The femme fatale captivates audiences almost as much as she captivates her leading man. Thankfully, we make it out alive. Her leading man, however, isn’t always as lucky. These devastating women were at their height when the poular style known as “film noir” entered into American cinema in the early ’40s. Characterized by its minimalistic lighting, deadly serious mood and nonlinear story line, film noir was very different from what mainstream Hollywood generally produced at that time. These low budget, crime dramas gave women an opportunity to get down and dirty with their leading men, literally and figuratively in some cases. Archetypal female roles were cast aside in favor of more mysterious, sultry leading ladies. Homemakers, ingenuines and socialites were put on the backburner in order to make way for the femme fatale. The more evil, the better.
1. Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy – The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Directed by John Huston, co-starring Humphrey Bogart.
Brigid appears helpless and confused, but she’s actually just exceptionally deceptive. After murdering a man, she struggles to cover her tracks and seeks help in the form of detective Sam Spade. This film is often cited as the “first official film noir” and it set the dark tone that many would strive to replicate.
2. Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat – Out of the Past (1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur, co-starring Robert Mitchum.
After stealing a large sum of money, Kathie fleas to Mexico and goes into hiding. Seemingly innocent, she gets by on her looks and charm until private eye Jeff Markham comes into her life. He is sent to capture her and deliver her unharmed, but that’s not exaclty how it ends up going down…
3. Rita Hayworth as Gilda Mundson Farrell – Gilda (1946)
Directed by Charles Vidor, co-starring Glenn Ford.
Gilda is the ultimate temperamental seductress. She is under the impression that she has evaded her clouded past when she finds herself cought up in a love triangle with her new husband and Johnny, an old lover. She’s living the high life, but her spirits are anything but when her world comes crashing down around her.
4. Lana Turner as Cora Smith – The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Directed by Tay Garnett, co-starring John Garfield.
Cora has grown restless over the years and seeks an escape. She lives a loveless life until she takes up in an affair with a drifter named Frank. They decide to team up and knock off her unsuspecting husband so that they can go away together, but it’s not as easy as they thought it would be.
5. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson – Double Indemnity (1944)
Directed by Billy Wilder, co-starring Fred MacMurray.
Phyllis uses her powers of manipulation to enlist the help of insurance salesman Walter Neff in murdering her husband. Not only does she want her husband dead, but she wants a huge pay off. Together they concoct an elaborate plan, but Phyllis has her own agenda all the time…