Every January I renew my commitment to the genre that has given me so much inspiration by attending the Noir City film festival in San Francisco, where I, along with thousands of other acolytes, are enthralled by the gorgeous cinematography, riveted by the pithy dialog, and held captive by the giant, black and white images of celluloid gods and goddesses, all projected on the screen of the lovely Castro Theater.
While it’s true that some of the finest writers of the twentieth century wrote for films (Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner, to name two), we tend to remember the actors, the stars, the faces.
Particularly the femme fatales.
Now, I’m on record as saying that disenchantment with much of the misogyny inherent in noir fiction—and noir film—inspired me to create a counterfoil in my heroine, Miranda Corbie. And while this is true, not all femme fatales are equal … and not all female leads are fatales.
Some actresses transcended stereotypical roles as vixens and vamps, man-killers and greedy slatterns, all out for a grimy, blood-stained buck. Some played characters outside the typical pattern, strong women who turn out to be good girls in bad girls’ bodies. And some—let’s face it—were so damnably delicious at being bad that you can’t help but revel in their wickedness.
Herewith, then, is a top five list of my favorite fatales. Not all are fatales in the orthodox sense, but they do exhibit similar characteristics: intelligence, sexual charisma, strength and ambition. I hope you find a few favorites of your own, and perhaps some new films to try.
1. Rita Hayworth/Gilda
Rita and Gilda are an inseparable and dynamite combination of allure, mystery and vulnerability. Like Marilyn after her, Rita could project a warmth and gentleness that made you root for her. In Gilda, one of the main questions revolves around her sexual guilt or innocence, whether she was a loose woman branded with the “Bar None” or a loving wife trying to prod her seemingly uncaring husband Johnny (Glenn Ford) into action. Considering the implied action between Johnny, his mentor/villain Balin (George Macready), and Balin’s “little friend”, her frustration is easy to understand.
The last time I saw Gilda on a movie screen, the theater was packed to overflowing. When Rita walked out in her backless Jean Louis dress and started to dance to “Put the Blame on Mame” … the entire audience held its breath.
That’s star power, baby.
2. Gloria Grahame/In a Lonely Place
Choosing the paradigmatic Grahame fatale role is just about impossible. Her scarred-face gangster’s moll in The Big Heat is a classic lesson on how great acting and star charisma can temper a stereotype. Here, her Laurel Gray lives up to her name … she’s trapped in a fog of ambiguity, running from a loveless marriage and into the arms of a man (superbly played by Humphrey Bogart) she is afraid may be a killer. No Spiral Staircase here, though … In a Lonely Place is director Nicolas Ray’s s finest moment, a mature and thoughtful story of a tortured relationship, the hazards of creative life, and the dangers of distrust.
3. Joan Crawford/Sudden Fear
Joan Crawford was one of the finest film actresses of the twentieth century. She invested every role she played with integrity and believability—and far less histrionics than modern mimicry would imply. Joan made many superb noirs—Flamingo Road, Mildred Pierce, and Possessed, for example—but her turn in Sudden Fear remains my Crawford favorite.
Joan wore an aura of indomitability along with those requisite Adrian shoulder pads. And this—combined with films that wedded so-called “women’s” melodrama with noir—made her a subversive femme fatale, an immoral or amoral woman with ambition (i.e. The Damned Don’t Cry) who is not exactly punished according to the Hays Code, as was the case with so many of her sisters in film.
In other words, Joan persists.
In Sudden Fear, she plays a wealthy, single playwright (I’m a sucker for movies with writer protagonists) ensnared by an unlikely homme fatale: Jack Palance. Gloria Grahame is also involved. Need I say more?
4. Mary Astor/The Maltese Falcon
Mary Astor enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, but attained noir immortality with her riveting portrayal of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in John Huston’s faithful adaptation of the Dasheill Hammett classic. Though Astor didn’t project the lush, nubile beauty of actresses like Linda Darnell or Yvonne DeCarlo, her Brigid is a sexual creature, and Astor herself had experienced public scandal during a custody battle, when her ex-husband threatened to publish selections of an apparently salacious diary.
Beyond the sex, though, Astor’s Brigid is a nervous creature, vibrating with desperation and greed. She’s thoroughly believable—and thoroughly enjoyable.
It’s hard to realize that only three years later she played the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis!
5. Ann Sheridan/Nora Prentiss
Ann Sheridan, the popular “Oomph Girl” of the early ‘40s, is sadly not as appreciated today as some of her contemporaries. Perhaps most noted for her role in King’s Row, she made a few terrific noirs (Unfaithful, Woman on the Run, and the inimitable Juke Girl, with Ronald Reagan). Like many of Crawford’s films, critics have labeled Nora Prentiss a “woman’s” noir. Such categories only illuminate the misogyny inherent in the genre. It’s a noir—and a damn good one—with a strong, believable female protagonist and an ending that will knock your socks off. Unfortunately, it’s only available in DVD-R format, but watch for it on TCM!
So what do you think? Who are your favorites and what films really stand out in your memory? Stay tuned for more of mine!
Kelli Stanley is the award-winning author of City of Dragons and the forthcoming City of Secrets, “starring one of crime’s most arresting heroines: angry, big-hearted, and fearless Miranda Corbie” (Library Journal, starred review). Kelli also writes the Roman noir series (The Curse-Maker, Nox Dormienda). She lives in San Francisco.