Double the Woman, Double the Trouble
Paper by Katrina Storton.
Film Noir, was created before WWII but wasn’t fully born until after the war ceased. Film Noir was a genre formed in an era of a society obsessed with making women return to their ‘proper places’ as homemakers and making men turn from valiant soldiers back into family bread winners. Film Noir forced the world to see what they now were, darker, grittier, hard-edged and cynical. The genre of happy-go-lucky, cheerful films weren’t enough anymore. After the war, people realized happy endings were not reality and they needed something with more substance, more truth. The main source of Film Noir’s dark nature was the Femme Fatale. The Femme Fatale’s presence in a Film Noir makes it a Film Noir. She’s always there somewhere pulling the strings. The thesis of this paper is that the Femme Fatale is the heart of Film Noir, she is what makes the genre live and breathe.
To fully comprehend the character of the Femme Fatale one must first understand the origin of Film Noir. ¬¬¬The genre of Film Noir differs from all other genres (Western, gangster, sci-fi, war films, horror…) because most genres were created in the earliest years, after the invention of cinema. While Noir was invented several decades after the birth of cinema, Film Noir had a sort of ‘glory years’ period that showcased when the genre emerged and gained shape in American film. These years ran from 1941-1959 (debatable by personal opinion and the identification of the ‘first’ Noir Film). Film Noir is known for its baroque visuals, narrative form, black and white film, and low-key lighting which uses black shadows and areas to create the classic atmospheric look. There were many sources that inspired the famous style of Film Noir. As the book, An Introduction to Film Genres by Friedman, Desser, Kozloff, Nochimson, and Prince points out, the stylistic sources of Film Noir came from the inspirations of another film genre, famous writings and paintings. The subject matter is based around the genre of ‘hard boiled’ crime fictions, the darker atmosphere and mysterious, detective nature of Film Noir stem from Edgar Allan Poe’s writing (mostly his character of Auguste Dupin) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collective works of Sherlock Holmes. The dark looks of Film Noir can also be contributed to Edward Hopper’s paintings which “depicted lonely city streets lit by spare lamps at some awful hour of the night when sleep won’t come.”(Friedman, Desser, Kozloff, Nochimson, Prince. 488) Another addition to Film Noir was the photography of Arthur H. Fellig (also known as Weegee) who was famous for capturing the nocturnal tendencies of Manhattan. With a police radio as his guide “Weegee raced to scenes of roadside carnage, mob hits, and drug and prostitutions busts, photographing these in a candid, harsh, and unsentimental manner.” (Friedman, Desser, Kozloff, Nochimson, Prince. 489) The final dash into the concoction that became the genre of Film Noir was 1940s technology, the 1930s soft and diffused lighting was no more. This new technology in cinematography would be rid of action staged in shallow planes of focus and was now using techniques of hard-light and deep-focus staging.
With the origins of Film Noir fully established, it began to grow in popularity rapidly with American audiences. In 1940-1959 Hollywood had produced an amazing accomplishment of 270 Noir Films. Early 1940’s films incorporated many Noir themes and imagery, but 1944 was when the genre catapulted into phenomenal success thanks to a group of films gaining utter praise. Double Indemnity (1of 944), Laura (1944) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) being the best examples for providing real elaborate shadows, affairs, detective work, and flamboyant low-key lighting. These films also helped to concrete character types, narrative tropes and visual designs of the Film Noir genre strongly turning crime films into the epitome of the psychological aspects of Film Noir. Film Noir became increasingly popular after these films, as the world was ready for the harshness and grit Film Noir had to offer. As World War II continued and eventually ended (in 1945) the preference in film content changed in those who had served, lost family and all others affected. The themes and typologies of Film Noir with its “low-contrast cinematography, skewed camera angles, and an unremittingly dark rendering of the urban landscape with labyrinthine plots that portrayed human beings as treacherous and violent by nature” (Lewis. 178) became a worldview that’s relevance only increased as the war dragged on. Once the war ended and “presaged the decade or so of guilt and regret that would follow” (Lewis. 180) the worldview of Noir was one that seemed to fit the American spirit of time.
As World War II ended and society was trying to ‘normalize’ things within families Noir either stuck with some of societies ideologies or went against them. The main concern in ‘normalizing’ after WWII was family. Noir showed two sides of this, pro and anti-family. The pro-family Noir films had a pattern of rewarding ‘good’ women and punishing the bad ones. These punishments (which went for men too) were especially brutal in Noir. In Film Noir, “Characters who willingly play their proper roles tend to survive beyond the end of the film, while characters who resist playing these roles often die violently or, less commonly, go to jail. On rare occasions, these films even deliver a Hollywood happy ending, when a family or a relationship that was threatened or torn apart during the course of the film actually is restored in the final scene.” (J. Blaser, S. Blaser) The Anti-family Film Noirs made a point of the women, the Femme Fatales who “do not merely provide a variation on the pro-family theme of contemporary Hollywood films — rather, they reveal a distinctly anti-family current running just beneath the surface of noir films.” (J. Blaser, S. Blaser) As in Film Noir, “the women function as an expression of the films’ underlying skepticism toward the traditional family.” (J. Blaser, S. Blaser)
Noir had a special interest in women, so much so there are three different types that can be found in most (but not all) Film Noirs. The first being the most well-known of the Noir genre, the Femme Fatale or ‘spider woman’. The second type of woman is the ‘saintly good girl’ and the third is called the ‘marrying type’.
The Femme Fatale is a woman with assertive, manipulative, independent and assertive. She represents Film Noir’s attack towards traditional womanhood and the basic models of family. The Femme Fatale refuses to play wife, she also never fills the role of a loving mother which goes against all that mainstream society prescribes towards women in the Noir era. The Femme Fatale stemmed from the stylistic nature of the new modern day women in 1940’s as when the war ended. War efforts and jobs were no longer needed after everything ceased but women had now become accustomed to a hard day’s work and the independence it provided. When husbands came back from their services, they expected their beautiful proper motherly housewife to greet them but for many, what their women had turned into was a ghastly shock. Society immediately ignored the fact that women participated in the war in their own ways and became their own providers and tried to make them assimilate back into their ‘proper’ housewife places. The Femme Fatale was the image of a woman who was a housewife yes, but still held on to her independence, which in Noir was usually obtained through her advantages, which are her cunningness and sexual attractiveness. She will she will never succumb to the controls of a man and will hold onto her independence with a tight grip, even while looking death in the eye. Another way of counteracting the stereotypes of traditional womanhood is that the Femme Fatale finds marriage unattractive. While some Femme Fatales may be married it is usually a very unhappy marriage. She finds the idea and roles of marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and even dull. She is also known for having a façade of ‘sweet’ emotions. Sympathy, sentiment and other soft emotions are simply a show as she cannot truly show them but faking them is another story. This is very relevant as you watch the Femme Fatales actions from when she is seducing and manipulating to the moment of actual murder. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbra Stanwyck) of Double Indemnity (1944) is a terrific example of this exact trend. She worries, cries, and melts into her lover, Walter Neff’s (Fred MacMurray) arms. However, this changes when it comes to the moment of murder. While Walter is strangling Mr. Dietrichson to death in the passenger seat while Phyllis is driving, Phyllis doesn’t even react. She keeps driving, as if nothing is happening to her husband beside her, she drives on while looking straight into the camera with a stone cold emotionless face.
The ‘good girl’ type of woman is a sort of balance to the Femme Fatale. This ‘good girl’ is the polar opposite of the Femme Fatale. She represents the set of beliefs in America on the accepted role of a woman. The ‘good woman’ embraces her traditional role in society and family but always seems very out of place in Film Noir. As John and Stephanie Blaser mention about the ‘good girl’ role, “Although she offers the hero a chance to escape from the sexy, destructive femme fatale and the dangerous noir world, the good woman often proves to be a mirage that the hero cannot reach. She functions as a foil for the femme fatale, not as a realistic alternative or a prescription for female behavior.” She simply just plays a type of ‘prescription for happiness’ that society administers.
The ‘marrying type’ of female is present in Noirs which in¬¬¬stead have the male hero wishing to resist his ‘proper’ role as a husband and breadwinner within the status quo (similar to the Femme Fatale). The ‘marrying type’ is a version of both the ‘good girl’ and the Femme Fatale put together. The marrying woman is a sort of nurturing Femme Fatale who is very threatening and stop at nothing to domesticate her husband, until he is suffering in the role he so desperately wanted rid of.
All three of these forms of women represent the era of the 40s and 50s and how Noir reacted to them. Each of these women were special to Film Noir and how it won over the American audiences. As John and Stephanie Blaser state, “These women are qualitatively different from the women of classical Hollywood cinema. Perhaps more than any other single element of film noir, the women function as an expression of the films’ underlying skepticism toward the traditional family.” (J. Blaser, S. Blaser) All, three forms of the female character in Film Noir are essential to the meaning of the genre and its iconography and are the one of the biggest reasons for the genre’s popularity.
While all three of the female types of Noir represent something of the American society, the ‘good girl’ and ‘marrying type’ would not exist without the presence of the Femme Fatale. The ‘good girl’ exists a counter for the Femme Fatale and the ‘marrying type’ is a combination of the two. The Femme Fatale is the lead woman type in Noir and she is also what fuels a Noir.
The Femme Fatale is almost always the cause and effect of the plot in most every Film Noir. Take the film Double Indemnity (1944) for example, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a very successful insurance salesman who visits the Dietrichson household on a house call to remind them of a renewal. The film’s Femme Fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbra Stanwyck) is the only one home when Walter visits, upon their first encounter you can tell Phyllis already has Walter on a hook. Phyllis first greets Walter while at the top of a staircase, covered only by a towel. The lighting gives her hair a glamorous and angelic look, her head is tilted and her gaze is set on Walter. Directly after this meeting, Walter moves to another room while he waits to meet Phyllis better dressed. The room he sits in is filled with family photos without Phyllis, fish tanks and Venetian blinds, these all symbolize a prison like atmosphere and give the viewer an inclination of Phyllis’s relationship with her husband and daughter. Walter had no other motives other than to try and convince Mr. Dietrichson to renew his insurance. Once he had spoken with Phyllis who asked to take out a life insurance policy on her husband without him knowing, so he left the Dietrichson house and had murder and Phyllis on his mind. The Femme Fatale had worked her magic within only a few minutes of screen time. The plot had been created and established by her. Walter had fallen for her after the first meeting, hook, line and sinker. Walter, Phyllis and her motive to kill her husband was the basis for the plot of the film all handed to the audience on a silver platter by the Femme Fatale herself.
The Femme Fatale usually leads the plot by manipulating the main male ‘hero’ into killing or stealing for her, using her attraction and sex as incentives. However, “Noir women are astonishingly pragmatic about sex. Whereas their men give into passion and obsession and thus find ruin, for the noir femme fatale, as for the vamps in the silent melodramas, sex is merely a means to an end.” (Lewis. 205) The Femme Fatale’s motives are usually something she needs to get or needs to get out of. In Double Indemnity Phyllis feels that murdering her husband is the only way out of her dull, confining, loveless and sexless marriage. In The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) the Femme Fatale Cora is in the same martial situation as Phyllis, minus a daughter from a previous marriage. Cora wants away from her elderly husband and wishes to own the restaurant he manages. This is a common theme in Noir, many Femme Fatales are in a confining marriage with a man they’re very unhappy with (usually due to him being twice her age and thus creating a cold and dull relationship for the young woman’s soul) and resort to murder in order to escape and get a reward (inheritance, insurance and things of similar nature) in the process.
The Femme Fatale is the heart of Film Noir, she runs the whole show. While she may not be in every scene and may not be the one doing all of the heinous acts, she is the reason any of it is happening in the first place. She turns heads, confuses the male audience as they see her deadliness but still feel the ultimate attraction. She is eye candy with a loaded gun that brought the Noir genre into success by gun point. Even as Noir entered the world of colored film and new technology and became Neo-Noir, the Femme Fatale was always there somewhere. In Neo-Noir she is not always as prominent as she was in Noir, but she is still there because a Noir film of any sorts cannot be made without her.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Friedman, Lester D., David Desser, Sarah Kozloff, Martha P. Nochimson, and Stephen Prince. An Introduction to Film Genres. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. Print.
Blaser, John J., and Stephanie L.M. Blaser. “The Family in Film Noir: The Femme Fatale – A Film Noir Studies Essay.” The Family in Film Noir: The Femme Fatale – A Film Noir Studies Essay. Film Noir Studies, 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Blaser, John J., and Stephanie L.M. Blaser. ” The Family in Film Noir: Women’s Anit-Family Function in Noir.” The Family in Film Noir: The Femme Fatale – A Film Noir Studies Essay. Film Noir Studies, 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Blaser, John J., and Stephanie L.M. Blaser. ” The Family in Film Noir: Pro-Family Messages in Noir.” The Family in Film Noir: The Femme Fatale – A Film Noir Studies Essay. Film Noir Studies, 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Blaser, John J., and Stephanie L.M. Blaser. “The Family in Film Noir: The Good Woman.” The Family in Film Noir: The Femme Fatale – A Film Noir Studies Essay. Film Noir Studies, 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Blaser, John J., and Stephanie L.M. Blaser. “The Family in Film Noir: The Marrying Type.” The Family in Film Noir: The Femme Fatale – A Film Noir Studies Essay. Film Noir Studies, 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Paramount, 1944. DVD.
The Postman Always Rings Twice. Dir. Tay Garnett. Perf. Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway and Hume Cronyn. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1946. DVD.