In most films, particularly those that follow the suspense or mystery narrative, one of the antagonists revealed is most often an attractive woman with enough allure to be the story’s catalyst or to change the expected direction being pursued. To the regular viewer, she is seen as the necessary temptation—akin to the Bible’s Magdalene—that would eventually demonstrate or build the male protagonist’s strength of character. In a sense, this particular female character mirrors several stereotypes alluded to women, except that she is given traits that oppose those of the female lead.
This is indeed the case in the presentation of film noir, which is generally a cinematic art style that brings together the particular elements of storytelling and cinematography to introduce the transformation of the protagonist, as well as his or her point of view and relationship with society. The abovementioned female character is far removed from the traits appropriated for the female lead, who is usually patterned against standards and societal conventions such as devotion and perfection; these qualities are often part and parcel of the image of the stereotypical wife in relation to the male protagonist.
Such a character is called the femme fatale—representative of the allure of power, mystery, seduction and manipulation—which is typically portrayed by extraordinary attractiveness and a predilection for danger. While there is a male counterpart to this function in the form of the l’homme fatal, the femme fatale generally sets women at a marginalised standpoint; they are often depicted on the surface to possess strength and intelligence, yet the ending normally positions them on grounds assumed unbecoming of women.
Compare this to the same traits as projected by the l’homme fatal, which only further reinforces hegemonic masculinity in its nature of dominance and power over women. Cinema, however, has opted to depict the femme fatale in various ways, particularly in the genre of film noir. But among the films studied—Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, and Otto Preminger’s Laura—the femme fatale still adheres to its classic purpose and definition, and rarely rises above the stereotype accorded to women.
II. “All Right, Mr. De Mille, I’m Ready For My Close-Up”: Power and Influence in Sunset Boulevard This 1950 classic starring Gloria Swanson centres on the frivolity and delusions of fading silent-film star Norma Desmond, who develops an attraction for a male journalist. As the story progresses, Norma’s abuse of her wealth and power ultimately controls the man, who is later found dead—revealing Norma as the murderer, lost as she is in her desire to possess everything she wants.
Norma Desmond functions as both the female lead and the femme fatale; she clearly represents the classic intents of seduction and manipulation, albeit done solely through her ownership of fame, power, and wealth. Beauty is questionable as an intrinsic trait; that she is shown aging halts the standard association of it with desire. What is most apparent is the journalist’s need for money, and is precisely what draws him to Norma. She offers luxury and social connection, yet expects love and companionship in return.
This situation is not new in the cinematic formula, but the use of a female to symbolise the negativity of power and control is what makes it somewhat intriguing. Clearly, Norma deviates from the stereotype of women in general, and may also be viewed to be apart from the typical femme fatale, for she is also shown in her weakness and humanity. What makes her different as well is the less-interesting character of her lover, the journalist; while he is merely a man in search of a job and would gladly take on anything that came his way, Norma is presented in stellar complexity.
This equation is not exactly standard in most films, but since the story centres on her character it is inevitable to have her with more meaning. Norma, in film noir tradition, is the representation of Hollywood itself—as well as the real-life experience of the actress Gloria Swanson. The story reveals the situation of the American film industry at the time, with the change from the silent-film era to the use of sound and voice. Conceptually, it is about the shift from tradition to modernity, including the roles and expectations assigned to men and women.
Norma and her opulent mansion is reminiscent of the olden days of Hollywood and the reverence accorded to its stars; however, the advent of technology not only rendered these personalities useless without shifting to sound but also paved the way for younger and more versatile actors. Thus the femme fatale in Norma Desmond uses power as it exists in her mind. There is hardly any portrayal of direct manipulation with the knowledge of reality, since she believed she still has the ability to control people and events.
The ending, with the journalist murdered, is not a product of an intricate scheme as normally seen in the actions of other femme fatales; it is born out of Norma’s refusal to accept the truth, as well as her constant need for validation and affirmation. Her character, though logically expected to, completely deviates from the traditional female, with her solitary existence—save for her ex-husband-turned-butler—yet is not shown to be imprisoned in any male-centred construct.
Her shackles are undoubtedly created by her own insecurities, and the presence of a man is simply one of the ways for her to regain her sense of self. More than anything, it is the concept of celebrity that motivates Norma, making her capable of doing anything and everything just to keep it alive. III. “Everybody is Somebody’s Fool”: Deception in The Lady From Shanghai Orson Welles’ classic 1947 murder-mystery in film noir tradition plays out in the classic femme fatale vehicle as well.
Seaman Michael O’Hara meets a beautiful blond woman, Elsa Bannister, and rescues her from danger; he is later convinced to work on Elsa’s husband’s yacht, and is approached by the husband’s business partner with a monetary offer in exchange for murdering Arthur Bannister. Several questionable incidents ensue, and Michael eventually starts an affair with Elsa. In the end, the business partner is murdered, and Michael discovers that Elsa is behind it.
The character of Elsa Bannister is standard in its acknowledgment of reality and situation; she is married to the much older and crippled Arthur Bannister, which then partially reveals the kind of life she has—devoid of romance and laced with the probability of impotence. Such is a commentary on the plight of many women of the time—and perhaps to this day—who are confined in the roles of caregiver and trophy wife in order to maintain appearances; the typical exchange may involve significant financial benefits, but the need for excitement and validation may result in exploring other sources or desiring independence or freedom.
In this case, the presence of Michael proves more attuned to the latter, though it began with romantic allusions; he is merely Elsa’s means to escape the life she has with her husband. As a femme fatale, Elsa initially defies most expectations, particularly in her genteel and unassuming demeanour, which makes her seem frail and weak. She also shows utmost obedience to her husband, and appears to have no involvement in any of the illicit deals that have been established throughout the film.
However, in several scenes she is shown to make use of her sexuality by wearing swimsuits—in those times usually reserved for the more aggressive female characters—and flirting with Michael. These actions are atypical of female protagonists and standard of femme fatales, which should give the audience some clues as to where the story may be heading. Aside from these notable segments, Elsa is portrayed throughout as clueless and flat, which is a technique to reveal her real character in the end.
Ultimately, as she is revealed to be the mind and hand of the murder, Elsa is given the appropriate turnaround as a smart and scheming woman, worthy of the femme fatale function. The murder-mystery deceives the audience as to the identity of the culprit, as well as the persona of Elsa as a femme fatale. Though she is shown to be the centre of men’s desire, her projected simplicity and weakness make her more akin to victim than villain; only in the end is the intent revealed, which coincides with the position of the femme fatale in film noir.
It also seems as if Elsa is content with her marital situation and only develops a relationship with Michael out of circumstance, which, in the grand scheme of murders and mysteries, would never be logical enough to place her as one of the suspects. Therefore the filmmaker’s success is in the complexity of plot and the assignment of traditionally masculine settings such as a yacht and a courtroom—neither would refer immediately to Elsa, and largely relegates her in the corner as inconsequential or simply to refer to Arthur Bannister’s property.
This then makes the ending, albeit gruesome and fatal, a triumph for Elsa the femme fatale; her husband is murdered, and she inflicted heartbreak upon Michael. That she herself ends up unfortunate can be credited to the logic of film narrative and the need for retribution. IV. “I Don’t Think I’ve Ever Had a Patient Who Fell In Love With a Corpse”: Obsession in Laura Another murder-mystery, Otto Preminger’s Laura was apparently received well by audiences during it s1944 release. Typically dark in film noir standard, Laura is yet another depiction of the male desire for a woman’s attention, obvious in the plot that
revolves around the beauty of Laura, an advertising professional. The story begins with the alleged death of Laura, which leads detective Mark McPherson to its investigation. In the process, he gets to know Laura through the people in her life such as her mentor Lydecker, her fiance Shelby Carpenter, and her housekeeper. Mark becomes infatuated with Laura during the course of his investigation, and appears obsessed in finding out how she was murdered. As Laura appears later, alive and in the flesh, Mark is able to piece things together and realises that Lydecker is the murderer.
In film noir parameters, Laura depicts much of reality in terms of career opportunity and advancement for women, specially in the advertising field which has traditionally been male in reputation. It also shows how women can be more than just pretty faces, as shown by Laura and her ability to showcase her talent and intelligence over her natural beauty. However, the truth behind the practice of mentoring and social connection is also revealed in the film, with Lydecker being key in Laura’s ascent into the top level of society and career.
Included as well is the fact that despite career success, women are still expected to marry, as in the case of Laura and her fiance Shelby. On top of these, the idea of men being always attracted to women for their beauty is not only crucial in the presentation of reality, but also a defining factor in the portrayal of the femme fatale. Laura, being of regular disposition despite her talent, determination, and beauty, is not typically of the femme fatale mould.
While she uses her friendship with Lydecker to get a foot in the door, she eventually relies on her own skills and talent to get ahead and achieve success. Not once in the film is she shown to appropriate the affections directed toward her by the men in her life, yet is projected as the cause of the untoward events that take place. In fact, she is somewhat vanilla, lacking in edge and honesty, almost plainly portrayed to be the victim in the story. Unlike Shanghai’s Elsa, who deliberately exudes innocence and frailty, Laura is consistent in her character as an average woman in intent and direction.
However, she fits the description of the femme fatale in her goal to escape the restrictive friendship she has with Lydecker and the deceptive possibilities of her marriage to Shelby; she does this not through the relatively insignificant attempts to be absent from her weekly meetings with Lydecker or her escape to the country after discovering Shelby’s apparent infidelity, but in her decision to begin a relationship with Mark the detective. Considering this is a man she only knew for a few days, succumbing to the call for affection and emotion is actually a form of subversion for someone as seemingly controllable as Laura.
By doing so, her character manages to defy the role of martyr and victim to which she is assigned; her preference to direct her attention to the one man among many who did not see her as a trophy or as an assurance of their masculinity gives her added dimension. It must be noted, however, that Mark’s intents may be similar to the rest; but the fact that he believed Laura was dead paints a different picture, showing how he may have been attracted to her not just for her beauty but more for her mystery.