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

Detour (1945)
d. Edgar Ulmer

Vera (Ann Savage)

Edgar G. Ulmer's gritty, cheaply-made ("Poverty Row"), fatalistic, cultish B-crime film was about the bleak twists of fate. The nightmarish flashback story was cynically narrated with almost non-stop voice-over by a world-weary, fatalistic, self-pitying, down-and-out hitchhiker Al Roberts (Tom Neal), sitting in a tawdry diner in Reno, Nevada. He told an existential story about how he had been haplessly involved in fateful events during a previous thumbing trek from NY to Los Angeles, and had ended up with a dangerous, blackmailing dame.

Roberts was picked up in Arizona (enroute to Hollywood) by ex-bookie turned businessman Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) - with suspicious deep scratches on his right hand. Haskell described them - a prophetic and fateful comment about the perpetrator:

"Beauties, aren't they? They're gonna be scars someday. What an animal!...I was tusslin' with the Most Dangerous Animal in the World - a woman!...You know, there oughta be a law against dames with claws! I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? You give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don't ya? After all, what kind of a dame thumbs rides? Sunday School teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was ridin' with some kinda fall guy...I've known a million dames like her, two million."

Haskell suffered an ambiguous death - he passed out or had a heart attack and also fell out of the car (and his head struck a rock). Fearing that he would be blamed, Roberts hid the body, stole Haskell's car and adopted his identity. Then, he picked up the same vulturous, nasty and despicable hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage) at a gas station. He described her deceitful and unpredictable nature:

"She was facing straight ahead, so I couldn't see her eyes. But she was young, not more than 24. Man, she looked as if she'd just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world. Yet in spite of this, I got the impression of beauty. Not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about when you're with your wife, but a natural beauty. A beauty that's almost homely because it's so real."

Suddenly, she sat up and began to suspiciously question his true identity: ("Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You're not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That's not you, Mister!") - she was the one who had hitchhiked with Haskell, all the way from Shreveport, Louisiana, had tussled with him and left her mark. Roberts expressed his fateful feelings about the blackmailing, castrating, sadomachochistic, vindictive and exploitative femme fatale con:

"That's life - which ever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you up."

After accusing him of 'killing' Haskell ("What'd you do? Kiss him with a wrench?... You're a cheap crook and you killed him"), she held Roberts hostage to her wishes -- Vera's ultimate mercenary, unrealistic, and greedy plan was to sell Haskell's car and also to claim a substantial inheritance from Haskell's dying father (he was suffering from bronchial pneumonia with only three weeks to live, described in a newspaper article), by having them pretend to be Mr. and Mrs. Haskell.

The two had a vicious argument in their cheap rented Hollywood apartment when the drunken Vera threatened to phone-call the police and turn him in: "You won't be dreamin' when the law taps you on the shoulder. There's a cute little gas chamber waitin' for you, Roberts, and I hear extradition to Arizona's a cinch...I'm gonna get even with you!"

To make matters worse, he accidentally strangled Vera with the telephone cord (wrapped around her neck) as he tugged on the cord through a closed bedroom door. When he burst through the door, he found her sprawled (in a mirror image) on her back and hanging off the bed. His voice-over continued: "The world is full of skeptics. I know. I'm one myself."

This was a second disastrous twist of fate for Roberts - signified by the in-and-out of focus shots from his deranged mental state and POV as he looked around the incriminating bedroom. He realized he could be identified by many witnesses: the landlady, the car dealer, the waitress in the drive-in, the girl in the dress shop, the guy in the liquor store: "I was cooked, done for. I had to get out of there...I was like a guy suffering from shock. Things were whirling around in my head. I couldn't make myself think right."

As he left the diner, his voice-over continued with the film's final lines of dialogue:

"I was in Bakersfield before I read that Vera's body was discovered, and that the police were looking for Haskell in connection with his wife's murder. Isn't that a laugh? Haskell got me into this mess, and Haskell was getting me out of it. The police were searching for a dead man. I keep trying to forget what happened, and wonder what my life might have been if that car of Haskell's hadn't stopped. But one thing I don't have to wonder about. I know, someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."

He imagined his arrest by the Highway Patrol outside the diner (to appease the Hays Code censors of the time).

Fallen Angel (1945)
d. Otto Preminger

Stella (Linda Darnell)

Handsome, smooth-talking, amoral drifter and con man Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) became entranced in a small California beach town with sexy diner waitress Stella (Linda Darnell) at Pop's Eats, but she ignored the down-and-out guy.

It was revealed that the manipulative and slutty sexpot was stealing money from the diner's till (stuffing bills in her bra).

To assure her favor, black-hearted Stanton seduced rich, blonde church organist June Mills (Alice Faye), the town's pure-hearted spinster, and married her after one date (and then even spent his wedding night with Stella) to get her inheritance.

He wanted to run off with Stella, but found her murdered and became the major suspect in the case investigated by Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) - who was ultimately found to be the killer.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
d. John Stahl

Ellen Berent Harland (Gene Tierney)

This psychological, unsettling melodramatic Technicolored noir highlighted a menacing, father-fixated, unstable, and deranged, darkly alluring femme fatale named Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney).

She vowed to her novelist husband Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde): "I'll never let you go, never, never," stopping at nothing to make the man she loved her exclusive possession.

In one scene, she expressed to him after her father's cremation and the scattering of ashes: "I can't help it. It's only because I love you so. I love you so, I can't bear to share you with anybody."

The most dramatic scene was the drowning murder of her paraplegic brother-in-law Danny Harland (Darryl Hickman) in a Maine lake as she calmly watched from a nearby rowboat. The scene began with her cheerfully assisting Danny in applying suntan lotion before he slipped into the water from the boat. He asked: "Can I swim all the way across today?" When she asked: "Do you think you can make it?", he assured: "Why sure? I made it three-quarters yesterday and I wasn't a bit tired." She followed in the rowboat, and promised he didn't have to worry about his direction: "I'll keep you on your course." She steered him into the middle of the lake and noted: "You're not making very much progress, Danny. Are you alright?" When he became winded and had a kink in his side, he admitted he was getting tired. She told him to "take it easy," but then pushed him further: "You don't want to give up when you've come so far." When he became exhausted and distressed in the water from severe stomach cramps (after eating a large lunch), Ellen passively watched as he called out: "Help me!" He submerged twice and then disappeared under the surface. She pretended to assist him by diving in, but it was obviously too late.

Later, Ellen deliberately fell down a flight of stairs to cause a miscarriage and kill her unborn child. Before the 'accident' occurred, she detestfully looked at her pregnant self in a mirror: "Look at me. I hate the little beast. I wish it would die." She told her foster sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain): "I never wanted it. Richard and I never needed anything else." Ruth replied: "How could you say such wicked things?" to which Ellen admitted: "Sometimes the truth is wicked." Plotting, she changed into a longer blue robe and high-heeled blue slippers, emerged from her bedroom, and stood at the top of the stairs. She realized she could fake a tripping fall by catching her left slipper under the rug - she flung herself forward with a scream.

Finally, she committed suicide with poison, implicating Ruth in her death (although she was found innocent) and sending Richard to jail for two years for withholding evidence.

Mildred Pierce (1945)
d. Michael Curtiz

Veda Pierce Forrester (Ann Blyth)

This melodramatic, flashbacked, post-war noir classic was a tale of greed and murder.

Before filling in the backstory, the film opened in a beach house with the shooting murder of Monte Baragon (Zachary Scott) by an unseen assailant, and the contemplation of suicide on a Santa Monica pier by suspected murderess Mildred Pierce-Beragon (Best Actress-winning Joan Crawford). Possibly seen as the film's femme fatale, Mildred set up business associate Wally Fay (Jack Carson) to return to the crime scene where her husband had been murdered.

It was later revealed that divorcee Mildred had an obsessive mother-daughter love for her venomous femme fatale daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), and had contributed to her daughter's spoiled, ungrateful, unappreciative and slutty behavior for a long time. Veda had been indulgently showered with gifts, nice clothes, and piano lessons, provided by Mildred's sacrificial baking of pies and cakes, although Veda was embarrassed by her mother's occupation and attempt to become independent: "My mother - a waitress!"

In a second major confrontation on a staircase, Veda slapped Mildred after brutally insulting her mother:'ll never be anything but a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money, I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!

Mildred threatened back: "Get out before I kill you."

Veda's outrageous behavior went much further, as she:

  • faked a pregnancy to extort money from her boyfriend's wealthy family
  • took a job as a singer/dancer in a sleazy nightclub
  • coerced her mother into marrying Monte Baragon (with whom she was having a semi-incestuous affair)
  • continued to treat her mother condescendingly

In the end, Veda was revealed to be Monte's killer, after Monte had confronted and rejected her inside the beach-house: "You don't really think I could be in love with a rotten little tramp like you, do you?"

As Veda was led away at the police station, she asserted to her mother: "Don't worry about me, Mother. I'll get by."

Scarlet Street (1945)
d. Fritz Lang

Katherine "Kitty" March (Joan Bennett)

Fritz Lang's steamy and fatalistic film was one of the moodiest, blackest thrillers ever made.

It told about a meek, middle-aged clothing store cashier and unhappily-married, hen-pecked husband and amateur painter named Christopher "Chris" Cross (Edward G. Robinson). He unwittingly fell into a cruel trap set by cold-hearted, amoral femme fatale gold-digger and Greenwich Village streetwalker Katherine "Kitty" March (Joan Bennett) and her abusive, slick and mercenary boyfriend-pimp Johnny (Dan Duryea).

Cross first met Kitty when she was being beaten up by Johnny on a rainy night (a set-up), and they got to know each other in a bar for a late-night drink. He was immediately entranced by the clear plastic raincoat-wearing sexy and flirtatious dame.

She manipulatively controlled and led Cross to commit embezzlement (of his wife's and employer's funds) in order to rent an expensive apartment for her (to serve as an art studio), impersonated him in order to sell his paintings, and was deceitful and cruel to him.

In the middle of all the deceptive proceedings, there was an amazing and contrived plot twist -- the previous husband of Cross' shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan) - corrupt policeman Patch-eye Homer Higgins (Charles Kemper), suddenly appeared - he had been presumed drowned during the rescue of a suicidal woman. Cross now assumed that his marriage to Adele was invalidated, and that he was free to marry Kitty.

Cross pitifully and pathetically proposed to Kitty in her bedroom, explaining to her:

"I haven't any wife, that's finished...Her husband turned up, I'm free...I can marry you now, I want you to be my wife. We'll go away together, way far off so you can forget this other man. Don't cry, Kitty, please don't cry."

After he proposed, she told him her true feelings:

"I am not crying, you fool, I'm laughing!...Oh, you idiot! How can a man be so dumb?...I've wanted to laugh in your face ever since I first met you. You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you. Sick, sick, sick!...You want to marry me? You? Get out of here! Get out! Get away from me!"

She caused him in a fit of jealous anger to murder her. He stabbed her with an ice-pick through her bed covers as she hid from him.

The film ended with Johnny being accused of the crime and sentenced to death, and Cross (although innocent) suffering humiliating disgrace, haunting psychological torment and mental anguish (i.e., Cross attempted suicide by hanging and failed, and in abject homelessness wandered the streets).

The final image was of Cross shuffling by a 5th Avenue gallery passing the 'self-portrait' he had drawn of Kitty. He overheard its sale to an elderly matron for $10,000. The art dealer Mr. Dellarowe (Arthur Loft) commented: "Well, there goes her masterpiece. I really hate to part with it" - the buyer replied: "For $10,000 dollars, I shouldn't think you'd mind, Mr. Dellarowe."

The last lines of dialogue were heard as the tormented and haunted Cross slowly ambled down the deserted street under a movie marquee - he thought of Kitty and Johnny together, with echoing words of love spoken (off-screen) between them:

Kitty: "Johnny. Oh Johnny."
Johnny: "Lazy Legs."
Kitty: "Jeepers, I love you, Johnny."

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