The Greatest Femme Fatales in the History of Film
The femme fatale character archetype has largely fallen by the wayside over the course of the history of film, contingent with the societal changes that have taken place in most Western countries over the last fifty years. Despite that, a well-written and well-acted version of the character can still be incredibly compelling and memorable. There is an undeniable...something...about a really good femme fatale, beyond the obvious appeal of breathtaking looks and the radiance of confidence. It’s an indescribable allure that elevates the interest level of her character above that of many other stock female archetypes.
A femme fatale is walking trouble, and she knows it. She’s beautiful, classy, well-spoken, and can command the focus of any room into which she walks with nary a glance around it. When she wants something, she pursues it. When there’s an obstacle in her way, she removes it. If she can’t remove it herself, she only needs to cast a look at the nearest man and he will happily remove it for her. More to the point, she has no problem with exploiting any of those qualities in order to achieve her objectives. She will use every bit of guile and every ounce of feminine appeal at her disposal to wrap people around her finger in order to achieve her goals.
Of course, every so often, she will ply her craft with the wrong people. She will imply favors that she has no intention of fulfilling and find herself in a jam when it turns out that someone she’s played has taken it personally. More often than not, she will get in way over her head and find a way to use the very wit that has served her so well to get out of it. Sometimes this involves a new layer of manipulation. Sometimes this involves seeking outside help and finding that the people who are potential lifelines are suspicious of her history of behavior towards others. How a femme fatale handles herself when these situations arise is usually an indicator of the direction their character will take by the end of the film, and the quality that separates the good ones from the forgettable ones.
As stated before, the femme fatale archetype has fallen out of favor over the years, as the idea of women trading on their sex appeal as a means of manipulating others is not considered politically correct. However, speaking as a man, there is still a definite allure to the really good ones that find their way into works of fiction. Femme fatales offer a sense of excitement and danger coupled with an evocative personality, all wrapped up in one stunning package. With that, I present some of the best ones to every grace the silver screen over the years.
Gilda Mundson (Gilda, 1946)
We meet Gilda as she accompanies her new husband Ballin on his return trip to Buenos Aires. It’s made clear within about thirty seconds of her arrival that she has a history with Ballin’s employee Johnny Farrell. They’re all Americans. The contrivance necessary to have them all meet is massive. Do we care? Of course not. Because Rita Heyworth as Gilda is five shades of awesome. Just watch this and try to tell me otherwise.
No woman has ever made the simple act of taking off an opera glove sexier.
Gilda and Johnny share a love-hate relationship that is largely based on mutual hate and a simultaneous attraction. Fortunately, as luck would have it, Gilda’s husband is wanted by the Argentinean police on suspicion of being a Nazi war criminal. Ballin Mundson flees Argentina, and leaves Gilda free to marry Johnny. Are their lives together a case of happily ever after?
Of course not.
Johnny has contempt for Gilda and her patently obvious consent to marry him as a means of punishing the husband who deserted her. Gilda hates her union with Johnny, and expresses it as often as she can, including performing a striptease in front of a room full of men as a means of letting Johnny know that she can have any man she wants.
Gilda Mundson is a prime example of a femme fatale, pursuing her own objectives and not allowing the inconvenience of a pair of husbands get in the way of them.
Cora Smith (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946)
Is there any better example of a quintessential femme fatale than Cora Smith? Married to a much older man, she convinces drifter Frank Chambers to murder her husband Nick in order to start a new life together and retain control over the diner that is currently supporting her. Even at her worst moments, she is covering all of her bases.
Take a look at how she greets Frank for the first time.
Cora’s marriage to Nick may not be the happiest, but she still knows how to make an impression.
Matty Walker (Body Heat, 1981)
Film Noir underwent a resurgence in popularity in the early 1980s. A new genre of films featuring hard-boiled detectives and sultry female leads emerged. Perhaps the most notable film of this period was the 1981 film Body Heat, starring Kathleen Tuner as Matty Walker, the wife of a much older wealthy businessman. Matty begins the film by having an affair with Ned Racine, an extremely sleazy and low-achieving attorney. She makes it clear to Ned that she wants to leave her husband for him, but that a divorce would leave her with none of his money. Matty comes to the conclusion that the best course of action is to kill Matty’s husband.
Matty Walker is an unusual type of femme fatale: the type that doesn’t take any direct action to harm anyone, but allows the people around her to come to their own conclusions based on her prodding. She inflates the passion of the people who desire her through her inaction. Just take a look at his clip, and see what Ned is willing to do after Matty has done her work on him.
Jessica Rabbit (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1988)
This one could be a little bit unfair.
I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the first time when I was six years old, and had no clue what the appeal of Jessica Rabbit was supposed to be. I was just there to see a confluence of all my favorite cartoon characters in one place at one time. As I got older, I began to see the intended appeal of the scenes like this in the movie.
Jessica Rabbit was written, constructed, and animated to be the perfect femme fatale. She is a buxom redhead who dresses in full-length gowns, sings jazz numbers, and cavorts with powerful men outside of her marriage, while still professing to love her husband. She is an active player throughout the entirety of the movie, serving as the basis around which the large majority of the plot revolves. She is trouble personified, and even though the movie’s protagonist is happily engaged, he is nonetheless swayed by Jessica, who is the prime suspect in the murder of a real estate tycoon, and driven to discover the truth in spite of himself, all thanks to her presence.
So Why Are Femme Fatales So Appealing?
A very common complaint among the males who continue to dominate the screenwriting industry to this day is that it is extremely difficult to write an interesting and compelling female character, one that will appeal to a movie-going audience of both males and females. This is no doubt due in a large part to the male voice being overrepresented in cinema, and the difficulty of resolving the development of a character in a medium that only allows a maximum of two hours for presentation with the need to avoid over-emphasizing a particular trait in a female character that might be found offensive.
More often than not, the result of attempts to resolve this difficulty are female characters that are passive throughout the narrative of the film; women who simply wait around for events to happen to them and react to them when they do. In an attempt to be inoffensive to the female members of their audience, a large number of screenwriters and filmmakers create female characters who have a lack of interesting qualities in addition to their lack of offensive qualities. The femme fatale is an interesting subversion to this trope: she is an active participant in the story in which she is residing.
The femme fatale does not wait for events to happen; she drives them. For better or for worse, she is a fulcrum along which forces operate rather than just an outside observer of events. While the practice of trading on feminine wiles to pursue the achievement of goals may not be politically correct, the femme fatale deems that it is better than sitting around and hoping that the protagonist will come along and make everything better. That is the allure of the character; she acts rather than waits.