Film Noir’s 10 Most Dangerous Leading Ladies
By Matt Schimkowitz
While some people may decry current cinema for the domination of powerful male figures, women have a long history of commanding the screen with a ferocity to match today’s superheroes.
Throughout their time in Hollywood, femme fatales have epitomized both liberated onscreen women and misogynistic stereotypes. But while it’s easy to discount the femme fatale as a defamatory archetype for women, these characters helped make female sexuality more commonplace in movie theaters, challenging the traditional gender roles of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. More than that, they gave actresses active parts in the movies and empowered them to take matters into their own hands.
Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Double Indemnity
Femme fatales are defined by their duality. Conniving and vulnerable, ravishing and monstrous, Phyllis Dietrichson wears many hats, and one amazing wig, to convince an overconfident insurance agent to kill her husband. Stanwyck’s ability to balance Dietrichson’s many sides made the character a touchstone of the genre. Playing a frustrated housewife, a damsel in distress, and a heartless villain — sometimes in the same scene — Stanwyck held audiences in the palm of her hands, setting the bar by which all others would be judged.
Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth) Mildred Pierce
Mildred Pierce is the name of the movie, but the title of femme fatale belongs to Mildred’s daughter Veda. “Pierce” tells the story of eponymous character (Joan Crawford), a divorcée who attempts to provide a home for her beloved daughter. Spoiled rotten, Veda is a spider-woman who ensnares Mildred in a web of deceit and poisons her mother’s modest dreams of independence.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), The Maltese Falcon
“Maybe you love me, and maybe I love you” caps Humphrey Bogart’s monologue towards the end of The Maltese Falcon, hitting on what makes O’Shaughnessy such a remarkable femme fatale: Bogie wants to forgive her. O’Shaughnessy sends Bogart’s iconic gumshoe on a wild goose chase for a priceless MacGuffin, but she’s more than plumes of smoke and wanting eyes; she hides behind a guise that’s deliberately submissive. Mary Astor imbues her character with pathos, turning one of the first femme fatales into one of the saddest as well.
Kitty March (Joan Bennett), Scarlet Street
Kitty March is a femme fatale extrême. She’s loud, manipulative, and unlike her fellow leading ladies, she doesn’t try to hide it. Director Fritz Lang films Kitty out of the shadows, showing her as she plans, flirts, and as she controls. Through her sexual teasing and temptations, she cracks the psyche of Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson), destroying his once normal life with murder and seduction. Kitty is a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Lang’s symbolic direction and Bennett’s explosive performance make Scarlet Street a master class in noir psychology.
Gilda (Rita Hayworth), Gilda
As men sailed to Europe in WWII, writers like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain imagined the shadowy world that their boys would return to. Tales of broken heroes held hostage by sexually empowered women took readers and viewers by storm. Few of these films are as overtly about the fear of strong women as Gilda. Hayworth uses her sexuality to get her way, but the vindictive men in her life overshadow her transgressions. In the end, Gilda becomes everything the film tries to suppress: strong, sympathetic, and, yes, decent.
Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), Body Heat
With steamy cinematography and a warm, Floridian backdrop, Body Heat added some color to noir. Matty enlists the help of a cocky lawyer (William Hurt) to get her rich husband out of the picture. Sound familiar? Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan borrows heavily from Double Indemnity, but Turner’s informed performance steals the show. She has the duality of Phyllis Dietrichson, the sympathy of O’Shaughnessy, and a confidence all her own. Body Heat is a genre exercise that will keep you guessing until the final frame.
Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) The Lady From Shanghai
Rita Hayworth, in her second appearance on this list, plays the inverse of her star-making role in Gilda. Cutting her famous locks and dying them blonde, Hayworth plays things close to the chest as she lures Orson Welles into a deadly love-triangle. No longer the extroverted starlet, Hayworth defies expectations with a quieter, more precise performance, building towards the film’s legendary climax in a hall of mirrors that’s as poetic as it is exciting.
Vera (Ann Savage), Detour
Deceit defines film noir, so it’s refreshing to see someone cut to the chase. Firm, direct, and unpredictable, Vera goes for the jugular in every scene, making her one of the era’s most dangerous women. In Detour, she gains the upper hand over our protagonist Al (Tom Neal), who’s stuck between a lie and dead man’s identity. Vera blackmails Al as her every word becomes a tightening noose around his neck. Pitted against Tom Neal’s existential nightmare, Ann Savage lives up to her name and injects the film with pure rage.
Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) & Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers), Kiss Me Deadly
Opening to the sounds of Cloris Leachman’s tears cascading over the credits, Kiss Me Deadly oozes Cold War dread. The film follows Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), who punches his way towards Pandora’s box, while Christina and Lily haunt every scene, playing tricks on his memory. The film was so brazen, it signaled the end of film noir’s classic era. But that wouldn’t stop its influence. The ladies of Vertigo, Chinatown, and Mulholland Drive have Bailey and Carver to thank for their identity crisis.
Cora Smith (Lana Turner) The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Postman Always Rings Twice isn’t your typical noir, and Lana Turner isn’t your typical femme fatale. As Cora Smith, she and Frank (John Garfield) attempt to knock off her husband and start a new life, yet unlike Matty Walker, she has no clue on to how to pull it off. She’s beautiful and assertive, but also inexperienced and real. Her desire to turn her husband’s quaint restaurant into a roadside hotspot is an affront on the past, and in turn, she is punished for her modernity. A proto-Coen brothers movie of murder gone wrong, Postman wrenches your stomach as a lover’s dream unravels before your eyes.