The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Part 3

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

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
d. John Stahl

Ellen Berent Harland (Gene Tierney)

This psychological, unsettling melodramatic Technicolored noir highlighted a menacing, father-fixated, unstable, and deranged, darkly alluring femme fatale named Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney).

She vowed to her novelist husband Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde): "I'll never let you go, never, never," stopping at nothing to make the man she loved her exclusive possession.

In one scene, she expressed to him after her father's cremation and the scattering of ashes: "I can't help it. It's only because I love you so. I love you so, I can't bear to share you with anybody."

The most dramatic scene was the drowning murder of her paraplegic brother-in-law Danny (Darryl Hickman) in a lake as she calmly watched from a nearby rowboat. The scene began with her cheerfully assisting Danny in applying suntan lotion before he slipped into the water from the boat. He asked: "Can I swim all the way across today?" When she asked: "Do you think you can make it?", he assured: "Why sure? I made it three-quarters yesterday and I wasn't a bit tired." She followed in the rowboat, and promised he didn't have to worry about his direction: "I'll keep you on your course." She steered him into the middle of the lake and noted: "You're not making very much progress, Danny. Are you alright?" When he became winded and had a kink in his side, he admitted he was getting tired. She told him to "take it easy," but then pushed him further: "You don't want to give up when you've come so far." When he became exhausted and distressed in the water from severe stomach cramps (after eating a large lunch), Ellen passively watched as he called out: "Help me!" He submerged twice and then disappeared under the surface. She pretended to assist him by diving in, but it was obviously too late.

Later, Ellen deliberately fell down a flight of stairs to cause a miscarriage and kill her unborn child. Before the 'accident' occurred, she detestfully looked at her pregnant self in a mirror: "Look at me. I hate the little beast. I wish it would die." She told her half-sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain): "I never wanted it. Richard and I never needed anything else." Ruth replied: "How could you say such wicked things?" to which Ellen admitted: "Sometimes the truth is wicked." Plotting, she changed into a longer blue robe and high-heeled blue slippers, emerged from her bedroom, and stood at the top of the stairs. She realized she could fake a tripping fall by catching her left slipper under the rug - she flung herself forward with a scream.

Finally, she committed suicide with cyanide, implicating Ruth in the death (although she was found innocent) and sending Richard to jail for two years for withholding evidence.

Mildred Pierce (1945)
d. Michael Curtiz

Veda Pierce Forrester (Ann Blyth)

This melodramatic, flashbacked, post-war noir classic was a tale of greed and murder.

Before filling in the backstory, the film opened in a beach house with the shooting murder of Monte Baragon (Zachary Scott) by an unseen assailant, and the contemplation of suicide on a Santa Monica pier by Best Actress-winning Joan Crawford, playing suspected murderess Mildred Pierce-Beragon. Possibly seen as the film's femme fatale, Mildred set up business associate Wally Fay (Jack Carson) to return to the crime scene where her husband had been murdered.

It was later revealed that Mildred had an obsessive mother-daughter love for her venomous femme fatale daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), and had contributed to her daughter's spoiled, ungrateful, unappreciative and slutty behavior for a long time. Veda had been indulgently showered with gifts, nice clothes, and piano lessons, provided by Mildred's sacrificial baking of pies and cakes, although Veda was embarrassed by her mother's occupation: "My mother - a waitress!"

In a second major confrontation on a staircase, Veda slapped Mildred after brutally insulting her mother:'ll never be anything but a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money, I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!

Mildred threatened back: "Get out before I kill you."

Veda's outrageous behavior went much further, as she:

  • faked a pregnancy to extort money from her boyfriend's wealthy family
  • took a job as a singer/dancer in a sleazy nightclub
  • coerced her mother into marrying Monte Baragon (with whom she was having a semi-incestuous affair)
  • continued to treat her mother condescendingly

In the end, Veda was revealed to be Monte's killer, after Monte had confronted her inside the beach-house: "You don't really think I could be in love with a rotten little tramp like you, do you?"

As Veda was led away at the police station, she asserted to her mother: "Don't worry about me, Mother. I'll get by."

Scarlet Street (1945)
d. Fritz Lang

Katharine "Kitty" March (Joan Bennett)

Fritz Lang's steamy and fatalistic film was one of the moodiest, blackest thrillers ever made.

It told about a meek, middle-aged cashier and unhappily-married, hen-pecked husband and amateur painter named Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson). He unwittingly fell into a cruel trap set by cold-hearted, amoral femme fatale gold-digger and Greenwich Village streetwalker Katherine "Kitty" March (Joan Bennett) and her abusive, slick and mercenary boyfriend-pimp Johnny (Dan Duryea).

Cross first met Kitty when she was being beaten up by Johnny on a rainy night, and they got to know each other in a bar for a late-night drink. He was immediately entranced by the clear plastic raincoat-wearing sexy dame.

She led Cross to commit embezzlement, impersonated him in order to sell his paintings, and was deceitful and cruel to him. After he proposed marriage, she told him:

Oh, you idiot! How can a man be so dumb?...I've wanted to go laugh in your face ever since I first met you. You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you. Sick, sick, sick!

She caused him in a fit of jealous anger to murder her. He stabbed her with an ice-pick through her bed covers.

The film ended with Johnny being accused of the crime, and Cross suffering humiliating disgrace, haunting psychological torment and mental anguish (i.e., Cross attempted suicide by hanging and failed, and in abject homelessness wandered the streets).

The final image was his shuffling by a 5th Avenue gallery passing the portrait he had made of Kitty.

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.

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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