The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir


Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir: See genre description of film noir. A film noir story was often developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character [e.g., Robert Mitchum, Fred MacMurray, or Humphrey Bogart] who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme fatale [e.g., Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett or Lana Turner were the most prominent]. Femme fatale literally means "killer (or deadly) woman."

The films that are marked with a yellow star are the films
that Greatest Films has selected as the "100 Greatest Films"

Key to Icon Symbol:
The best (or greatest - worst - of all) femmes fatales

Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | 1941 | 1944 | 1945 | 1946-1 | 1946-2 | 1947-1 | 1947-2
1948 | 1949 | 1950-1952 | 1953 | 1954-1956 | 1958

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

I Wake Up Screaming (1941) (aka Hot Spot)
d. H. Bruce Humberstone

Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis)

In this early film noir (with its story mostly told in flashback), 8th Avenue lunchroom night-shift waitress and aspiring buxom model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) was murdered (strangled) just before her anticipated departure for Hollywood.

Vicky's publicity agent/manager Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), a fight promoter, had been supporting her as an up-and-coming "celebrity" for all the obvious reasons - besides talent: "She had looks, youth, good figure, what more do you want?" Her ascent to the top had been swift:

...Life became just one great, dizzy world for her. She was asked everywhere. She got offers to pose for advertisements, model clothes, enter the aquacade, join the ice ballet, every possible form of publicity. She even remembered the singing lessons Mom had paid for and suddenly started to fancy herself as a chanteuse. Frankie even managed to get her a job singing with a name band.

However, she dumped Frankie when she impulsively accepted another "business" arrangement with a Hollywood promoter who gave her a screen test and immediately offered her a long-term contract. After being spurned, Frankie commiserated at a bar with his two buddies Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) and Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn), who lamented their lack of luck with women who couldn't be controlled:

Robin: Women are all alike.
Larry: For Pete's sake, what difference does that make? You've got to have them. They're standard equipment.

Frankie was particularly miffed: "All I got was a handshake, a smile and a promise." Because he had been spurned, Frankie was immediately suspected of the crime. Although he was actually innocent, he was intensely grilled under bright lights by a number of police detectives, including ruthless, dogged and vindictive NYC police detective Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar).

Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), slain Vicky's stenographer sister who shared a NYC apartment with her, aided Frankie in his flight and search for justice because she believed in his innocence. While she was harboring him, she fell in love with him.

Vicky's picture (or photograph) was frequently in the frame of view during the investigations - showing her power from the grave.

Spoiler: Cornell, one of Vicky's admiring stalkers, actually knew the real killer (revealed at the conclusion to be Vicky's twitchy, sullen apartment switchboard operator-doorman Harry Williams (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who was rejected by her), although he held Frankie responsible for the murder of his own budding protege during an unhealthy personal crusade to frame him.

By film's end, it was revealed that the obsessive detective's apartment was adorned with a huge, enshrined framed portrait of the deceased femme fatale on his mantle, and many other photographs of the young starlet on the walls. He had intended to marry her someday. To Frankie, he admitted his crazed and sick fascination with Vicky, but was frustrated when Frankie spoiled his romantic plans:

I lost Vicky long before Williams killed her. You were the one who took her away from me, not him...I followed her around for months before I got up enough courage to speak to her. I used to hang around the restaurant at night to see that she got home all right...Then you came along with your grand plans of makin' somethin' of her! Puttin' ideas into her head that she was a glamour girl and all that kind of stuff! Why didn't you leave her alone?

During his confession to Frankie, the fixated and hopelessly-obsessed Cornell had already taken a poison concoction to commit suicide, rather than face prosecution for a cover-up and for framing Frankie. He fell dead at his desk in front of another picture of Vicky.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
d. John Huston

Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) (aka Miss Ruth Wonderly, Miss Leblanc)

In the beginning of this moody and early film noir, deceitful femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) (with lots of alias names) shot and killed private investigator Sam Spade's (Humphrey Bogart) partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), a surprise killing point-blank, on a dark San Francisco street.

Right from the start, Spade distrusted her sincerity act: "You're good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like 'Be generous, Mr. Spade'," but he was obviously attracted and allured to her anyway; he knew she was duplicitous:

The schoolgirl manner, you know, blushing, stammering, and all that... if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.

After seductively asking Spade what she could offer besides money, he brutally took her face in his hands and kissed her roughly - digging his thumbs into her cheeks, as she accepted his lingering kiss.

She was involved with a trio of ruthless, shady treasure hunters led by Fat Man Casper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) who had spent many years pursuing the trail of the legendary "black bird" statue (or "dingus"), the fabled and bejewelled Maltese Falcon - the film's MacGuffin.

In the finale, to save herself from the murder charge, Brigid attempted to be submissive and throw herself at Spade once again, hoping that he would continue to protect her and conceal her crime. With a fluttery, bogus innocence and pathos, she wildly professed the existence of her love for him and begged him not to turn her in. He coldly and flatly told her:

Well, if you get a good break, you'll be out of Tehachapi in 20 years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck...Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.

He was resolved not to give in to her charms: "I won't play the sap for you." Even though he admitted his ambivalence about her and that he couldn't completely deny his love for her, he was resolute: "All we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you." He knew that her manipulative nature dangerously outweighed the possibilities of mutual love. She offered a last kiss just as the cops arrived.

Brigid was handed over to the officers for the murder of Miles Archer. She was arrested and ultimately took "the fall." Brigid was tearfully taken away and waiting in the elevator for the gates to close. The steel cage was pulled in front of her like the bars on a captive's cell, framing her frightened, motionless, lonely face staring fixedly between the bars of the gate. The outer door shut (paralleling the closing of a theatre's curtains at the conclusion of a performance) and the elevator dropped from view - she disappeared down the elevator shaft.

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