actors, femme fatale, movies

The Evolution of the Femme Fatale


Welcome to the Lucky 13 Film Club spotlighting the bad luck charm, the femme fatale. Virtuoso BILL WHITE at Cinema Penitentiary Diaries agreed to be the guest contributor this month. Thank you, Bill! He discusses her roots and fermentation through the 1960s:

Vamps, vixens, sirens, ghosts, wasp women, nightclub singers, faithless wives, …..If you are contemplating suicide by woman, you have plenty of options.  The femme fatale, or deadly female, has been a central figure in literature and myth since mankind developed an imagination.  In films, it all started in 1915 with Theda Bara as The Vampire in A Fool There Was.  And so many fools have since followed the deadly female to destruction, be it physical, moral, spiritual, economic, or social. Some, like George O’ Brien’s The Man, in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W.Murnau), escape through love, faith, and redemption. Others, like  Emil Jannings’ professor Rath, victim of nightclub singer Lola in Joseph von Sternberg’s 1930 The Blue Angel, are not so lucky.

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Marlene Dietrich’s Lola has been a prototype for the predatory nightclub singer that has persisted for nearly a century, with Rita Hayworth’s Gilda one of its most popular incarnations.  By the time Janet Leigh’s Cherry showed up in the 1966 adaptation of Norman Mailer’s novel An American Dream, this character type had gone beyond both its Berlin Cabaret origins and film noir trappings to become a vengeful harridan of the deadliest order, with her final line, “What did you expect from a whore?” still awaiting an answer fifty years later.


But not all femme fatales are vengeful witches. In Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur) Simone Simon plays Irena, a woman who, terrified that erotic arousal will turn her into  murderous leopard, avoids sexual relations with her husband. Not so with Shirley MacLaine’s serial widow in the frothy comedy, What a Way to Go, who keeps marrying men who are destined to get rich and die young, although she doesn’t mean them any harm. Then there are the bad girls who prove deadly only to themselves when they try to reform.  Gloria Graham’s Debbie Marsh (The Big Heat, 1953, Fritz Lang) and Jean Peters’ Candy (Pickup on South Street, 1953, Sam Fuller)  are examples of tramps whose turning of a new leaf gains them nothing but a bullet in the gut.

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Then there are the relatively decent chaps who are enchanted into a life of crime by sociopathic females. In Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950),  Bart Tare (John Dall) loves shooting guns for the sport of it, but his girlfriend Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), loves killing people with them. Bart soon joins her in the killing, and they both end up dead.  But usually the victim of the femme fatale has a touch of larceny in his heart to begin with. It sure doesn’t take much for Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) to seduce Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into maximizing her husband’s insurance policy before knocking him off in Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic, Double Indemnity.

Wilder’s picture might be the model for subsequent film noirs on the order of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but it is by no means a universal standard by which to measure the femme fatale.   In fact, the beast comes in so many guises that I don’t believe such a standard is possible.  We have the biblical femme fatale, marvelously embodied by Hedy Lemarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Samson and Delilah,  the female ghost in endless Japanese tales, most memorably portrayed by Machiko Kyô as Lady Wakasa in Kenji Mizoguchi’s unforgettable 1953 classic Ugetsu,  Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, perhaps the most evil personage of modern drama, played by Ingrid Bergman in Alex Segal’s 1963 television movie, and the vampire heroine of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 gothic serial, Carmilla,  which inspired countless films beginning with Carl Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr, and including Roger Vadim’s 1960, Blood and Roses, which starred his wife Annette.


The sixties continued with a further evolution of the femme fatale, including Francois Truffaut’s 1969 throwback to the noir era, Mississippi Mermaid, featuring Catherine Deneuve, as well as modern variations on the siren archetype in Monte Hellman’s 1966 western, The Shooting.  And as long as we have stupid guys and devious gals, the femme fatale will continue to evolve.

Cindy’s take on it:  1970s to the Present 

Sex-appeal is a common denominator with all femme fatales through the decades. She exudes a powerful spell–the anticipation of sexual passion via body language combined with an aura of mysterious detachment. It is a heavy perfume few men can ignore.

The Emasculaters 

They are out to punish. These heartless emasculaters get off manipulating others. Often, they coax out the worst in a male to actualize their perverted prophesy. After driving him to violence they justify, “See? I told you, all men are pricks.” Debra Winger in Black Widow (1984), John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994), and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992) are a few that come to mind.  

The Complicated 

If a Madeleine Elster enters your life, you better run for the hills. Confused and a little crazy, men feel drawn to them and become a little crazy themselves. In one scene they’re slapping them, and in the next, they risk everything to save them. Why? Because deep down, men feel the troubled sexpot will save them. In L.A. Confidential (1997), Veronica Lake look-alike, Lynn Bracken, played by Kim Basinger, fits this mold.  Michelle Pfeiffer has made a career by playing sizzling-and-confused to perfection.

For Freedom 

Surviving in a patriarchal world ain’t easy. Girls don’t wish to grow up to be prostitutes; they are pawns and victims of male predators. Some femme fatales use their beauty to acquire eventual freedom from their oppressors. No better examples for this category exist than Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974) or Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). 

The Kick-Ass Present 

After Linda Hamilton’s performance in Terminator 2, a redefining of sexiness pushed femme fatales to a level of ultra-independence. As genders have become androgynous, in the last 15 years, the femme fatale has changed. She has become a super-hero (or villain).

Sexy and proud, she controls her own life. She can think and fight. She can kill as well as GI-Joe. Gone is vulnerability and dependency on a man. Do you agree?

My favorite femme fatale is Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946). Who is yours? 

How do you see the evolution of the femme fatale