The strong female character. This concept seems to be a very valuable topic to a vast amount of people. With many viewers wanting to see women in powerful positions instead of damsels in distress, the idea of a female character that can perform toe to toe with the male subjects is a strong seller. These tough women have been seen in genres and styles all across the board, from Ripley in the science fiction film series Alien to Selene from the action films of Underworld. However, there is not another style of film that holds as many of the kind of women we call the femme fatale as the noir style does.
The femme fatale has traits within the noir style that typically provide a catalyst for the story. Both beautiful and treacherous, these powerful women typically create pitfalls for other characters, most often the private eye, the protagonist. This is because a typical femme fatale is deceitful. Whether or not those lies are made to hurt the private eye or just protect someone else is dependent on the character. Take Kathie Moffat from Out of the Past for example. There really is not a point in the film where she is not lying in some form or another to Bailey. Kathie is manipulative to the core but it is not until the end, until she murders Whit and tries to blackmail Bailey into running away with her. After all of the lies, frames, and even attempts at murder, Kathie thinks that her charm and upper hand will win Bailey in the end even when her endgame was for them to have a happy ending in love back where they first met in Acapulco. She believes this so effortlessly and yet it is such a stretch in logic. Not the day before had she sent Joe to kill Bailey in the forest and yet she still holds the idea that she can control him. On top of this, she wants to return to place they meet where she was on the run for shooting her (now dead) former lover the first time and stealing money from him. While this seems like some issues most people would realize would be an immediate end to any spark that was once there, Kathie seems to think that she can charm and flirt her way right back into Bailey’s arms, among other places. This is a primary trait in many of the strong female noir characters. They weld their sexuality like lacy battleaxes.
Another prime example of this archetype of feminine power is Brigid O’Shaughnessy from the film The Maltese Falcon. From the start she is every bit the perfect power woman. Dressed expensive yet conservative with plenty of emotion, she quickly preys on the protagonist. The gumshoe knows right from the start that she is lying and yet he goes along getting more and more wound up in her. However, her intentions are very much different than the “hero’s.” She ends the picture with not only lying about her intentions (and everything else) the entire story but also turns out to be the person who killed the protagonist’s partner right from the start. What is really the twist is that the protagonist has to really make himself turn her in. Not only did this woman cause him to lose his partner and be the primary suspect in two murders but also lead to him being involved with the mixed up battle for the priceless treasure. And despite her lying at their every encounter, the private eye professes his interest in her before giving her up. Spade, the private eye, seems to love them and leave them. This is easy to see from his affair with his now dead partner’s wife who he ends things with shortly after her husband’s murder. Despite his normal casual nature with women, Spade genuinely had a tough choice to make in turning in O’Shaughnessy even after all the put him through. However, not all of the femme fatales are quite so dangerous. Others only really have trouble around them.
A prime example of the more well-intentioned yet powerful women in noir is Laura Hunt from the aptly named film Laura. After some questions about her lover’s faithfulness are brought to her attention, Laura decides to take a trip to the country and think over the impending wedding. While gone, her lover and another woman are in Laura’s house when there is a knock on the door and the woman is promptly shot in the face. Because of the damage to the body, similar physical appearance, and other factors, the murder victim is thought to be Laura. This leads to a case searching for Laura’s murderer until Laura arrives and seems to not know anything about the events that have taken place, having been secluded in the country. While in this awkward position she easily cooperates with the police however, Laura at times seems almost defiant, telling the detective that she is calling off the marriage and then later that she intends to stay with her lover, Shelby. She also immediately disobeys the detective when told not to leave or use the phone, two things she does almost the instant he leaves her apartment. Later, she lies to protect Shelby, knowing that he is the primary suspect for the murder. However, throughout all of the film, she is shown to be good hearted and loving. She used her charm to her advantage. She is important and very influential in some circles, however, she is not the monster that Kathie Moffat is nor is the ultra manipulative damsel that O’Shaughnessy is. Laura was a different beast entirely. She is as independent as the other women however she is not one of the antagonists. She does, unsurprisingly, catch the eye of the detective working the case. So now we have three powerful female characters who all manage to catch the eyes of the rough, rolling stone gumshoe. Why do these archetypes just fit so well together?
For starters, the private eye is a character who is used to being untouchable (in a sense. Physically, they normally get touched plenty.) They normally sit in a realm above everyone else. Women fawn over them and men strive but fail to be them. These special ladies, however, throw a wrench into that. They use the detective’s own sexuality and macho tendencies as a tool for either person gain or at least for an even playing field. Now, instead of patting her head and walking out he has to pat his pockets. He can’t exactly trust her and unlike most people the truth just doesn’t come with simply a kiss or a punch. He doesn’t intimidate her and he can’t pull the truth by force. When it is really broken down, the femme fatale is really one the detective’s toughest mysteries. She is also what he is not. She is the spy in plain sight. Tough, smart, and radiating sexuality, the femme fatale is just as much of the noir style as the gunfights and the nightclubs, the smokes and the drinks. If there was ever a great place to be a powerful woman, it’s noir.
By David Cody Allen