With roots in myth and literature, the femme fatale that emerged in 1940s American cinema was typically a ruthless seductress, using her sexuality to manipulate men to achieve her own ends. In these films from the classic period, she is usually destroyed or subdued in another manner, representing a return to the status quo that was disrupted by her intrigues. The femme fatale character has, however, been transformed in modern film: in retro-noir, like Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), the femme fatale is often less powerful than her classic counterparts, while in neo-noir, like Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), the femme fatale has become a kind of anti-heroine, often getting away with the crimes she sets in motion.
Defining Film Noir
The term film noir was coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946. American films, absent from French screens during World War II, were released that year and Frank’s term was intended to describe what appeared to be a new trend in American cinema of the 1940s. Films like Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Double Indemnity (1944) displayed obvious narrative, stylistic and thematic departures from prewar Hollywood cinema, for example: chiaroscuro visual stylization reminiscent of German expressionism; a critical examination of postwar American society; a new psychological representation of character; and greater, perhaps even obsessive, attention to sexuality.
These narrative, stylistic and thematic changes have not led to a unified definition of film noir. For instance, the stylistic elements generally attributed to film noir are not specific to the genre, crime films, or 1940s cinema more generally, leading some critics to question the existence of noir as a style or a genre. Nevertheless, a number of critics have identified the hard-boiled crime films of the 1940s and 1950s as representative of a classic period of film noir. Crime films from the 1960s to the present day that apply the narrative, stylistic and thematic elements of film noir are often classified as neo-noir. In Dames in the Driver’s Seat (2005), Jans B. Wager suggests another category, retro-noir, to describe those neo-noirs made after the classic period that use the 1940s and 1950s as a setting.
The Classic Period and the Femme Fatale
Hard-boiled is a classification created by literary critics of the 1930s in reference to popular crime or detective novels emerging in that period by writers like Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Film adaptations were slow to follow primarily because the Hays Code forced studios to minimize sex and violence in the 1930s and crime fiction was rife with both. Moreover, America’s entry into World War II in December 1941 meant pressure on the industry, both from the Office of War Information and audiences, to address the war in various genres. By 1944, however, with the war nearly at a victorious end, the studios were ready to revisit the commercial success of The Maltese Falcon (1941), the first hard-boiled film of the 1940s, with more crime films in the noir style.
As Frank Krutnik points out in A Lonely Street (1991), in hard-boiled fiction and film, “gunplay, illicit or exotic sexuality, the corruption of the social forces of law, and personal danger to the hero are placed to the fore.” The hero, usually a private detective or investigator, must overcome a series of challenges to his life and integrity, including those dangers posed by the feminine. In fact, a large number of postwar noir films are concerned with the femme fatale who seeks satisfaction and self-definition outside of the traditional contexts of marriage and family.
This concern is usually explained in terms of the postwar confusion over sexual roles and identity. As a result of the mass drafting of men into the armed services and the wartime expansion of the economy, women were overtly encouraged to enter the workforce, only to be termed excess labour following the war and pressured into voluntary withdrawal. Meanwhile, the drafted men had returned to an America where the traditional concepts of home and family had been turned upside down.
This confusion is reflected in the hostility towards women in the hard-boiled films. Krutnik puts it nicely: “There is an emphatic strain of male sexual paranoia that runs through the 1940s ‘tough’ thrillers: the idea that women can be gently converted from self-seeking ambitions to other-directed love is framed as a fantasy that is less easily realizable than in the 1930s.” The noir protagonist usually falls for the femme fatale and agonizes over whether or not she can be trusted; when he does trust her, he is often destroyed. The femme fatale, of course, is destroyed as well, or at the very least safely contained by the authorities.
The Femme Fatale in Retro-Noir and Neo-Noir
While the femme fatales of the classic period are meant to be despicable characters, there is something fascinating about their power and drive for independence. Not so the femme fatales of retro-noir. Jans B. Wager suggests that retro-noir serves as “the locus of conservative politics, the return of tradition, and the reassertion (with a vengeance) of patriarchy.” The femme fatale becomes a pastiche character, “an empty and powerless imitation.” Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is an oft cited example.
Lynn looks the part of the classic femme fatale and exudes a certain amount of sexual power, but in the end she wants what earlier femme fatales were trying to escape: marriage and a respectable life in a small town. In fact, her role throughout the film is more like a supportive wife. Rather than manipulating Bud, she supports him in his investigations, telling him in a moment of low confidence, “You’re smart enough. Be a detective if that’s what you want,” and by the end of the film she is prepared to ride off into the sunset with a man who has already physically abused her once and who likely needs some long-term nursing for his injuries. In effect, it is Lynn’s modest desires and her supportive role that allows her to survive the narrative: there is no need to destroy or subdue her dangerous femininity because she contains it of her own accord.
Christopher Nolan’s Memento, on the other hand, is a neo-noir with a powerful and dangerous femme fatale who survives the crime. Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) does not appear on screen as the classic femme fatale. She is dark and beautiful, mysterious in her dark glasses, but her power comes less from her sexuality than her attitude. She manipulates events to achieve her own ends, like using Leonard (Guy Pearce) to get rid of one of her boyfriend’s associates. Natalie drives parts of the plot like the classic femme fatales but without suffering their fate: she triumphs without winding up dead, in jail, or married off. As Natalie says to Leonard, she is a survivor, and for this reason she represents a significant transformation of the femme fatale in film.
Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street : Film Noir, Genre and Masculinity. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1991.
L.A. Confidential. Dir. Curtis Hanson. Perf. Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, and Kim Basinger. 1997. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1998.
Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. 2000. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2001.
Wager, Jans B. Dames in the Driver’s Seat: Rereading Film Noir. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005.
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