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Femme Fatale in Film Noir

Since its inception in the 1940s, the dark lighting principles, the disturbing plots, and unusual themes of film noir has left an indelible mark on the western cinematic tradition. But apart from the unconventional elements being incorporated by the noir concept, the non-traditional depiction of women stands out as one of its most appalling distinctions. Women in noir have introduced new notions on the female character that defies the concept of a woman within the confines of traditional comprehension.

Being influenced by the literary elements of detective fiction, the German Expressionist aesthetic, and anxieties brought about by urbanizations, film noirs reflect themes beyond the acceptance of human behaviour as well as a dark side of humanity. The noir aesthetic, in this sense, represents characters that get drawn to a life of crime and immorality as brought by the sadistic circumstances that face them. Before focusing on the distinct identity of the femme fatale, it is important to scrutinize the elements of noir films. A motion picture can easily be distinguished as a Noir based on the title itself.

It can easily be identified through the tone based on the choice of words presented in the title. Most films talk about cruelty and action stories presented in great American literary works and novels. One who happens to watch Film Noir can easily relate and connect it to other film genres like thriller, horror or science-fiction films. It is also important to examine the elements of a film that would classify it as a noir. The visual themes, plot, structure, narrative devices, character and settings are important elements to be examined in order to distinguish noirs from other film genres.

Moreover, it is also substantial to consider the underlying message of noirs that differentiate this genre and cinematic technique from other conventional motion pictures and cinematography. The lighting of film noirs is usually dark or set in low to produce dark feel and dramatic shadow patterns (Hirsch 73). In terms of angles, noirs commonly use Dutch angles, low angle shots and wide angle lenses to insinuate a disorienting emotion to the audience (Hirsch 73). Several techniques include shots of mirror reflections of characters, shots through curved and/or frosted glasses and other objects with a distorted and eccentric nature.

A notable noir effect which has become a conventional shot is the shadow of venetian blinds casting over the character, the wall. or the whole setting. The faces of characters either partial or whole, covered by darkness constitutes as another visual style attributed to film noir (Hirsch, 85). Apart from the fact that noir is normally characterized by black-and-white cinematography; coloured films are categorized as noir due to their plots. As far as structures are concerned, film noir tends to break away from the platonic, conventional narration.

Noirs often have unorthodox intricate storylines with the use of flashbacks and flashforwards. Voice-over narration by the main character or the protagonist, the supporting character or by a narrator who is not a character in the film is used as a structuring device and are often used by contemporary filmmakers to immediately characterize their film (Hirsch, 88). Murder is usually the central element of film noirs, murder driven by greed and jealousy. An investigator working alone or with a partner on a mysterious murder case is the simplest plot of a film noir.

Innuendos of conspiracies, organized robbery, swindling and adulterous affairs are common among noir plots (Hirsch 168). Noir’s characters usually have emotion driven actions and a habit of smoking. The characters are usually morally flawed people such as a jealous husband, corrupt police officer, a femme fatale and unsentimental detectives (Hirsch, 146-6). Cigarette smoking is an additional element for the characters’ true nature and adds a distorted feel to the set. Basically, film noir narratives always have male central characters, but women always appear as key characters of the narratives.

Women are both depicted as the conventional devoted wife, and the femme fatale who appears with a rather aggressive personality, who violates the gender norms accepted by society. Notable film scholar Janey Place (50) writes that similar to what is perceived as normal (a concept seldom found in noir narratives) the archetype of the traditional woman offers no excitement or sexual innuendo that they appear to be boring in contrast with the risky, yet thrilling lives of femme fatales. She can kill with a smile; she can wound with her eyes.

She can ruin your faith with her casual lies, and she only reveals what she wants you to see. The words constitute as the first lines from the very romantic song by legendary musician and singer, Billy Joel. But the lines also fit the concept of the femme fatale perfectly as Billy Joel’s perception of a woman is akin to how the femme fatale’s mind functions. The manner of how Billy Joel communicated his idea of a woman is also how the aesthetic of film noir communicates the character of the femme fatale to the audience.

However, in contrast to Joel’s ideal woman, film noir’s concept of a woman is more of a deep, dark, female character who embodies the traits of mystery, deceit, and sexual appeal usually turns out as the cause of the protagonist’s downfall. Blatantly refusing to conform to the traditional roles of supportive partner, compassionate nurturer, and caring mother who seldom projects vibrant personalities and visual charm present among gender conventions in the 20th century.

In contrast to the femme fatale is characterized by her sexuality and not of the other traits traditionally found on women. However, in a time when female sexuality and independence were not socially accepted, and considered implausible, the concept of independent, manipulative women were forbidden and were only circumstantial in such a way that they were only limited to a select number of mainstream motion pictures and under certain conditions.

Mary Ann Doane’s Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (102) indicates that “the femme fatale in film noir is characterized as unknowable (and this is the lure of her attraction) has frequently been noted. ” Doane (102) furthers that the incomprehensible concept of the femme fatale’s identity is accorded with women’s stature in a socio-cultural context, because by nature and tradition, women serve as the piece that complements the man, whose gender identity is cantered around the concept of dominance and control.

What the concept of femme fatale aims to imply thus becomes apparent as the wild nature of female sexuality is not simply a direct attack on traditional womanhood, but a threat to the pride-centred logic of masculinity as well. Putting the values of tradition aide, the fundamental concept of femme fatale in noir films are expressions of broad and varying range of ideologies (Place 37). But despite the broad ideas offered, all of them lead to ultimate demise.

Usually, these unconventional female archetypes tender the conflict in noir films, such characters often cause both the male central character’s demise, and her own as well. These characters also possess distinct characteristics sweet baby sisters and traditional women in films lack: a contact with their sexuality, the opportunities that such contact provides, and a sense of independence from male partners (Place 36).

Furthermore, the primary reason behind such women resulting to treachery and exploitation inclines on an unhappy marriage that confines them within the walls of misery, boredom, and eventually, hatred. The femme fatale struggles to get out from the torture of an emotionless relationship, wherein her dream of living happily ever after is twisted by the fact that men treat their wives as mere extensions of their manhood. The chronic boredom brought about by unhappy marriages is what Place (45) considers the starting point for the femme fatale.

But Place (45) also notes that the destructive means of the femme fatale is also her signature qualities as the highly-flavoured, free-spirited woman resonates through the hearts and minds of the mass viewers. Janey place concurs with the notion of the femme fatale’s lasting impression as she stresses that the strong over-the-edge, exhilarating sexuality is what lingers and not the fatalistic consequences that she face as a result of her devious actions (Place 45). The motion picture Double Indemnity, for example, the film’s plot deals with destructive aftermaths of lust, treachery, and sinister motives.

But generally, Billy Wilder’s classic entails how the strong sexual appeal of the femme fatale manipulated and controlled the male lead character to her advantage. In the film, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman who imprisoned in her own marital life and engages Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in a game of seduction during a scheduled renewal for her spouse’s automobile insurance. Following the first seductive encounter, the seemingly unhappy wife makes arrangements to have her husband killed by making it appear as an accident (Wilder).

Considering the film’s flashback narrative, Double Indemnity constitutes a realistic approach as the story is told from the perspective of the central character, Walter Neff (Wilder). But apart from the personal narration of the protagonist, the film mainly depicted a woman who easily manipulated a man through exploitation of her own sexuality to satisfy her own ends. The sub-consciously unsuspecting male character succumbed to the femme fatale’s manipulative tendencies in hopes of fulfilling his romantic fantasies.

Furthermore, Neff’s gradual apprehension and death was brought about by his weak-spirited personality at the hands of Dietrichson. The script also plays a distinct role in establishing the femme fatale’s identity, the technique of implicating an undertone through dialogue is one of the establishing elements for the film fatale in Double indemnity. Mary Ann Doane explains that in language, sexuality exists through “interstices, gaps, and double entendres of dialogue (108).

” As present in the exchange of lines between Fred and Phyllis: Phyllis: “There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour. ” Then Fred replies with the question: “How fast was I going? ” The plot for Double Indemnity also incites the notion the very concept of marriage (at least in the context of being married to more mature men) diminishes the value of female sexuality considering that the age gap between the married couple distinguishes their priorities as individuals.

The older, supposedly more mature male is more focused on providing for his wife, while the younger, more romantically centred wife seeks attention and sexual attraction from the opposite sex. Apart from troubled marriages, metaphorically incarcerated wives, and apparently obtuse husbands, the concept of femme fatale can also be drawn to the absence of children that may refresh the decaying bond of the noir husband and wife. The presence of children in most noir films appears only to have come from one of the couple’s previous relationships (pre-dominantly from the male).

In the case of Double Indemnity, the presence of the child contributes to the fact that the male expresses no more interest to sexual activity explaining his cold treatment of his wife’s sexual innuendo. In the case of Double Indemnity, only a portrait of a father and the daughter are displayed in the living room implying that Phyllis holds no place for her husband’s perception of an ideal family. In analyzing the reason behind femme fatale’s recurring nature in the noir narrative, it is inevitable not to consider the feminist perspective.

After all, femme fatales are females who choose not to be dominated by male oppressors. Looking at Mary Ann Doane’s feminist perspective on the significance of the femme fatale concept in the film noir narrative, Doane implies that film noir focuses on scaling between what is being seen and what is being perceived as normal (Doane 103). The lighting principles used in noir bequeath an augmentation of acceptable reality, what is seen or visible does not lie, instead, it only pushes the limits of the normal system.

Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, in the feminist sense, appears to engage the audience with the capabilities of the female. Based on Doane’s context (103) as a woman managed to let a seemingly innocent man do all her dirty work in exchange for sex and cash. Likewise, the hypnotized male character subsequently becomes the victim of lies and deceit as what the female intends in the first place. . In a different note, the depiction of women was always rather flexible within the aesthetic of film noir in such a way that the possibility of a certain idea is challenged by its visibility.

The motion picture The Postman Always Rings Twice, for instance, projects the archetypal characteristics of the noir woman. Cora Smith’s (Lana Turner) persona in Tay Garnett’s 1946 classic conceivably imparts the most comprehensive illustration of the femme fatale as Cora’s complex, conniving, and tremendously treacherous character leads men’s existence to a screeching halt. The film revolves around Frank Chambers, a drifter, who bumps into Cora Smith, primarily seen as a white silhouette image and co-incidentally wears white in most of the film’s entirety hiding her true femme fatale nature.

In the first part of the film, Cora is seen as an obedient, well-composed wife who works in her husband’s roadside diner (Garnett). As the film progresses, the concealed, formidable sexuality becomes unleashed, revealing her true femme fatale nature. Lana Turner’s role as Cora Smith is the closest, almost identical to Nicolas Christopher’s characterization of the femme fatale. Nicholas describes such woman as the more interesting and energetic character in motion pictures; a woman who is held as a portrait of mental supremacy, fallacy, allure, unequivocal sexual intensity.

Frequently, these females often encounter numerous changes that constitute total paradigm shifts. Based on Christopher’s classification of femme fatale, Cora possesses both normal and peculiar traits. On one hand, she works for her husband in the restaurant, playing the dutiful, faithful wife. And on the other hand she embarks on an affair with the unsuspecting Frank while playing with the notion of murdering her elderly, less attractive husband, Nick and corrupting the innocent Frank in the process (Garnett).

In a detailed description, Janey Place determines that the concept of femme fatale threatens the male character through her ultimate motive of acquiring freedom, wealth, or power, regardless if a woman is virtuous or sinister. In this sense, Cora overlooked at the possible consequences of her actions and decides to take a risk with Frank and pursue what she ultimately thinks would liberate her from her boring routinary life with Nick (Garnett). Similar to Double Indemnity’s conflict, The Postman Always Rings Twice shows how the lack of display of affection prompts women to commit unfaithful deeds.

Apart from treating Cora as a mere material object of his desire, Nick Smith (Cecil Kallaway) even pushes Cora to see Frank giving both Frank and Cora the notion that he pokes fun at enticing Frank and annoying Cora. Also, the ridiculous age gap between Cora and Nick imparts the idea that the establishment of a happy family is no longer possible. In a similar magnitude, The Postman Always Rings Twice tackles how Cora’s frustration over a fairy marital and familial life serves as her driving force to take advantage of disregarded sexuality to put thrill and excitement back, at least to her life.

In Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, the seemingly dangerous minds of the femme fatale are found on three different characters, instead of the usual single femme fatale, and the male lead is by no means a hapless victim of circumstances beyond his control, though women mostly draw him into dangerous situations. First is that Christina (Cloris Leachman) appears only briefly but is very much the innocent victim, fleeing from the criminals who soon torture and kill her.

Despite her character’s minor role in the film (protagonist Mike Hammer’s love interest), the femme fatale in her is unleashed by wearing only a trenchcoat with nothing underneath. The helpmate, Hammer’s secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper), is generally not a very sexual creature, despite a scene in which she teasingly practices ballet moves and playfully purrs at her employer. As a “good” woman, though, she fits Place’s criteria for the nurturer, standing by Hammer, doing much of his legwork, and asking little in return. However, she is “rewarded” in the end when he rescues her from her captors.

On the other hand, the “dark lady,” Gabrielle/Lily (Gaby Rodgers), goes through the transformation, beginning as a sexually alluring woman and gradually revealing herself as an evildoer who lures Hammer into danger – though he escapes by not succumbing to her wiles. In many ways, the elements of film noir explained the reason behind the importance of the femme fatale character in the noir tradition. Although such concepts on womanhood show how women are the most mysterious creatures in the world, the femme fatale imparts ideologies that serve as frameworks in rousing a sense of morality.

Likewise, the visually cunning appearance of the femme fatale sticks to the viewers’ minds like a superglue. Even on facing the consequences of her actions, the audience feels moved by the femme fatale’s character. In any case, regardless if the concept of femme fatale is a social reflection of reality or a taboo spawned by the vast capabilities of human imagination, femme fatales leave indelible marks both on the motion picture industry and the audience. Works Cited Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night. New York: Free Press, 1997. Doane, Mary Ann.

Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis New York: Routledge, 1991. Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Paramount Pictures. Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. New York: Da Capo, 2001. Kiss Me Deadly. Dir. Robert Aldrich. Perf. Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Maxine Cooper, and Gaby Rodgers. United Artists, 1955. Place, Janey. “Women in film noir. ” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 1978. 35-54. The Postman Always Rings Twice. Dir. Tay Garnett. Perf. John Garfield, Lana Turner, and Cecil Kellaway. MGM, 1946.

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