The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir


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

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.

Laura (1944)
d. Otto Preminger

Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney)

Preminger's hard-edged noir romance might be called a psychological study of deviant, kinky obsession, because almost everyone in the cast loved the title character Laura, who was not a classically amoral femme fatale.

While investigating socialite Laura Hunt's (Gene Tierney) murder, obsessed homicide police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) rummaged through Laura's bedroom drawers and lingerie, inhaled her perfume, and peered into her mirrored closets and then stared at her haunting, domineering oil portrait - and fell in love with the dead woman in the portrait. The film contained troubling necrophiliac themes and sexual obsession by the hard-boiled detective for the dead woman.

Celebrated, acidic-witted and homosexual columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) incisively described McPherson's obsession over the murdered bewitching woman ("...It's a wonder you don't come here like a suitor with roses and a box of candy...I don't think I ever had a patient who ever fell in love with a corpse").

Lydecker had also functioned as Laura's Svengali-like mentor and protective confidant in a platonic relationship, when he helped her become a successful advertising executive. Womanizing, effete Southern playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), whose marriage to Laura was recently called off, was also a prime suspect (he confessed later to being present at the murder scene when the off-screen shooting occurred).

Then there was the surprising scene when Laura suddenly walked into her own apartment - a murdered woman who mysteriously appeared over half way into the film - and the stunned look of McPherson who expressed shock when stirred from sleep as the "dead" Laura appeared and at first thought she was a ghost or figment of his imagination. She threatened to call the police: "What are you doing here?" - unaware of the news of her own slaying.

Laura was horrified to realize that she was caught in the middle of a murder case. The murder victim was actually a young model named Diane Redfern in her negligee, in a case of mistaken identity.

After reappearing, Laura herself became a prime suspect in the murder case, since it was possible that Laura killed Diane Redfern out of jealousy for her association with Shelby. Another suspect was Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson), Laura's wealthy, amoral spinster aunt who was neurotically in love with Shelby and decidedly defensive and jealous of the younger Laura, her engagement, and her possible forthcoming marriage to Carpenter.

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.

The Woman in the Window (1944)
d. Fritz Lang

Alice Reed (Joan Bennett)

This tense film noir told about law-abiding, mild-mannered, middle-aged and married Gotham College Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson). He met beautiful, strange painting model and femme fatale Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) - when she emerged as a reflection next to a painting in an art gallery window.

Invited back to her mirrored apartment where she was wearing a diaphanous dress, they sipped champagne. He became embroiled in a crime due to his unintentional self-defense murder (by stabbing his assailant to death in the back with a pair of scissors) when he was attacked by her burly and jealous boyfriend Frank Howard (Arthur Loft) who had accused her of infidelity, and then suddenly found himself on the run and ready to commit suicide.

However, the entire plot was only a dream of his subconscious.


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