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Dark dames, fatal females, skirts with a gun—the femme fatale is the character who leads men to their destruction—whether moral, psychological or fatal--the big sleep.  The femme fatale was not an invention of or exclusive to film noir, but the character type achieved its fullest depth within the genre.  The femme fatale character was an attempt to portray  women by American filmmakers in an honest, albeit brutal, way—as ravenous sexual predators, with murder in their hearts, the equal, if not better of any tough guy.  The precursors of the film noir femme fatale lay in silent film’s vamps—Theda Bara, Jane Harlowe, Dolores del Rio are good examples.—as well as the Marlene Dietrich characters in the influential films of Josef Von Sternberg in the thirties.  The noir femme-fatale was not always as foreign and exotic as the model created by actresses like Theda Bara and Marlene Dietrich, but tended to be more overtly sexual—voluptuous, with tight, revealing dresses, heavy makeup, and died hair.  Some actresses used the role of femme fatale to enhance fading careers, while others used the part create an entirely fresh persona and career for themselves.  Actresses like Dorothy Malone and Gail Russell played “good girls” early in their careers—homemakers, virgins, girls next door.  Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford first came to attention in 1930s melodramas as strong, independent working girls who always overcame adversity.  Others, like Jan Sterling, Claire Trevor, Audrey Totter and Marie Windsor were brassy actresses from the first, who played “the other woman” in the same sort of melodramas.  Finally, a new group of actresses, who looked like the “girl next door” on the surface, but who had hearts as hard as railroad steel beneath, emerged—Gloria Grahame, Veronica Lake, Evelyn Keyes and Jane Greer.

The femme fatale has been a feature of film noir from the inception of the classic period.  Mary Astor, in The Maltese Falcon, was a seminal femme fatale, who does her best to draw Humprhey Bogart into her wicked web.  Other noteworthy appearances of the character type include the dark, sultry Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang's Woman in the Window (RKO, 1944), and a bleached blonde, sexually voracious Barbara Stanwyck who lures Fred MacMurray into her murderous plot in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944)Both these actresses revised these early roles in later films: Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street (Universal, 1945) and Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Paramount, 1946).  Another especially important role was Lana Turner's cold as ice performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice (MGM, 1946), which like Double Indemnity was based on a novel by James M. Cain.

Other notable femme fatales include Rita Hayworth in Gilda (Columbia, 1946), and in The Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1948), Marie Windsor in The Killing (United Artists, 1956), Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (Paramount, 1942), Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat (Columbia, 1953) and Human Desire (Columbia, 1954) and Jane Greer in Out of the Past (RKO, 1947), Ava Gardner in The Killers (Universal, 1946), and Ann Savage in Detour (Producers Releasing Corporation, 1945).

The character of the femme fatale still plays an important role in neo-noir, as evidenced by Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (Warner Brothers, 1981), a very loose remake of Double Indemnity, and Jessica Lange in the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (Lorimar, 1981), an emotionally intense film that is far more sexually explicit than the original.

 

 

 

 

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