Hello dear readers! A few years ago, I wrote a text for university on the different representations of women in the film noir movement. I thought it would be fun to translate the text (because it was originally written in French) and share it here for #Noirvember! I hope you’ll enjoy it! Warning: Because this is more an analysis than a review, I give a few spoilers.
When one approaches the subject of the woman in film noir, the representation that most often comes to our minds is the femme fatale. She’s among the greatest particularities of film noir, the most representative. However, after watching several films belonging to this cinematic movement, I noticed that we can actually find four types of women in films noir. After observing each one of their characteristics, I was able to name them: the femme fatale, the new femme fatale, the victim (or the innocent victim), and the helping woman. I will explain the characteristics of these four types of women and will go further in my approach by discussing four films: Out of the Past for the femme fatale, Born to Kill for the new femme fatale, The Night of the Hunter for the victim, and Spellbound for the helping woman.
The femme fatale
The femme fatale surely is the female representation that is the most often used in noirs. She is, if I’m allowed to use this term, one of the main “trademarks” of this movement, or, at least, one of its most important characteristics. This cinematic movement with a somehow misogynist spirit was sort of getting revenge from the woman who “stole” the men’s work when they were on the front during the Second World War. The main representation of the woman in film noir, the femme fatale, doesn’t have for objective to present us a flattering portrait of women.
Physically, the femme fatale is often presented in a caricatural way: she has wavy hair, blond, red or black; she often smokes; she’s seducing; she puts close emphasis on her sexuality and her power of seduction; she doesn’t often smile (or if she does, it’s only for the image); she has long eyelashes, a lot of makeup, etc. The femme fatale is surely very beautiful, but she uses this beauty for questionable purposes. The film noir protagonist, a rather ambiguous man, is seduced by the woman he encountered on his way. Eventually, this one leads him to his loss. By doing so, the femme fatale creates a trap around her because she’s taking a risk in presence of a, yes, ambiguous hero, but someone more clairvoyant than she might think. Thus, it goes in both ways: by trying to stop the femme fatale, the hero takes a risk, and it’s also the case for the woman who provokes the loss of the hero.
It might be the fascination the protagonist has for this woman that leads him to his loss. Indeed, she is not only beautiful and a seductress, but the femme fatale is also clever and reasoned. She knows how to take control over things and doesn’t need anyone to be guided. However, all beautiful and intelligent people aren’t necessarily good, and it is precisely easier for this type of people to manipulate others, to create a false impression. The femme fatale won’t hesitate to commit adultery to reach her ends but still desires to remain independent. Therefore, we deduct that she is not the marriage type. The femme fatale in film noir often plays the role of the mistress but not of the married woman. If she is, most of the time, she perceives the marriage like a profoundly boring union and would have married the man only for his money. Gilda by Charles Vidor represents this situation well. So, the femme fatale is an obstacle for the marriage institution and to family values.
Then, the femme fatale is often a human being inhabited by hate. If we still take the example of Gilda, on several occasions in the film, Gilda (Rita Hayworth) clearly says that she hates Johnny (Glenn Ford), her ex-fiancee who came back to her life by pure coincidence. If the femme fatale acts this way towards men, it is not without reason. It could indeed be a sort of revenge against the one who denigrates her. I discovered that, in many films noir, men use a vocabulary that is far from being flattering to describe women. Many films noir present important femmes fatales. We can think of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity, Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Ring Twice, Kitty March (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street, Gilda (Rita Hayworth) in Gilda, or Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past. We’ll discuss the last one in greater detail.
Out of the Past: The case of Kathie Moffett
Out of the Past was directed by Jacques Tourneur and released in 1947. It is often cited as one of the highlights of film noir. The protagonist, Jeff Bailey, is played by Robert Mitchum, and the famous femme fatale is played by Jane Greer. This woman surely is one of the best examples of femme fatale in the film noir movement, and we are going to analyse her character to understand and explain better her role in the film and, mostly, to show what makes her a femme fatale. In his book Le film noir, Patrick Brion makes us notice that Kathie is the true responsible for the tragic events of the film. (1) Watching the film confirms Brion’s claims as we gradually discover that Kathie Moffett is to blame for the fatal final events of the story.
First of all, she triggers the film noir narrative line. She is accused of having stolen $40 000 from her lover Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), and this one has sent Jeff Bailey to find her. It’s during a flashback (another typical element of film noir) that Jeff finds Kathie, falls under her spell but discovers her shenanigans soon enough. Indeed, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), one of Sterling’s acolytes, discovers the relationship between Kathie and Jeff and surprises them. It’s a terrorized Jeff that sees Kathie kill Fisher under his eyes. She runs away with the car and leaves Jeff alone with the corpse. Kathie pretended she didn’t possess the $40 000. However, after her escape, Jeff discovers that she had indeed stolen the money. Towards the end of the film, when Whit discovers that Kathie has killed Fisher, he is convinced that she must be sent to the police, but she stops him by killing him as well. Jeff (now falsely accused of two murders: Fisher’s and Eals, the lawyer who threatened Whit) takes things under control and decides to deliver Kathie to the police by traping her. When she discovers it, she also shoots Jeff but is then killed by the police. Therefore, it’s a woman that is responsible for the death of three men who is finally punished.
It is interesting to observe the ways Kathie uses to reach her ends. We realize that her only objective is to keep the $40 000 to herself without anyone getting in her way. Like every femme fatale, it’s mainly with the help of manipulation and seduction that she tries to reach her goal. Very well dressed, she talks with a sensual voice and barely smiles. She seems to be in full possession of her means and also unreachable. She is an unpredictable woman since Jeff never knows when he will see her again. This accentuates his desire toward this woman. We guess Jeff has fallen into her trap when he says this famous line “Baby I Don’t Care” which will later be used for the title of the biography Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care by Lee Server. Kathie has just sworn that she hasn’t stolen the money and that she hates Whit. In an article for the magazine Cynos, Delphine Letort also talks about the “femme assassine” (2) or the killing/murderous woman. She explains that its the failure of her manipulations that drives her to use guns. (3) That’s exactly what happens to Kathie. She kills Fisher because this one has discovered her relationship with Jeff and, therefore, has become an obstacle. Jeff struggles with him but doesn’t want to kill him. However, Kathie encourages him to do so, and it is interesting to notice that this one looks at the action with a strange fascination. It’s after witnessing the murder of Fisher by Kathie that Jeff will begin to discover the true nature of this woman. When he finds her again at Whit’s place, he seems less happy to see her. She still plays the game and gives herself the victim role, but we know she is lying. She also kills Whit and Jeff who were going to lead her to another failure, being delivered to the police. Delphine Letort also makes us notice that, when she uses a firearm, the femme fatale often do so in a clumsy way. (4) It’s indeed the case for Kathie. She kills men in a very unsubtle way and takes the risk of doing so in presence of witnesses. At the end, she kills Jeff but she is surrounded by the police who, inevitably, stops her by killing her as well. In other words, Kathie provokes the loss of three men , but the result of all that ends up being a huge failure in which she wins nothing.
The new femme fatale
In some film noir cases, it is difficult to say if the female protagonist is a femme fatale or not. As a matter of fact, in some situations, it is indeed a femme fatale but slightly transformed and who doesn’t have the same characteristics as the traditional and typical femme fatale. In this case, I think of films like Gun Crazy, Sunset Boulevard, and Born to Kill (which will be our case study). This new type of femme fatale is also a seductress, but the reasons that drive her to seduce the man are difficult to understand. As a matter of fact, this new type of femme fatale is even more ambiguous than the male protagonist. She sometimes leads the man to his loss, but unvoluntary (it’s the case for Gun Crazy) or during an excess of madness (Sunset Boulevard). The new femme fatale doesn’t necessarily want to lead the man to his loss but to keep him at her sides or insist for him to be kept at her sides. Contrary to the traditional femme fatale, the new femme fatale falls in love with the hero, who is not necessarily an ambiguous man. If we think of Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis is only an ordinary screenwriter who becomes the prisoner of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a fallen actress living in a terrible solitude. In the case of Gun Crazy, the story strongly inspired by the real life story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Annie Laurie Starr is a seductress, but she is also in love with Bart, her partner in crime. However, she will take him to his loss by encouraging him to commit hold-ups and killing a few people, including a policeman. The two of them are, therefore, wanted for murder. However, Bart cares for her, and they will stay together until their tragic death. In the film, Bart is a man having a strange fascination for firearms, but his mysterious aspect stops here. This type of woman still bears the title of femme fatale, mainly because she takes the man to his loss, but it’s not always intentional. I would add that, physically, the new femme fatale is not necessarily dressed according to the codes of seduction, but according to those of elegance.
Born to Kill: The case of Helen Brent
To illustrate better what I previously wrote about the new femme fatale, I will look at the case of Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), the female protagonist of Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947). It is an extremely mysterious character and, therefore, one that is kind of intriguing. Just like the traditional femme fatale, Helen Brent expresses herself with a sensual voice and doesn’t smile much. When she does so, it’s more often smiles expressing contempt or having for objective to give her a false image so her secret won’t be discovered by her foster sister, Georgia (Audrey Long), or by the detective, Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). She is, indeed, the only person who knows that Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) is the one who killed Laura “Laury” Palmer. Therefore, she lies and often does so by using a false and exaggerated voice. In opposition to many films noir, the main character of this film is a woman who then becomes more ambiguous than the male protagonist. Sam Wilde is inhabited by his murderous pulsions, but his intentions are clear: if he kills someone, it’s because this person didn’t please him or did something that he didn’t like. However, even at the end of the film, it is difficult to determine Helen Brent’s true motivations. Why doe she manipulates her entourage? The most plausible hypothesis is that it is for the sake of money. As we saw with Out of the Past, it is a motivation that is proper to femmes fatales. Just like the traditional femme fatale, Helen is often inhabited by hatred towards the main masculine figure of the film, Sam Wilde. She hates him for having married her sister when a thing seemed to have started between the two of them, but also because he is a murderer, and she knows her sister might be in danger. She also hates him for being the cause of the cancellation of her engagement with Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). She pretends to like this one, but Sam Wilde (and the spectator) understand that she only wanted to marry him for his money. Because, yes, Helen Brent is a woman who seems to be obsessed with money. Therefore, she chooses to get revenge by using the extreme method, the one of seduction and manipulation. During the whole story, she plays with Sam’s feelings, leading him to a trap: the one of reporting him to the police. She will lead him to his loss but also to her own loss because this action will highly displease Sam who will kill her as well.
It is interesting to observe Helen’s transformation. At the beginning of the film, she seems to be an ordinary woman. It’s after her encounter with Sam that she changes and become what we call a femme fatale or a “new femme fatale“. She, therefore, becomes someone tormented and tense but pretends not to be by surrounding herself with a false image as I’ve mentioned earlier. It’s only with Sam that she seems to show her true colours. However, Helen is not someone entirely bad. Yes, she will threat Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard) but will highly regret it when Mrs. Kraft will tell her: “You’re the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, and the rottenest inside.” She will also confess to her sister, brutally, that she and Sam were lovers, but it is only a way to protect her from the danger that Sam represents.
We mentioned earlier that the femme fatale doesn’t believe in marriage. In the case of Helen Brent, there is a slight variation. This one believes in marriage, but this seems to be only for monetary reasons, and these are often failures. Indeed, at the beginning of the film, she has just got a divorce and, towards the end, Fred breaks the engagement. Anyway, Helen Brent is basically an ordinary woman who becomes a femme fatale against her will and a profoundly unhappy human being.
The victim or the “innocent victim” (5) as Delfine Letort, writer of the article Femme fatale / femme assassine dans le film noir : dévier le stéréotype, calls her is another type of woman often used in film noir. Once again, she represents a sort of revenge against women because, as the name indicates it, she is a victim. However, in opposition to the femme fatale, the innocent victim is generally a good person with good values, including the ones of marriage of love, instead of marriage of money or marriage of contempt. As a matter of fact, we can notice that, in most cases, this type of woman is the victim of a man she married too quickly without knowing his true nature and who, later, will regret her choice by discovering the dark secrets concerning her husband. The examples are numerous. We can think of Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine) in Rebecca, Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine) in Suspicion, Celia Lamphere (Joan Bennett) in Secret Beyond the Door, or Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) in The Night of the Hunter (our eventual case study). This woman marries a man she loves and who fascinates her, but she will eventually fear him without necessarily stop loving him.
The innocent victim isn’t necessarily a victim in the proper sense of the term. She won’t necessarily be “killed” by her husband. As a matter of fact, the word victim makes sense in the way that the woman is a victim of the ambiguity of the man she married, which leads her to doubt him but also to doubt herself. She, therefore, becomes an unhappy and/or extremely vulnerable person. The husband isn’t always truly bad and, sometimes, it is only a misunderstanding, but it’s not always the case. When the man really wants to get rid of the woman he married, it is often for obvious reasons: she is about to discover something compromising him, or she is only a nuisance to his life and prevents him (unconscioulsy) to commit wrong.
Physically, the innocent victim has nothing to do with the femme fatale. There are some exceptions like Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door. She precisely has this “innocent” look and is dressed in a much sober way. Contrary to the femme fatale, she is shier, more doubtful, and more easily manipulable. Also, she doesn’t seek revenge against the man who tortures her but tries to escape instead. In some cases, she lets the man manipulates her completely. It’s the case of Willa Harper in The Night of the Hunter.
The Night of the Hunter: The case of Willa Harper
The Night of the Hunter is a film directed by Charles Laughton and released in 1955. In this film, Willa Haper (Shelley Winters) is not only an innocent victim; she is also an unconscious victim because she doesn’t doubt that the man she has married is an extreme manipulator having unwholesome objectives. Indeed, after spending a day in jail with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man who stole $10 000 during a hold up and who is sentenced to death for his crime, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a dangerous psychopath, tries to become part of the life of the Harper family to take possession of the money. He, therefore, seduces Willa, who eventually accepts to marry him despite the very recent death of her husband, Ben Harper. The reverend wants, of course, to enjoy the money alone and makes her believe that it is at the bottom of the river and that it is, therefore, impossible to find it. Willa believes him, but Harry Powell shares a secret with John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Brune), Willa’s young children, who know where the money truly is but who promised to their father to keep it secret before this one got arrested. His wedding with Willa is then only a way to incrust the family. Because Willa is a nuisance to his quest, he ends up killing her (and makes the villagers believe that she ran away, leaving him alone with the children). However, Harry Powell will prepare his murder by taking advantage of Willa’s vulnerability. How? Simply by using his religious power.
It is important to notice that, as an innocent victim, Willa Harper has great admiration for Harry Powell even before marrying him. It’s precisely one of the reasons that drive her to marry him. Harry Powell manages to manipulate her by using his religious power. From their wedding night, where Harry Powell will only preachify her, she will obey the orders of her new husband to become a “clean” woman, to be more admired by him. This is indeed proven when Willa prays and says, “Help me to get clean, so I can be what Harry wants me to be.” Reverend Powell has managed to take complete control over her. We witness it during an evening representation as Willa seems to be in trance. When Harry Powell kills her, she doesn’t react and doesn’t try to defend herself because she is at the mercy of the one who possesses her. The innocent victim is often someone good and who, sometimes, don’t see the imminent danger. In Willa Harper’s case, this happens when she finds a knife in Harry Powell’s pocket and simply says “Men!” with a smile.
Finally, it is interesting to notice that Willa Harper won’t be a victim only while being alive. Indeed, she becomes the victim of the villagers’ gossip after her death, as Harry Powell tells them that she has abandoned him. She is, therefore, seen as a heartless woman (until the truth is discovered). In conclusion, in The Night of the Hunter, the murder of the innocent victim is only a way to reach a goal which, as we know it, will be a failure for Harry Powell. As a matter of fact, generally in films noir, this kind of situation often turns out to be a failure for the antagonist or results in reconciliation if this one isn’t truly bad (we can think of Mark Lamphere-Michael Redgrave- in Secret Beyond the Door).
The helping woman
So far, we saw that the different types of women present in films noir were generally the result of a masculine revenge desire. Whatever if they are good or not, they eventually become a man’s victim. However, there is an exception to the rule, the one we call the “helping woman”. The objective of this one is not to be an obstacle for the ambiguous man or to lead him to his loss, but, instead, to help him and try to understand him. In opposition to the innocent victim, the helping woman knows how to handle the situation and keeps certain independence. It’s often the result of love for the male protagonist that encourages the woman to come to his rescue. If we think of films like Spellbound or Notorious, Ingrid Bergman would be a good representative figure of this type of woman. However, she eventually becomes a victim in Notorious. Gloria Grahame, in Crossfire, also represents this type of woman. She, at first, hesitates to help, but she finally accepts, and it’s thanks to her help that a man is saved from false accusations.
Unfortunately, the helping woman is rarely used in the film noir movement or, often, she is a secondary character. In this case, we can think of Midge Woods (Barbara Bel Geddes) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the only truly good person of the story. It’s also the case for Ann (Virginia Huston) in Out of the Past that we were discussing earlier. Generally, I observed that the helping woman is often present in Hitchcock’s noirs (Spellbound, I Confess, Vertigo, Strangers On A Train). In opposition to the femme fatale, the helping woman is a human person. It’s mostly her ability for compassion that pushes her to commit good instead of harming a man who is already in a bad position. The helping woman is, as a matter of fact, a figure having for objective to encourage the male protagonist to move further, to get out of his mental prison, and to become someone better. It’s sometimes thanks to her if the hero doesn’t fall into the traps of the femme fatale or tries not to go down into them again. Here, we can think of the relationship between Ann and Jeff in Out of the Past.
Spellbound: The case of Constance Petersen
To illustrate better who the helping woman is, I will more precisely study the case of Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). In my opinion, she is one of the most beautiful female characters ever created, and she seems to make us forget the wrong side of femmes fatales in the film noir. It is also a noir where the main character is a woman, just like in Born to Kill, and we follow her from the beginning of the story until the end. She’s the one who guides the story. It is interesting to notice that, at first sight, Constance is presented as a cold woman, dressed in a very serious way and being much concentrated on her work (she remains very objective towards the advances of her colleague Dr. Fleurot). It’s only after meeting Dr. Edwards (Gregory Peck) that Constance changes and becomes more “human”. This is installed quite early in the film and is remarkably illustrated in this scene where she and Dr. Edwards go out on a walk and to picnic. Constance Petersen is also a woman who evolves in a man’s world. She then has to find ways to stand out. Thus, she will then decide to help a man having serious psychological troubles (Dr. Edward is, in reality, a guy named J.B suffering from amnesia). She does it out of love for him while facing the possible consequences (lying to the police for example). Constance Petersen is also a helping woman in the way that she can understand people. It is not only the case with J.B, but also with her other patients. She also insists a lot, but it is always with good intentions and to help J.B remembering his past and, therefore, to cure his guilt complex. A scene in this film shows us that the helping woman is, first of all, a sentimental person. It is the case when Constance says: “The heart can see deeper sometimes” when she alludes to J.B’s problems. The helping woman that Constance represents, although she is sentimental, remains, after all, a very rational and thoughtful person. She is intelligent and courageous. It’s indeed she who discovers that Dr. Murchinson (Leo G. Carroll) is Dr. Edwards’s true murderer and does so only by making a connection with something quite banal the doctor says:”I knew Edwards only slightly” when this one had always pretended he had never met him.
I would like to highlight a before-last point about the helping woman. Unfortunately, even if this type of woman is more valued than the femme fatale, the helping woman is not completely safe from the wrong perceptions a man can have towards her. In Spellbound case, this is shown when the detective at the hotel (Bill Goodwin) believes that she is only a teacher or a secretary. Probably because these were more “typical” professions for women in the 40s, more than psychoanalysts anyway. We can also notice this when Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov) says to his friend Constance “Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that, they make the best patients.” Of course, Constance proves him wrong by helping J.B until the end despite the numerous obstacles she has to face.
I, earlier, looked at the question of marriage in connection to the different types of women in film noir. We saw that the femme fatale doesn’t believe in marriage and that the innocent victim often becomes a victim of this institution. In the case of the helping woman, more particularly Constance’s case, she believes in it, but only once the problem is solved. Indeed, Constance and J.B (who now know his real name: John Ballantine) can marry each other after having proven John’s innocence.
We are now able to realise that women in films noir aren’t only femmes fatales. I presented four types of women, but maybe there are more. We saw that, in all cases, the woman, even if she is good, is, at some point, denigrated by a male character. We know that this is mainly due to the very misogynistic side of these films. This leads us to another problem that would be interesting to eventually analyse: How does the film noir woman evolve? What did she become in neo-noir?
(1) Brion, Patrick. Le film noir. Éditions de La Martinière, Paris, 2004, 222.
(2) Delphine Letort, « Femme fatale / femme assassine dans le film noir : dévier le stéréotype », Cycnos, Volume 23, n°2, November 9, 2006. http://revel.unice.fr/cycnos/index.html?id=705.