The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Part 6

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

Out of the Past (1947) (aka Build My Gallows High)
d. Jacques Tourneur

Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer)

This quintessential, slick film noir of underworld intrigue, betrayal, and passion was filled with complex flashbacks.

It featured Robert Mitchum as the doomed, double-crossed ex-private eye Jeff Markham with a sordid past who fell for the icy, dark, deadly, and chameleon-like brunette femme fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). He had been hired to trail her for ruthless gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), after she had stolen $40,000 and fled to Mexico.

The self-indulgent, lethal, and erotic enchantress was the object of romantic fascination for both men.

Jeff memorably described how he first met the seductive femme fatale (when she first appeared in the film and walked into his life) dressed in white but casting a sultry silhouette as she entered from the bright white, hazy outdoors into a dark Mexican cantina:

And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn't care about that forty grand.

The private eye was mesmerized and infatuated by the dark-haired beauty (seemingly so innocent) with a broad-brimmed, white hat - unaware of her lethal charms at the beginning of their ill-fated affair. They shared a romantic interlude on the beach in the moonlight (framed by entrapping fishing nets). Both wanted to escape from the past, but couldn't deny its grip upon them, as Jeff soon learned the dangers of falling in love with her: ("You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another").

After she killed Whit, she told Jeff: "Don't you see, you've only me to make deals with now" with his laconic reply: "Build my gallows high, baby," and she continued: "You're no good for anyone but me. You're no good and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other" (after which they shared a kiss).

In the final dramatic sequence of the film, she saw a roadblock trap and realized that Jeff has capitulated to the authorities and set her up. Destined to die together for their sins, she viciously pulled out a gun and cried: "You dirty, double-crossing rat." Kathie shot Jeff dead in the driver's seat by firing her gun into his crotch.

She was gunned down by a barrage of police fire as their out-of-control car crashed into the roadblock.





The Paradine Case (1947)
d. Alfred Hitchcock

Mrs. Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli)

Hitchcock's courtroom drama centered around a classic, beautiful and poisonous femme fatale, the film's title character Mrs. Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli). She was a seductive nymphomaniac and accused murderess who was responsible for the deaths of two men and the near destruction of another.

In 1946, the attractive and glamorous foreigner widow was charged with poisoning her older, blind retired WWI military husband Colonel Richard Paradine, presumably to obtain his wealth. She was put on trial in London, defended by soon-to-be-infatuated, obsessed and devastated barrister Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck).

In order to obtain a 'not-guilty' plea in his client's case, the distinguished but bewitched trial lawyer Keane unquestioningly believed Anna's innocence from the start ("Anyone can see a woman of her quality couldn't do anything like that") although she was obviously guilty. The prosecution contended otherwise: "This is no ordinary woman."

Overly-dedicated and lustful toward Anna, Keane was determined to find the Paradine's mysterious Canadian servant Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan), believing he was guilty of the crime instead.

Under pressure, Latour killed himself - leading to the revelation that he was Anna's secret lover, the motivation for the original murder of the husband. Anna also admitted that she had washed and dried the burgundy glass that contained the poison.

Keane's law practice and his marriage to his pretty, sympathetic blonde wife Gay (Ann Todd) were nearly destroyed from the emotional pressure and stress.




The Woman on the Beach (1947) (aka La Femme Sur La Plage, Fr., or Desirable Woman)
d. Jean Renoir

Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett)

Renoir's moody, nightmarish erotic melodrama was a psychological character study about a tormented love triangle. It was the director's final American film during wartime exile. The film was severely edited by RKO, leaving it as only a fragment of what it could have been.

Shell-shocked Coast Guard veteran Lieutenant Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan) was stationed near a desolate California coastline during recuperation from post-traumatic stress. Although engaged to wholesome local girl Eve Geddes (Nan Leslie), he became distracted and smitten in an illicit affair with slutty and passionate femme fatale Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett). Peggy was married to renowned blind painter Tod (Charles Bickford) and lived in an isolated clifftop house with him.

Peggy was obsessively guilt-ridden within her unhappy, imprisoning, embittered and dysfunctional love-hate marriage to the excessively-jealous, wife-beating man, believing she had to stay with him because she had caused her husband's blindness (by cutting his optic nerve) during a drunken brawl.

Lieutenant Scott Burnett took it upon himself to prove that the blindness was faked ("If I could prove to you that Tod wasn't really blind, would you leave him?") and in one extraordinary scene led the painter along a cliffside to disprove his disability.

In the ambiguous ending, when Peggy proved her love to Scott (although her past as a nymphomaniacal seductress was revealed - "Go ahead and say it, I'm no good"), her husband Tod freed her by burning down their house ("I am free"), consuming all of his paintings. The reconciled couple departed to go to New York to start a new life, leaving Scott free to return to Eve.



Force of Evil (1948)
d. Abraham Polonsky

Edna Tucker (Marie Windsor)

This uncompromising post-war film noir was narrated and told in documentary style.

Ambitious and successful Wall Street attorney Joe Morse (John Garfield), due to corrupt dealings with numbers racketeer-client and crime boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), was on the verge of making millions through a race-track betting scam.

In this Cain and Abel tale, Joe's honest, estranged older brother Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) remained in the Lower East Side slum neighborhood where they had grown up, maintaining a local "small numbers bank," and refusing to join his brother.

Leo was ultimately killed by the mob (his body was dumped on the rocks under the George Washington Bridge).

Although she had only a few minutes on-screen, mob boss Tucker's sultry femme fatale wife Edna (Marie Windsor) was working behind-the-scenes to manipulate and torment Joe into supporting the downfall of his brother's racket. About 40 minutes into the film, she appeared in Joe's office to request an end to the wire-tapping on her husband's phone (indicated by picking up the receiver and hearing a "little click"), while personally inquiring about Joe himself. She sexually taunted him about his manhood:

What kind of a man you are, what you really are...I'm trying you. What are you afraid of, to show you're afraid?...You're not strong or weak enough.



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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