The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir

1947 - 1

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

Born to Kill (1947)
d. Robert Wise

Helen Trent (Claire Trevor)

Robert Wise's dark, racy, amoral and noirish crime melodrama was based on James Gunn's novel Deadlier Than the Male, with the themes of divorce, sex, and adultery.

The story opened in Reno with the cold-blooded double-murder of his girlfriend Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell) and male date (Tony Barrett), committed by jealously enraged, megalomaniacal bad guy Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney). He was an irresistible male femme fatale with a killer instinct - an obvious reversal of the typical noir pattern.

The wealthy, worldly and beautiful socialite Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), in Reno for a divorce, discovered the bodies on a kitchen floor but didn't report them to police, because she had plans to travel to San Francisco to marry wealthy fiancee Fred Grover (Phillip Terry).

When Helen and Sam fled town separately, they found themselves on the same train and sexually interested in each other - she was drawn to the cold-blooded murderer, as the film's tagline described their relationship: "The coldest killer a woman ever loved."

Sam married Helen's affluent newspaper heiress foster-sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), although he maintained an illicit sexual relationship with Helen - his lustful and passionate "soulmate."

Both repelled and attracted to Sam, Helen hinted to seedy private detective Matthew Arnett (Walter Slezak) trailing Sam that he was a remorseless murderer, while still offering him $15,000 to suppress evidence against Sam.

In one repellent scene, Helen and Sam embraced in a kitchen while gleefully reminiscing about the double-murder.

By film's end, an enraged Sam fatally shot Helen through a door just before he was killed by police gunfire, with her final thought about how her fiancee Fred hadn't saved her from being irresistibly drawn to Sam:

Fred was right...this time I didn't land on my feet.

Dead Reckoning (1947)
d. John Cromwell

Coral 'Dusty' Chandler (Lizabeth Scott)

This overly complex film noir about doomed romance, conspiracy and betrayal was told in flashback by returning WWII military paratrooper veteran Capt. Warren 'Rip' Murdock (Humphrey Bogart).

He and his army buddy Sgt. Johnny Drake (William Prince) were to be decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross. Enroute to Washington to receive their war service honors, Drake told Murdock that he was haunted by a blonde in his past, and was advised:

Johnny, why don't you get rid of the grief you've got for that blonde, whoever she is? Every mile we go, you sweat worse with the same pain. Didn't I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?

Drake disappeared from the train in Philadelphia when photographers and news-reporters appeared. Later, 'Rip' traced Drake to his sultry southern Gulf City hometown where he learned that Drake had recently been killed in a fiery car accident. Digging through Drake's past, he learned that he had been accused of murder a few years before the end of the war when involved in a love-triangle, and he had fled to join the Army with a fake name (his real name was Johnny Preston).

Drake's blonde ex-lover Mrs. Coral 'Dusty' Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) had a memorable entrance scene. She was found as a cabaret lounge singer ("Cinderella with a husky voice") at the Sanctuary Club owned by gangster Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky). The camera panned up as she prepared to smoke a cigarette - and Rip held out a match to the alluring femme fatale. In voice-over, Rip reflected:

I hated every part of her. I couldn't figure her out yet. I wanted to see her the way Johnny had. I wanted to hear that song of hers with Johnny's ears. Maybe she was alright. And maybe Christmas comes in July, but I didn't believe it.

A letter written by Johnny before he died was thought to hold clues to the case. Rip also found himself falling in love with the alluring but treacherous and duplicitous Coral:

I didn’t like the feeling I had about her - the way I wanted to put my hand on her arm, the way I kept smelling that jasmine in her hair, the way I kept hearing that song she'd sung. Yeah, I was walking into something, alright.

She was revealed to be the widow of a wealthy, elderly victim named Stuart Chandler that Drake had killed before he joined the Army. Eventually, Coral claimed that she had committed the murder in self-defense, and was thereafter blackmailed by Martinelli after she gave him the murder weapon. Contrary to her story, Martinelli claimed that he and Coral were married and that he killed Chandler and then framed and killed Johnny so that Coral would inherit her rich husband's wealth.

In the film's ending, Coral killed Martinelli, thinking it was Rip - and as Rip drove her to the police station to turn her in, he told her: "You're going to fry, Dusty...when a guy's pal is killed, he ought to do something about it."

As he was driving, she held a gun on him and fired as he accelerated to 80 mph - leading to a loss of control and a car crash, with her subsequent death from injuries.

Lady in the Lake (1947)
d. Robert Montgomery

Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter)
Mrs. Fallbrook (Jayne Meadows)
(aka Muriel Chess, and Mildred Havelend)

Robert Montgomery both directed (his directorial debut film, with an experimental and revolutionary subjective camera technique) and starred in this classic noir, adapted from Raymond Chandler's 1944 novel of the same name.

In 1940s Hollywood, private detective Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) was on the case of a missing wife. The victim was promiscuous Chrystal Kingsby (Ellay Mort) who was married to millionaire pulp-crime magazine publisher Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). Marlowe was hired to find Chrystal by Kingsby's tough-girl, manipulative, witchy and kittenish editor-assistant and career woman Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) - the film's femme fatale.

Supposedly, Chrystal had run off to Mexico two months earlier, according to a telegram, with muscle-bound gigolo boyfriend Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons) - who later turned up dead. The case became even more complicated when another woman's body was found drowned in Little Fawn Lake near Kingsby's summer retreat cabin. The corpse was suspected to belong to Muriel Chess, the wife of Kingsby's caretaker Bill Chess.

Gold-digging, self-interested Adrienne, who suspected that the caretaker's wife was murdered by Kingsby's wife Chrystal, wanted Marlowe to investigate and either find "murderess" Chrystal dead or alive - so that she could be prosecuted for murder. Adrienne was eager for Kingsby to begin divorce proceedings against Chrystal, or to find Chrystal dead, so that she could marry her rich boss. The plot became even more complex when Kingsby denounced Adrienne for her scheming ways, and announced that he had no plans for divorce; angered, Adrienne fired Marlowe, who was then hired by Kingsby to find his wife.

It was ultimately determined that Chris Lavery's alleged, fast-talking landlady Mrs. Fallbrook (Jayne Meadows) (an alias name, actually Mildred Havelend), (who shot and killed Lavery) had made it look like the corpse in the lake was her alter-ego Muriel Chess. [She was actually married to Bill Chess, Kingsby's caretaker.] But Marlowe revealed that the corpse was in fact the missing Chrystal Kingsby.

Marlowe explained his reasoning to Mildred: ("The lady in the lake, instead of being you, is Chrystal Kingsby. Is that an accident?"). Mildred/Muriel and Chrystal had fought over handsome male Chris Lavery - this rivalry was clearly Mildred's motive to kill Chrystal and make it look like Muriel was the dead body in the lake, so she could run away with him: ("Muriel's been found dead, and Chrystal's missing"). Mildred admitted: ("Yes. Chrystal and I traded clothes one night. She had on my things, and I had on hers. We went across the lake to see if we could fool my husband, Bill Chess, that was my husband"). Marlowe deduced: ("And Chrystal fell in the lake and sank to the bottom"). After the drowning/murder, Mildred fled and ran away with Chris Lavery to El Paso - he "was the only one who knew the real identity of the lady in the lake" - the reason that Mildred later killed him too.

In the denouement, love-struck Lieutenant Degarmot (Lloyd Nolan) - was revealed to have earlier partnered with Mrs. Fallbrook (an alias name, actually Mildred Havelend) in a different case, to hide and cover up the fact that Mildred was involved in the death of her previous employer's (a Bay City doctor) wife named Florence Almore, by asphyxiation in her car. Degarmot's covered-up investigation ruled it was a suicide. Afterwards, Mildred "double-crossed" Degarmot by changing her name to Muriel Chess (after marrying Bill Chess, Kingsby's caretaker) with the intent to hide and get away from "tough cop" Degarmot. Because of the betrayal, Degarmot had relentlessly tracked her down - and face-to-face, he chastized her: ("People aren't safe with a woman like you in the world and people have to be protected. I never expected to find you here tonight. I thought you were dead. I wish you were, because you're a murderess. And this time, dead's the way I'm gonna leave you... the night Florence Almore died (and) you made a sucker out of me. Even after you ran away, I still loved you. You made a clown outta me, a bad cop. But tonight's the end of it, and of you"). Then, he shot her multiple times - point-blank - in view of Marlowe. She begged for her life, but to no avail:

"No. Please, please wait. Don't honey. Honey, we were gonna, we were gonna be a guy and his girl, that's the way you said it, I remember those very words, I remember...All our dreams can come true if you'll only just...Please! I love you, remember, I'm your girl."

Toward the end of the film, Adrienne had a long concluding dialogue with Marlowe (with the camera entirely on her). She abandoned her evil ways to show her affection for the private detective on Christmas Eve - and in the last scene after the case was solved, left NYC together to begin a serious romance:

We'd be fine together. In everything, we'd be fine together only you don't think I'm honest. I want you to know that I am...I want to take care of you. Maybe it isn't glamorous, I don't know, but I want to be your girl. That's what I want for Christmas. Don't laugh at me...It's just like you said that day. We're both alike. In everything we're alike. We'll be fine together. We will, won't we? This is what the world is really like, isn't it?

Adrienne Fromsett
(Audrey Totter)

Mrs. Fallbrook (Jayne Meadows) (aka Mildred, or Muriel Chess) - The Deadly Landlady Who Killed Both Chrystal and Chris Lavery

Mildred Shot Dead by Lieutenant Degarmot (Lloyd Nolan)

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