Monday, 5 November 2012

Erotic and Lethal: The Origins of the Femme Fatale

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

Larna Tuner
Beyond the sensational design details, film noir is close to our hearts at Colebrooke Row because it cemented the rise of the femme fatale, the type of woman who inspired the creation of ‘The Lipstick Rose’ cocktail. Film noir, or 'black cinema', refers to the dim city-scape backdrops and shadowed alleyways of film noir, but also to the dark and sordid motives of its characters. Among these characters is the femme fatale,the French phrase for ‘deadly woman.’ However, the French term is somewhat misleading: more accurately femme fatales are simply the queens of compromising situations – the match for cynical, disillusioned male protagonists who were susceptible to the charms of a beautiful but promiscuous and seductive double-dealing femme. The exceptional frequency in which women of a questionable virtue graced the screens of film noir was a focus that had become rare in Hollywood films after the mid-1930s and the end of the pre-Code era.

The Pre-Code Era

The pre-Code era is a shorthand term for a roughly five-year period in film history which began with the widespread adoption of sound in 1929 and ended in 1934, with the inauguration of the Production Code Administration and a policy of rigid censorship. Before July 1, 1934, restrictions on film content varied wildly depending on local laws and public taste. As a result, pre-Code films tend to be sexier, more adult, more cynical, socially critical and honest. Preferring the individual to the collective, these films were considerably politically strident.

Marelene Dietrich

The emerging jazz age and the Great Depression encouraged encouraged directors and screenwriters to seriously examine the moral and socio-political underpinnings of America and so came about a new wave of films that radically expanded the previously accepted moral thresholds. Without strict laws of censorship, actresses in the early thirties had access to a greater scope of female presentation. In this terrain the newly materialised, sexualised, self-sufficient New Woman - epitomised by Christian Dior's fashion in the 1920s, could truly flourish. Consequently, the injustices of corporate capitalism, divorce and particularly the sexual experimentation of women were now considered to be fitting subjects for the silver screen. Provocative and pro-active, women were presented as not just being aware of their sexuality but in control of their sexual prowess. It was not an unusual sight for women to waltz across the screen scantily clad in silken lingerie.

Colette Colbert
Many women in the early pre-Code era played prostitutes, however Norma Shearer in The Divorcee established a different pattern. She played a normal wife who, upon discovering her husband has been unfaithful, sets out on a voyage of sexual discovery. With nothing floozy-like about her, Shearer established the bedroom as safe territory for the ordinary woman, and so paved the way for Claudette Colbert in the Smiling Lieutenant, Loretta Young in Employee's Entrance and Bette Davis in Ex-Lady. 

Norma Shearer

The Rise of the Femme Fatale 

In early American slang, what we now consider to be a femme fatale was dubbed a 'vamp', short for vampire, a term which was inspired by Rudyard Kipling's popular poem The Vampire which described the downfall of a seduced man:

A fool there was and he made his prayer/ (Even as you and I!)/ To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair/ (We called her the woman who did not care)/ But the fool he called her his lady fair...

'A fool there was...' very much became the mantra for film noir male protagonists. Surfing the underbelly of many film noir movies is the failure on the part of male leads to recognise the dishonesty inherent in many of noir's principal women. Such hamartia is the downfall of the male characters in iconic noir films such as Scarlet Street, The Locket and Angel Face. In this sense, the power of the woman in film noir was, in part, channelled through wickedness. Women would employ their feminine wiles and alluring heightened sexuality to manipulate the make lead into becoming the fall-guy - often following a murder. However, after a betrayal or double-cross, she was frequently destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero's life.

Laraine Day in The Locket

The more malevolent femme fatale tends to torture her lover in a relationship of -take-take as opposed to give-and-take, often denying any confirmation of her affection. Double Indemnity provides the archetype of this kind of femme fatale in Barbara Stanwyck's character Phyllis Dietrichson (an apparent nod to Marlene Dietrich of pre-Code era). The film's commercial success and seven Oscar nominations ensured that it became one of the most influential of the early noirs. A plethora of noir 'bad girls' would follows; characters played by Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Lana Tuner and Jane Greer were particularly adept at driving men to the point of obsession and exhaustion. Jane Greer's unapologetic portrayal of a cunning female in Out of the Past epitomises the appeal and darkness of an authentic femme fatale. Greer truly possessed the perfect on-screen persona of post-war desolation. 

Jane Greer
However, it's not all sex and murder for the noir femme fatale. Although usually villainous, if not morally ambiguous, and always associated with a sense of mystification and unease, femme fatales have also appeared as anti-heroines in some stories, and some even repent and become true heroines as the film concludes. Some film noirs even feature benevolent and heroic femme fatales who employ their wiles to ensnare the villain for the greater good. 

Nonetheless, by the late fifties and into the sixties, strong, tough and independent women were replaced by assistants and consorts. Those who had once been leading ladies were now defined only by terms of their male protagonists who were increasingly portrayed as gallant Don Juan's or Casanovas - a fashion that was to reach its peak with the James Bond generation... However, the freedom and allure that defines the legacy of the femme fatale lives on in our hearts at Colebrooke Row.

1 comment:

  1. Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a strange femme fatale modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD and Netflix through Vanguard Cinema (, and is currently
    debuting on Cable Video On Demand. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the glam/punk tunes "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst" and "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire", and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.


    ***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
    before..." Film Threat
    "A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
    "Consistently stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
    version of David Lynch. " IFC News
    "Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
    "Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque