The Emerging Power of the Femme Fatale

Caution: The content of this feature contains spoilers from the five film examples – Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Fatal Attraction, To Die For, and Gone Girl –  including their film endings.

When femme fatales were first introduced to film during The Golden Age of Hollywood, it shocked both critics and audiences with its raw and conniving portrayal of female characters. Most of this shock was attributed to the fact that it was outside of the female character-type, who was typically dependent upon the leading male of their given film, causing her to be reactionary towards his actions.

In contrast, the femme fatale was a unique role to which the actress could allow her character to deviate from a male-centric existence and exhibit independence in thought and action. This has been the assertion made by many as to why the femme fatale roles were captivating to audiences, yet there is a deeper, underlying layer to this character-type fascination.

First, the femme fatale’s actions and motivations are ones that break down the gender code, and the second is that the depiction of the femme fatale has evolved in film over time, to which the motivations, even the outcome of the character’s actions, have changed drastically. Therefore, the femme fatale maintains relevancy in today’s film industry as it did during the onset of the The Golden Age of Hollywood. However, as this feature will show, its continued audience fascination is due to a change in the tonality and outcome of the femme fatale’s actions.

Mary Astor Maltese ending

Ironically, it is the conceptual femme fatale who is the overall outlier of this canon: Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941). The narrative of the film is both initiated and led by Astor’s character, to which her character directly leads to the death of Archer, who is a private eye who works with the film’s protagonist Spade (Humphrey Bogart). Through the character of Brigid, the audience is led through a maze of complex deceptions, all of which she conveniently has Spade uncover for herself.

Brigid, for the majority of the film, is represented as a damsel, one who exhibits her femininity whenever she has the opportunity to. For Spade, he soon learns from others the methods Brigid commonly uses to protect herself, usually sexual manipulation, to which her male becomes devoted to her and protects her.

Brigid’s gender is used to her advantage, allowing her body to be used as currency to get whatever she wants. Yet with Spade, she isn’t successful in seducing him primarily because the film has framed Spade as being smarter and possessing moral superiority over her, suspecting her of ill-will long before the plot is initiated. Those who warn him of her only reinforce his suspicions of her, which emphasizes his character being more engrossed with the truth and less likely to be enticed with sexual temptation during that process for truth. Spade is the exception within this film, in contrast to the backstory he is told regarding Brigid, who is established as “the dark lady, the spider-woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction” (Maxfield 20).

Therefore through Mary Astor’s performance, the femme fatale was first introduced to audiences as the “…archetype of the subversive female. In the absence of social, political, or economic means of control, she strives to rule men through their emotions. Men typically will do things for women they desire sexually” (Maxfield 23).

What makes Mary Astor’s role an outlier in this overall canon falls in that her character neither seduces nor ever truly deceives Spade. Instead, she spends the majority of the film believing she is in control of the events as they unfold. This is where the first evolution of the femme fatale was able to take shape when the character-type was reintroduced to audiences in Double Indemnity (1944).

Barbara Stanwyck Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity is about a insurance salesman named Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who colludes with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband for his life insurance, choosing to kill him aboard a train so they can collect double the insurance. Barbara Stanwyck’s performance is one that adopts the framework established by Mary Astor, yet there are two deviations to this character-type that allows for her to become more villainous and dangerous for her male victims.

The first is her ability to actually seduce the male in this film. When she is coyly introduced in the film wearing nothing but a bath towel wrapped around her, immediately her image is one of objectification and sexual impulse. Through the film’s voiceover, Walter readily acknowledges that there is something untrustworthy with Phyllis upon their first meeting, yet he cannot help but be immersed in her seductive demeanor.

This makes Phyllis Deitrichson immediately more successful than Maltese Falcon’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in that she is able to break down the male “moral code” and seduce him for her gain. For Phyllis, she is able to convince, at least momentarily, that she and Walter are a team and have a potential future together. It is the allusion that she needs and wants Walter that allows for him to concoct and deliver on his murder scheme that he considers to be foolproof.

The advantage of most femme fatales, especially in the case of Phyllis, is that they are very much aware of gender preconceptions directed at them by males. The male within such films presume to have the “moral code,” like Spade has in Maltese Falcon, yet it is this assumption that is their own undoing. For Phyllis, she is underestimated by Walter. Her actual demeanor rejects the female expectation of her and in replacement audiences are met with a cold and calculating woman who will murder whoever she has to in order to get what she wants.

Yet, as Double Indemnity represents, the male still possesses a slight advantage over the femme fatale in that Phyllis is not capable of getting her hands dirty. The villainous actions within the film are initiated and encouraged by her, yet her actual involvement is indirect.

Double Indemnity sunglasses

Therefore there is still a male dependency with her character despite her seeking male independence. To a degree, this is a gender barrier that Phyllis fails to overcome, which is her own undoing. By still having a male dependency she is unable to pull the trigger when she strives to kill Walter herself at the film’s conclusion. She first shoots him in the shoulder when his back is turned, suggesting she cannot murder him while he is looking at her, thereby she still possesses an element of humanity within her.

When Walter turns back to face her and walks toward her while daring her to shoot again, she hesitates. Her hesitation is her undoing, ultimately submitting to the male character before he kills her himself. While Walter may not be as moral as Humphrey Bogart’s Spade in Maltese Falcon, there is still a moral code that is upheld in Double Indemnity in that he is aware she will continue her actions and that “shooting Phyllis is the logical consummation of their love affair” (Maxfield 35).

Walter having no choice but to kill Phyllis emphasizes how lethal the femme fatale character was and the necessity to stop her. This concept was further elaborated upon in the 1980s with the escalation of violence or threat of violence in such films. However, it should be noted first that the 1980s changed the scope of the female within film, to which the gender bias of the femme fatale’s profession and maternal expectations were now deflated in exchange for more career-oriented personas. For the femme fatale role, they were no longer linked with wanting to have financial freedom, but with breaking down the gender wall, thus changing the tone of the movies they occupy.

Therefore in order to substantiate this demeanor, such characters now had to be directly complicit in their dirty deeds. It is due to these characters being well-established “…into positions of authority in the world of work, she is more likely to be an intimidating character of sophistication, wealth, and power” ( Boozer 27). This allowed for the femme fatales to maintain a level of authenticity and realism in contemporary film. In Fatal Attraction (1987), Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest is a publishing house consultant. In To Die For (1994), Nicole Kidman’s Suzanne Stone is an aspiring news anchor. In Gone Girl (2014), Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne is a highly successful children’s book author. In contrast to Mary Astor and Barbara Stanwyck’s characters, these contemporary femme fatales are not motivated for financial gain, but rather motivated by diminishing the male-centric environment.

Glenn Close Fatal Attraction knife

To an extent, contemporary femme fatales allow for instances of male castration, to which the male characters are compelled to admit their shortcomings and be submissive to these characters. In Fatal Attraction, what is a weekend affair for Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) turns into her demanding he place attention and a supposed future with her. She ensnares him before their sexual escapade with the promise that she is “discreet,” to which she upholds that promise afterwards, but threatens Dan with the possibility she could reveal his affair to his wife at any moment. “I’m not going to be ignored!” she snaps at Dan at one point, making him realize that her expectations are founded on him being held captive to his shared secret with her.

It is after repeat instances of this reality that Dan finally takes away Alex’s advantage and confesses the truth to his wife. In this instance, Alex has forced Dan to recognize that he cannot hide behind the persona of being a family-man when he has actually committed adultery. It is only when Dan strips Alex away from this advantage that she escalates to violence in a last-ditch effort to make him submissive towards her, to which she fails.

In To Die For, Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) marries with the expectation of financial stability in order to pursue her aspiration of being a news anchor. As the film indicates, Suzanne is capable of moving up the professional ladder on her own clout and determination. It is when her husband (Matt Dillion) speaks lovingly of starting a family with her and having her reduce her efforts of professionalism that gender-roles become a prevalent issue within this film. In many regards, To Die For mirrors the underlying gender assumptions that are found in Double Indemnity. Walter Neff doesn’t suspect Phyllis’s scheming in former crimes, just like Suzanne Stone’s husband has no idea his wife is plotting his own murder to escape being barricaded in a gender role.

For Suzanne, she embodies aspects of masculinity in that she is motivated by her professionalism, utterly rejecting the notion of motherhood and thereby rejecting her femininity. This dedication to a prospective job is what allows for her to be a femme fatale in that Suzanne seduces a young teenager (Joaquin Phoenix) in order to enlist him as the murderer of her husband. Like Brigid O’Slaughnessy or Phyllis Dietrichson, Suzanne uses seduction as her currency, essentially hiring her husband’s murderer with sex and the potential for a future together.

This wielding of dominance from Suzanne in the company of male characters shows an obvious submissiveness towards her; a castration of masculinity in her presence. The fact that her husband shows no fight before he is murdered, and the teenager’s subsequent guilt after the murder is committed, represent instances of males without masculinity. It is Suzanne Stone who manages to wield power and she is undeterred in her actions, even when they do not go according to plan.

Nicole Kidman to die for picture scene

However, male castration is a central theme in the narrative of Gone Girl with Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy Dunne. Gone Girl is unique in its narrative in that it frames its main character Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) as the potential aggressor, which functions as a commentary of how society immediately suspects a husband of wrongdoing in a scenario that may involve domestic violence. Gone Girl’s narrative of having Amy missing juxtaposed with excerpts of her diary being revealed to the audience represent Amy as the beacon of innocence who has been trapped by her domineering, aggressive husband.

It is the revelation that Amy is not only alive, but the diary was a faked account of events, that portrays the newest evolution of the femme fatale. The femme fatale is now sophisticated, highly intelligent, conniving, and no longer needs to rely on her sexuality to achieve her goals. Sex is only utilized by Amy if there is a conscious guarantee for her to use it to her advantage. Sex is no longer a currency, it is an actual tool that can be used against a male victim, so much so that his own appendage could potentially be his undoing.

For Amy, she uses her gender to her advantage. Rather than exhibit characteristics of the masculine, she excels at manipulating those around her with her femininity. To an extent, “Womanliness could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to advert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it” (Doane 34). Ironically enough, Amy’s motivations are gender-related: She is enacting revenge for her husband’s affair and diminishing his chances of leaving her for another woman.

Rather than play the role of the deceived spouse, Amy decides to destroy her husband’s life instead by framing him for her murder. This is reasoning outside of financial dependency or seeking to attain a prospect of professionalism. Amy’s motivations in Gone Girl are a complete rejection of the male-dominated environment. Her goal is to castrate her husband, to which, she succeeds.

Gone Girl

This is where the final evolution of the femme fatale has currently paused at with contemporary film: The femme fatale now has the capacity to succeed. With the former femme fatales mentioned, each has their own form of a comeuppance: Brigid O’Shaughnessy is arrested for her crimes, Phyllis Dietrichson is shot and killed by Walter, and Alex Forrest is killed after trying to murder Dan and his wife. One of the first instances of femme fatale success can be attributed to Suzanne Stone in To Die For, but indirectly. She is exposed for her complicity in the murder of her husband, yet she achieves fame as a result of it.

She may not have succeeded in being a national news anchor, but all eyes and cameras are on her, which is precisely what she was aspiring for. Yet Suzanne still has her comeuppance when her husband’s father utilizes his mob connections to have her killed, thereby her success is short-lived. Also worth noting is the original ending to Fatal Attraction, which would have been groundbreaking if it had not been for the poor test response it had, prompting director Adrian Lynn to reconstruct the film’s ending to what it is now. The original film ending concluded with Alex Forrest committing suicide and staging her death as a murder, subsequently causing Dan to be arrested and imprisoned for her supposed murder.

While Fatal Attraction may have gone with the more conventional suspense ending, Gone Girl adopted that framework with its own ending. By the conclusion of Gone Girl, Amy has exonerated Nick from the crime she had planned to destroy him with, but now is holding him figuratively hostage in the home they share. She expects him to act complacent and behave like the husband she expects him to be, thereby completely stripping him of his masculinity and demanding he be submissive to her. For contemporary audiences, the ending of Gone Girl was difficult to accept. Many audiences expressed a desire to see Amy revealed for who she is, to which she isn’t. The uneasiness with many regarding Gone Girl was the begrudging acceptance that the femme fatale succeeded, therefore the future narratives with such character-types could follow Gone Girl’s example.

Rosamund Pile Gone Girl bathtub

Femme fatales are not a new concoction for film narratives, yet they are a character-type that continues to captivate audiences. The reason behind this is the character-type being able to adapt to the changing of time and with the progressiveness of film, having the capacity to now test its limits with contemporary audiences. Yet as indicated before, the fundamental evolution with contemporary femme fatale characters is their newly established success-rate in the context of male submissiveness to them, whether it is willing or coerced. As Gone Girl indicated, there is a newly established femme fatale type. Whether Hollywood will have the courage to go further with femme fatales is debatable, but what is certain currently is that its limits have been tested with both critics and audiences.

Sources Cited:

Boozer, Jack. “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition.” Journal of Film and Video 51.3 (1999): 20-35.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis.” New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Maxfield, James F. “The Fatal Woman: Sources of Male Anxiety in American Film Noire, 1941-1991. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 1996. Print.

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