& MODERN FATALE, AVA LORD (EVA GREEN), in Latest "SIN CITY", 2014
FEMME FATALES: REAL & FANTASY
& FILM NOIRS by Alan L. Chrisman
There’s a long tradition of “Femmes Fatales” in history and culture. In the Bible, there was the first, perhaps, Eve, and Delilah and Sampson. During WW1, Mata Hari was a supposed spy for the Germans. The dictionary defines femme fatale as “an alluring woman who causes men ‘distress’.
But it was really in the 1940’s, with hard-boiled detective books and films, that it came into its own in popular culture. Writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Cain saw their novels and characters turned into Hollywood films, which became known as Film Noir.
My parents had actually named me after Alan Ladd, a 40’s film noir star, who was in several of these. I was, as well, named after the lead character from the old radio show, “The Shadow”, so naturally I’ve always been fascinated by this genre and Femme Fatales. Probably the ultimate Femme Fatale of this era was played by Veronica Lake. She appeared alongside Alan Ladd in three films now considered classics, This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key (’42), and The Blue Dahlia in 1946. She was especially known for her blonde, hair over her eye, “peek-a-boo” hairstyle and sultry presence. Actually, she was originally chosen for her first role opposite Ladd because she was one of the few Hollywood actresses shorter than him, who played the tough, but sensitive guy on screen. She became a very popular pin-up girl for the soldiers of WW 2 and women copied her hair. She’s also was in one of my favorite films, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, where all-American actor, Joel McCrea, playing a big Hollywood director meets her down on her luck character in a diner and buys her breakfast. He later becomes, through a mistaken identity, trapped on a southern chain gang, and learns that what the poor prisoners like, rather than big social-statement films, are ones that make them laugh. Woody Allen was later to be reminded of this too in his “Stardust Memories” (1980), when the aliens advise him to “make funny films”.
There were many other femme fatales portrayed on the big screen in the 40’s and 50’s, often based on the books or screen plays by the three master authors above. Famously in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (’41), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) finally tells Mary Astor, ”I’m not taking the fall for you”. And of, course, Bogart is Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in
The Big Sleep with “the look”, Lauren Bacall. He had met the much younger Bacall in Hemmingway’s To Have and to Hold and they soon became ‘Bogart and Baby’ in real life. There was also Rita Hayworth singing up a sexy storm for Glenn Ford in Glida. In James Cain’s Double Indemnity, Barbra Stanwyck tries to get insurance man, Fred MacMurray, and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, try to get their lovers to get rid of their husbands.
Alfred Hitchcock always chose cool, blondes, like Ingrid Bergman (Notorious), Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief), Janet Leigh (Psycho), Tippi Hedron (Marnie, The Birds) and North By Northwest ( Eva Marie Saint) as his hero’s opposite. In Vertigo even veteran cop, Jimmy Stewart, is fooled by deceptive Kim Novak. Interestingly, these often tough, street-wise male characters were looked down upon at one time as just pulp fiction creations, but today they are considered classics. And they and even the sophisticated characters, such as Cary Grant played, equally couldn’t resist these ladies’ charms.
In the James Bond films, ladies-man Bond always had to watch his step around the latest Bond “girl”. The early ones were especially seductive Ursula Andress (Dr. No) and Goldfinger (’64) with Honor Blackman as “Pussy” Galore. In these politically-correct times it’s doubtful they could get away with that name today! The genre and its femme fatales would continue on in Hollywood: China Town with Jack Nicholson (’74) and in a remake of Postman Always Rings Twice in ’81. Kathleen Turner was in Body Heat the same year. Sean Young was in Blade Runner (’82) and of course, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (’92).
Woody Allen even got in some laughs about it in three of his early films with Diane Keaton: Play It Again, Sam where he envisions Bogart’s ghost for meeting women; in Love and Death (’75), Keaton tries to get Allen to assassinate Napoleon and in Sleeper, set in the future, he has to deal with a still-spoiled Keaton character. Even on TV, there was a funny take-off of the femme fatale character on the popular U.S. 60’s series, Dobie Gillis. Love-struck high school boy, Dobie, would chase after the blonde, but stuck-up Thalia (beautiful Tuesday Weld), and each episode she would lead him on, but drop him because he wasn’t rich like his handsome rival (originally Warren Beatty). Dobbie’s quirky beatnik side-kick, Maynard G. Krebs was played by Bob Denver who later starred on Gilligan’s Island. This was at the time, a light comedy , but looking at some DVD’s of the shows recently, I realized underneath, it was perhaps, saying some things about a certain kind of woman, that men might fall for.
Now some feminists might argue with this view of women as seductresses and dismiss it as just man’s fantasy, but as I say, it has been around in history (some say Cleopatra manipulated both Caesar and Mark Anthony) and in popular culture. On the other hand, some women have always been attracted to “bad boys” from rock stars to bikers. Remember Marlon Brando playing a motorcycle gang member, being asked what he’s rebelling against by a small town waitress in The Wild One (‘ 53) and Brando replies,” What’d Got?”. In the new film, Sin City, the femme fatale is played by the dark-eyed beauty, Eva Green (who was also a Bond girl in Casino Royale, 2006), so some things never seem to change. And maybe it’s a question of who really does hold the seductive powers and charm in the relationship between the sexes.
“FEMME FATALE” song(rocker) lyrics by Alan Chrisman
<Intro> c. 2012
Saw her across the aisle
out the corner of my eye
She knew she had me
even if, I didn't know why
She could have been a fashion queen
She put Audrey Hepburn to shame
in her cool blue jeans
I just had to know her name
But she's a Femme Fatale
She took my breath away
With her killer smile
even though, I know I'm gonna pay
<interlude - instrumental>
So I gave her a ride
in my car
She said fine
but I may take you too far
What's this power, they can have over us
even though, it seems to make our day
It's better sometimes, just to take the bus
and have a clean getaway