FEMME NOIR

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

In Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945), the title character (probably the most important female noir protagonist) is played by screen legend Joan Crawford, who won an Oscar for the role. Mildred is the faithful and hardworking wife of an unsuccessful husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett). She has devoted her entire adult life to this marriage; when it breaks down, she resolves to make it on her own and to give her daughters the things they need, beginning by finding a job as a waitress. Eventually, though, Mildred parlays this first job into a career as a successful restauranteur, along the way marrying the (now poor) scion of an old, wealthy family, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Monte’s decadence is a key example of the way in which the rich were often portrayed in film noir. When flirtations flare between Monte and Mildred’s spoiled daughter Veda (Ann Blythe), a sort of young femme fatale in training, Veda and her mother become estranged. Ultimately, the whole story turns to tragedy.

Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945) features Dana Andrews as Eric Stanton, an on-the-make drifter who gets stranded in the sleepy California town of Walton, lacking the $2.25 bus fare that would take him on to San Francisco, his intended destination. In Walton he goes into Pop’s Diner, where he encounters the eponymous aging proprietor (played by Percy Kilbride), who wiles away his days sick with love for his young employee, Stella (Linda Darnell). The dazzling Stella, in fact, seems to be a romantic target of many of the town’s men, but she is no naïf waiting for love. In fact, the cynical, tough-talking Stella (the femme fatale of the piece) doesn’t appear to believe in love at all. She just wants someone to marry her and provide her with a home so that she can stop working in the diner and have her own life. Stanton, who purports to be a formerly successful New York PR man, immediately falls for Stella and begins to employ all of his skills in an attempt to win her over. Recognizing what she wants, he manages to get her to agree to marry him on the condition that he come up with $12,500 so they can buy a house and get a start in their new life together.

Of course, a man who lacks $2.25 for bus fare is going to have to do something extreme to get $12,500. In his case, Stanton conceives a plan to marry another young local woman (June Mills, played by Alice Faye) and then to defraud her and her sister of the cash before making off to marry Stella. June is naïve and looking for love, so she has no resistance to Stanton’s slick-talking charms, and the marriage comes off quickly. Stella, though, is horrified to learn of the marriage and tells Stanton to get lost. Then, before he has a chance to try to convince her to change her mind, she is murdered, putting the rest of the somewhat tangled plot into motion. In the end, the killer turns out to be local cop (and disgraced former New York cop) Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), who has been placed in charge of the murder investigation, and who had also been in love (or at least lust) with Stella.

Fallen Angel thus employs a number of classic film noir motifs—perhaps too many, resulting in something of a muddle. The single-minded Stella, the naïve June, and the fallen Stanton are all classic noir characters, just as the Walton-San Francisco nexus provides some classic noir settings, while the mixture of romance, cynicism, corruption, and violence provides some classic noir thematics. It is also typical of film noir that the “pure” June is relatively uninteresting in comparison with the determined Stella or the ruthless Stanton, or that the gold-digging Stella and Stanton are both rather sympathetic figures whose cynicism is appropriate to the world in which they live. Stella, in fact, is the real center of this film, and her depiction as a strong woman who knows what she wants and pursues it doggedly and honestly, refusing to be distracted by the longings of any of her lovesick suitors, is indicative of the kinds of female characters often found in film noir. That her dreams are so modest and pedestrian only makes her predicament more poignant, serving as a reminder of the limited opportunities open to women in the America of the 1940s.

Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) is a true classic of film noir. It is also the film that made Rita Hayworth, who plays the title character the top-sex-symbol in Hollywood in the late 1940s. Gilda herself is one of the most famous femmes fatales, though in fact she is very complex character, as much victim as villain. In a sense, Gilda is almost pure sex object—except that she is not only in on her objectification, but largely in control of it. In many ways, she exemplifies woman as object; in many others, she exemplifies Judith Butler’s notion of the performance of gender. She just happens to choose, for her own purposes, to perform a role of woman-as-conventional-sex-object. She’s strong, she’s wily, she’s fierce, she’s pitiless, treating men as objects as well and using them at least as much as they use her. In fact, if the film has a flaw, it’s that male lead Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) seems completely out of his league with Gilda, partly because the serviceable but unimposing Ford is so overshadowed by Hayworth. Yet Gilda is also vulnerable and sweet at her core, acting more out of her own hurt and loss than any genuine malice. In short, she’s a collection of feminine stereotypes, but a very interesting and complex collection whose own contradictions point out the contradictions in those stereotypes themselves.

This film is largely remembered for Hayworth’s performance of “Put the Blame on Mame,” which might seem to be one of the most sexist songs ever written, with its central suggestion that all of the world’s disasters are ultimately caused by conniving women. Just a little twist, though, and it’s a critique of the way men have so often tried to blame things on women unfairly. The film is not only about gender, though. There’s also Uncle Pio, the downtrodden washing room attendant who may in fact carry inscrutable wisdom and have mysterious power (and who ultimately saves the day), bringing in questions of class as well. All the pieces of this film don’t quite fit together and the whole thing—with its central love-hate romance between Gilda and Farrell, its international conspiracy involving ex-Nazis trying to corner the market on tungsten, and its overtly artificial inclusion of musical performances just to showcase Hayworth—doesn’t really make a lot of sense. But it’s all great fun to watch and great fun to think about. it includes, for example, some of the most sexist and misogynistic language and images ever put on film. And Nazis. And evil capitalists. There’s a lot of material here, like director Charles Vidor was trying to make sure to use all the pieces in his film noir construction kit.

1946 also saw the release of another woman-centered noir featuring one of Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies. However, Hedy Lamarr, the star of The Strange Woman, was continually pushed to the margins of Hollywood, partly due to never overcoming the stigma of having appeared in the “shocking” European film Ecstasy (1933) as a teenager and partly due to never fully overcoming her Austrian accent. But Lamarr was resourceful and brilliant, as well as beautiful (one of her ideas provided a key technological basis for the later development of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies), so she decided to form her own production company, which would make films in which she could star without dealing with the usual Hollywood nonsense. That effort was not notably successful, but The Strange Woman is actually a gem, no doubt partly due to the fact that Lamarr nabbed fellow Austrian ex-pat Edgar Ulmer (who had himself long been exiled to the margins of the film industry) to direct. The result is a noir film set in a New England town, mostly in the 1830s, though the town has much of the texture of the Wild West about it. That setting alone makes the film an unusual noir film, but noir it is, with Lamarr’s Jenny Hager serving as a particularly interesting femme fatale, partly because she is also the protagonist and not simply a dangerous woman who brings down the protagonist. She’s also a complex figure: absolutely ruthless in her willingness to exploit men to help her get beyond her difficult beginnings in life, Hager can also be generous and kind, while her backstory at least provides an explanation from her ruthlessness. The film has a bit of a hokey ending, but up until then it’s a solid noir, despite the historical setting. And Lamarr is mesmerizing on screen, as usual.

Completing the trio of femme noirs from 1946, Lana Turner is also mesmerizing in Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on James M. Cain’s 1934 novel. The second half of this film gets a bit bogged down in legalistic maneuvers and excessive plot twists, but the first half is classic noir, dominated by Turner as the sultry Cora Smith, a classic example of the femme fatale who is driven by an American ideology that has taught her she can’t possibly be happy unless she’s rich. She also a classic example of the femme fatale as siren: a poor girl who has never had anything going for her but her looks, she uses those looks to good effect to reel in drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield), who just happens by the Twin Oaks, a roadside diner and gas station that Cora runs with her aging husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway). Cora then induces Frank to help her kill Nick, unleashing a series of unintended consequences that ultimately dooms them all.

Taken with the seductive Cora, Frank accepts Nick’s offer of a job as an all-around handyman at the diner and the filling station that is attached to it. He then sets about seducing Cora, who clearly engineers his attentions, despite her initial efforts to appear cool, as is emphasized by her proclivity for all-white clothing throughout the film. Obviously unsatisfied by her physical relationship with her older husband, whom she married for his money (of which he turns out to have a disappointingly small amount), Cora soon succumbs to Frank’s advances (which she actually seems to have orchestrated all along), and the two become lovers. Indeed, this film’s emphasis on steamy adulterous sexuality made it something of a milestone in the easing of censorship in American film. At one point, the two lovers consider running away together, but Cora, having already spent several unromantic years with Nick just for material gain, is unwilling to give up the relative financial comfort that life with him offers. So they eventually decide to kill Nick in order to inherit his assets, which turn out to be more lucrative than they realized when they learn that he had recently taken out a new $10,000 accidental death insurance policy. (It also doesn’t hurt that a new highway is about to make the diner more valuable as well.)

Unfortunately, the existence of this new insurance policy also makes his death look more suspicious, leading District Attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames) to charge Cora with murder in Nick’s death. Lacking hard evidence, Sackett attempts to play Cora and Frank off against one another to get a confession. However, he is outsmarted by Cora’s wily lawyer, Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn). As a result of Keats’s legal maneuvers, Cora is convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder, and is given only a suspended sentence. The way appears to be clear for Cora and Frank to be together, but tensions triggered by Sackett’s strategies continue to plague the couple. Then Cora announces that she is pregnant, and she and Frank appear to have a full reconciliation during an outing at the beach in which she intentionally nearly drowns, just to see whether he will save her or take advantage of the opportunity to be rid of her. Save her he does, and the two drive back to the diner seemingly again very much in love.

However, fate has one final cruel twist in store for the couple when they become involved in another car crash. Cora is killed in the crash, and Frank is falsely convicted of rigging the crash in order to kill her murder. Sackett visits Frank in his cell shortly before his execution and informs him that he knows he is innocent of Cora’s death, but that he believes he deserves to die for the killing of Nick. Even Frank sees the logic and appears to accept his approaching execution as poetic justice. As is often the case in the film noir, the law turns out to be just as devious as the criminals, but far more powerful. That Frank is ultimately undone because of his attraction to a woman of questionable virtue is also typical film noir fare, though in this case the woman has a soft side and seems genuinely to be seeking love, even if she is not willing to give up financial security in order to get it. The film’s indictment of the corrupt materialism of modern capitalist society is thus made especially clear.

  Just as Cora is a complex character who is both victim and villain, the crime-doesn’t-pay message of this film is more complex than it first appears. As James Agee puts it, the film “represents the Law as an invincibly corrupt and terrifying force before which mere victims, whether innocent or guilty, can only stand helpless and aghast” (199). Frank’s impending execution for a crime he didn’t commit after he earlier escape execution for one he did is thus not a simple case of poetic justice: it also suggests that, in modern America, it is simply impossible for individuals to beat the system—especially unconnected working-class individuals like Frank and Cora.

Steamy femmes fatales from 1946: Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” and Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948) is another woman-centric film that revolves around singer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), who is brought in from Chicago by roadhouse owner Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark) to entertain the patrons at his establishment, located somewhere near the Canadian border. It turns out, however, that Robbins has a habit of recruiting female singers as sexual targets, but Stevens turns out to a match for him. Not only does she repel his advances, but she begins a relationship with the roadhouse’s manager, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde). The smarmy Robbins concocts a plot to frame Morgan and have him sent to prison, so that he can have Stevens for himself. Stevens, though, is still a match for him and ends up shooting him down in self-defense, while evidence surfaces that will clear Morgan. Road House is an interesting drama with some very effective rapid-fire noir dialogue, though Lupino’s musical performances as Stevens are a highlight of the film, as is the depiction of Stevens as a strong, independent female who can very much take care of herself. Widmark, meanwhile, delivers another strong performance as a psychopathic character with a mad giggle, repeating (in a slightly toned-down form) the persona he had created a year earlier in Kiss of Death.

In Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott—who often plays the (relatively) good girl in noir films—gets to be the villain, even though she is at least partly the victim of circumstances. When a satchel containing $60,000 literally falls into the laps of Scott’s Jane Palmer and husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy), he wants to turn it into the cops, but she wants to keep it to make their lives financially easier. After all, she still bitterly remembers her own difficult childhood. As she herself puts it: “It wasn’t because we were poor, not hungry poor at least. I suppose it was worse, far worse. We were white collar poor, middle-class poor. The people who can’t quite keep up with the Joneses and die a little every day because they can’t.” The money, as it turns out, was meant as a blackmail payment to the smarmy Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), who inevitably shows up to retrieve the money. Jane (apparently accidentally) shoots and kills Alan, then she intentionally poisons Fuller to get him off her back. She tries to kill Alan’s sister Kathy (Christine Miller) as well, so by this time it is no real surprise when we learn that she apparently killed her first husband as well. She escapes to Mexico with the loot and then accidentally falls to her death as the Mexican police, tipped off by the brother of her first husband (played by Don DeFore), close in. A bit sloppy around the edges, this film still effectively presents Jane as a surprisingly deadly villain—but also as a victim of the American middle-class drive for upward mobility.

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), directed by Robert Siodmak, is a classic case of a film noir built around a femme fatale character, in this case the character of the title, played by Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest enactors of the femme fatale role. The plot is simple: Jordon conspires with her shady boyfriend Tony Laredo (Richard Rober) to murder her Aunt Vera (Gertrude W. Hoffmann) and inherit a fortune for the two of them. What’s worse, in order to assure herself of getting away with the murder, she connives to begin an affair with Assistant DA Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey), precisely so that she can count on Marshall to sabotage the prosecution should she go to trial. Marshall is a classic film noir character: he is not evil, just restless and bored with his marriage, which makes him easy pickings for Jordon, who has all the wiles of the typical femme fatale, if not all the ruthlessness. The plan thus works like a charm—except that Jordon has a change of heart in the end. She shocks Marshall by confessing the entire plot, then leaving him behind as she goes away with Laredo to enjoy the fruits of their deceit. Then, suddenly overcome by guilt, she intentionally causes their car to crash. Laredo is killed, and she is mortally injured. Before she dies, though, Jordon confesses to all her crimes, though she does not finger her accomplice (Marshall), saying she will not identify him because she loves him. Nevertheless, Marshall is left a broken man as the film ends, his life shattered and his career ruined.

In Roy Rowland’s Witness to Murder (1954), the protagonist spots a murder being committed in another apartment across the way, but then has trouble convincing the police that the murder even occurred. The film is thus strikingly similar to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which was released later in the same year. However, this one features noir goddess Barbara Stanwyck as the protagonist, interior designer Cheryl Draper, introducing some additional gender-related themes. Thus, though the police detective investigating the case is a bit sweet on Draper, it is clear that he initially dismisses her account of the crime because of her gender. The film also includes another common noir theme in that the killer (played with delightful menace by George Sanders) is a former Nazi. But what really makes this one a great noir film is the outstanding cinematography of John Alton, which is so effective that many true fans of noir might find that Witness to Murder is actually better than Rear Window, though the latter obviously has a loftier reputation in film history.