The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Part 1

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."

Double Indemnity (1944)
d. Billy Wilder

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)

Billy Wilder's (and Raymond Chandler's) adaptation of James M. Cain's novel included a persuasive, sinister brassy blonde - a beautiful, shrewd, predatory and dissatisfied femme fatale housewife named Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who convinced a smart-talking insurance agent/lover Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to murder her unsuspecting, boring husband (in an emotionless marriage) so they could share 'double indemnity' insurance proceeds.

She first appeared draped in a towel during sunbathing when he came to her door, and enticed Neff with her blonde bangs and gold anklet - later he confessed: "I'm crazy about you, baby." In Neff's apartment, a kiss sealed the murderous pact between them - he grabbed her tightly and dug his fingers into her arm, while asserting:

There's not going to be any slip up. Nothing sloppy, nothing weak, it's got to be perfect...This has got to be perfect, do ya understand? Straight down the line.

They met surreptitiously, often talking over shelves stocked with groceries, to cooly discuss the complicated details of the planned murder and wait for the right set of circumstances to arise. The murder occurred as Phyllis drove her husband to the train station - Neff reached from behind and killed Mr. Dietrichson by breaking his neck. A camera close-up of Phyllis's unmoving and stony face staring straight ahead was all that was revealed during the murder that was brutally carried out on the seat next to her.

The final scene occurred in the darkened Dietrichson living room, where Phyllis had concealed a shiny, metallic gun. Neff also had intentions to kill Phyllis, but she upstaged him with 'plans of her own.' She shot him once in the shoulder, but hesitated to kill him for some reason (because of her love for him, or because of her conscience?), admitting being "rotten to the heart."

Walter grimly shot her twice at point-blank range - during their erotic embrace.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)
d. Edward Dmytryk

Velma/Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor)

Edward Dmytryk's twisting story of intrigue starred singer Dick Powell as the down-and-out PI Phillip Marlowe searching for ex-con Moose Malloy's (Mike Mazurki) missing ex-lover Velma Valento/Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) in wartime Los Angeles - she had sold him out 8 years earlier, although he still remembered her: "She was cute as lace pants."

During a murder investigation, Marlowe was brought for a visit to the Grayle mansion in Brentwood where he met Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander) and his much younger wife Helen (Trevor again), who was showing off her legs. She was associated with master-crook and blackmailer Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) who was involved in setting up rich women as targets.

The mysterious, flirtatious and slinky Helen Grayle also hired the detective to locate a stolen jade necklace (which she later revealed was not actually stolen). Marlowe navigated through a perilous world, becoming further entangled with and threatened by despicable high- and low-class criminals.

The final showdown occurred at the Grayles' beach house, where Helen was killed by her husband and both Moose and Mr. Grayle shot and killed each other.

The climactic shoot-out revealed that mysterious, flirtatious, gold-digging, exploitative, double-identity Mrs. Helen Grayle - also known as Velma Valento, had set up numerous individuals over the theft of jade jewelry, and was indeed a murderous femme fatale.

Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir
(chronological by film title)

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

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