The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Part 7

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

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
d. Orson Welles

Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth)

This imaginative, complicated, unsettling film noir and taut who-dun-it thriller was a tale of betrayal, lust, greed and murder.

In the film's opening, out-of-work, gullible, wandering Irish seaman Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) was immediately lured by a seductive, mysterious, and beautiful femme fatale: she was short, wavy blond-haired Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) wearing a polka-dotted white dress, riding under the black hood of a horse-drawn carriage on its way to New York's Central Park. Michael admitted:

...once I'd seen her, I was not in my right mind for quite some time...That's how I found her, and from that moment on, I did not use my head very much, except to be thinking of her.

After Michael rescued Elsa from a hold-up, she offered the between-jobs sailor a job as a crew member on her sailing vessel to the West Coast via Panama, owned by her crippled, celebrated but asexual San Francisco lawyer husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane).

Lecherous, weirdly insane, paranoid and sweaty George Grisby (Glenn Anders), Bannister's business partner, offered Michael $5,000 in return for a diabolical murder scheme -- to sign a phony murder confession for Grisby's own demise (or planned disappearance). With the money, the foolish Michael fantasized about "running off with you [Elsa] to a desert island to eat berries and goat's milk."

Afterwards, Michael met with Elsa in the San Francisco Aquarium, where ominous sharks and fish swam behind them, as she encouraged her "beloved fool" to elope with her after the murder plot:

Tell me where we'll go, Michael. Will you carry me off with you into the sunrise? ... Just take me there. Take me quick. Take me.

When the fabricated 'murder' plot fell apart, Michael realized he was the fall guy for Grisby's murder and that a vengeful Bannister was now representing him as his defense lawyer! ("Either me or the rest of the whole world is absolutely insane"). He also realized that the villainous Elsa was Grisby's actual killer.

In the final sequence of the film - the famous kaleidoscopic Crazy House/Hall of Mirrors scene, there was a deadly gunfight confrontation between Elsa, Michael, and Bannister, where she admitted her murderous guilt - in front of fractured and multiple image fragments.

The Bannisters self-destructively drew their guns and shot at multiple likenesses of each other, ending with them both mortally wounding each other. In dying Elsa's last exchange with Michael, she admitted her own "original nature" had delved into corruptness and evil, and that she had surrendered to "badness." She then pleaded with him: "I don't want to die! I DON'T WANT TO DIE!" as he walked away. The film ended with his musing:

Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying.

Pitfall (1948)
d. Andre de Toth

Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott)

This noirish tale by director Andre de Toth regarding the archetypal American Dream was a treatise on deceit and homicide.

Olympic Mutual Insurance salesman John Forbes (Dick Powell), a suburban middle-class married man (to his high-school girlfriend Sue (Jane Wyatt)), found his unfulfilled life was stuck in a rut "six feet deep." His mid-life crisis intensified when he took an insurance embezzlement case that brought him into contact with sultry blonde Mays Dept. Store fashion model Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). She denounced him initially as a "little man with a briefcase."

He spent a day on the femme fatale's Tempest speedboat and enjoyed cocktails and dinner with her - as their adulterous romance developed. Forbes ignored and falsified reports that she was reclaiming lavish, ill-gotten gifts given to her by her jailed embezzler boyfriend Bill Smiley (Bryon Barr).

When Mona learned that John was married, she sent him back home, telling him: "Why would you want to mess up something that you have that is so good?"

The insurance company's suspicious, sadistic and jealous private investigator and ex-cop 'Mac' MacDonald (Raymond Burr), who was obsessively stalking Mona, brutally beat up John (outside his garage). MacDonald threatened to disclose the secret affair between John and Mona. His plan was to let Smiley know before his parole release (with help to bail him out), to incite him to suspicion and violence, and to provide him with a gun.

The film ended with John gunning down prowler Smiley when he broke into the Forbes home. John confessed to authorities and to his long-suffering, dutiful and devastated wife. He pleaded temporary insanity and was exonerated with the rationale of 'justifiable homicide.' However, Mac was shot and killed by Mona when he forced her to run away with him and she was charged with a possible homicide - a double standard of punishment.

Criss Cross (1949)
d. Robert Siodmak

Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo)

This under-rated, fatalistic film noir featured unreliable characters, tenuous relationships, a diabolical and fatal love triangle, and twisting plots. It was told with flashbacks and a self-deluding voice-over narration.

The film opened with a striking aerial panoramic view of nighttime Los Angeles before the camera swooped down to a parking lot where a doomed couple's embrace was revealed by glaring headlights.

It told how love-sick, still-obsessed and infatuated ex-husband Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) returned to his LA family two years after a 7-month marriage to calculating femme fatale Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo). He was again snared into her web in the Round-Up nightclub, when he saw his ex-wife dancing the rhumba (to the tune "Jungle Fantasy") with an unnamed partner (an unbilled Tony Curtis in his screen debut). Steve fatefully brooded:

Anna. What was the use? I knew one way or the other somehow I'd wind up seeing her that night.

Afterwards, they rekindled their love when they took a swim in the early morning at Zuma Beach.

Steve was warned to stay away from the temptress by his mother (Edna Holland). LAPD Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally) also pressured Anna to leave town, when Anna suddenly eloped to marry abusive, crooked gangster boyfriend Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Nonetheless, Steve met up with her again and engaged in a clandestine affair.

When caught together alone, Steve tried to deflect attention regarding their relationship. He quickly hatched a plan with Slim for a daytime payroll heist plan - that went horribly wrong. Steve was expecting to double-cross Slim and escape with Anna -- but he was himself double-crossed by Slim and horribly beaten up. Anna also planned to run off with her share of the loot.

In the film's dark and morbid finale, both Anna and Steve were gunned down by Slim at his seaside Palos Verdes rendezvous.

Gun Crazy (1949) (aka Deadly is the Female)
d. Joseph H. Lewis

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins)

This was the quintessential, tabloid romantic/crime B-movie melodrama - it was another amour fou 'Bonnie and Clyde' crime spree tale with a dominant femme fatale, and a couple's erotic love and obsession with guns. There was a deadly sexual attraction between the two memorably disturbed and doomed trigger-happy sharp-shooter lovers who substituted gunplay for sex. The couple was:

  • gun-fixated Bart Tare (John Dall)
  • blonde, English sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins)

Bart first spotted her at Packet's Carnival when she was introduced: "So here she is ladies and gentleman, so appealing, so dangerous, so lovely to look at." Bart leaned forward intently for a closer look at his dream-girl/soul-mate come true, captivated and fixated on her domineering, gun-toting abilities that made her as good as any man. He was even more stimulated when she further demonstrated her dangerous feline talent and prowess by bending over and firing between her legs.

When Bart volunteered for the audience challenge, Laurie circled around behind him like a wild animal, sizing him up and eyeing him from head to toe - he glanced back at her - reciprocating the combative yet attractive gazes. After outshooting her and winning the contest, Bart was easily recruited for the gun act as her erotic partner.

After they were both fired from the carnival, they were married but their impoverished state caused Laurie (naked under her bathrobe) to propose an armed robbery to match her style of living:

I want to do a little living...Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don't want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts.

She threatened to walk out on Bart unless they both engaged in a life of crime. The blackmail scene ended with his sexual acquiescence and gratification, his decision to remain, and a close-up of his mouth inching towards hers for a passionate kiss.

The kiss dissolved into the gunshot blast of a gumball bowl - an orgasmic, erotic/violent beginning of their crime rampage as gun-toting 'wild animals.'

The film was noted for one unbroken take filmed from the backseat of the getaway car during a bank robbery scene.

Their crime spree ended with the couple hunted in a marshy and foggy swamp where they were surrounded - Bart shot Laurie after giving her one final kiss. Bart was compelled to shoot his insane, aggressive lover as a mercy killing - the only murder he committed in the entire film, in an act that adopted her own violent modus operandi.

Mistakenly believing that Bart had fired on them, a barrage of police gunfire abruptly cut Bart down and his body fell next to hers.

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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