Defining the Femme Fatale, Gilda (1946) as a Main Example

The first film noir that I ever saw is John Huston’s 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, and I loved it so much that I instantly fell in love with the genre. It was about a private detective by the name of Sam Spade, a perfect anti-hero in the sense that his actions do not serve society one bit, for everything he does is for his own benefit. He drank generous amounts of whiskey on a daily basis, rolled his own cigarettes and spoke to women in a very suave manner. The female element in The Maltese Falcon was also a very alluring aspect of noir for me, these were deadly women, using every last bit of their seductive powers to get what they want, and as I started to get more interested in film noir, I found out that they were referred to as “femme fatale.” Now what exactly is a femme fatale? That is what we will try to define and understand today.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth in Charles Vidor's 1946 film, Gilda.

First of all, a little bit of history to try and put things in context. There’s a general idea that noir came as a response to the Second World War, a notion that I entirely disagree with. I agree with the idea that film noir is a response to the Great Depression in 1930’s America, as much of the source material, the novels that were adapted into noir films, were written in the thirties. Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler all wrote detective stories that were also a critique of a society that seemed to be falling apart due to crime and corruption. So, the 1940’s come along and with them comes the second World War, and as US troops depart to participate in 1941, American women are forced to leave their homes and join the job market. With no men around, and comfortable in the knowledge that they were now financially independent, women were free to discover and explore the pleasures of life. The war ends in 1945 and the men are back, and the last thing they want is competition in the job market, let alone unfaithful women, right?

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder's 1944 film, Double Indemnity. "I never knew that murder could smell like honeysuckle."

That is reflected on the silver screen, and consequently, in film noir, as it was one of the most prominent genres at the time. The femme fatale is an exaggerated, glamourized depiction of a woman that broke all society’s bounds and laws and lived by her own rules; but do not be mistaken, it is not a positive representation at all. Even if the femme fatale in film noir is usually very attractive and embodies the sexual dreams and fantasies of the male audience, she is always punished at the end. Death, prison, treachery, abandonment...some sort of unfortunate fate awaits her at the end, for that is an area where film noir excels. If Hollywood sought to preach positivity and happiness with its stories and endings, film noir was the exact opposite of that, it taught you that endings are not always happy, sometimes they are flat-out miserable.

No better way to explain that through an example, and what better example than Charles Vidor’s 1946 film, Gilda. The film that turned Rita Hayworth into a major star and presented her as an emblem of sexual desire. Gilda’s plot is about this guy called Johnny working for a casino owner, who one day discovers that his old flame has married his own boss and is now always around to torment him. The first time Gilda is presented on screen is when the boss is introducing Johnny to his new wife, and he does so by knocking on her door and asking, “are you decent?” As she lifts her head up while her hair flies around in irresistible fashion, Rita Hayworth is suddenly on screen dressed in an open dress with a big smile on her face and she says, “sure, I’m decent.” This scene that is filled to the brim with subtle sensuality and sexual innuendo is a perfect representation of the character of Gilda, a teaser for the tricks up her sleeve, and a warning for those foolish enough to fall for her charms. As the story progresses, it is apparent that she married Johnny’s boss for his money only, but when she discovers that Johnny works for him, she has new goal, revenge. “I hate you so much that I am willing to destroy myself to bring you down with me,” she says to Johnny just before she starts to use her seductive powers on him, as she does so many times before on different men in the film before. Her goals are unrealized however, and the film punishes her, and all the women of 1940’s America she represents. The film not only serves her the worst fates possible but despises her gender entirely. At one point, Johnny says to his boss, “statistically, there is nothing more than women in the world, except flies, of course.”

Lizabeth Scott in John Cromwell's 1947 film, Dead Reckoning. "Cinderella with a husky voice."

A femme fatale is a devil in disguise, murder scented in honeysuckle, and raw danger behind a pretty face. These are women that were represented in film noir as infinitely beautiful and seductive, very determined and ambitious, and callous towards the damage they cause along the way. They seduced, they destroyed, they wanted to much, but in the end, they were punished; if it was not death or prison, the protagonist left them for the cute, caring type, the woman he could start a family with. This of course serves a didactic person in American society at that time, but now looking back at these noir films that continue to entrance and fascinate us decades later, we have no choice but to fall head-over-heels for these dames, even if it means the gas chamber.


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