Our latest older movies column salutes the women who made the femme fatale such an iconic part of cinema history – and here are Sarah’s ten favourites.
From the moment she walks into a scene, you know that she is trouble. She has legs up to here, a silhouette that would make an hourglass jealous, and a dress clinging to her figure like the mysterious past she has left behind. Let me introduce you, to the femme fatale.
The character has become quintessential in the film noir world. Even the name of the character trope itself feels like the puff of smoke from the lit cigarette that she is always smoking. A femme fatale is the scene-stealer of the film noir and was popularised during the 1940s with actors such as Rita Hayworth and Barbara Stanwyck dominating the screen.
These women slither onto the screen with murderous intentions, ready to ensnare their victims (usually the narrator) and get away from their criminal past. They wear the best clothes, have the best lines, and ultimately betray our protagonist anyone who gets in the way of their money grabbing plans. Amongst the Dutch angles and shadows, femme fatales are the cornerstone of the genre.
So, to celebrate their role in film noir, here’s my top ten…
Feathers McCoy – Underworld (1927)
played by Evelyn Brent
Though Underworld is technically a proto-noir, and Feathers is hardly like the murderous mistress of mayhem that we’ve come to love in the genre, it seems foolish not to mention her. Directed by the acclaimed Josef von Sternberg, the film revolves around Feathers McCoy who is the moll of crime boss Bull Wood. However, she falls in love with his right-hand man Rolls Royce (okay, those aren’t their real names.) When Bull falls foul to a fiendish plot, Feathers and Rolls debate whether to elope and leave him to his fate. With wonderful performances from Brent, George Bancroft (Bull,) and Clive Brook (Rolls Royce,) this is an incredible piece of silent cinema.
Nan Cooley – City Streets (1931)
played by Sylvia Sidney
Rouben Mamoulian’s incredible crime drama see Gary Cooper as The Kid, a shooting gallery owner who falls in love with Sylvia Sidney’s Nan – the daughter of crime boss Pop. After her own father implicates her in a murder, Nan is sent away, and The Kid is forced into a life of crime. Again, whilst this isn’t technically a film noir, the movie is so slick and stylish that its city streets stretch out into the genres’ most classic entries.
Ruth Wonderley – The Maltese Falcon (1941)
played by Mary Astor
Truthfully, I preferred the 1931 pre-code movie of The Maltese Falcon which saw Bebe Daniels as the above character who entices Ricardo Cortez’s Samuel Spade into hunting down the infamous statuette. Especially because the film is spicier and sexier than the 1941 version.
That being said, the Humphrey Bogart led 1940s-flick is the most well-known and emblematic film noir. Ruth Wonderley is a character who shovels him into a life of crime (you know, because he’s called Spade.) Ultimately, Spade deduces her scheming and digs himself out of her traps.
Phyllis Dietrichson – Double Indemnity (1944)
played by Barbra Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck is the queen of the film noir genre. She has appeared in so many such as Sorry, Wrong Number, No Man Of Her Own and more. However, her most acclaimed role is Billy Wilder’s seminal movie. Starring opposite Fred MacMurray, Stanwyck plays a Los Angeles housewife who seduces an insurance salesman into murder. Stanwyck has never been greater than she has been here, making sunglasses iconic for the very first time on the big screen.
Kitty Collins – The Killers (1946)
played by Ava Gardner
With a name like The Killers, you just suspect that this is going to be a brilliant film noir. And it very much is. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and the debut feature of actor Burt Lancaster, the film revolves around an insurance investigator who is propelled into a murderous mystery as he tries to find a boxer’s beneficiary. Ava Gardner plays the glamorous Kitty Collins whose heated gaze and sultry presence masks something more sinister in a glorious performance.
Elsa Bannister – The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
played by Rita Hayworth
Rita Hayworth is another golden age actress who made the femme fatale character as legendary as it is today. Honestly, I was stuck between this and Gilda – nearly going for the latter because of Hayworth’s brilliant performance opposite Glenn Ford. But who can resist Hayworth and Orson Welles together? Who can resist such chemistry? Who can resist an impressive, dreamlike sequences of mirrors and mystery? The Lady from Shanghai is a must-watch for film noir and femme fatale fans.
Matty Walker – Body Heat (1981)
played by Kathleen Turner
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, and starring Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, Body Heat revolves around a lawyer who starts an affair with a rich housewife, only to find himself thrown into a life of crime. This erotic film is a steamy and sensual movie that is a tantalising watch. Astonishingly, this was Turner’s debut film role, and her triumphant and confident performance has been celebrated by critics and audiences alike.
Rachael – Blade Runner (1982)
played by Sean Young
Ridley Scott’s brilliant epic places film noir components into the middle of a science fiction dystopia. Based on a book by Phillip K Dick, Blade Runner revolves around Harrison Ford’s Detective Deckard as he pursues robots across Los Angeles. In the movie, he stumbles upon Rachael – a stunning replicant who Deckard becomes desperately attracted to. From the minute she steps into the room, Sean Young’s Rachael is captivating, and never lets up.
Catherine Tramell – Basic Instinct (1992)
played by Sharon Stone
Tramell is a sexually confident novelist whose written murders become reality in Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller. Ensnaring Detective Nick Curran into her web, the film is a brilliant combination of sex and slaughter. It’s Stone’s most famous role as you try to untangle her history and the mystery of whether she’s a vicious killer or not. The film contains one of cinemas most famous scenes as Catherine is interrogated and teases the room as she crosses her legs, of course. But there’s much more to Stone’s performance than that.
Amy Dunne – Gone Girl (2014)
played by Rosamund Pike
David Fincher’s triumphant adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel was a rich psychological thriller with one of the best modern femme fatales. Amy Dunne’s character arc is brilliant handled, as she goes from a supposedly troubled housewife to psychopathic killer over the course of the story. The performance is so wonderfully handled by the immutable Rosamund Pike that Amazing Amy has become an iconic cinematic figure. Especially when it comes to her revealing Cool Girl monologue. A masterpiece character in an equally masterful film.
What are some of your favourite femme fatales? Let us know in the comments below…
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