You know her the moment she’s on screen: she’s got the best lines and the best wardrobe. She’s having more fun than anyone else around her—which usually means she’ll have to be punished by film’s end. The femme fatale isn’t a trope that originated with film noir—you can make strong arguments for shades of the femme fatale in biblical Eve, Ishtar, the Sirens, Medusa, and Circe. Anywhere a hero needs a test or a scapegoat, you’ll find her. But film noir is where she’s best embodied and remembered.
In the 1940s and 50s, she was a projection of misogynistic inadequacy: the dangerous woman who lures a good man to his doom or moral compromise for her own gain. While you were unlikely to find this exact iteration of the femme fatale at the local watering hole, she did have (less lurid) real-life roots: off the screen, women had entered the workforce en masse during WWII, and the 1950s image of the “New Woman,” meant to celebrate women’s post-war return to the home, was more a male fantasy than an actuality. In her second filmic heydey, the neo-noir films of the 1980s and 1990s, sexual mores shifted, the 80s brought reactions against women’s liberation, and third wave feminists fought for workplace equality and freedom from sexual assault. Her embodiment remains much the same—she’s still largely a borderline cartoonish Black Widow, sexually insatiable and out for blood—but with one crucial difference: the film doesn’t have to end with her downfall. In the midst of the #MeToo movement and the Trump presidency, the femmes fatales is once again revitalized. With such straightforward crime movies as Hustlers, as well as cross-genre forays such as Midsommar (not strictly either a crime film or a film noir), the 2019 film slate shows that while the perception of the femme fatale has changed, she’s not yet dead.
The trope of the femme fatale in film is most problematic (and the clearest embodiment of the anxieties of the day) when she’s in a contemporary film. Femme fatales rendered in throwback films or literature (for example, Faye Dunaway in Chinatown or Daphne in Devil in a Blue Dress) fare comparatively well to their contemporary counterparts, in terms of motivation, backstory, and humanization. Historicizing her seems to give enough distance to use the trope as a critique; in contemporary film, she’s more commonly used as an expression of current anxiety.
Film noir heydey
There’s an embarrassment of great femme fatales to point to in the heydey of film noir. Using her sizzle, she pulled our everyman hero into a pit of vipers or danger or enticed him into murder. In her golden era of the film noirs of the 1940s and 50s, she’s defined by her sex appeal, her obvious dangerousness (a stark contrast to the not-so-distant Victorian ideal of pliant femininity), and her refusal to play by society’s rules. She was fun, she was sexy, and she was going to get you killed. She might’ve been born from a reductive stereotype but she also offered actresses the chance to play someone fun, someone evil—right up until she’s apprehended or killed, setting the world of the film back to moral rights.
Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity wore a blonde wig (described by Billy Wilder as “obviously phony”), an anklet, and an attitude of such blatant trouble that she’s barely five minutes into her meet-deadly with Fred McMurray’s Walter Neff before she’s flirtatiously floating the idea of murder. Neff should know better, and does, but can’t help himself. By the film’s end, Phyllis is killed byr Neff, a moment cinematically held up as the hero (rather, anti-hero) conquering the villain despite the fact that they plotted and orchestrated a murder together. Neff gets his, but he also gets to kill the woman who lured him to his doom along the way. He restores order to his world by taking her out of it before expiring himself.You know her the moment she’s on screen: she’s got the best lines and the best wardrobe. She’s having more fun than anyone else around her—which usually means she’ll have to be punished by film’s end.
At the end of the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaugnessy, arguably the prototype for the on-screen femme fatale, is revealed to be the true evil behind the mystery of the Maltese Falcon detective Sam Spade is tasked with unraveling (as well as the murderer of his partner). Brigid will eventually find herself in jail, but it’s not enough for her to simply receive punishment for her crimes; first, her charms must be actively rejected by our hero so that order can be restored. It’s not sufficient that Brigid is caught: she has to be handed over to the authorities by Spade.
It’s not fair to blame the demise of the femme fatale in the majority of her movies simply upon cinematic misogyny: Hollywood was still ruled by the Hays Code, which allowed for immoral hijinks to take place on screen as long as the moral universe was restored at the end. The femme fatale could only be fun, sexual, and deadly so long as she died or went to jail in the end. One major exception to this is Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, the bizarre ending of which underwrites literally all of the character and plot development that came before it and which, I am nearly positive, makes for one of the most fascinating, bizarre, and upsetting closing scenes in all of film noir: a happily unearned romantic ending. It’s still a neutering via the Hays Code—Gilda is not, despite all prior evidence, a spurned woman taking out her rage and heartbreak on her husband and former lover by sleeping her way through Argentina. Instead, she’s just been pretending to do so—she’s been loyal this whole time, didn’t ya know! Cue credits. It’s almost more upsetting than the death of Phyllis Dieterichson.
The bitch lives
The femme fatale reappears in the erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s (although perhaps she never really left) although she had evolved in more ways than one. Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker from the 1981 neo-noir film Body Heat was a femme whose fatality stemmed as much from her shrewd intellect as it did from her rapacious (and overtly on-screen) sexuality. Perhaps the movie is best remembered as a remake of Double Indemnity where the implicit sexual undercurrent that shimmed through both Cain’s original novel and Raymond Chandler’s screenplay of the film is made overt and onscreen, but I see it as a different sort of shift. Unlike her screen sisters of old, whose downfall was a way of returning order to the hero’s world, Matty Walker (nee Mary Ann Simpson) waltzes away scot-free, the cash from her dead husband funding her new exotic lifestyle while her lover rots in jail for a murder they both planned (and which he executed).
Or, take one of the most famous of all modern screen femmes fatale, Sharon Stone’s labia-flashing Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct. The leg cross that launched a thousand parodies is by-far the most remembered image from the film—an image, it should be noted, that Sharon Stone claims she did not authorize and that she was not aware of it being included in the final film until a screening with a test audience. But I’m struck by its close: Catherine atop Michael Douglas, an ice pick stashed under the bed for the moment she decides to use it. The film judges her and sexualizes her, but she comes out literally on top, at least for the moment.
She might not have gained much more interiority, dimensionality, or perspective of her own—both Matty Walker and Catherine Trammell are compelling but secondary characters in their respective films—but film started to do better by its film fatales than positing a world in which they had to be killed, arrested, or neutered for audiences to feel secure.
The femme fatale as Robin Hood
A century after Theda Bara’s “baby vamp” silverscreen routine created a blueprint for the aesthetic of the femme fatale onscreen, her cinematic status endures—with a few key shifts. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was a masterful resurrection and flipping of the femme fatale trope. By 2012, when the book was published, readers were used to the real-life proliferation of news stories about pretty white women who go missing only to find out, whoops, their philandering husband killed them. New millenium femme fatale Amy Dunne was the perfect antidote to this, setting her husband up to be accused of murder in order to right the wrongs she’s suffered at his hands. You might not want to cross her in real life, but she wasn’t unsympathetic: her infamous “cool girl” speech remains a sort of rallying cry for plenty of women. And while Catherine Trammell’s story closed with the ice pick under the bed, Amy Dunne has another smoking gun in her arsenal: wielding her unborn child as a weapon against her husband to keep him exactly where she wants him. She’s a crazy bitch, the progenitor of a million questions about “likeability” in female characters, and the antiheroine of our century.In every iteration over the years, the kernel of danger at the femme fatales core is that she’s out for herself: she doesn’t exist in service to or for men.
The late-summer crime film Hustlers debuted in September 2019 and as of the end of October 2019, had grossed more than $110 million worldwide. Featuring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, the star-studded ensemble cast bilks unsuspecting Wall Street doofs out of thousands of dollars via a team of talented female scammers (and the aid of some party drugs and booze). The film, directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on real events written up in an article by Jessica Pressler, undoubtedly plays into the tropes of the femme fatales (none of the marks end up dead but their wallets sure are made lighter by this entrepreneurial sisterhood).
But the biggest difference is the way in which these femmes fatales are viewed and not viewed: Lopez’s Ramona and Wu’s Destiny/Dorothy are given fully realized backstories, interior lives, and motivations. Despite the salacious possibilities of a movie with strippers as main characters, and featuring plenty of female (and male!) nudity, these women’s bodies are never offered up as consumption for the male gaze (undoubtedly due in no small part to the female-helmed direction and the reported intimacy coach always on set). And the movie makes sure to hammer the point home that these women are enacting, in their own way, a version of the American Dream that their male countertops/marks on Wall Street are chasing, no less unethically. These femme fatales are closer to less altruistic Robin Hood figures: robbing the rich to even the playing field. These femmes fatale aren’t just sympathetic; they’re actually human.
Another 2019 film makes use of shades of the femme fatale trope, albeit in a more roundabout way. By the end of Ari Aster’s Midsommar (not strictly a noir, and not just because it takes place in virtually zero actual darkness), its much put-upon heroine Dani (played by Florence Pugh) ultimately frees herself from a bad relationship, a bad man, and a bad life by…literally lighting it on fire. But because the audience has been on Dani’s side from the beginning—it’s more or less her story—it’s framed as a happy ending, with Pugh’s face creasing into a slight smile as she watches her former lover burn in the closing image of the film. It’s chilling and perfect and uplifting and it turns Dani into a literal femme fatale, as well as being our hero.
The study of the femme fatale traditionally focuses on the way she becomes a locus for male anxiety. While I don’t disagree with that, it’s still another way of studying her by placing her in service to men. She’s not just dangerous to men, she exists only because of men. But is it so hard to believe that the most vibrant, witty, wise-cracking and ambitious character on screen has motivations of her own? Alice Munro once said: “To be a femme fatale, you don’t have to be slinky and sensuous and disastrously beautiful, you just have to have the will to disturb.” In every iteration over the years, the kernel of danger at the femme fatales core is that she’s out for herself: she doesn’t exist in service to or for men. There’s something individual and hungry driving her and it makes her dangerous. But maybe one day, that’ll just be how we see women on screen all the time. Separate from the danger they pose to men, separate from the anger they feel towards men. A dame in search of her own destiny.