The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Part 4

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

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."

Gilda (1946)
d. Charles Vidor

Gilda Mundson Farrell (Rita Hayworth)

Rita Hayworth was featured in this dark and complex noir (of a love triangle) with her sleek and sophisticated eroticism, lush hair and peaches and cream complexion. The 'love goddess' portrayed the sexy, hedonistic, auburn-haired wife of South American casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who had recently hired gambling drifter Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) as his casino manager.

In one of filmdom's best-known film entrances, she was introduced as Balin's new exuberantly healthy American wife to Johnny (Mundson: "Gilda, are you decent?" Gilda: "Me?" (she gave a long, sensual look at Johnny, and pulled up one side of her strapless dress) "Sure, I'm decent") as she threw back her head and tossed her thick mane of hair in a blatantly sexual response. She was also the ex-wife of Johnny - who was entrusted with watching over her.

With her lingering love for Johnny, Gilda served herself up to be the object of a tension-filled, love-hate relationship between the two sexual rivals, as Johnny expressed his obsessive love for her:

I hated her so, I couldn't get her out of my mind for a minute. She was in the air I breathed, the food I ate...

To torture and inflame Johnny's jealous passions, Gilda danced and flirted with another good-looking male escort named Gabe Evans (Robert Scott) - and when dragged from the casino dance floor by Johnny, Gilda delivered her most famous one-liner:

Didn't you hear about me, Gabe? If I'd been a ranch, they would've named me the Bar Nothing.

When Balin mysteriously 'died,' Johnny assumed control over the casino business and treated Gilda with increasing sadomasochism and abuse after taking her as his wife.

In the film's most famous scene, Gilda - in a strapless black satin gown slit up to her thigh - gave a sultry and bawdy performance as she stripped off her elbow-length black gloves to the tune of "Put the Blame on Mame."

In the upbeat finale to satisfy the Hays Code censors, Johnny admitted how wrong he was and they reconciled with each other after many months of an explosive relationship.

The Killers (1946)
d. Robert Siodmak

Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner)

This classic, definitive film noir (a tale of robbery, unrequited love, and brutal betrayal in a twisting double-cross) - an adaptation of a 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, was told in eleven taut flashbacks after a bravura opening murder sequence.

Two professional hit men cold-bloodedly murdered doomed ex-boxer Ole 'Swede' Andersen (Burt Lancaster, in his film debut) who had been hiding out in a New Jersey town under an alias for six years. He was warned in a nearby boardinghouse to flee, but was indifferent to their deadly approach and passively awaited his death on his bed. The Swede accepted his death stoically because, as he admitted fatefully: "I did something wrong once," referring to the film's complex tale of crime and treacherous betrayal - all revolving around a beautifully-glamorous, mysterious, double-crossing, manipulative, vixenish femme fatale named Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).

At a swanky hotel party, the Swede first met and fell under the spell of gorgeous Kitty (wearing a sexy black dress and singing "The More I Know of Love") and her sleazy underworld racketeering friends, led by gangster/boyfriend Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) (who was absent and in jail at the time).

The Swede first took a jail sentence rap in Kitty's place for stolen jewelry, and later, while planning a hat factory heist with Colfax, the Swede again fell under the allure of the treacherous Kitty.

Late one night just before the robbery, she duplicitously told him that he was being set up by the betraying Colfax, confessed her love, and told him:

I'm poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me.

She then persuaded him to get revenge on Colfax by stealing the payroll. She lied to him, promising the Swede that the money would allow her to get away from her hated boyfriend Colfax.

Trusting blindly in Kitty, the Swede double-crossed the gang and robbed them of the payroll at the farm house, but then Kitty double-crossed him by stealing the money and ditching him.

The noir film ended when she was revealed to be Colfax's wife and partner in crime. She knelt by her husband's body as he was dying and again expressed how heartless and selfish she was. She repeatedly begged her dying husband to lie for her (as the Swede once did) ("Say, 'Kitty is innocent. I swear, Kitty is innocent.' Say it, Jim, say it! It'll save me if you do"), to save herself from serving prison time, and to confirm her innocence about the hired killers.

Colfax, her potential fall guy, expired after asking for a cigarette. His silence criminally implicated Kitty and condemned her.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
d. Tay Garnett

Cora Smith (Lana Turner)

This stylish, sexually-charged, moody and fatalistic film about lust and murder (adapted from James M. Cain's novel) by director Tay Garnett was best known for one of the hottest portrayals of a sultry and seductive femme fatale - it was one of "sweater girl" Lana Turner's finest performances as a seductress. It was advertised in the tagline with: "Their Love was a Flame that Destroyed!"

The film was advertised with posters that described the illicit passion between drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) and married, libidinous, restless and unsatisfied platinum-blonde waitress Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in a roadside cafe.

Frank's first look at hot-blooded, voluptuous Cora was prefaced by her lipstick case noisily rolling across the floor of the cafe toward him. The camera tracked back to her nude slim legs in the doorway. Frank looked at all of her - she was provocatively sexy and scantily clad in white shorts, white halter top, and white turban. Immediately smitten, Frank proposed to the voluptuous Cora to leave with the promise of adventure to escape her life of boredom and defeat, and her marriage of convenience.

They hatched a plot to get rid of her good-hearted husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway), although Frank knew that Cora's smoldering sexuality was also a trap which pulled him further toward murder. The lovers planned to eliminate the woman's unloved husband - unfaithful and soul-less Cora planted the idea of murder into Frank's head so that they could be together.

Their second awkwardly-executed attempt to kill Nick was successful, but ultimately led to their mutual destruction in unexpected ways. As the star-crossed lovers drove along the highway and neared their home after mutual recriminations, Frank asked for a long-awaited kiss as Cora said:

When we get home, Frank, then there'll be kisses, kisses with dreams in them. Kisses that come from life, not death.

Distracted during the 'kiss that comes from life' while he was driving, Frank ran off the road, killing Cora ('with a kiss that comes from death') in a fatal auto accident.

Subsequently, Frank was tried and falsely convicted of her murder, and in his last words to the priest, accepted his fate: "Somehow or other, Cora paid for Nick's life with hers. And now I'm going to. Father, would you send up a prayer for me and Cora, and if you could find it in your heart, make it that we're together, wherever it is?"

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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