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Femme Fatale (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

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.

The black-and-white picture is a still from the film noir "The killers". Burt Lancaster holsd Ava Gardner in his harm, as she leans against the rail of a bed.
The Killers

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.

The black-and-white picture is a still from the film "Gilda". Rita Hayworth stars intently into Glenn Ford's eyes.

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 Femme Fatale, the 'other' of the #FilmNoir The dangerous 'unknown'. Share on X


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) Get the Film.


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

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Pinterest pin. The title reads, "1940s Film Noir - FEMME FATALE (AtoZ Challenge 2017)" - The black-and-white picture shows a mysterious Veronica Lake staring at the camera with an intense glance, wearing a night gown.
Pinterest pin. The text reads, "The Feminine Power of the Film Noir Femme Fatale". The black-and-white picture shows a woman in a trench and fedora, standing probably in a train station. The atmosphere is that of a film noir.
Pinterest pin. The text reads, "The Feminine Power of the Film Noir Femme Fatale". The sepia picture shows a woman in a trench and fedora, standing probably in a train station. The atmosphere is that of a film noir.


  • Shawna Atteberry
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 01:05

    I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for femme fatales. I’d like to think I would’ve made a good one.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2017 at 08:37

      I think there’s a little bit of femme fatale in every woman ;-)

  • Lillian Csernica
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 02:07

    Good insights! A woman who didn’t need a man to support her or define her role in society must have struck traditional minds as a real loose cannon. I love the Phryne Fisher mysteries precisely because Jack keeps trying to confine Phryne to her socially acceptable limits and she just keeps blowing them off.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:39

      If you think about it, it must have been quite scary for that kind of society. But then, change has settled and sociaty has gone on with new rules.
      I suppose we should remember this today. The world isn’t going to blow up only because so many things are changing ;-)

  • Birgit
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 02:26

    Excellent write up about these dastardly women who actually are independent, shrewd, intelligent and always stunning. They really don’t need a man, they just enjoy them for a while. I love both films here especially Gilda which is a bit S & M

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:42

      If you think about it, the way a model that we consider positive today (the indipendent woman) used to be considered not only undesirable, but even threatening… well, it’s quite interesting ;-)

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 09:20

    Fascinating stuff. Would be interesting to see a noir type film, but from the perspective of a female. I wonder what that would look like?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:45

      They have probably film those, later, after the 1960s. I’m not into it and so I wouldn’t know, but I’d be surprised if they hadn’t ;-)

  • Anabel
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 09:39

    Interesting. A powerful woman, but only seen from the man’s point of view. Not sure it’s changed all that much!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:46

      What I find interesting is that, in spite of the male perspective, and in spite of so much lacking from her characterisation, we can still see a lot about her, beyond the hero’s gaze.

  • Tasha Duncan-Drake
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 13:41

    I suppose in some ways she is so alluring because she is mysterious. I now have “The Times They Are A Changin” going round in my head even though it really has nothing to do with the post :).
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Shapeshifters and Werewolves

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 16:11

    This explains the whole “domestic bliss” angle of the 1950s, trying to stuff women back to the kitchen… I do love a good Femme Fatale, though. They are fascinating characters. :D

    The Multicolored Diary: WTF – Weird Things in Folktales

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:49

      Yes, I do believe the “domestic bliss” of the 1950s was a reaction to the 1940s women stepping up.

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 17:47

    Ah, the femme fatale! Definitely what I think of when I think of film noir!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:50

      She’s a very powerful element of these films. More about this later in the month ;-)

  • CD Gallant-King
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 17:52

    I’ve read a lot of “hardboiled” detective stories, which rightly or wrongly I always associate with film noir, and I find that in 90% (or more) of those stories , the female character is the villain. Not only is the femme fatale the “other” or simply “fascinating” or untouchable, she’s straight-up evil. Or at least portrayed as such by the narrator. I assumed this was an obvious counter-reaction to the growing role and influence of women in society at the time.

    I haven’t seen enough actual “film” noir to compare, but is this a standard trope in cinema as well? Or am I just reading really bad books?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:54

      Can’t speak for the quality of your readings ;-P but the femme fatale is often an ‘evel’ presence in film noir as well, though I prefer to define her as ruthless.
      Don’t worry, I’ll discuss this further later in the month ;-)

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:20

    I love the femme fatale! She always seems to know what she wants and how to get it. Perhaps the role-model of most modern women ;-) Happy A-to-Z-ing.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 18:56

      She certainly does know what she wants, although her idea of how to get there might be kincky ;-)

  • Cheryl
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 19:09

    I just love these! I’m learning so much!!!

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    • Post Author
      Posted April 8, 2017 at 14:23

      And I’m happy you’re enjoying it, Cheryl. That’s my biggest reward :-)

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 19:27

    Femmes fatales are such interesting characters! I’m so glad you featured them on this post. As I think of films, I think of Otto Preminger’s Laura and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, among others. Femmes fatales really did break away from the traditional ‘woman’s role,’ and set the stage for more modern strong female film characters, at least in my opinion.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 8, 2017 at 14:26

      That’s my opinion too, Margot. The film might have been not about them, they might have been the villain in many of them, but still they manifested a new kind of women and a new kind of personality.
      And I think it goes even further than the filmmaker intended, that’s why we still like film noir today, even if the social situation has changed.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 20:12

    The femme fatale seems like a slightly updated version of the Vamp of the silent era. Those kinds of characters are more interesting than the unrealistically perfect “good girls.” They have more layers and complexity.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 8, 2017 at 14:35

      Mhm… I don’t know. The femme fatale has a far more dangerous feel to her. The silent era flapper was bold and daring, she was the main character of the story. It was all about her, everything revolved around her and there was an attempt to understand the phenomenon she was a manifestation of.

      The femme fatale is in a completely different position. The story isn’t about her, she’s treated like someone ‘other’ who cannot be understood. She’s more of an enemy, even if she is attractive. She’s a far more unsettling presence in the story.

      Although these two kinds of charactedrs did have common characteristics, the way the story lived those characteristics is very different, in my opinion.

  • Sophie Duncan
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 22:59

    A possibly complex archetype, but one that you rightly point out often has no background, no clear reason to be except the ‘here and now’ that she poses to the male protagonist. I suppose the femme fatale was the original male idea of a strong woman.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles – Dragon Diaries

    • Post Author
      Posted April 8, 2017 at 14:36

      I suppose so too. And I find it intersting that the hero (and so the male world) was attracted to her even knowing she posed a deadly threat to them.

  • Nick Wilford
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 23:39

    A really complex topic and a fascinating post. I like how you pointed out how the femme fatale both represented a liberation of women from subservient roles but also ended up being another stereotype. An interesting kind of dichotomy.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 8, 2017 at 14:38

      It is indeed very interesting. As well as the fact that even when the story tries to bring her back to her traditional role, it still can’t deny her existence and her new social position.

  • Jacqui
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 23:42

    Femme Fatale–a positive word that has taken on such negative connotations. Excellent summary.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 8, 2017 at 14:39

      Do you really think the femme fatale has a negative connotation? How so?

  • Irene
    Posted April 8, 2017 at 01:31

    Fascinating post about this female archetype. Your point about her lack of control over the story’s narration struck me as particularly disturbing. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about The Handmaid’s Tale, so as I read your post I started connecting to the scene at Jezebel’s, which I would consider a collection of femme fatales. I really need to reread that book, but your writing about film noir makes me wonder what other connections I may see between the 1940s film noir storytelling and Atwood’s dystopia.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 8, 2017 at 14:42

      I have never read that book, now you’re making me curious ;-)

      What I’ve enjoyed the most about this challenge is that researching for it has given me the possibility to reflect on the relationship between men and women in that changing time. And how this relates to us, not really on the level of male/female realtionship, but on a mroe universal level.

  • Iain
    Posted April 8, 2017 at 21:50

    Gilda is one of my all time favourites. Helped me fall in love with movies and Rita Hayworth!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2017 at 07:37

      I still have to watch that. Reasearching this topic has made my TBW list soooooo long.

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 9, 2017 at 17:37

    Interesting women… they surely know what they want and how to get it too!

  • Sharon Himsl
    Posted April 10, 2017 at 10:08

    But were they happy? They lived outside the norm. Of course that’s what also made them interesting. Another classic example is ‘The Big Sleep’ with Lauren Bacall and Bogart.

    “Female Scientists Before Our Time”

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2017 at 15:59

      Of course they were not happy. Seen from the male perspective of film noir, the femme fatale was trying to fit into places that were’t meant for her, so she may never be happy ;-)

  • Preethi Venugopala
    Posted April 10, 2017 at 16:43

    That was a fascinating read. I am intrigued by such character portrayals. The ladies look so alluring.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2017 at 16:55

      The femme fatale is probably one of the most fascinating tropes of storytelling.

  • Debs
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 13:58

    This one made me stop and think. There’s no doubting the accuracy of the idealisation of home & hearth, especially since some pesky wimmin seemed to like working and liked being independent. Depicting them as femme fatales meant one could suggest that they secretly wanted that perfect family life, or else were on the road to becoming bitter and friendless. Whereas many of my female friends – who would’ve been considered femme fatales post-war – are now living fulfilling, independent, friend-filled lives without finding it necessary to pursue another woman’s man. I may have to re-watch all those films I’ve seen before with new eyes.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 16:15

      Well, the male-centred noir perspective certainly thought the place of women were at home, and these femme fatale, powerful as they were, were perversion destined to failure.

      But I find it interesting how, even with the disparaging depiction, the femme fatale still speaks of the empowerment of women.
      It’s part of the charm of noir, in my opinion: it speaks of things it doesn’t know it’s addressing ;-)

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