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Femme Fatale in Film Noir

Essay by review  •  December 14, 2010  •  Essay  •  2,191 Words (9 Pages)  •  1,640 Views

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The term film noir was coined by French critics for 1940s-50s American films that shared a dark sensibility and a dark lighting style, such as Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Many theorists related the common noir attributes and aesthetic elements to a post war society characterised by insecurity about gender roles, the economy, changing definitions of race, and nuclear technology. One of the cultural problems the term genre attempts to address is the gender question. The familiarity of the femme fatale character across film noir is the predominant cause for discussion amongst feminist theorists. Feminist theorists became, and still remain, interested in the woman's portrayal in noir because the majority of quintessential film noirs were manufactured just after World War II when a massive surge in standing occurred within society for women. All the normal stereotypes and roles were being either broken down or at the very least questioned. The quintessential noir woman, the femme fatale represents the most direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family. She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society generates, dictates and prescribes for women. It is understood that the majority of feminist film theorists' objections lie within how differently the female image is treated in film from the male image. The image of the femme fatale in film noir finally portrayed an image of a strong, independent woman who could easily manipulate the men around her to get what she wanted. However, feminist critics appreciate that the immortality of the sensational femme fatale characters in film noir ultimately assists their argument in the battle for equal rights because women are shown to subvert their male counterparts.

The females in film noir were one of two types - dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women; or femme fatales - mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, stunning, unloving, predatory, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women. Usually, the male protagonist in film noir wished to elude his mysterious past, and had to choose what path to take by picking one of the women. It would be to follow the goadings of a traitorous, self-destructive femme fatale who would lead the struggling, disillusioned, and doomed hero into committing murder or some other crime of passion coupled with twisted love. The femme fatale, who had also transgressed societal norms with her independent and smart, menacing actions, would bring both of them to a downfall. As scholar Elisabeth Bronfen noted,

indeed, the classic femme fatale has enjoyed such popularity because she is not only sexually uninhibited, but also unabashedly independent and ruthlessly ambitious, using her seductive charms and her intelligence to liberate herself from the imprisonment of an unfulfilling marriage.

The femme fatale was a central character in film noir, usually tempting the male protagonist to his inevitable doom. The violence and power of her rebellion against that role earlier in the film overcomes the contrived ending, so that the dominant image of the femme fatale is one of defiance against the traditional family and woman's place in society. On the surface it would appear that man had managed to subvert women again as film noir's portrayal of the femme fatale would seem to support the existing social order by building up the powerful, independent woman, only to punish her in the end. However, film noir, it can be argued, actually shows that women are confined by the roles traditionally open to them, that their destructive struggle for independence is a response to the rigid restrictions that the male dominated society placed on them. By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, these strong, tough, independent women were being replaced by coadjutors and consorts as if to restrict this new found freedom.

Intellectual Michael Mills summed it up when he observed that, "The undercurrent that flows through most "high noir" films is the failure on the part of the male leads to recognize the dishonesty inherent in many of noir's principal women." This coincides with the male's treatment of women as mere possessions, a recurring theme in film noir. The classic femme fatale in forced to resort to murder to free herself from an unbearable relationship with a man who would try to possess and control her, as if she were a piece of property or a pet. According to Sylvia Harvey, author of Women's place: The absent family, the women of film noir are "presented as prizes, desirable objects" for the leading men of these films. The femme fatale's unique power is her brazen willingness and ability to express herself in sexual terms. By this the femme fatale threatens the status quo, and the hero, because she controls her own sexuality outside of marriage. She uses sex for pleasure and as a weapon or a tool to control men, not merely in the culturally acceptable capacity of procreation within marriage. Her sexual emancipation commands the gaze of the hero, the audience, and the camera in a way that cannot be erased by her final punishment. Attempts to neutralise the power and blatant sexuality of the femme fatale by destroying her at the end are usually unsuccessful, because her power extends beyond death. Noir films immediately convey the intense sexual presence of the femme fatale by introducing her as a fully established object of the hero's obsession. Since the camera often represents the hero's subjective memory, revealed via flashback, it projects his privileged knowledge about her dangerous sexuality even before he actually acquires that knowledge. The femme fatale's visual and sexual dominance, and the threat that she poses to the hero, are felt from her very first introduction scene.

The 1944 noir classic, Double Indemnity, is a prime example of the presentation of the femme fatale character as a strong and independent woman overturning traditional stereotypes. The movie suggests film noir contains a more progressive view of women than other Hollywood films of the time because of the noticeable lack of balancing images of traditional women and families. Director Billy Wilder presents a character who feels trapped by husbands or lovers who treat them as "standard equipment" and by an institution, marriage, which makes such treatment possible. Marriage for the femme fatale is associated with unhappiness, boredom, and the absence of romantic love and sexual desire. In Double Indemnity the character Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, feels like a caged animal in her husband's home and is driven to murder him largely because he shows no affection for her, only indifference: "I feel as if he was watching me. Not that he cares,

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