The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

Part 8

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

The Third Man (1949)
d. Carol Reed

Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli)

This film-noirish, visually-stylish thriller was set in a depressed, rotting and crumbling, 20th century occupied Vienna following World War II. Its tale of social, economic, and moral corruption told of a love triangle with nightmarish suspense, treachery, betrayal, guilt and disillusionment.

The three main characters were:

  • a foolishly-romantic, wimpy American writer of pulp westerns named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) who tried to understand (and then decipher) the mysterious disappearance (and death?) after a vehicular accident of an old school friend
  • Harry Lime (Orson Welles) - ultimately revealed to be alive - an exploitative, morally corrupt, and chilling black-market drug dealer and racketeer (of diluted penicillin) working out of the Russian zone
  • Harry's grieving, dark-haired, Czech mistress/girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Russian exile and refugee

Anna exuded a fatalistically-romantic attraction for Harry, partially because he had fixed papers for her to avoid repatriation by the Russians.

In the shadows while mourning Harry's supposed death, she wore Harry's striped pajamas in bed - monogrammed with HL on the left front.

Doltish hack writer Holly hopelessly fell in unrequited love with the melancholy Anna, Harry's mistress, but she was unresponsive to his clumsy advances.

Ultimately, Holly set up Lime in exchange for Anna's freedom from deportation to the Russians, and Lime was cornered and killed in Vienna's underground sewers by a gunshot from Holly's gun.

In the famed ending of Harry's second burial, Holly attempted to say goodbye to Anna. As she walked and approached toward him down the tree-lined, empty cemetery avenue, she stoically ignored him and continued by, passing him without paying any attention.

Too Late For Tears (1949) (aka Killer Bait)
d. Byron Haskin

Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott)

This great noir featured the tagline: "She got what she wanted...with lies...with kisses...with murder!" Popular femme fatale actress Lizabeth Scott starred as Jane, a crafty, manipulative, evil, and vicious pathological woman whose only goal was to get and stay rich.

The film opened with housewife Jane Palmer on a nighttime drive to a Hollywood Hills party with her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy), when a leather bag of 'dirty money' was suddenly thrown into their open convertible by a passing car, after they inadvertently blinked their headlights. Although Alan wanted to do the right thing and turn in the money ("a bag of dynamite" he called it), Jane requested to keep the illicit $60,000 (it was stashed in a locker at Union Station), and started to lavishly spend the funds.

Due to her lowly upbringing, she was determined to keep the money from its rightful recipient and her husband, by using whatever means possible (including lying and murder).

When hood Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), identifying himself as a private detective, arrived to acquire the blackmail money due to him ("Where's my dough?"), Jane used her seductive wiles and sexy teasing to keep him at bay (as he slyly told her: "You haven't anything to hide, have you?"), including promising to split the dirty money with him.

Jane's husband Alan ended up dead due to manslaughter (and at the bottom of a lake weighed down with concrete), while Jane preposterously claimed that her husband was missing due to running off with another woman.

To eliminate Danny, Jane poisoned him, and it was also revealed that she killed her first husband Blanchert (whom she married for money). He hadn't committed suicide as originally thought.

She fled to Mexico and when confronted with the truth, died when she fell from a ritzy hotel balcony.

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) (aka Thelma Jordon)
d. Robert Siodmak

Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck)

This film noir has been frequently compared to Double Indemnity (1944).

In the story, mysterious, duplicitous and treacherous femme fatale Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) captured the emotionally dependent heart of unhappily-married assistant District Attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Cory) and had an adulterous and illicit (but genuine) love affair with him, telling him: "Maybe I'm just a dame and didn't know it."

She had even confessed to him that she was lovelessly married to jewel thief Tony Laredo (Richard Rober).

The misguided and self-deluding "fall guy" DA threw aside his family, future, and honor and helped Thelma when her wealthy Aunt Vera Edwards was murdered. DA Cleve helped Thelma to reconstruct an 'untouched' version of the crime scene, so that neither of them would be suspected of foul play for tampering with evidence.

Thelma then claimed to Cleve that Tony committed the murder during the robbery of her aunt's valuable emerald necklace, made to look like an outside job. Although Thelma was charged for the murder (her aunt's recently-rewritten will in her favor was another factor) when she became a prime suspect, she was acquitted when Cleve took up the prosecution on her behalf and manipulated the case to her favor. He circumvented revealed evidence of a dark life of blackmail, gambling, and relationship with partner-in-crime Tony, and she was acquitted.

During a final confrontation, her lies and guilt eventually caught up with her. Tony forced Thelma to admit that Cleve had been set up to help defend her ("You must have known...You didn’t want to know"), and that Thelma had murdered Vera ("I'd like to say I didn't intend to kill her, but when you have a gun, you always intend if you have to").

As Tony and Thelma fled, their car crashed over a cliff when she struggled with Tony and a dashboard cigarette lighter.

Thelma was hospitalized, and in her deathbed scene ("You don't suppose they could just let half of me die?"), she confessed the full truth.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
d. Billy Wilder

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson)

Billy Wilder's classic black comedy/drama remains perhaps the most acclaimed, but darkest film-noir story about "behind the scenes" Hollywood, self-deceit, spiritual and spatial emptiness, and the price of fame, greed, narcissism, and ambition.

It opened with a view of the posthumous narrator, down-on-his-luck B-movie hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who was sent to his doom and spoke beyond the grave as a dead man floating face-down in a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.

He recounted in flashback with voice-over narration about a six-month period during which he struggled to produce screenplays to meet the demands of the industry and satisfy the thirsty illusions of immortality and comeback of aging, waspish, megalomaniacal silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in her decaying Sunset Boulevard mansion.

After being showered with bribes (clothes, money, flattery and other gifts), he was quickly spoiled and ensnared in her web of delusion - and death trap.

When Gillis first met Norma, she indignantly told him about the rise of the talkies and the end of the silent era: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small" and later claimed: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."

During an aborted New Years' Eve party that she had hosted for him, she attempted to commit suicide by cutting her wrists with a razor when he left, and Joe felt obligated to return to her, thanking her: "You're the only person in this stinking town that has been good to me."

Inevitably, the jealous and delusional Norma retaliated against "kept man" Joe when he again threatened to leave and she cried out madly: "I can't face life without you, and you know I'm not afraid to die" - but then shot him as he packed up and walked away toward the outdoor pool.

When police arrived after the murder, the crazed and deluded woman was persuaded and coaxed to quietly come downstairs to a waiting car through a group of assembled reporters and cameramen - to surrender. She was fooled when made to think that she was experiencing her longed-for return and shooting a film scene for famous movie director Cecil B. De Mille. Disoriented, she spoke the film's final words:

All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up.

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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