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

Force of Evil (1948)
d. Abraham Polonsky

Edna Tucker (Marie Windsor)

This uncompromising post-war film noir was narrated and told in documentary style.

Ambitious and successful Wall Street attorney Joe Morse (John Garfield), due to corrupt dealings with numbers racketeer-client and crime boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), was on the verge of making millions through a race-track betting scam.

In this Cain and Abel tale, Joe's honest, estranged older brother Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) remained in the Lower East Side slum neighborhood where they had grown up, maintaining a local "small numbers bank," and refusing to join his brother.

Leo was ultimately killed by the mob (his body was dumped on the rocks under the George Washington Bridge).

Although she had only a few minutes on-screen, mob boss Tucker's sultry femme fatale wife Edna (Marie Windsor) was working behind-the-scenes to manipulate and torment Joe into supporting the downfall of his brother's racket. About 40 minutes into the film, she appeared in Joe's office to request an end to the wire-tapping on her husband's phone (indicated by picking up the receiver and hearing a "little click"), while personally inquiring about Joe himself. She sexually taunted him about his manhood:

What kind of a man you are, what you really are...I'm trying you. What are you afraid of, to show you're afraid?...You're not strong or weak enough.

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
d. Orson Welles

Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth)

This imaginative, complicated, unsettling film noir and taut who-dun-it thriller was a tale of betrayal, lust, greed and murder set within a deadly love triangle.

In the film's opening, out-of-work, gullible, wandering Irish seaman Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) was immediately lured by a seductive, mysterious, and beautiful femme fatale: she was short, wavy blond-haired Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) wearing a polka-dotted white dress, riding under the black hood of a horse-drawn carriage on its way to New York's Central Park. Michael admitted:

...once I'd seen her, I was not in my right mind for quite some time...That's how I found her, and from that moment on, I did not use my head very much, except to be thinking of her.

After Michael rescued Elsa from a hold-up, she offered the between-jobs sailor employment as a crew member on her sailing vessel to the West Coast via Panama, owned by her crippled (physically-paralyzed), celebrated but asexual and older San Francisco lawyer husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane).

Lecherous, weirdly insane, paranoid and sweaty George Grisby (Glenn Anders), Bannister's business partner, offered Michael $5,000 in return for a diabolical murder scheme -- to sign a phony murder confession for Grisby's own demise (or planned disappearance). With the money, the foolish Michael fantasized about "running off with you [Elsa] to a desert island to eat berries and goat's milk."

Afterwards, Michael met with Elsa in the San Francisco Aquarium, where ominous sharks and fish swam behind them, as she encouraged her "beloved fool" to elope with her after the murder plot:

Tell me where we'll go, Michael. Will you carry me off with you into the sunrise? ... Just take me there. Take me quick. Take me.

When the fabricated 'murder' plot fell apart, Michael realized he was the fall guy for Grisby's murder and that a vengeful Bannister was now representing him as his defense lawyer! ("Either me or the rest of the whole world is absolutely insane"). He also realized that the villainous Elsa was Grisby's actual killer.

In the final climactic sequence of the film - the famous kaleidoscopic Crazy House/Hall of Mirrors scene, there was a deadly gunfight confrontation between Elsa, Michael, and Bannister, where she admitted her murderous guilt - in front of fractured and multiple image fragments.

The Bannisters self-destructively drew their guns and shot at multiple likenesses of each other, ending with them both mortally wounding each other. In dying Elsa's last exchange with Michael, she admitted her own "original nature" had delved into corruptness and evil, and that she had surrendered to "badness." She then pleaded with him: "I don't want to die! I DON'T WANT TO DIE!" as he walked away. The film ended with his musing:

Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying.

Pitfall (1948)
d. Andre de Toth

Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott)

This noirish tale by director Andre de Toth regarding the archetypal American Dream was a treatise on deceit and homicide.

Olympic Mutual Insurance salesman John Forbes (Dick Powell), a suburban middle-class married man (to his high-school girlfriend Sue (Jane Wyatt)), found his unfulfilled life was stuck in a rut "six feet deep." His mid-life crisis intensified when he took an insurance embezzlement case that brought him into contact with sultry blonde Mays Dept. Store fashion model Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). She denounced him initially as a "little man with a briefcase."

He spent a day on the femme fatale's Tempest speedboat and enjoyed cocktails and dinner with her - as their adulterous romance developed. Forbes ignored and falsified reports that she was reclaiming lavish, ill-gotten gifts given to her by her jailed embezzler boyfriend Bill Smiley (Bryon Barr).

When Mona learned that John was married, she sent him back home, telling him: "Why would you want to mess up something that you have that is so good?"

The insurance company's suspicious, sadistic and jealous private investigator and ex-cop 'Mac' MacDonald (Raymond Burr), who was obsessively stalking Mona, brutally beat up John (outside his garage). MacDonald threatened to disclose the secret affair between John and Mona. His plan was to let Smiley know before his parole release (with help to bail him out), to incite him to suspicion and violence, and to provide him with a gun.

The film ended with John gunning down prowler Smiley when he broke into the Forbes home. John confessed to authorities and to his long-suffering, dutiful and devastated wife. He pleaded temporary insanity and was exonerated with the rationale of 'justifiable homicide.' However, Mac was shot and killed by Mona when he forced her to run away with him and she was charged with a possible homicide - a double standard of punishment.

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