Norma Desmond to Alice Reed: The Greatest Femme Fatales of Classic Film Noir (2023)

We’ve all heard of the “femme fatale” – the beautiful, manipulative, and sometimes downright evil women who are a staple of film noir. From Brigid O'Shaughnessy in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon to Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, these women are powerful. Although these portrayals can sometimes tilt towards misogynistic and cliché, they can also transcend genre limitations, presenting female characters who are not simply the pawns (or victims) of men, but are complex, ambitious individuals in their own right.

Noir’s classic era gave us many memorable femme fatales, but the ten below set the standard—delivering some of the most iconic performances from one of American film’s true golden ages.

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Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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“You’re good. You’re very good,” remarks cynical private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to the whimpering Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in John Huston’s classic 1941 film noir, The Maltese Falcon. Spade has seen through O’Shaughnessy, of course – he knows her tears are all performance, a melodramatic con. Not that you can blame O’Shaughnessy; the gambit usually works—and there’s a body count to prove it.

O’Shaughnessy is a villain then, but she’s also a survivor. Like everyone else in noir’s dark universe, she’s trying to navigate a dangerous, unjust world using the weapons she has at hand. In her case, that means flipping patriarchal society on its head. If some men think women are weak, naive, and in need of protection -- well, all the better to fool you with, my dear.

O’Shaughnessy is close to outsmarting everyone, in fact, until she runs into Spade, and through him into the one thing for which she has no defense: basic human decency. It’s the only double-cross she doesn't see coming, because no one has ever tried it on her before.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is the ostensible femme fatale of Sunset Boulevard, but, as is fitting for a film that dispenses with many of the conventions of film noir’s classic era, that’s not quite the case. In truth, it might make more sense to call Joe Gillis (William Holden), the man whom Desmond attempts to entrap, the film’s homme fatale. Of course, that would imply that Gillis is smarter than he is, and neither he nor Desmond are formidable enough to be truly evil. They’re desperate souls adrift, connivers born from desperation, and both victims of the movie’s one clear villain, fame itself.

Desmond, an aging silent film star eager to revive her Hollywood career, and Gillis, a hack screenwriter dying to start his, are thus peas in a pod, each content to use the other in order for a chance in the spotlight. Desmond gets the last closeup, and the last laugh (as we learn from the film’s famous opening scene) but in the end, everybody loses. That’s one convention no film noir can do without.

Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) in The Woman in the Window (1944)

In the spirit of true noir romance, the slaughter in The Woman in the Window begins with a wink and a smile. Entranced by a life-like painting of a beautiful woman in a storefront window, Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) is shocked when its subject, the lustrous Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), emerges from the shadows and strikes up a conversation. The two hit it off, head out for a few drinks, and then end up back at Alice’s place. For the meek Wanley, it’ll be a night to remember – and one he’ll wish he could forget.

Alice Reed isn’t exactly bad in The Woman in the Window -- she isn’t a willful schemer or a cold-blooded manipulator in the classic femme fatale mode. Instead, she embodies a more subtle male anxiety: that of the smooth-talking seductress, the siren who uses her beauty to lure the weak-willed away from a life of comfort and conformity, offering momentary physical pleasure at the price of ultimate moral ruination.

In The Woman in the Window, conformity trumps Eros (in the one of the most anticlimactic endings in the history of the genre) but the warning is nevertheless plain: in the world of noir, beauty kills.

Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in Laura (1944)

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Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is at first a pure apparition in 1944’s Laura, a presumed murder victim whose memory haunts the men who loved her, fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), aging libertine Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and even one who never met her at all—the gruff detective investigating her death, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews).

Laura is a being of platonic perfection in much of the film—physically absent, she’s a (literal) painting on the wall who nevertheless manages to engender physical, and later emotional, obsession. She’s less a person than a work of art, an object to fixate over, but not to really know.

Is it a celebrity crush in miniature? A subtle comment on the male gaze? Laura can be read many ways, but the film does make one thing clear. The femme fatale needn’t just rely on her charms in order to cast her spell. She doesn’t, in fact, have to be there at all.

Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past (1947)

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Out of the Past, like The Maltese Falcon, has one of those noir plots that you’d need a flow-chart to make sense of. Loyalties are ever-shifting, schemes are elaborate to the point of impenetrability, and conversations move at such break-neck speed that the patois almost becomes a different language: curt, clever, and nearly unintelligible.

Screenplays aside, these films make it clear that noir’s dark city is not a place for the dull-witted. You need to be tough to survive, sure, but you also need to know how to talk. Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer) knows how to talk. Like many femme fatales, it’s her deadliest weapon, and she uses it to vicious effect against her crime-boss boyfriend, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), the jaded private eye hired by Sterling to track her down.

Sterling and Markham are no slouches, but Moffat still manages to play them for suckers, switching allegiances as easily as she changes hats. Moffat’s beauty gets her attention, but it’s her words that get her what she wants. And when that doesn’t work? Well, there’s nothing more eloquent than a warm .45.

Vera (Ann Savage) in Detour (1945)

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Detour, probably the bleakest of all film noirs, is the story of Al Roberts (Tom Neal) a down-on-his-luck piano player who decides to hitchhike cross-country to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend. Along the way, fate deals poor Al a series of truly awful hands, not the least of which is running across Vera (Ann Savage), a brash and vindictive woman who makes Al’s cosmic misfortune even worse.

True to Detour’s nihilistic spirit, Vera is utterly irredeemable. She’s completely depraved, motivated entirely by greed, and doesn’t even bother with the pretense of loving, let alone liking, Al. Indeed, she’s less a human being than a manifestation of noir’s gloomy view of blind fate. She exists solely to torment Al, which she does to the bitter end and beyond.

Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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Film noir is full of unsuspecting characters pulled into dangerous worlds they don’t understand, and Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) might just be the genre’s ultimate patsy. He’s no fool. He knows that Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), the famed attorney who’s offered him a job aboard his personal yacht is as crooked as they come. His instincts tell him to walk away, but Sloan’s beautiful wife, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) wants him to stay, and well, you know the rest.

Hayworth stuns as the bottle-blonde Bannister, effortlessly fooling O’Hara and the audience into thinking that she’s merely an unhappy and completely harmless trophy wife. She seems someone resigned to their circumstances, patiently waiting for a man to rescue her.

And it’s true, she does need the right man to come along. But she doesn’t need rescuing, and she’s got something other than love on her mind.

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944)

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Double Indemnity is the greatest of all film noirs, and the reason for that rests largely on the shoulders of Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, who is, if not the greatest femme fatale in the genre, at least the most recognizable.

Stanwyck is ice-cold as the soon-to-be-widowed Dietrichson for her murder comes as easy as seduction, and is just as frivolous. When hapless insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) walks through her door, both he and Dietrichson eye the other as perfect marks. Each is a thing to be exploited by the other, a means to an unsavory end. But with the battle of wits begun, Neff soon finds himself hopelessly outmatched, drawn deeper into a nightmare world that ends up suiting him a little too well. Dietrichson, too, soon realizes she’s gone too far, creating a monster, or at least uncovering one, in the mild-mannered Neff.

Even worse, she’s truly fallen for him. It’s her only miscalculation in the film, but it’s a doozy.

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in Gun Crazy (1950)

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“We go together. I don’t know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together,” laments Bart Tare (John Dall) to his trigger-happy sweetheart, Annie (Peggy Cummins) in 1950’s Gun Crazy. Not exactly the most eloquent simile ever spoken, but then you can’t really blame poor Bart for thinking of anything else. His brief love affair with Annie consists almost entirely of those two things.

Gun Crazy is a film that lives up to its name. It is a Bonnie and Clyde riff about two teenage lovers who go on a bullet-spraying crime spree. Sharpshooter Annie is the instigator of that crime spree, and she’s got Bart wrapped around her finger. For Annie, if violence is the stick, sex is the carrot. She demands Bart either persist in their life of crime, or else he’ll – what? Eat lead? Get ratted out to the cops? No, something even worse. He’ll have to find a new girlfriend. Poor Bart has no choice, and Annie knows it.

There are misogynistic undertones here, that of the wicked woman leading the confused man astray. There’s also, though, something about the fatalism of teenage romance. Love, Gun Crazy reminds us, makes dupes of us all, so we’d better be careful who we fall for.

Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott) in Too Late for Tears (1949)

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Actress Lizabeth Scott’s husky voice and penetrating stare lend a truly frightening aura to her role as Jane Palmer, a manipulative housewife with a taste for the finer things, and a willingness to step on anyone’s neck to get them.

The plot of Too Late for Tears is dark serendipity. Doom masquerading as luck. On a lonely mountain road, Jane and her clueless husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) chance upon a bag of ill-gotten cash. Should they risk everything by keeping it? Alan wants to do the right thing and return the money, but Jane has other ideas. “The money will only make you miserable and unhappy,” he tells her. But the words are barely out of his mouth before she responds, “Let me be the judge of that.”

Eventually, of course, the owner of that money, a two-bit criminal named Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), comes looking for it, which spells trouble for him. Like every other man in the film, Danny misjudges Jane, assuming that he’s the cat, and she’s the mouse. It’s a mistake he won’t make twice.

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