Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Femme Fatales - Classic Noir Edition

There is nothing sexier to me that a femme fatale. Those dangerous women in film noir who use their blatant sexuality to bring down normal, if somewhat dimwitted men, their downfall by involving them in murder. During the 1940s and 50s, if you were a female actress, the only real way to display any sort of sexuality at all was to be a femme fatale, and try and drag some innocent schmuck down with you. There was almost always a “good girl” in these movies as well, but they were thoroughly uninteresting. These are the women you fell hard for despite your best judgment.

10. Ann Savage in Detour (1945)
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, shot in six days for just $20,000, features only a few bare sets and actors, is full of technical flaws and continuity errors, but remains one of the seminal film noirs, because rarely has there been a film so full of dread and doom as this one. Poor Al (Tom Neal) has no idea what he is in for when he starts hitchhiking across America to be with his girlfriend. He is picked up by a kindly driver, who winds up dead, but Al decides to take his car anyway. When he picks up another hitchhiker, Vera (Savage), he doesn’t know that she had previously ridden with the same man, and recognizes his car. Thus sets up a blackmail scheme by Vera. Savage is more raw and conniving than most of the women on this list. She doesn’t need to seduce Al, because she’s got him over a barrel from the get go. She is also the most unsympathetic woman on this list – but of course, since Al narrates the story, and paints himself as purely a put upon victim, that may not be true. Savage was a great actress though, and this was her best, most well know performance.

9. Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce (1945)
Blyth is something of a rarity in terms of femme fatales, because it is not only men she manipulates, but her own mother, the title character played by Joan Crawford. Blyth is Veda, a young girl who dreams of riches and high social standing, who is infuriated and humiliated by her mother’s profession – as a waitress. Mildred dotes of her daughter, trying her best to give her everything she wants, which she can do when she becomes a success in the restaurant business. Still it is not enough for Veda, so Mildred marries the formerly wealthy Monty, who now has no money, but has a high social standing, to benefit her daughter. That he is a playboy, who ruins Mildred, is of no concern to Veda, who continues her greedy ways, and even seduces Monty after the divorce – which of course leads to murder. Blyth’s cute exterior, that turns progressively more sexual as she ages in the film, is a cover for the evil, greedy, spoiled little bitch that she is. She deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal – a rarity for film noir.

8. Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
In Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, Hayworth plays Elsa, the wife of a rich defense attorney (Everett Sloane), who meets Welles’ seaman in Central Park and convinces him to join the crew of her husband’s boat, which is about to set sail. Welles and Hayworth begin a relationship on board the ship, and when her husband’s business partner Glenn Anders approaches Welles with a plan to fake his own death, in the guise of a murder to be committed by Welles himself, he agrees, planning on using the money to run away with Hayworth. Of course things go horribly wrong. Despite the fact that Welles miscast himself (he was not quite able to play the stupid guy in the movie), Hayworth was never sexier than she was in this movie – an accomplishment considering that her marriage to Welles was falling apart at the time, and the camera seems to lash out at her. Welles made Hayworth cut her signature long red hair for the role, and dyed it blonde for the role, yet Hayworth was still supremely sexy and wicked in the role. A great performance by an underrated actress.

7. Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy aka Deadly is the Female (1950)
Cummins seems to have taken director Joseph H. Lewis’ advice to heart when he told her that her character was “a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting”. That is exactly what Cummins does in this movie. She plays a sharpshooter at a carnival, who meets a fellow gun enthusiast played by John Dall. They both get fired, because the carnival boss lusts after her, and the two go on the run, and start to rob banks – all at her behest. Cummins did not have a particularly brilliant career, and Gun Crazy is undeniably her most famous role, and she made the most of it. She oozes sexuality in this film, as she seduces not only Dall but the audience as well. A brilliant performance by an actress who never really got the roles she probably deserved.

6. Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street (1945)
Edward G. Robinson makes the perfect foil for Joan Bennett’s Kitty, a femme fatale that the movie implies is a prostitute. Robinson sees Kitty arguing with a man on the street (the great Dan Duryea), and “rescues” her, not knowing that he is really her pimp. He falls in love with her, despite the fact that he is married, to a woman who constantly puts him down. Duryea convinces Kitty to string Robinson along, thinking that he is a famous painter, so they can extort money from him. Of course things do not work out as planned by anyone. One of the most painful scenes in all of film noir is when Robinson comes to ask Kitty to marry him, and she merciless mocks him, driving him to kill her with an ice pick. Bennett is everything a great femme fatale needs to be – icy cold, sexy and amoral. A perfect performance in this great Fritz Lang movie – which I much prefer to Lang’s previous The Woman in the Window, which has a better reputation, and the same cast.

5. Ava Gardner in The Killers
Ava Gardner was never as sexy or seductive as she was in this, her first major screen role. The film opens with the murder of the Swede (Burt Lancaster), and then flashes back to tell his story, where he was roped into a bank robbery by Gardner, who casts her merciless gaze on him and has him hooked right from the start. In the movies elaborate series of flashbacks, we see Gardner’s Kitty (a classic femme fatale name), as she manipulates all the men involved in a payroll robbery. Years later, Kitty has not really changed, as she is still pulling the strings from behind the scenes, and allowing the men in front of her to take the fall. Of course, a femme fatale was never allowed to get away with anything in those days. Gardner was sexy and seductive as a nightclub singer, and you can easily see why all the men immediately fall for her and trust her – even as it brings about their doom.

4. Gene Tierny in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is different for a film noir, as it was shot in color. Yet Tierny’s femme fatale is as black and heartless as they come. Tierny’s Ellen is devoted to her husband Richard – much, much too devoted. At first it takes the form of not wanting to hire servants, because she wants to do everything for him herself. That’s kind of sweet. But then Ellen gets jealous of Richard spending any time with anyone else, and of his writing. She takes his younger brother, stricken with polio, swimming, and when he gets a cramp, and cries out for help, she simply watches him drown. Later, she becomes pregnant, but seeing how excited Richard is at the prospect of having a baby, she throws herself down the stairs, killing their unborn child. She plans an even more elaborate revenge on both her husband and sister, who has fallen in love with Richard, and it almost works. Tierny’s performance is a brilliant portrayal of love turning into dangerous obsession – she is one of the most unforgettable screen women in history.

3. Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947)
Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is just a small town gas station owner living in California, when his past comes back to haunt him. He tells his story to his girlfriend, and then the movie flashes back to the time when Jeff was a P.I. hired by Whit (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend Kathie (Greer), who ran off with $40,000 of his money. Jeff tracks Kathie down, but like all femme fatale in the movies, she seduces Jeff the two fall in love with each other. One murder leads to another, as Kathie keeps killing people and setting Jeff up to take the fall. He gets away, and thinks the past is behind him, until Whit calls on him once again, and Jeff discovers that Kathie is back with him – but she hasn’t changed a bit. Greer is a classic femme fatale – her long dark hair, distinctive voice and seductive good looks makes her a woman you cannot help fall for. Jeff knows he is in trouble from the get go with her – especially the second time – but cannot help himself. This is perhaps the greatest film noir ever made, and Greer is a big reason for it.

2. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is not your typical noir femme fatale. For one thing, she is an aging Hollywood star, not the young type normally associated with the role. In fact, one could argue that she really is a failed femme fatale, as her attempts to seduce the object of her affection Joe (William Holden), a struggling Hollywood screenwriter all fail. Yet in many other ways, she fits the bill fine. Although she is not able to seduce Joe sexually, she uses her wealth to seduce him to stay with her and help her with her screenplay. She becomes possessive in the extreme, and threatens suicide every time that Joe threatens to walk out on her. She has a hold on him that is more than just money. One of the greatest of all screen performances (and the best one on this list), she only takes second place here because I’m not quite sure she should qualify at all. But I love the performance so much, that I couldn’t not have her here.

1. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1945)
For me, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson will always be the standard on which to judge every other femme fatale. Stanwyck was one the best actresses in Hollywood history, using her natural born sexuality to great advantage in her best roles (Baby Face and The Lady Eve come to mind). Here, she is a heartless seductress, who convinces insurance salesman Neff (Fred MacMurray) to kill her husband for her – preferably under strange circumstances so that his life insurance will pay double the normal amount. But an investigator (Edward G. Robinson) gets suspicious, and starts poking around. Phyllis is conniving in the extreme, and plays everyone right down until her final breath. A brilliant performance in one of the best film noirs in history.

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