The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Introduction &

Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir: Classic film noir developed during and after World War II, taking advantage of the post-war ambience of anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion, and possibly reflecting male fears of female liberation and independence during the war years. Film noirs first evolved in the 1940s, became prominent in the post-war era, and lasted in a classic "Golden Age" period until about 1960. A film noir story was often developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character [e.g., Robert Mitchum, Fred MacMurray, or Humphrey Bogart] who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme fatale [e.g., Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett or Lana Turner were the most prominent]. Femme fatale literally means "killer (or deadly) woman."

The character type of femme fatale was derived from the anti-heroine vamps of early cinema, such as Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (1915). She was first introduced as an evil temptress with her character name of Vampire, and she spoke her most-famous line of all: "Kiss me, my Fool!" The full-bosomed Bara, dubbed the "Vamp," was the screen's first femme fatale, predatory vamp and first movie sex goddess. She was a Hollywood creation who mixed ruthlessness and dark erotic sexiness into her numerous roles. Flappers in the Roaring Twenties, helped along with the popularity of "It" Girl Clara Bow, and the German film Pandora's Box (1929) with Louise Brooks as the iconographic and erotic femme fatale, also contributed to the archetypal development of the character.

The females in film noir were either of two types (or archetypes) - dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women; or femmes fatales - mysterious, duplicitous, subversive, double-crossing, gorgeous, unloving, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women. Usually, the male protagonist in film noir wished to elude his mysterious past, and had to choose what path to take (or have the fateful choice made for him).

Invariably, the choice would be an overly ambitious one, to follow the dangerous but desirable wishes of these dames. The goadings of the traitorous, self-destructive femme fatale would lead the struggling, disillusioned, and doomed hero into committing murder or some other crime of passion coupled with twisted love. When the major character was a detective or private eye, he would become embroiled and trapped in an increasingly-complex, convoluted case that would lead to fatalistic, suffocating evidences of corruption, irresistible love and death. The femme fatale, who had also transgressed societal norms with her independent and smart, menacing actions, would bring both of them to a downfall.

However, a few of the greatest film noirs ever made didn't have a specific or major femme fatale role, such as: Kiss of Death (1947), Cry of the City (1948), The Naked City (1948), Raw Deal (1948), They Live By Night (1949), The Third Man (1949), D.O.A. (1950), In a Lonely Place (1950), Night and the City (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Touch of Evil (1958) and The Big Combo (1955). See genre description of film noir.

The films that are marked with a yellow star are the films that Greatest Films has selected as the "100 Greatest Films".

Key to Icon Symbol: - The best (or greatest - worst - of all) femmes fatales

Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir
(chronological by film title)
Introduction & 1941 | 1944 | 1945 | 1946-1 | 1946-2 | 1947-1 | 1947-2
1948 | 1949 | 1950-1952 | 1953 | 1954-1956 | 1958

Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir
Film Title and Director, Femme Fatale and Description

I Wake Up Screaming (1941) (aka Hot Spot)
d. H. Bruce Humberstone

Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis)

In this early film noir (with its story mostly told in flashback), waitress and aspiring buxom model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) was murdered (strangled) just before her departure for Hollywood, with fight promoter and recently-dumped publicity agent/manager Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) accused of the crime.

Although innocent, he was intensely grilled by ruthless, dogged and vindictive NYC police detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) who actually knew the real killer (revealed at the conclusion to be twitchy hotel switchboard operator Harry Williams (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who was rejected by Vicky), although he held Frankie responsible for the murder of his own budding protege during an unhealthy personal crusade to frame him.

Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), slain Vicky's stenographer sister, aided Frankie in his flight and search for justice as she fell in love with him and believed in his innocence.

Vicky's picture (or photograph) was frequently in the frame of view during the investigations - showing her power from the grave.

By film's end, it was revealed that the obsessive detective's apartment was filled with pictures of the deceased femme fatale, with a shrine on his mantle as well. The fixated and hopelessly obsessed Cornell committed suicide with poison, rather than face prosecution for cover-up and for framing Frankie.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
d. John Huston

Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) (aka Miss Ruth Wonderly, Miss Leblanc)

In the beginning of this moody and early film noir, deceitful femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) (with lots of alias names) shot and killed private investigator Sam Spade's (Humphrey Bogart) partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), a surprise killing point-blank, on a dark San Francisco street.

Right from the start, Spade distrusted her sincerity act: "You're good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like 'Be generous, Mr. Spade'," but he was obviously attracted and allured to her anyway; he knew she was duplicitous:

The schoolgirl manner, you know, blushing, stammering, and all that... if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.

After seductively asking Spade what she could offer besides money, he brutally took her face in his hands and kissed her roughly - digging his thumbs into her cheeks, as she accepted his lingering kiss.

She was involved with a trio of ruthless, shady treasure hunters led by Fat Man Casper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) who had spent many years pursuing the trail of the legendary "black bird" statue (or "dingus"), the fabled and bejewelled Maltese Falcon.

In the finale, to save herself from the murder charge, Brigid attempted to throw herself at Spade once again, hoping that he would continue to protect her and conceal her crime. With a fluttery, bogus innocence, she wildly professed the existence of her love for him and begged him not to turn her in. However, she was arrested for the murder after Spade threatened: "Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over" and she took "the fall."

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