The trope of the film noir dame, with her cascading hair, scarlet lips, and double-crossing, smooth-talking ways, is a familiar stereotype indeed. From Jessica Rabbit to Betty Boop (both based on film legends themselves; Veronica Lake and 20’s silent-film “it” girl Clara Bow, respectively), she has been mythologized relentlessly since her conception. In the dimly-lit chiaroscuro of low-budget crime thrillers, as a generation of war-torn young men returned home, an uncertain, existential new vision of the urban jungle began to materialise.
Those that inhabited them were men and women scarred by the past, cynical about the future’s promises, and disinterested in the heroic concepts of the war generation; “the greater good” and virtuous self-sacrifice. From the early forties to the mid fifties, existing in a world parallel to the fresh, clean and brightly-lit prosperity of the 1950’s, film noir (inspired by the shadowy, geometric lighting of earlier European films) was concerned with the seedy underworld; the amoral gangster’s molls, the self-interested private detectives and corrupt cops. Nihilistic and flying in the face of the soon-to-be antiseptic mainstream vision of domesticated American femininity, the women of film noir are exotic, sophisticated, complicated, and unwilling to be tamed.
They hold on iconographic place in film history; nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall, lowering that chin and telling Bogie to “put your lips together and blow” – and vivacious, cat-eyed Barbara Stanwyck, as conniving a broad to ever appear on the big screen in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Film theorists and critics have oft-discussed the double-crossing seductress as a sexist figure, made for consumption by the “male gaze”, but never to be trusted – a threat to all that is right, fair, and masculine in the world, and a cliché of the duplicitous female.
And yet, inasmuch as all this may carry some truth, the film noir dames are the coolest, the slinkiest, and even in their bitchery and villainy, some of the most iconically empowered women in screen history. Their power may lay in their feminine wiles, but they frequently challenge male domination, the traditional family structure, and prove as strong counterpoints to the complacent women of many other male-oriented genres. Although they often receive ritualistic punishment for their bad behaviour, it’s most often their subversion and defiance that lingers, making them as strong as many of their female contemporaries of 1940’s cinema, and rivalled only by the mile-a-minute chatty intelligence of women like Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Jean Arthur. Here is a list of some of cinema’s most unforgettable dames; the PI’s they duped, and the great movies they graced with their towering presences:
Gloria Grahame, The Big Heat (1953)
Fritz Lang’s late-in-the-period, 1953 film noir The Big Heat is one of the most violent, jarring and genuinely disturbing crime films to come from the genre. Lang, as per Jacques Tourneur, injected a much darker European flair to the American film noir genre, giving it a realism and underlying brutality that suited its content and style far more starkly.The Big Heat has such brutality in spades, a sort of meanness that dogs the steps of its characters and shapes their predicaments. It contains a memorable scene of the same sort of misogynistic, primal violence as the famous one in The Public Enemy over 20 years preceding it – when James Cagney unexpectedly smashes a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face.
Updated, the ever-villainous Lee Marvin throws a pot of boiling hot coffee in the face of his moll, Gloria Grahame, disfiguring her permanently. He punishes her for her loose lips when it comes to righteous cop Glenn Ford, but she isn’t the only one who takes a nasty dose of punishment for being involved in the wrong racket; all of the characters are meted out a heavy dollop of misfortune by the film’s conclusion. Grahame is a victim of her gangster associates, and in spite of being told she is a “sister under the mink” – complicit so she can maintain a certain lifestyle – she yearns to escape and enlists Ford to help her. Tragically, her wings are clipped before she can manage it. Lang is disturbingly honest about the perils of the underworld for a woman, and perhaps far more realistic about her chances of survival in this male-dominated world.
Jane Greer, Out of the Past (1947)
Greer must be one of the ultimate bitch-goddesses of film noir; sultry and imperviously beautiful, she steals and crushes young Robert Mitchum’s heart, leading him into the sorrowful mess where more than his romantic hopes may be in danger. Anyone could hate her for two-timing Mr. Mitchum, especially in one of his most unusually earnest, upright roles. (The film, of course, pre-dates Mitchum’s infamous run-in with the LAPD on marijuana charges, cementing his antihero status and gaining him far more cynical roles in the future.) Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past centers around a mysterious wealthy man (Kirk Douglas) whose beloved girlfriend has made off with some of his cash and escaped to Mexico.
He enlists his old friend and injured football star, Mitchum, to go look for her. When he finds her, an unexpected attraction between them causes a long line of complications. It is a stylish, inventive film with neck-breakingly quick dialogue and a plot that spins circles and ties knots around its viewers. Tourneur was a master of shadow and light; Mitchum had once said, “We lit our pictures with cigarettes.” In comparison to glossy A-picture noirs like The Big Sleep, the shoestring budget lent to the grim, darkened atmosphere. The ending – a head nod to a distraught woman and a car speeding into the distance – remains one of the most memorable moments of the genre.
When Greer appeared in the 1984 remake, Against All Odds, she filled the role of the yuppified, malevolent matriarch of the wealthy family that her original character came from. I must, in good conscience, also recommend the Jeff Bridges version, complete with Phil Collins soundtrack – it maintains the framework and punchiness of great storytelling, and no amount of 80’s gloss can disguise it. And while the remake is great fun — English actress Rachel Ward plays a much more sympathetic little rich girl than Greer did – she simply cannot personify the chilly bitchery and charm of the original role.
Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity (1944)
Billy Wilder, who made some of the most memorable noir films of all time (like Sunset Boulevard in 1950), also helped to set some of the most iconic hallmarks of the genre early on, rivalling The Maltese Falcon (1941) in its influence.Phyllis, the bored and duplicitous housewife to an older man, seduces Fred MacMurray, an insurance salesman who arrives at her doorstep one day only to be slowly lured in to her plans.She convinces him to secretly take out a life insurance policy on her husband, with a double-indemnity clause which pays out twice the amount in the case of an accidental death – an accidental death that she and her new man are sure to precipitate.
Stanwyck truly does steal the show here, silently driving MacMurray’s actions with her sexual charms; she very much became the blueprint for other bad girls, with her double entendre and dangerous sexuality. After the murder, MacMurray’s vigilant and intuitive boss at the insurance firm grows suspicious, and Phyllis’ step-daughter and her boyfriend provide ample complications for the adulterous lovers.
Stanwyck’s manipulation doesn’t end after her husband’s carefully-orchestrated murder; when things start going South, she schemes her way out of her lover’s arms, and right into someone else’s. A seedy little tale which proved outrageous at the time of release, the story ends in fatalistic mutual destruction for the murderers, and became the sort of A-picture Paramount would subsequently find further success with; the studio contracted Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake to make a series of memorable films like The Blue Dahlia, after previous success with This Gun for Hire (1942).
Ava Gardner, The Killers (1946)
Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner make an almost ridiculously beautiful old Hollywood pairing in Ernest Hemingway-penned heist noir The Killers. Lancaster’s masculine grace and vigour is drawn in sharp relief against Gardner’s black-widow-spider, all slow, poised movements and cold elegance. Gardner is pure villainess; the woman who is deceitful because she can be, because it delights her to toy with men like a cat with its prey. She woos the vulnerable, loved-up Swede (Lancaster) and spellbinds him so completely that her warning – “I’m poison, Swede, to myself and everyone around me” – goes unheeded.
And indeed she is; so black-hearted that she not only cons him into betraying his partners, but cons her way back to her husband, the ringleader of the gang, who organised the frame-up to begin with. She maintains her villainous facade right up to the final moments of the film, when she begs her husband to exonerate her in his dying moments; she is wickedly heartless, and when he fails to proclaim her innocence, she is finally caught out by the cops. The Killers was not only Gardner’s breakout role for MGM, but also shot Burt Lancaster to stardom – an exciting portrait of two soon-to-be Hollywood legends in their first major roles.
Rita Hayworth, Gilda (1946)
The famous tagline went – “There never was a woman like Gilda!” – and so it was. No woman captured the public consciousness so much as Rita Hayworth, her image becoming something of Hollywood legend and the pin-up of choice for American GI’s abroad. From the moment she appears onscreen, flipping her hair and grinning, bare shoulders peeking from the top of her robe, she captivates. Her famous red hair and name were false; she was born Margarita Cansino, a half-Spanish girl from Brooklyn who grew up with strong roots in her Hispanic background.
Unsurprisingly, the autocratic, unpleasant head of Columbia Studios, Harry Cohn, forced her to Americanise her image. In 1946, the same year as Gilda shot her to stardom, she so came to represent the American ideal of ‘bombshell’ that her name was inscribed on the side of the A-bomb dropped at the Bikini Atoll nuclear test. Reportedly, she was outraged. Seemingly disillusioned with fame, she had once said, “Men go to bed with Gilda – and wake up with me.”
Interestingly, inasmuch as Hayworth came to define the femme fatale image, she both subverted and eventually outgrew it. Even in her famous striptease scene, (in which she only removes one satin dinner glove – makers of music videos in 2013, please take note) she sings a tongue-in-cheek little tune, ‘Put the Blame on Mame’. The song gently mocks how men are fast to blame women as untrustworthy, or responsible for disastrous events. This is par for the course for a film noir woman; she’s an elemental force of destruction, perhaps personifying masculine fears about changing roles.
There are many more great women in this little patch of cinema history; Maxine Cooper in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Bacall in any of her Warner Brothers pictures with Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard – the list goes on. Too many people are familiar with the cliché of the femme fatale and nothing else; so go, now! Netflix yourself into a film noir bubble tonight. Get yourself on a first-name basis with these iconic women and their leading men, and all of the thrill, double-crosses, nihilism and paranoia of the immediate postwar years.