What we fear we call evil. Thus we deny responsibility for our fear because evil is an external agent. We are its victim, not its source. So, in war, we dehumanize our opponents in order to justify killing them; we blame the poor for their fate, otherwise we must consider the possibility that placed in like circumstances we might have ended up the same way; and for millennia we have equated female sexuality with sin and death. Take a patriarchal society, add the idea that sex is sinful, and you get one of the oldest and most universal archetypes in human cultural history: the femme fatale (French for “deadly woman”).
All cultures—or as near as makes no difference—have mythologized the inherently evil woman. From the ancient idea of the vagina dentata; to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction; to Eve; to Morgan le Fey; through to modern characterizations as varied as Mata Hari, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and Jessica Rabbit.
The glory days of the femme fatale (in the last century at least) coincides with the era of the film noir, another French term that means, literally, “black film.” This refers to the shadows and darknesses of the genre’s characteristic cinematography, as well as to the pessimistic and misanthropic themes that run through many of the films that carry that label. The femme fatale, a man-eating succubus conjured by male fears of female sexuality, is for many the very image of film noir: the chiaroscuro-veiled siren, a beckoning curl of smoke at her flushed lips—all femmes fatales smoke—calling you closer, closer, to destroy yourself on her rocky shore.
This week’s IndieFlix Classics introduce us to three timeless examples of the femme fatale.
Detour | 1945 | Edgar Ulmer
Ann Savage scares me. Her snarling, scratching virago (Vera) is like a punishment summoned by God or the devil to teach Tom Neal (Al), our protagonist and narrator, a lesson about moral relativism. You make one lousy mistake—hide one lousy body from the cops and drive off in his car—and there she is, like an avenging apparition formed from a roadside dustdevil: Retribution in heels. Detour reads like a portrait of depression, and Vera is all those inner voices of doubt, fear, and self-loathing brought to life, sitting next to you in a stolen car on the most hellish road trip anyone has ever taken.
Detour looks like it was made for about a buck fifty: in a few scenes shadows and fog are unapologetically used as substitutes for actual locations, and some shots are flipped to reverse their direction, putting the driver on the wrong side of the car. But director Edgar Ulmer’s weird genius was somehow to draw an above-and-beyond performance out of his sets and locations just as he did his actors. From the inexplicably eerie The Black Cat, to Detour, to The Strange Woman, Ulmer’s films are masterclasses in atmosphere and economy.
The Strange Woman | 1946 | Edgar Ulmer
An odd hybrid: The Strange Woman is both 18th Century period drama and hardboiled film noir, complete with a coldhearted femme fatale. Hedy Lamarr, who was known matter-of-factly as the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, had entered the public consciousness with a full-frontal splash of skinnydipping notoriety with the 1933 Czech film Ekstase (Ecstasy), in which she performs the titular emotion so orgiastically that rumors she wasn’t faking it dogged her all her days. In The Strange Woman, Lamarr found her greatest role. Her Scarlett O’Hara. In fact Jenny Hager is an awful lot like Scarlett: she’s spoiled, manipulative, and ambitious—in some scenes there’s even an uncanny physical resemblance. But where Scarlett’s weaknesses were mostly self-destructive, Jenny’s road to wealth and power is littered with the lives she destroyed along the way.
Stylistically, The Strange Woman differs from most of director Edgar Ulmer’s work. His reputation for churning out economically spare B movies belied his past experience as set designer on such visually baroque masterpieces as Metropolis and M. Add to that the uncredited participation of Douglas Sirk, stylist of stylists, who covered for his friend when Ulmer became ill during shooting, and you get The Strange Woman’s weird but bewitching recipe of noir darkness and Hollywood period excess. The Strange Woman is a beautiful and nasty little film.
Scarlet Street | 1946 | Fritz Lang
Where to begin with Scarlet Street? It’s a masterpiece of the American cinema that can be approached from almost any angle—dramatic, cinematic, literary, historical, psychological—with nearly endless rewards. Directed by Fritz Lang, who’s surely on the shortest possible list of greatest directors in the history of film, Scarlet Street is a remake of Jean Renoir’s (there’s another name for the short list) La Chienne (1931), which some would translate as “The Bitch.” Lang reassembled the cast of his previous film, the great but still lesser The Woman in the Window, for this descent into self-destruction and despair.
Edward G. Robinson plays Chris Cross, a meek little man who wears his wife’s frilly aprons as he waits on her hand and foot in return for nothing but verbal abuse and humiliation. Joan Bennett, who is perhaps best known today as mother to Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride, is Kitty, a prostitute Chris rescues late one night as she is being perfunctorily beaten on a rainy streetcorner by her pimp, the congenitally creepy Dan Duryea. Where there is nothing but cold stone, Chris sees a heart of gold—fool’s gold, as it must inevitably turn out.
Scarlet Street is rife with Freudian imagery and layer upon layer of complex themes and symbols, and was the first film to squeak an unredeemed murderer past the ever-vigilant Hollywood censors. Rewards multiple viewings.
These additional femme fatale movies have been added to IndieFlix Classics this week:
Please Murder Me | 1956 | Peter Godfrey
In addition to having just about the best title ever, Please Murder Me stars a 31-year-old Angela Lansbury as a scheming femme fatale who drives Raymond Burr to sacrifice himself to her murderous clutches in a desperate attempt to bring her to justice.
Too Late for Tears | 1949 | Byron Haskin
While giving a character an unexpected opportunity to choose good over evil is a tried and true trope of film noir, few movies get it out of the way as quickly as Too Late for Tears: in the opening scene, a satchel of cash is tossed from a passing car into the back seat of a young couple’s convertible. The ferocious relish with which wife Jane (the underappreciated beauty Lizbeth Scott) seizes the role of femme fatale shocks even Danny (uber-creep Dan Duryea), the gangster who shows up, right on schedule, to retrieve his loot.