The femme fatale, defined simply, is an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into danger. In hard-boiled fiction, she is usually the protagonist’s romantic interest. There have not yet been any hommes fatales (though they abound in gothic and romance fiction). The protagonist’s involvement with her may range from mild flirtation to passionate sex, but in the denouement he must reject or leave her, for the revealed plot shows her to be one of the causes of the crime.
Like the hard-boiled hero, the femme fatale dates to classic myth. An example is Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into swine in Book X of The Odyssey and the Sirens, whose beauty and alluring song attracted his sailors in Book XII. Odysseus vanquishes the first with a magic root from Hermes and the second by sealing his men’s ears with wax. The necessity of extra-human help in resisting the femme fatale‘s sexual temptation is an ancient feature of the archetype; adherance to the “code” fills this role in the hard-boiled novel. Mary Ann Doane’s feminist study (above left) explains how “erotic barter” figures in this fiction as well as in film noir. 1
In the Middle Ages, Christianity refashioned this archetype as a devil, called the succubus(right: medieval wood-carving). The hard-boiled novel, as William Marling has shown, draws on this concept of a female sexual spirit who visits men in their sleep and has sexual intercourse with them. Succubae were thought to disguise themselves in women and to be identifiable by such features as small, pointed teeth, pointed ears, and sharp noses. 2 To contrast with the succubus, medieval Grail Romances developed several more noble types: the compassionate Queen, La belle dame sans Merci (to modernize, a “heartbreaker”), and the true love. An important attribute of the hero became his ability to distinguish between types of women and to respond accordingly, to discern “good women” from bad. The femme fatale has been roundly condemned as misogynist by feminist literary criticism, though in most (and especially contemporary) hard-boiled narrative the reader is more apt to find modern female characters with some archetypal traits, and female characters unrelated to the archetype at all, rather than the pure archetype. Hammett’s Dinah Brand (Red Harvest) and Janet Henry (The Glass Key) are early examples of femmes fatales who defy the misogynist label. More recently, scholarship on film noir has seen the role of femme fatale as empowering, pointing to Bette Davis and Kathleen Turner, among others.
One of the purest archetypal representations, however, also comes from Hammett. Gabrielle Dain in The Dain Curse is sexually attractive, belongs to a cult, uses drugs, and has small, pointed ears and teeth. The detective has to imprison her in a cottage to see her through delirium tremens and exorcise her lust. Raymond Chandler gave the same physical features to murderous, sex-obsessed Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep. Had he succumbed to her, Marlowe would have been shot at the novel’s end. Other classic femme fatale characters (not pure archetypes) are Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, Velma Valento/Helen Grayle in Farewell, My Lovely, Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Phyllis in Double Indemnity. These characters are more individuated and less archetypal in appearance and personality. Authors tend to deploy the femme fatale in signature fashion. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels are filled with buxom blonde killers. Ross Macdonald treats his female characters much more sympathetically and psychologically; few qualify as archetypal. James M. Cain lessened his use after Double Indemnity; his widowed heroine in Mildred Pierce (1941, not covered in this study) makes her way alone through the Depression. Use of the archetype has not been restricted to male writers. Honey West, the detective created by Gloria and Forest Fickling, embodied many archetypal conventions in her “blonde bombshell” appearance. The femme fatale appears in many contemporary works. Even those writers who avoid the archetype or “unmask” it, such as Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, sometimes use it negatively.
A good example of how the femme fatale is used creatively is Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. There Sam Spade is attracted to three women, a motif that echoes the ancient Greek Fates, who tell men the future. He is involved in an adulterous affair with his partner’s wife, Iva Archer. His secretary, Effie Perrine, is a tom-boyish, competent girl-next-door who would make the perfect spouse. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale, seems to promise sensuality and wealth, but Spade sees through her – and uses her when she thinks she is using him. The novel’s end leaves Spade alienated from Effie, who is, ironically, mad that he rejected the “romance” of Brigid, while Iva knocks at the door. It is a grim morality play about making your bed and lying in it.
The femme fatale in movies predates the advent of film noir. Theda Bara and Marlene Dietrich already played the role in the silent era. The type appears in the 1930s crime movies and then in film noir. Bette Davis was an early example and later used the conventions to portray strong characters (Beyond the Forest, The Letter). Barbara Stanwyck and Rita Hayworth (right), who had played strong-willed, working women in the 1930s, enhanced their fading careers in the 1940s by playing some of the most dramatic femmes fatales: Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Clash by Night and Witness to Murder; Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry, Possessed and Sudden Fear. Ida Lupino was one of the most convincingly human of the movie femmes fatale (The Asphalt Jungle), contrasting with the icy eroticism of Stanwyck (High Sierra; Beware, My Lovely; While the City Sleeps). Other notable performances include Lana Turner’s in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Joan Bennett’s in Scarlet Street and Rita Hayworth’s in Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai (above right).
1 Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales London: Routledge, 1991. 2 William Marling, “The Hammett Succubus,” Clues (Spring, 1982), 66-75.