The quintessential femme fatale of film noir uses her sexual attractiveness and ruthless cunning to manipulate men in order to gain power, independence, money, or all three at once. She rejects the conventional roles of a devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women, and in the end, her transgression of social norms leads to her own destruction and the destruction of the men who are attracted to her. Film noir‘s portrayal of the femme fatale, therefore, would seem to support the existing social order — and particularly its rigidly defined gender roles — by building up the powerful, independent woman, only to punish her in the end.
But a closer look at film noir suggests an opposite interpretation. Even when it depicts women as dangerous and worthy of destruction, film noir also shows that women are confined by the roles traditionally open to them — that their destructive struggle for independence is a response to the restrictions that men place on them. Moreover, these films view the entire world — not just independent women — as dangerous, corrupt, and irrational. They contain no prescription for how women should act and few balancing examples of happy marriages, and their images of conventional women are often bland to the point of parody. It is the image of the powerful, fearless, and independent femme fatale that sticks in our minds when these movies end, perhaps because she — unlike powerful women in other Hollywood films of the ’30s and ’40s — remains true to her destructive nature and refuses to be converted or captured, even if it means that she must die.
Out of the Past provides a classic example of film noir, especially in its portrayal of women. Kathie, the ultimate femme fatale, propels the action toward disaster, first by trying to escape from her relationship with Whit, then by manipulating the two men who would try to love or control her; Ann, on the other hand, acts as the idyllic but featureless traditional woman, standing by her man even when he tells her that he is mixed up with murder and another woman.
Although Kathie displays the worst characteristics of the femme fatale — greed, dishonesty, disloyalty, and a penchant for committing murder — she also is trapped in a confining, paralyzing relationship with a man who would try to control her. Indeed, the real action of the movie begins when Whit hires Jeff to retrieve Kathie after she has run away from him. One has only to see the way Whit gives orders to Joe to imagine how he is accustomed to treating Kathie. Whit even compares her at one point to a thoroughbred racehorse that he bought and kept in a pasture as a prize possession.
Sylvia Harvey points out that women in film noir often are “[p]resented as prizes, desirable objects”1 for the men of these films. Kathie’s status as just another of Whit’s possessions strongly suggests the film’s questioning of traditional male-female relationships and the relative power within them. And Kathie is not alone among the women of film noir: Phyllis, in Double Indemnity, is married to a man who doesn’t even like her; Cora, in The Postman Always Rings Twice, has no voice in her husband’s decision to sell the diner and move to Canada — a decision that leads her to murder him; Elsa, in The Lady from Shanghai, was blackmailed into marrying her husband; and the list goes on.
The implication in Out of the Past and other noir films is that the femme fatale is trapped within the male-female relationship and resorts to murder as her only means of escape. As Harvey suggests, this recurring theme challenges the traditional family and women’s role within it:
[T]he kinds of tension characteristic of the portrayal of the family in these films suggests the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family.2
Thus, despite the inevitable punishment of Kathie Moffet and other “spider women,” these films cannot be said to endorse marriage as a “good” place for women.
The power of film noir‘s questioning of traditional male-female relationships manifests itself in a particular image that recurs in many noir films: the image of old or disabled men. Harvey attributes the use of this image to the emptiness of marriage and family for the women of film noir:
[T]here is clearly an impetus in film noir to transgress the boundaries of this circle [of family relations]; for the presence of husbands on crutches or in wheelchairs (Double Indemnity, The Lady from Shanghai) suggests that impotence is somehow a normal component of the married state.3
But this image may hold a much deeper significance because it contains not just crutches and wheelchairs, but paralysis. For the women in these films, the control exerted by men is closely associated with paralysis, which holds a special horror for them. In addition to The Lady from Shanghai, the image of paralysis also appears in The Big Sleep (General Sternwood) and, most significantly, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cora and Frank make their second (successful) attempt to kill Nick, her husband, only after Nick announces that he is selling the diner so that he and Cora can move to Canada, where he expects Cora to care for his paralyzed sister. Cora’s anger at not being consulted in the decision turns to horror when she hears about the paralyzed sister, implying a direct link between Cora’s lack of power within the marriage and paralysis.
Another factor suggesting that film noir contains a more progressive view of women than other Hollywood films of the time is the noticeable lack of balancing images of traditional women and families. Out of the Past portrays no marriages at all, with the exception of a brief scene featuring Ann’s parents. In The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and most other noir films, even the “good guys” are unmarried, have bad marriages, or show contempt for marriage: Spade says that Archer “had a wife who didn’t like him,” and Spade himself is having an affair with her.
Similarly, to say that these films depict powerful women as aberrations that must be destroyed or that the woman’s destruction restores a preferred social order is to take the female characters out of an overall context that, according to Janey Place, views the entire world as somehow out of joint: “The dominant world view expressed in film noir is paranoid, claustrophobic, hopeless, doomed, predetermined by the past, without clear moral or personal identity.”4 Within these films, the femme fatale is a “normal” product of her environment, and it is society — including its repression of women within strict gender roles — that is askew.
The subversive view of traditional family life and “normal” women is reinforced by the portrayal of the “good girl” in many of these films. The contrast between the good and innocent Ann and the dangerous, alluring Kathie tends to highlight Kathie’s exciting qualities and draw the audience toward her. Ann serves as a foil for Kathie, not a prescription for female behavior. In Out of the Past, as in other noir films, it is the good girl who seems out of place, while the femme fatale belongs in this world.
If it is true that the audience for film noir is less interested in the what than in the how — more interested in character than in plot — then the resolution of the plot with the destruction of the femme fatale is far less significant than the independence and power of the femme fatale. Place argues that the audience retains an image of the nontraditional female as powerful and independent, not neutralized or punished:
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.5
Harvey echoes this viewpoint:
Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained. Narrative resolutions cannot recuperate their subversive significance.6
It is not surprising, therefore, that Kathie — alive, independent, and defiant — exerts a much more powerful hold on our imagination and our memory than either Ann or the fact of Kathie’s ultimate destruction. Even when we acknowledge that Kathie is killed at the end of the movie, we are more moved by how she is killed. Kathie controls even her death. She chooses to die rather than be captured. Her death is essentially a murder/suicide because she shoots Jeff while he is driving the car and while she is caught in police crossfire. Unlike the villainous women of non-noir films, Kathie remains true to her nature, refusing to be converted or to accept capture, even when the alternative is death.
- Harvey, Sylvia. Woman’s place: the absent family of film noir. p. 27.
- Ibid. p. 23.
- Ibid. p. 29.
- Place, Janey. Women in film noir. p. 41.
- Ibid. p. 36.
- Harvey, p. 33.