1967), and Something Wild (1986). But my focus here is mainly restricted to the lethal seductress, whom I will trace through Hollywood's noir history from Double Indemnity ( 1944) to The Last Seduction (1996). This figure largely abjures traditional romance and passive domesticity, choosing instead to apply her sexuality to homicidal plots in the service of greed. From the classic noir period through the neo-noir era of the 1960s and 1970s, and finally to contemporary or post-noir films of the 1980s and 1990s,2 the deadly dame's narrative positioning has continued to serve as a barometer of cultural repression and desire, victimization and reification.

The Classic Femme Noir of Immorality and Avarice

It has been widely observed that the femme fatale in films of the 1940s is a timely indicator of wartime misgivings about sex roles, marriage and sexuality. Thomas Schatz points out that "Changing views of sexuality and marriage were generated by the millions of men overseas and by the millions of women pressed into the work force. The postwar 'return to normalcy' never really materialized-the GIs' triumphant homecoming only seemed to complicate matters and to bring out issues of urban anonymity and sexual confusion" (113-14). It seems no coincidence that the rise to prominence of Hollywood's lethal siren occurred simultaneously with wartime and postwar readjustments in society. The massive entry of women into the work force encouraged during the war was suddenly discouraged at war's end-but momentarily reversed once more by the Korean War (1950-54). These mid-century wars reminded Americans of life's fundamental insecurities, including economic vulnerability and the "occasional need" for women to work outside the home. On the other hand, there was continued resistance to women's gainful employment by those men who wanted to be the sole support for their family at a time of economic expansion in the 1950s when this was still possible (Van Horn 140-45).

Mainstream dramatic films as diverse as The Best Years of Our Lives ( 1945, the Virginia Mayo role) and All About Eve (1950) offer negative images of resourceful working women, but it is the deadly femme noir who most directly assaults socio-psychic conventions and thereby invokes the most telltale narrative dislocations. Historically, the returning veteran who had "sacrificed" for his country in a strict military system assumed that he would again wield economic authority and thus retake command of the family home front. This militarization of male circumstances and attitudes further increased the defensive stance against women in the paid workforce, particularly if they demonstrated economic independence. Ambitious women evoke a certain paranoia that is readily apparent in the metaphorical plots of classic films noir, where they are made to appear beautiful but also treacherous, criminally depraved and castrating in their desires. Often serving as catalysts for criminal behavior in men, they encouraged the blame heaped on women's sexuality and furthered the calls for her sexual repression and restriction to the household. …

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