The Femme Fatale in Hollywood Film Noir

28 Feb


During World War II and the years immediately following it, a new style of filmmaking emerged in Hollywood which, according to film historian Tim Dirks, took “advantage of the post-war ambience of anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion.” This style became known as film noir and was characterized by certain aesthetics, such as low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions, as well as common thematics, with films focusing on the darker side of humanity. The story lines often revolved around a male protagonist who is lured to his downfall by a beautiful yet dangerous, two-timing woman – a “femme fatale.” These women use their sexuality to control and manipulate the man into doing what she wants, generally some immoral act that will benefit her while implicating him. However, the narratives would not allow for the femme fatale’s actions to go unpunished, and ultimately she was usually destroyed in some manner as well. To contrast the femme fatale, many of these films presented another female character that acted as her idealistic “double” – a pure, virtuous woman with good intentions. These two archetypes juxtapose the new, independent, woman with one who fills the traditional, submissive role, showing the threat men felt from the possibility of changing gender roles following women’s increased independence, gained through the workforce in World War II, as well as men’s determination to maintain a patriarchal power system in the United States. Billy Wilder’s infamous 1944 film noir, Double Indemnity, is a near flawless execution of the femme fatale character and her double in narrative cinema, and can therefore be seen as a reflection of men’s post-war views on women.

American women gained some freedom and autonomy when large numbers of men were shipped off to the battlefields during World War II, leaving hundreds of jobs abandoned and unfilled. Many women jumped at this opportunity to work outside the home and make their own income, while others contributed to the war effort through volunteer work, such as with the Red Cross. The War Manpower Commission was even charged with recruiting women to vital jobs, and the U.S. government launched the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” campaign to entice women to enter the workforce. Despite the fact that most men were opposed to the idea, wartime shortages necessitated that women be allowed to serve in the armed forces, and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program and the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (later changed to the Women’s Army Corps) were established in 1942 to meet this demand. Thousands of women enlisted and served their country through a variety of military jobs, and although initially they were given traditional female oriented jobs, soon “women were serving in virtually every occupation except direct combat – in the motor pool, as radio operators and repairmen, gunnery instructors, mechanics, flight instructors, and in other advanced technical and scientific fields,” states the National Women’s History Museum. While the men were away, women in America experienced an unprecedented surge of independence and self-sufficiency, with many becoming heads of households and leaving domesticity for the first time.

However, when the war was over and the men came home, much returned to the established status quo before the war. In her book Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II, Karen Anderson writes:

“While the image of the woman worker was important during the war, the prewar image of women as wives and mothers by no means disappeared. Mainstream society accepted temporary changes brought about by a war, but considered them undesirable on a permanent basis. The public reminded women that their greatest asset was their ability to take care of their homes and that career women would not find a husband” (60).

The majority of women in the workforce during the war lost their jobs at its end and returned home, while those who stayed employed were often demoted to lower paying jobs as men returned to their positions. While women had been able to step out and change their image some during the war, most of the progress made rescinded in the post-war period, as men reasserted their dominance and ensured traditional gender roles stayed in place. However, women had proven themselves capable of filling male roles and had laid down the foundations for women entering the workforce, which would steadily increase in the following decades. World War II had given women a taste of independence, showing them a way of life outside the familiar domestic sphere and freeing them from some of the constraints of male control. Although most women returned to the job of “housewife” after the war, many retained the knowledge, skills, and insights they had gained from their experiences and saw how they could improve themselves and take advantage of opportunities outside the home. As much as women proved to men and society overall that they were capable of working men’s jobs while maintaining their femininity and raising a family at the same time, women also proved it to themselves, and this garnered feelings within them of confidence, strength, and assertiveness as well as inner longings and desires to experience “freedom” again.

While it would take some more time before true women’s equality would begin to be recognized, the seeds had been planted, and men were fearful of the potentials of this new breed of women. Not only could women lose their dependence on men and be able to support themselves, rendering men obsolete, women could ruin all of American society and the entire familial structure with their endeavors outside the home. Devoting time to work could cause less attention to be given to child-rearing and other critical tasks, causing children to suffer and breaking apart families. Women may not even want to have families anymore, or may want to wait until later in life to start one. With their expendable income, they could explore new venues of leisure on their own, such as going out to movie theaters, bars, and clubs without a male escort, potentially leading them to become more sexually expressive and promiscuous. America’s entire values system could be degraded and future generations raised without wholesome morals. These fears were stronger in urban areas than in rural ones, since cities were often at the forefront of radical changes, contained a larger variety of people and ideas, and offered much more opportunities for women to both work and play. In the public’s mind, cities harbored a dark, mysterious, and sensuous feeling to them, and were places where crime and immorality were allowed to flourish.

These sentiments transferred onto the popular cinema of the time, as virtually every subset of Hollywood film production was controlled and dominated by men; studio executives, directors, writers, producers, and so on, were always men. Thus, Hollywood films were created from a strictly male perspective and the female characters were seen through this tinted “male gaze.” The majority of these men were also originally from urban areas, and even if not, most moved to Hollywood once they began working in film, possibly amplifying their fears of powerful women. The connection between cities and dangerous women was certainly a link that was heavily emphasized in film noir, with almost all of the stories taking place in cities, Los Angeles being a commonly used favorite. Tim Dirks explains: “Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, wet asphalt, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets, flashing neon lights, and low key lighting. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit and low-rent apartments and hotel rooms of big cities, or abandoned warehouses.” Filmmakers used the backdrop of the harsh big city as the playground for their femme fatales, employing both its crowded bustling streets and deserted back alleyways, to exploit urban structure, architecture, and rigid line formations, thematically as well as visually linking femme fatales with cities and modernity.

Billy Wilder was one of the most prolific directors in the film noir era, and while he is remembered for a number of his works, he created one of the true classic and quintessential film noirs in 1944 with Double Indemnity. The narrative presents a near textbook femme fatale character, Phyllis Dietrichson, and her pure “double” is exhibited through her stepdaughter, Lola. While Phyllis does not possess the same fresh, youthful innocence that Lola does, she is still attractive and able to harness her looks and charm to control and influence men, as she does with Walter Neff, the protagonist. “She exudes a unique sexuality, which she uses to define herself and manipulate men in order to gain independence from an oppressive family life or relationship,” writes film scholar John Blaser in his essay, “No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir.” He continues: “Her body, her clothing, her words, her actions, and her ability to hold the camera’s gaze create a highly charged sexual image that defies attempts by the men in her life and by the film itself to control her or return her to her ‘proper sphere’ as a woman.” She is obsessed with and driven by money, greed, excess, and material possessions, in addition to a desire to seek pleasure for herself, annihilate the man, and be the one who succeeds and comes out on top. In “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition,” Jack Boozer states: “This figure largely abjures traditional romance and passive domesticity, choosing instead to apply her sexuality to homicidal plots in the service of greed” (20). Some men believed that once women had experienced having money and power, they were sure to crave more of it, and could be willing to do anything to regain it, including deceiving and destroying men by any means necessary – even murder. Women must therefore be reminded of the consequences of this and male dominant authority reasserted; all of which was accomplished in film noir cinema through the femme fatale.

Neff is an insurance salesman who happens to meet Phyllis during a house call to renew her husband’s car insurance policy. Phyllis’ intentions from the beginning are to trick Neff into aiding and abetting her in murdering her husband, covering it up, and collecting the insurance money, yet she disguises all of this through a “sob story” of how her husband abuses her and then pretending to have romantic feelings towards Neff. As is later revealed by Lola, Phyllis has already previously killed for money, murdering Lola’s mother in order to marry her wealthy father, so it therefore comes as no surprise to Lola that Phyllis has done it again. “It is her longing for financial independence by way of sexual initiative that makes her so threatening to traditional phallocentric authority,” claims Boozer (21).

Phyllis’ motivations and narrative function, serving as the man’s foil, represent male fears of a liberated, dominant woman and their belief that these women all ultimately desire to demolish men and live out a life of unchecked female freedom, debauchery, and sexuality. Blaser states: “The femme fatale threatens the status quo and the hero precisely because she controls her own sexuality outside of marriage. She uses sex for pleasure and as a weapon or a tool to control men, not merely in the culturally acceptable capacity of procreation within marriage.” The dominant societal standards of the time dictated that such a woman is a serious threat and cannot be allowed to survive, and Double Indemnity reasserts this notion, as Neff discovers the truth about Phyllis and shoots and kills her. However, the man is also not allowed to succeed – Neff is shot as well, leading him to confess and describe the whole ordeal in detail in a Dictaphone narration to his boss. The film concludes with a bleeding Neff crumpling down on the floor in pain as his boss, who has actually been listening to the story the entire time, calls an ambulance. Whether Neff survives his gunshot wound or not is irrelevant, since either his death or a sentence to a lifetime in jail would function as his “downfall” and would eliminate him as a member of society. This only reaffirms the ideology, presented in film noir through femme fatale characters, that a woman who seeks money and power for herself, and does not simply allow a man to provide for her and treat her as he wishes, should not be believed or trusted.

The central narrative function of the honest and wholesome double in most film noirs is to help the protagonist realize the true nature of the femme fatale, a role which Lola certainly fulfills in Double Indemnity. While these women are overall virtuous people and mainly exhibit positive characteristics, they may also be used as devices to exemplify the duality of female nature, possessing some negative traits of dishonesty and immorality. Lola’s character is presented in such a manner. She lies to her parents about meeting her boyfriend, Nino, downtown, and then coyly uses her femininity and potential sexuality to manipulate Neff into driving her there and keeping it a secret. Even though she believes it to be important and accurate information, she is dissuaded by Neff from reporting her suspicions concerning Phyllis’ involvement in both her mother’s and father’s death to the authorities. She then carries on a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Neff, as he takes her out to dinners, on long walks, and listens to her cry and discuss her problems. This could be viewed as Lola allowing herself to be “bought” in exchange for her silence. Thus, while Lola is mainly a pure woman who shares the same honorable intentions as the man – to destroy the femme fatale – she is not without flaws. This furthers the male viewpoint that even the “good” women were becoming more liberated and thus losing some of their morals, leading men to further fear and distrust all women, since a fully virtuous woman could no longer exist. This posed an even greater threat to masculinity and men’s ultimate power, dominance, and status.

These films can be viewed as and may have been intended to be an attack on liberated womanhood, in a sense “punishing” women for their behavior during the war and attempting to put them back in their rightful place as male inferiors; additionally, using the good “double” as a  teacher and example of how women should be. However, the end product may have created a completely opposite effect. While the femme fatale may have been destroyed narratively, that does not necessarily destroy her cinematic power and reach. In Women in Film Noir, Janey Place argues:

“It is not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all exciting sexuality. . . .[T]he final ‘lesson’ of the myth often fades into the background and we retain the image of the erotic, strong, unrepressed (if destructive) woman. The style of these films thus overwhelms their conventional narrative content, or interacts with it to produce a remarkably potent image of woman” (36).

Additionally, the placement of the “good” woman in film noir narratives may ironically counteract any intent to promote domesticity and the virtues of being a housewife. Blaser claims:

“The good woman embraces her traditional ‘place’ in the family, but she is out of place in film noir. Although she offers the hero a chance to escape from the sexy, destructive femme fatale and the dangerous noir world, the good woman often proves to be a mirage that the hero cannot reach. Ultimately, the good woman suggests that society’s prescription for happiness, the traditional family, is uninteresting and unattainable.”

Therefore, by presenting the femme fatale as exciting and sexy in contrast to the boring and plain good woman, film noirs could actually be seen as discouraging marriage and domesticity, or at least claiming that it is impossible to be truly happy while trapped in its confines. These underlying sentiments could have potentially stemmed from men’s own unhappiness and feelings of entrapment in seemingly unescapable loveless and sexless marriages.

Ultimately, the representation of women in Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and 1950s was a male response to American women’s behavior and work outside the home during World War II, which caused men to fear a new type of power-hungry, money-crazed, sexualized woman who would do anything to get ahead and could jeopardize America’s patriarchal hierarchy. Hollywood’s answer to this was the creation of the alluring but double-crossing femme fatale, who almost always brought total destruction to both herself and the male protagonist. The figure of the “good” woman was also employed in film noir to cast the femme fatale in a harsh negative light and personify how women should act. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) presents both these characters and uses them to convey men’s uneasy sentiments towards women at the time, as well as men’s commitment to remaining the dominant power-players in American society.

Works Cited

“American Women in World War II.” History. A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <>.

Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981. Print.

Blaser, John. “No Place For a Woman: The Family in Film Noir.” (1996): n. pag. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.

Boozer, Jack. “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition.” Journal of Film and Video 51 (1999): 20-35. Print.

Dirks, Tim. “Film Noir.” Filmsite. AMC, 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <>.

Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Paramount, 1944. DVD.

Kaplan, E. Ann., and Janey Place. Women in Film Noir. London: BFI, 1998. Print.

“Partners in Winning the War: American Women in World War II.” National Women’s History Museum, 2007. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. <>.

4 Responses to “The Femme Fatale in Hollywood Film Noir”

  1. PAM HUTSON February 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm #


  2. filmcamera999 February 28, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

    Reblogged this on filmcamera999.

  3. PAM HUTSON March 4, 2013 at 2:31 pm #


  4. pam hutson March 21, 2013 at 9:28 pm #


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