The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Part 10

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

Human Desire (1954) (aka The Human Beast)
d. Fritz Lang

Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame)

Fritz Lang's grim, noirish tale of fate, infidelity, blackmail and obsessive passion was based on Emile Zola's 1890 novel La Bete Humaine, This remake was already filmed twice before: the silent film Die Bestie im Menschen (1920, Germ.) and Jean Renoir's French film La Bête Humaine (1938, Fr.) (aka The Human Beast).

Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame) was the amoral, brassy, manipulative and sexually-frustrated wife of violence-prone, moody and depressed railway yard worker Carl (Broderick Crawford). The film's tagline described her: "She was born to be be make trouble!"

After Carl was fired from his job, he had his wife Vicki intervene with powerful John Owens (Grandon Hughes), her mother's former boss, to restore his job. When brutish Carl suspected that she had slept with the man for favors, he stalked and then murdered Owens with a knife in a train compartment

Returning Korean War veteran and train engineer Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) became inextricably involved the day of the murder while off-duty, when he witnessed that Vicki was present at the murder scene. During the trial though, he protectively avoided identifying Vicki as the passenger he saw near Owens' compartment.

Soon, Vicki was confessing to Jeff how her abusive marriage was crumbling and they entered into a passionate adulterous affair. His libidinous desire for her (and Vicki's own murderous intentions) led him to nearly kill her violence-prone husband, because Carl was threatening blackmail (if she left him) with an incriminating letter that he made her write.

In the film's conclusion after Carl was fired again, he accused Vicki of infidelity. In turn, she taunted him by admitting her affair with Jeff and that Owens had seduced her to acquire Carl's job. Insanely jealous, Carl then strangled Vicki to death.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
d. Robert Aldrich

Gabrielle/Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers)

Aldrich's masterpiece was a jarring and violent film that was an adaptation of Mickey Spillane's novel of the same name. It was the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time - at the close of the classic noir period.

The independent film featured a cheap and sleazy, contemptible, fascistic, hardened private investigator/vigilante named Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) whose trademarks were brutish violence, the end-justifies-the-means philosophy and speed. The tough PI ruthlessly pursued the white-hot, deadly apocalyptic object in a mysterious 'Pandora's box' ("the great whatzit"), ultimately leading to nuclear catastrophe and annihilation.

In the questing tale, he met up with an hysterical asylum escapee named Christina (Cloris Leachman) who was quickly tortured and killed (gruesomely with pliers) by pursuers. One of the villains was later revealed to be Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker), a trafficker in atomic material.

Hammer was aided in his search by his sexy, pimping secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper). He came across Christina's 'roommate' in the Jalisco Hotel. The femme fatale was a pixieish, waif-like blonde with closely cropped hair wearing a white, terry-cloth bathrobe named Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers). She was reclining in bed and had a gun pointed at his crotch, but she was a deceptive fraud. She provided him with a false name (her real name was Gabrielle) and impersonated the dead woman's roommate - whom she had killed.

Hammer soon learned that Christina was a scientist who had a 'secret' regarding a radioactive explosive missing or stolen from the Los Alamos, New Mexico Nuclear Test Site. He retrieved a key that Christina had swallowed, leading to a locker at the Hollywood Athletic Club, where the 'great whatzit' was found. It was a leather-bound and strapped case with a searing white-hot light emanating from within.

In the film's climax at a Malibu beach house, Dr. Soberin's betrayed accomplice Gabrielle shot him, and then wounded Hammer in the stomach after seductively commanding:

Kiss me, Mike. I want you to kiss me. Kiss me. The liar's kiss that says 'I love you' means something else. You're good at giving such kisses. Kiss me.

Disobediently, she raised the cover on the box and became a flaring pillar of fire as it consumed her. Hammer escaped with a kidnapped Velma, and they watched from the beach as the house was soon engulfed with a wave of flashes, fireballs, and series of mushroom-cloud explosions.

The Killing (1956)
d. Stanley Kubrick

Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor)

Kubrick's classic black and white heist film, told as an overlapping and interweaving jigsaw puzzle of flashbacks, was a story of greed and infidelity.

The crime film starred Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay, an ex-con who recently served time in Alcatraz and was involved in a doomed-to-fail $2 milllion horse racetrack robbery with a disparate group of other criminals.

The aftermath of the robbery went horribly wrong, due in part to the greedy scheming of inside-man window teller George Peatty's (Elisha Cook, Jr.) two-timing, cynical femme fatale wife Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor), who was in cahoots with her slick gangster boyfriend Val Cannon (Vince Edwards).

Sherry believed that the money would bring her out of poverty and revitalize her life, as she told her husband George:

It's not fair, I never had anybody but you, not a real husband, just a bad joke without a punchline.

After the heist had taken place, Val interrupted the plan and demanded the stolen loot, leading to his own death and the lethal wounding of George during a shoot-out confrontation. The fatally-wounded George staggered back to his apartment to avenge his faithless wife Sherry by killing her.

The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
d. Raoul Walsh

Mamie Stover (Jane Russell)

Well-stacked Jane Russell starred in this 20th Century Fox Cinemascopic drama as trashy heroine Mamie Stover - a title character adapted from the 1951 novel by William Bradford Huie.

After being escorted out of San Francisco by the police to a steamer bound for Honolulu in 1941, Mamie struck up a shipboard romance on the freighter with science-fiction writer Jim Blair (Richard Egan) (when he saw her as "a shapely Cinderella with a yearning heart").

He was unable to meet her challenge of making a lady out of her when she found employment as a dance-hall hostess (in the 50s, that was a euphemism for 'prostitute') at The Bungalow, led by Madame Bertha Parchman (Agnes Moorehead). She dyed her hair a bright red color - asserting that it was good for business: "They've been calling me flaming Mamie" and that it was familiar for her to hear abusive names: "I'm used to dirty names."

Her relationship with Jim was tarnished by her disreputable occupation ("a number on my back") - and the many prohibitions against prostitutes at the time (hostesses were forbidden to have boyfriends on the "outside," were not permitted to go to Waikiki Beach, and could not possess a bank account).

Mamie's lifestyle conflicted with the standards of Jim's refined, good-girl lady friend Annalee Johnson (Joan Leslie), but he fell in love with Mamie anyway and asked her to marry him, once he had served his time in the Army. She accepted his ring and promised to leave The Bungalow.

However, during the war, her lucrative profession began to pay off when she became a war profiteer and started purchasing cheap real estate: "I'm gonna buy real estate with every dollar I can raise!" Her continuing ambitions as a successful "working girl" (she became a star attraction with half of the profits of the dance-hall) with wealth and social status, ultimately doomed their happiness. Jim summarized their differences: "Anything for a dollar, Mamie? We don't think the same about how life should be lived."

High School Confidential! (1958)
d. Jack Arnold

Gwen Dulaine (Mamie Van Doren)

Jack Arnold's exploitative juvenile delinquent ("wild youth") cult film featured drug trade in a high school dope-pushing drug ring called the Wheeler-Dealers, lots of 50's slang words, and hep-talk ("Don't flip your lid", and "If you flake around with the weed, you'll end up using the harder stuff"). The film also contained switchblade fights, drag races, and Jerry Lee Lewis singing the title song in its opening from the back of a flatbed truck.

Russ Tamblyn starred as Tony Baker, an undercover cop posing as a new transfer student at Santa Bellow HS.

Platinum blonde sex-pot starlet Mamie Van Doren appeared as Tamblyn's 'bad girl' nympho, cat-in-heat guardian-aunt Gwen Dulaine. She sported a tight-sweatered, pointed 'bullet bra' covering her protuberant breasts, while vamping throughout the film when her husband was absent.

In the film's most memorable scene, bath-robed, sexually-aggressive Gwen confronted nephew Tony in the kitchen and planted a kiss on him: (Gwen: "Stop treating me like a stranger...Relatives should always kiss each other hello and goodbye, polite-like"). In another similar scene, the sex-starved seductress rolled around on the bed while Tony undressed behind his closet door.

Vertigo (1958)
d. Alfred Hitchcock

Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak)

Hitchcock's late 50s' film was a mesmerizing romantic suspense/thriller about a macabre, doomed romance. Although not technically a film noir, it has often been considered the last true classic film noir before the rise of neo-noirs.

Its theme was desperate love for an illusion. Hitchcock's tale was an intense psychological study of a desperate, insecure man's twisted psyche (necrophilia) and loss of equilibrium. It followed the troubled man's obsessive search to end his vertigo (and deaths that resulted from his 'falling in love' affliction) and became a masterful study of romantic longing, identity, voyeurism, treachery and death. Other themes included female victimization and degrading manipulation, the feminine "ideal," and fatal sexual obsession for a cool-blonde heroine.

San Francisco ex-cop John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart), suffering from a fear of heights (acrophobia), was hired by old college friend - the well-dressed, prosperous, handsome Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to trail his strange, neurotic, potentially suicidal wife Madeleine (Kim Novak).

Scottie's first view of the beautiful female was incredibly transcendental - she was half-seen in a close-up profile as she deliberately paused behind him in a restaurant. When she nearly drowned in San Francisco Bay, he rescued her and took her to his apartment where he first spoke to her. She was fearful and startled to find herself in a strange man's bed (and presumably naked). With a slight smirk - since he had previously seen her naked as he assisted her, Scottie chivalrously offered his maroon robe for her to wear.

He soon came under her mysterious spell and fell in love with her enigmatic beauty in a scene by the water's edge when they clung to each other and kissed passionately as the turbulent waves crashed melodramatically into the rocks behind them.

He was unable to prevent her 'suicidal' fall from a mission bell tower and subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown.

Then when he happened to encounter her look-alike on a San Francisco street - a dark, red-haired woman named Judy Barton (also Novak) who was wearing a tight green sweater dress - he pursued her. And soon, he was remaking her into the woman that he had lost by modifying and transforming her appearance, clothing, and hairstyle, with her reluctant approval ("If, if I let you change it, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?").

While trying to recreate the past, they traveled to the mission where he pulled Judy into the church to recreate the death scene of chasing Madeleine earlier when he had experienced his acrophobia and vertigo. At the top of the tower, Judy confessed to plotting with Elster in the murder of his wife, and then accidentally fell to her own death in the emotionally-shattering climax.

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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