The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Part 5

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

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
d. Lewis Milestone

Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck)

This sordid and noirish B/W melodrama told about three childhood friends who were brought together 18 years later for a climactic denouement regarding a murderous and guilty secret from the past, in the Pennsylvania town of Iverstown.

The film opened in 1928 with young heiress Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson as a girl) bludgeoning (with a cane) her domineering, tyrannical, mean-spirited, wealthy Aunt Ivers (Judith Anderson) to death (on a flight of stairs where she tumbled to her death) during a raging thunderstorm - revenge for caning to death Martha's beloved cat named Bundles. At the time, Martha had repeatedly been planning to run away with her young, street-smart boyfriend Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman as a boy).

The murder was thought to have been witnessed by both Sam, who fled town (and joined a circus) and by young Walter O'Neil (Mickey Kuhn as boy) who was at Martha's side. Walter was convinced by Martha to lie about the killing to save herself. In exchange for their help, Walter's scheming father Mr. O'Neil (Roman Bohnen), Martha's greedy tutor, blackmailed Martha into marrying Water (so that he could acquire her inherited wealth and influence), while an innocent man was accused, condemned and executed for the murder of Martha's aunt.

The love triangle clashed when they were brought together again almost two decades later in 1946:

  • domineering, single-minded, predatory, self-interested, and determined femme fatale Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) had lovelessly married alcoholic district attorney Walter O'Neil (Kirk Douglas in his film debut) in the steelworks town of Iverstown; she now dominated everything
  • Martha was still attracted to her former beau Sam (Van Heflin as adult), a decorated wartime soldier and gambler, when he was forced to remain in the town after crashing his car
  • Martha (and Walter) feared Sam's knowledge of the awful crime and would try to blackmail them, although at a crucial point in the film, he admitted that he did not witness Aunt Iverson's death ("I left as soon as I saw your Aunt enter the room")

[Note: In the film's major sub-plot, Sam tried to help a new acquaintance in town, pretty Antonia "Toni" Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who was on parole and innocent of the charge of theft. He appealed to DA Walter to request his influence in her case, after she was arrested for violating parole. Although Toni betrayed Sam and set him up for a beating, she was under pressure by Walter to do so, and was ultimately forgiven by Sam.

Martha, who had never given up her love for Sam, decided to seduce him and then have him heartlessly kill her weak-willed (and unconscious) husband ("Now, Sam. Do it now. Set me free. Set both of us free...Oh, Sam, it can be so easy"), but Sam refused ("I never murdered"). When Sam walked out of the mansion, Martha threatened to shoot Sam as an intruder - in "self defense" - but she couldn't pull the trigger on him and shoot him in the back. As he left, he told them: "I feel sorry for you, both of you."

The shock double-suicide ending included Martha's death when she pulled the trigger on herself as her jealous and drunk husband Walter held a gun to her stomach during a deadly embrace - and then with her draped limply in his arms, Walter shot himself to death. Sam witnessed the two deaths through a window, as he stood outside the mansion, before driving off with Toni.

Born to Kill (1947)
d. Robert Wise

Helen Trent (Claire Trevor)

Robert Wise's dark, racy, amoral and noirish crime melodrama was based on James Gunn's novel Deadlier Than the Male, with the themes of divorce, sex, and adultery.

The story opened in Reno with the cold-blooded double-murder of his girlfriend Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell) and male date (Tony Barrett), committed by jealously enraged, megalomaniacal bad guy Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney). He was an irresistible male femme fatale with a killer instinct - an obvious reversal of the typical noir pattern.

The wealthy, worldly and beautiful socialite Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), in Reno for a divorce, discovered the bodies on a kitchen floor but didn't report them to police, because she had plans to travel to San Francisco to marry wealthy fiancee Fred Grover (Phillip Terry).

When Helen and Sam fled town separately, they found themselves on the same train and sexually interested in each other - she was drawn to the cold-blooded murderer, as the film's tagline described their relationship: "The coldest killer a woman ever loved."

Sam married Helen's affluent newspaper heiress foster-sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), although he maintained an illicit sexual relationship with Helen - his lustful and passionate "soulmate."

Both repelled and attracted to Sam, Helen hinted to seedy private detective Matthew Arnett (Walter Slezak) trailing Sam that he was a remorseless murderer, while still offering him $15,000 to suppress evidence against Sam.

In one repellent scene, Helen and Sam embraced in a kitchen while gleefully reminiscing about the double-murder.

By film's end, an enraged Sam fatally shot Helen through a door just before he was killed by police gunfire, with her final thought about how her fiancee Fred hadn't saved her from being irresistibly drawn to Sam:

Fred was right...this time I didn't land on my feet.

Dead Reckoning (1947)
d. John Cromwell

Coral 'Dusty' Chandler (Lizabeth Scott)

This overly complex film noir about doomed romance, conspiracy and betrayal was told in flashback by returning WWII military paratrooper veteran Capt. Warren 'Rip' Murdock (Humphrey Bogart).

He and his army buddy Sgt. Johnny Drake (William Prince) were to be decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross. Enroute to Washington to receive their war service honors, Drake told Murdock that he was haunted by a blonde in his past, and was advised:

Johnny, why don't you get rid of the grief you've got for that blonde, whoever she is? Every mile we go, you sweat worse with the same pain. Didn't I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?

Drake disappeared from the train in Philadelphia when photographers and news-reporters appeared. Later, 'Rip' traced Drake to his sultry southern Gulf City hometown where he learned that Drake had recently been killed in a fiery car accident. Digging through Drake's past, he learned that he had been accused of murder a few years before the end of the war when involved in a love-triangle, and he had fled to join the Army with a fake name (his real name was Johnny Preston).

Drake's blonde ex-lover Mrs. Coral 'Dusty' Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) had a memorable entrance scene. She was found as a cabaret lounge singer ("Cinderella with a husky voice") at the Sanctuary Club owned by gangster Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky). The camera panned up as she prepared to smoke a cigarette - and Rip held out a match to the alluring femme fatale. In voice-over, Rip reflected:

I hated every part of her. I couldn't figure her out yet. I wanted to see her the way Johnny had. I wanted to hear that song of hers with Johnny's ears. Maybe she was alright. And maybe Christmas comes in July, but I didn't believe it.

A letter written by Johnny before he died was thought to hold clues to the case. Rip also found himself falling in love with the alluring but treacherous and duplicitous Coral:

I didn’t like the feeling I had about her - the way I wanted to put my hand on her arm, the way I kept smelling that jasmine in her hair, the way I kept hearing that song she'd sung. Yeah, I was walking into something, alright.

She was revealed to be the widow of a wealthy, elderly victim named Stuart Chandler that Drake had killed before he joined the Army. Eventually, Coral claimed that she had committed the murder in self-defense, and was thereafter blackmailed by Martinelli after she gave him the murder weapon. Contrary to her story, Martinelli claimed that he and Coral were married and that he killed Chandler and then framed and killed Johnny so that Coral would inherit her rich husband's wealth.

In the film's ending, Coral killed Martinelli, thinking it was Rip - and as Rip drove her to the police station to turn her in, he told her: "You're going to fry, Dusty...when a guy's pal is killed, he ought to do something about it."

As he was driving, she held a gun on him and fired as he accelerated to 80 mph - leading to a loss of control and a car crash, with her subsequent death from injuries.

Lady in the Lake (1947)
d. Robert Montgomery

Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter)

Robert Montgomery both directed (his directorial debut film, with an experimental and revolutionary subjective camera technique) and starred in this classic noir, adapted from Raymond Chandler's 1944 novel of the same name.

In 1940s Hollywood, private detective Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) was on the case of a missing wife. The victim was promiscuous Chrystal (Ellay Mort) who was married to millionaire pulp-crime magazine publisher Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). Marlowe was hired by Kingsby's tough-girl, manipulative, witchy and kittenish editor-assistant and career woman Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) - the film's femme fatale.

Supposedly, the wife Chrystal had run off to Mexico two months earlier, according to a telegram, with muscle-bound gigolo boyfriend Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons) - who later turned up dead. The case became even more complicated when another woman's body was found drowned in Little Fawn Lake near Kingsby's summer retreat cabin. The corpse belonged to Muriel Chess (her real name was Mildred Haveland (Jayne Meadows)), the wife of Kingsby's caretaker.

Gold-digging, self-interested Adrienne, who suspected that the caretaker's wife was murdered by Kingsby's wife Chrystal, wanted Marlowe to investigate and either find "murderess" Chrystal dead or alive - so that she could be prosecuted for murder. Adrienne was eager for Kingsby to begin divorce proceedings against Chrystal, or to find Chrystal dead, so that she could marry her boss.

The plot became even more complex when Kingsby fired Adrienne for her scheming ways, and announced that he had no plans for divorce.

Ultimately, in a long concluding dialogue with Marlowe (with the camera entirely on her), Adrienne abandoned her ways to show her affection for the private detective on Christmas Eve:

We'd be fine together. In everything, we'd be fine together only you don't think I'm honest. I want you to know that I am...I want to take care of you. Maybe it isn't glamorous, I don't know, but I want to be your girl. That's what I want for Christmas. Don't laugh at me...It's just like you said that day. We're both alike. In everything we're alike. We'll be fine together. We will, won't we? This is what the world is really like, isn't it?

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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