The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir


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

Double Indemnity (1944)
d. Billy Wilder

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)

Mostly told in flashback, Billy Wilder's (and Raymond Chandler's) adaptation of James M. Cain's 1943 crime novel included a persuasive, sinister brassy blonde - a beautiful, shrewd, predatory and dissatisfied femme fatale housewife named Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The narrated flashback was delivered (mostly into a Dictaphone recording device) by the wounded, male protagonist in his downtown Los Angeles office late one night, after he had been shot by her (and had retaliated by killing her with two point-blank gunblasts). Would he survive before an ambulance arrived, or would his wish for death (either from blood loss or from the San Quentin gas chamber) come true?

In the early stages of the film, Phyllis first appeared draped in a towel during sunbathing when smart-talking insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) came to her door. She enticed Neff with her blonde bangs and gold anklet. In a classic sequence filled with sexual innuendo, they playfully and flirtatiously engaged in a double-entendre conversation about "speeding" and "traffic tickets" - a driving/fast car metaphor. He was immediately entranced and attracted to her, but even early on, he understood her lethal, strangely-calculating look and smell:

It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?...But I kept thinking about Phyllis Dietrichson - and the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg.

During their subsequent business conversations, she described her older, boring husband's (Tom Powers) dangerous profession with the drilling crews in the Long Beach oil fields. And she complained about her loveless, emotionless marriage:

He has a lot on his mind. He doesn't seem to want to listen to anything except maybe a baseball game on the radio. Sometimes we sit here all evening and never say a word to each other....So I just sit and knit.

Obviously an experienced predator and knowing of Neff's undisguised lustful interest in her, she inquired about buying an accident insurance policy for her husband - without him knowing about it, "without bothering him at all...he needn't know anything about it." At first, Neff was suspicious of her motives ("Look, baby. You can't get away with it. You want to knock him off, don't ya?...Boy, what a dope you must think I am!") and thought he was clever to reject her: "So I let her have it, straight between the eyes. She didn't fool me for a minute, not this time. I knew I had ahold of a red hot poker, and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off."

But then like a moth to a flame/light, he was still allured to her: "I was all twisted up inside and I was still holding on to that red-hot poker. And right then it came over me that I hadn't walked out on anything at all, that the hope was too strong, that this wasn't the end between her and me. It was only the beginning." When she appeared in his darkened apartment doorway, they began a dangerous affair after she reiterated her continuing marital problems - about how she was trapped like a caged animal in a loveless marriage to her domineering and mean husband Dietrichson (in his second marriage):

I feel as if he was watching me. Not that he cares, not anymore. But he keeps me on a leash so tight I can't breathe.

Neff replied: "I'm crazy about you, baby" - taken by her teary-eyed seductiveness. In Neff's apartment, a kiss (and more during a dissolve) sealed the murderous pact between them - he grabbed her tightly and dug his fingers into her arm, while asserting:

There's not going to be any slip up. Nothing sloppy, nothing weak, it's got to be perfect...This has got to be perfect, do ya understand? Straight down the line.

Ultimately, she convinced Neff to murder her unsuspecting, boring husband so they could share 'double indemnity' insurance proceeds. They met surreptitiously, often talking over shelves stocked with groceries, to cooly discuss the complicated details of the planned murder and wait for the right set of circumstances to arise. The murder occurred as Phyllis drove her husband to the train station - Neff reached from behind and killed Mr. Dietrichson by breaking his neck. A camera close-up of Phyllis's unmoving and stony face staring straight ahead was all that was revealed during the murder that was brutally carried out on the seat next to her.

The final scene occurred in the darkened Dietrichson living room, where Phyllis had concealed a shiny, metallic gun. Neff also had intentions to kill Phyllis, but she upstaged him with 'plans of her own.' She shot him once in the shoulder, but hesitated to kill him for some reason (because of her love for him, or because of her conscience?), admitting being "rotten to the heart." Walter grimly shot her twice at point-blank range - during an erotic embrace.

Laura (1944)
d. Otto Preminger

Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney)

Preminger's hard-edged noir romance might be called a psychological study of deviant, kinky obsession, because almost everyone in the cast loved the title character Laura, who was not a classically amoral femme fatale.

While investigating socialite Laura Hunt's (Gene Tierney) murder, obsessed homicide police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) rummaged through Laura's bedroom drawers and lingerie, inhaled her perfume, and peered into her mirrored closets and then stared at her haunting, domineering oil portrait - and fell in love with the dead woman in the portrait. The film contained troubling necrophiliac themes and sexual obsession by the hard-boiled detective for the dead woman.

Celebrated, acidic-witted and homosexual columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) incisively described McPherson's obsession over the murdered bewitching woman ("...It's a wonder you don't come here like a suitor with roses and a box of candy...I don't think I ever had a patient who ever fell in love with a corpse").

Lydecker had functioned as Laura's Svengali-like mentor and protective confidant in a platonic relationship, when he helped her become a successful advertising executive. Womanizing, effete Southern playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), whose marriage to Laura was recently called off, was also a prime suspect (he confessed later to being present at the murder scene when the off-screen shooting occurred).

Then there was the surprising scene when Laura suddenly walked into her own apartment - a murdered woman who mysteriously appeared over half way into the film - and the stunned look of McPherson who expressed shock when stirred from sleep as the "dead" Laura appeared and at first thought she was a ghost or figment of his imagination. She threatened to call the police: "What are you doing here?" - unaware of the news of her own slaying.

Laura was horrified to realize that she was caught in the middle of a murder case. The murder victim was actually a young model named Diane Redfern in her negligee, in a case of mistaken identity. After reappearing, Laura herself became a prime suspect in the murder case, since it was possible that Laura killed Diane Redfern out of jealousy for her association with Shelby. Another suspect was Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson), Laura's wealthy, amoral spinster aunt who was neurotically in love with Shelby and decidedly defensive and jealous of the younger Laura, her engagement, and her possible forthcoming marriage to Carpenter.

In the film's conclusion, it was revealed that Lydecker was the actual murderer, who in a jealous rage mistakenly shot the wrong woman (in the face) with a blast from a shotgun, thinking Diane was Laura. He attempted to kill Laura a second time with a shotgun (hidden in the base of a grandfather clock) in a murder/suicide, rather than leave her to the "vulgar pawing of a second-rate detective" -- but she was saved in the nick of time by McPherson as Lydecker was mortally wounded in an exchange of gunfire with the police.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)
d. Edward Dmytryk

Velma/Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor)

Edward Dmytryk's twisting story of intrigue starred singer Dick Powell as the down-and-out PI Philip Marlowe searching for ex-con Moose Malloy's (Mike Mazurki) missing ex-lover Velma Valento (revealed to be Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor)) in wartime Los Angeles - she had sold him out 8 years earlier for unknown reasons, although he still remembered her and had become obsessed to find her: "She was cute as lace pants."

During a murder investigation, Marlowe was brought for a visit to the Grayle mansion in Brentwood where he met elderly Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander) and his much younger trophy wife Helen (Trevor again), a gold-digger who was prominently showing off her legs and ankle-strap high heels. She was associated with aristocratic master-crook, psychic/quack therapist and blackmailer Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) who was involved in setting up rich women as targets, with one of her paramours: the perfumed, effeminate 30-ish gigolo Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) - a Los Angeles resident and con-man.

The mysterious, flirtatious and slinky Helen Grayle also hired the detective to locate a stolen jade necklace (which she later revealed was never actually stolen). Marlowe navigated through a perilous world, becoming further entangled with and threatened by despicable high- and low-class criminals.

The final showdown occurred at the Grayles' beach house, where Helen was killed by her husband, and both Moose and Mr. Grayle shot and killed each other.

The climactic shoot-out revealed that mysterious, flirtatious, gold-digging, exploitative, double-identity Mrs. Helen Grayle - also known as Velma Valento, had set up numerous individuals over the theft of her valuable $100,000 jade necklace (the film's MacGuffin), and was indeed a murderous femme fatale.

The Woman in the Window (1944)
d. Fritz Lang

Alice Reed (Joan Bennett)

This tense film noir told about law-abiding, mild-mannered, middle-aged and married Gotham College Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson). He met beautiful, strange painting model and femme fatale Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) - when she emerged as a reflection next to a painting in an art gallery window.

Invited back to her mirrored apartment where she was wearing a diaphanous dress, they sipped champagne. He became embroiled in a crime due to his unintentional self-defense murder (by stabbing his assailant to death in the back with a pair of scissors) when he was attacked by her burly and jealous boyfriend Claude Mazard/Frank Howard (Arthur Loft) who had accused her of infidelity, and then suddenly found himself on the run and ready to commit suicide.

However, the entire plot was only a dream of his subconscious.


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