The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

1946 - 1

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

The Big Sleep (1946)
d. Howard Hawks

Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall)
Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers)

Humphrey Bogart, teamed with real-life wife Lauren Bacall, played the role of private detective Philip Marlowe in this confusing, classic who-dun-it, involving blackmail, pornography, and murder in Los Angeles.

Marlowe was called to the house of a new client - dying millionaire General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), where he was first confronted with the General's seductive younger daughter who threw herself at him. She was the troubled, errant, spoiled, sexually-perverse, thumb-biting/sucking, frequently doped-up nymphomaniacal heiress Carmen (Martha Vickers). She called Marlowe "not bad looking" and "cute."

Marlowe was asked by Sternwood to investigate Carmen's ostensible blackmailer - suspicious porno "rare book" dealer Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) on North Sunset, who was blackmailing Sternwood over "gambling debts" incurred by his youngest daughter [the exact nature of the blackmail was not clear, though it may be that it wasn't gambling debts, but that Geiger had illicit, nude, incriminating or obscene photographs of Carmen and threatened to circulate them].

On the way out, Marlowe also met Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), the General's other daughter, who was suspicious of him but protective of her sister.

Within a short while, Marlowe found an incoherent, stupefied, drugged-up, Chinese-dress wearing Carmen sitting idly nearby a dead blackmailer, who was probably taking pornographic pictures of her in his home.

After returning Carmen to her Sternwood home, Marlowe again met Vivian, who accused him of duping her: "You go too far, Marlowe," since she wanted Marlowe off the case. She feared that he might find something else suspicious [namely, gangster Eddie Mars' (Joe Ridgely) additional blackmailing scheme against Vivian regarding her sister].

At this point in the film, Vivian engaged in a famous, slyly flirtatious, sexy horse-race conversation with Marlowe in which she asserted: "A lot depends on who's in the saddle."

Soon after, Vivian joined forces with Marlowe to turn the tables on Mars, end the blackmail scheme, and acquire treatment for her sick sister Carmen.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)
d. George Marshall

Helen Morrison (Doris Dowling)

Boozing, unfaithful estranged wife Helen Morrison (Doris Dowling) made her first appearance in the film kissing LA's The Blue Dahlia nightclub owner Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva) at a party she was hosting in her ritzy bungalow house.

Clad in a slinky trouser suit, she seemed unapologetic to her returning discharged WWII veteran and naval flier husband Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd).

Helen hinted that Johnny might now be violent: "Maybe you've learnt to like hurting people?" She then admitted to him that their young son had been killed in a DUI accident while she was driving, causing him to angrily walk out on her while leaving his gun in her bungalow.

Soon, Johnny was accused of Helen's murder and became a fugitive, encountering Harwood's separated blonde wife Joyce (Veronica Lake) in a dreamy drive up the coast to Malibu.

Decoy (1946)
d. Jack Bernhard

Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie)

One of the most ruthless, mean, deceitful and manipulative femmes fatales in noir history was Margot Shelby (British actress Jean Gillie), who would use whatever means necessary to reach her selfish ends.

This little-known cult B-film noir opened with betrayed and seriously-wounded Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley) washing his soiled and bloody hands and face in a grimy washroom sink (with broken mirror) at a gas station. After hitchhiking to San Francisco 75 miles away, he proceeded, Frankenstein-like, to the 6th floor apartment of Margot Shelby (who was preparing to flee town), fatally shot her for revenge, and then dropped dead. Hard-nosed, tough-guy detective Sgt. Joseph "Jo Jo" Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) arrived too late to save her.

As she died, she begged for a money chest to be brought to her ("Give it to me. I want it...It's mine. It's all mine now"), and explained what had happened in the lengthy flashback, beginning with:

I wanted money. Frankie Olins had it. He took it from a shiny red bank truck two days before Christmas. $400,000. Only, before he could take it, he had to kill the driver. Frankie was in jail now. The people of the state of California said he had to die. But only Frankie knew where the money was hidden.

At the Watchaprague State Prison, ex-gun moll Margot visited convicted robber Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong), who told her why he stole the money - it was for his own possessive reasons related to her ("I want you to be beautiful for me"), but he wouldn't reveal the location of the $400,000. So Margot systematically schemed with gangster pal Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) to finance the plan (he had already provided thousands for Olins' lawyers) and provide support - becoming his girl, while also seeking the cooperation of idealistic Dr. Craig through the promise of romance.

The scheme was to have the prison doctor inject Frankie's corpse (after he had expired in the prison's gas chamber from hydrocyanic gas) with Methylene Blue as an antidote within one hour and revive him, in order to learn the treasure's whereabouts. To carry out the plan, the morgue truck was hijacked, and one of Vincent's gunmen Tommy (Philip Van Zandt) killed the paid-off driver. They stole Frankie's corpse, and brought it to Dr. Craig's office where Olins was miraculously resurrected. Convincing him that they needed the dough for expenses and for Olins' plastic surgery, he drew a map of the dough's location, kept one-half of the crude map, and gave the other half to Margot.

When Olins tried to give Margot a "little welcome back kiss," Vincent shot him dead - and then kissed Margot. Their kiss was witnessed by Dr. Craig, who realized that he had been swindled, was implicated in the crime, and was professionally ruined.

Back at her apartment, Margot was confronted by the detective who was checking up on her - he told her, in a classic line: "People who use pretty faces like you use yours don't live very long, anyway," to which she replied: "How do you think I should use my face...?"

Margot and Vincent (with the two parts of the map) took Dr. Craig as hostage on their late-night drive to the treasure's location, during which time Margot deliberately and sadistically ran over Vincent fixing their flat tire (she had let the air out). She also calmly handed her pistol over to Dr. Craig who had told her about his desire to kill her, but he didn't have the nerve to shoot her. She then had Dr. Craig do the dirty work by digging up the treasure box in a eucalyptus grove (he appeared to have an opportunity to strike her with a shovel, but again lacked courage).

After telling him: "All our hopes, all our plans...," she exorted him with sexually-laced language: "Quickly, Lloyd, quickly! Dig for it! Deeper! Faster!", and explained how guilty they all were: "They killed for it. They all killed for it. Frankie, Vincent, I killed for it. And you. You, too! You killed for it!" - and then shot him twice, laughing hysterically and maniacally as he lay on the ground.

She ran off with the strong box in her arms, cackling: "It's mine. It's all mine now!"

The film ended with a return to the present - the treasure box was opened as Margot died on her apartment's couch - where it was revealed as a decoy - with only $1 and a note from Frankie: "To you who double-crossed me, I leave this dollar for your trouble. The rest of the dough I leave to the worms."

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