It is probably no accident that the abundance of film exhibiting the femme fatale coincided with an advancement in the economic and social position of women. In a predominantly male narrative, the femme fatale is the predatory woman, the enemy that can’t be considered really an enemy. She’s a threat, but also a fascination. The hero is both scared and attracted by her.
What makes the femme fatale so dangerous is that she is outside of male control and in many respects, she plays by her own rules.
She knows exactly what she wants and ruthlessly goes after it with every means she has, including unconventional ones, like deceit and especially sexual control. While the hero finds himself in a place of loss, the femme fatal has everything to gain, which is precisely what makes her so ruthless. Her very existence poses a threat to the traditional order.
This is a reflection of the changing social position of women in postwar America. Women’s new opportunities and expectations are seen as a threat to the traditional sexual roles regimentation as they seek new positions that never used to be available to them.
The femme fatale proposes herself as an alternative to the male world, she seeks the same position as men, and therefore she may end up substituting the male position of control.
In many film noir, the hero becomes so involved with the femme fatale that he does everything she wants, no matter the cost. He doesn’t question her control, but rather he accepts it. In The Killers, Swade willingly takes the blame for Kitty’s wrongdoings. In spite of her obvious duplicity, he is willing to scarify himself for her sake. Even if the narration (and so the perspective of the story) is male, the centre of the story is the woman and her desire. This is clearly an inversion of the traditional sexual role where the man is the mover of events. Film noir both points out the disruption this brings about and the dangerous attitude of men who accept this inversion.
Marital and familiar relationship play a crucial part in ordering the conventional framework of sexual identity and roles, so it’s no surprise that the femme fatale always plays a game against them. She’s the alluring woman, the other man’s woman, even the unfaithful woman. She’s the contrary of everything that is family and steady relationship, which used to be safe places for men in the prewar years.
In the 1940s, there was an attempt at reconstructing these roles after the ‘discursive confusion’ of the war years, as other kinds of films showed, but film noir focused in particular on the uncertainties this redefinition created. Many critics have noted that a large number of noir thrillers are concerned to some degree with the problem represented by women who seek satisfaction and self-definition outside the traditional context of marriage and family.
Considering the eroticised power the femme fatale wields in film noir, the way she’s actually depicted in this films is quite interesting.
In all film noir the femme fatale is extremely eroticised as a character. There is a strong objectification of the woman as a body, occurring in a highly formalised, even fetishistic way. This is designed to deny her a subjective position within the text.
Powerful as she is, she never controls the voice of the narration. Often, we never even learn the reasons for her actions.
This is the result of the perspective of the film being male. We always see her from the outside. By objectifying her, by transforming her in a sexual object of desire (which is particularly easy, since she knows exactly how to use her attractiveness for her purposes) the hero once again tries to encase her in a recognisable position.
Ultimately, she becomes a distant ‘other’, fascinating but inscrutable. As a centre of narration, in the noir thriller, she only finds a definition in relation to men. Yet, there is a strong sense of independent meaning to her character. Film noir never let her get away with it, but even when she’s punished, she’s never defeated.
She’s the very incarnation of the changing times.
The Killers (1946) by Robert Siodmark
Two hit men walk into a diner asking for a man called “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster). When the killers find the Swede, he’s expecting them and doesn’t put up a fight. Since the Swede had a life insurance policy, an investigator (Edmond O’Brien), on a hunch, decides to look into the murder. As the Swede’s past is laid bare, it comes to light that he was in love with a beautiful woman (Ava Gardner) who may have lured him into pulling off a bank robbery overseen by another man (Albert Dekker).(Google synopsis)
Gilda (1948) by Charles Vidor
Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a small-time American gambler, newly arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When he is caught cheating at a game of blackjack, Farrell manages to talk his way into a job with the casino’s owner, the powerful Ballin Mundson (George Macready). The two form an uneasy partnership based off their mutual lack of scruples until Mundson introduces Farrell to his beautiful new wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who just happens to be Farrell’s ex-lover. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Scott Snyder, Personality Disorder and the Film Noir Femme Fatal – University of Georgia
Ms Films – No Place for Women: the Family in Film Noir