Indiewire recently released a top 10 list of the most dangerous leading ladies in film noir, and it inspired me to make a list of my own. The only movie on its list I haven’t seen is “Detour,” so I feel comfortable writing that while I agree with most of the choices, there are several I would remove and several others I would add. My criteria are that the film is legitimately a film noir (a tricky exercise) and the femme fatale is really a femme fatale. For example, there can’t be any trace of a heart of gold underneath as with Rita Hayworth’s iconic character in “Gilda.” They have to be unrepentantly dangerous, especially if the poor saps they are working on don’t know until it’s too late.
The elite eight
For the sake of an alliterative headline, I wanted to keep the list to five (“Top five femme fatales” – yes, I’m so clever and original). But then I kept remembering more movies, so I bumped it up to eight ... with three to grow on.
1. Brigid O’Shaugnessy, “The Maltese Falcon”
Mary Astor is treacherous from the word “go” in this polished thriller based on Dashiell Hammett’s classic potboiler detective novel. But Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade gives as good as he gets from her. I love how committed Brigid is to playing the innocent even as Spade keeps catching her in her lies. I also find it interesting that Spade asked his secretary and “Girl Friday” Effie (played by Lee Patrick) to give her opinion about dear Brigid based on her female intuition, and her opinion was totally off base. I don’t remember whether that was in the book, but I thought it was an uncalled for knock against a woman’s judgment of her own sex by screenwriter (and first-time director) John Huston. Or maybe Huston was just trying to say that Brigid was so good at cultivating her image of innocence that she was able to fool someone with no interest in taking her to bed. Quite an achievement.
2. Kathie, “Out of the Past”
I wasn’t familiar with Jane Greer’s work before I saw this movie, but she made a memorable impression. Her character, Kathie, is one you never really feel sorry for, even though she was in a rough situation with her gambler boyfriend Whit, played with callous slickness by Kirk Douglas. Obviously he wasn’t the nicest of men, but she wasn’t the nicest of girls either. Funny how often that happens in these movies. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff, a private eye Whit hires to find Kathie after she runs out on him. Jeff was one of those guys who was wise to the chick but still couldn’t help himself until it was too late. He managed to see her for what she was, but not until she got the drop on him. He never did anything underhanded, yet neither of them get away free and clear. It’s similar to “Double Indemnity” in that way, except Jeff was more like a bystander – like Burt Lancaster in “The Killers” where he’s just in love and trying to figure out a way to be with the woman he loves. This movie was directed by Jacques Tourneau, and Taylor Hackford remade it in 1984 as “Against All Odds.” See the original. Listen to the remake’s theme song by Phil Collins.
3. Elsa Bannister, “The Lady from Shanghai”
In one of her most memorable roles, Rita Hayworth stars as the ruthless title character, a.k.a., Elsa Bannister. At the time, audiences (especially Columbia studio head Harry Cohn) were outraged that director Orson Welles, who was married to Hayworth at the time and co-starred as her mark, had Hayworth's famous red hair cut short and colored blonde. But today it's hard to fault the look. She's as beautiful as ever, and, more importantly, it fits the character she was playing. Elsa was thoroughly rotten, but she seemed to be genuinely in trouble. She is the only one on my list who had a genuinely bad marriage – at least one that the audience was allowed to see was horrible. The other women on this list who were trying to get rid of their husbands or boyfriends didn’t seem to be in dire straits (well, maybe Kathie in “Out of the Past” a little bit); they were just selfish and greedy and all that. Elsa clearly didn’t want to be married to the vicious lawyer Arthur Bannister, played winningly by Everett Sloane, and her position is understandable because he was so manipulative and creepy. Elsa was clever and may have been able to pull off her schemes, but she was sloppy in her maneuverings and in who she trusted. What’s also interesting about this story is that she was exactly like her husband – just in a more attractive package. It was like they were one in the same inside, but she was young and beautiful, and he was a shriveled up old man. As screenwriter, Welles summed it up nicely in Arthur Bannister’s famous last words in the movie to his wife: “Of course, killing you is killing myself. It’s the same thing. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of both of us.”
4. Phyllis Dietrichson, “Double Indemnity”
Barbara Stanwyck fashioned a villainess for the ages in “Double Indemnity” – completely and wonderfully corrupted. Phyllis Dietrichson ranks highly as a femme fatale due to her strength of will getting her lustful insurance agent to agree to kill her wealthy husband, and she is remorseless to the end. The agent, played by Fred MacMurray, is another one of those guys who is wise to the femme fatale’s possible treachery but can’t seem to stop himself from following her lead. An important aside here is that Stanwyck’s wig in this movie was so awful it was distracting. I never understood why a genius director like Billy Wilder wanted to put such an unbecoming wig on her. It was tough for me to take her seriously with that hair, but Stanwyck is such a great actress, she made it work.
5. Matty Walker, “Body Heat”
Speaking of “Double Indemnity,” as Matty Walker in “Body Heat,” Kathleen Turner turned up the sex appeal to 11 in essentially the same story. Matty worked her co-conspirator, a doomed lawyer played by William Hurt, literally and figuratively from the time she spotted him spotting her on the street. She was similar to Phyllis in “Double Indemnity” in that she used her sex appeal to reel her lover in and really tried to make it seem like it was his own notion to kill her husband, enabling her to extricate herself from the whole thing as far as tangible culpability. But unlike the insurance agent in “Double Indemnity,” Hurt’s character never seemed to be fully wise to what was happening to him. He had moments of suspicion, but nothing concrete. Matty was ruthless and good at what she did – deception. She put it on Hurt’s character so badly he couldn’t see what was coming. And I’m happy to report director Lawrence Kasdan had better sense than to put a bad wig on Turner.
6. Kitty Collins, “The Killers”
With a name like “Kitty Collins,” you’d better be good at something. And this femme fatale was definitely good at being very bad to a relatively harmless guy they call “The Swede,” who happened have the bad luck of falling in love with her. Kitty is played to seductive perfection by Ava Gardner. This movie, directed by Robert Siodmak, was spun out of an Ernest Hemingway short story, and Hemingway said it was his favorite of all the films based on his work. His opinion probably had a lot to do with Gardner, whose character Hemingway adored even though she wasn’t in the original story. How deadly is the gorgeous Kitty? She double-crosses her mark, played by Burt Lancaster, twice.
7. Bridget Gregory, “The Last Seduction”
In her breakout role, Linda Fiorentino plays another one of those femme fatales who enjoyed being ruthless, relished being evil and really wasn’t even nice about it. She didn’t try to be nice about anything. Whereas these other women lured with sugar, Fiorentino’s character Bridget lured with spice. She used her sex appeal, but she was also a bitch. She knew she didn’t have to be sweet to get what she wanted from her mark – a co-worker with a severe crush played by Peter Berg. Bridget could behave any way she wanted, and he would still lap it up. So she was pretty fierce in that she could just be herself – mean and hateful – and still get what she wanted – using her feminine wiles as well as her brains. She and Matty from “Body Heat” were the only ones who got away with their dark deeds. That might have something to do with when the films were made, too, because in the days of “Double Indemnity” and “The Lady from Shanghai,” women weren’t allowed to get away with such crimes. They had to pay for their sins. The setup in “The Last Seduction,” directed by John Dahl, was a little different from the standard plot of these movies because Bridget wasn’t planning to use her lover for anything other than sex initially. He only became a convenient mark for her as developments unfolded with her estranged hubby, played by Bill Pullman.
8. Mrs. Helen Grayle, “Murder, My Sweet”
You could argue that private eye Philip Marlowe, played by Dick Powell in his post-musical phase, was never fully taken in by the nasty piece of work that is Mrs. Helen Grayle, played with smirking knowingness by Claire Trevor. But in this highly entertaining thriller directed by Edward Dmytryk, Mrs. Grayle is a smooth operator, and I like how she relished being a bad girl. She seemed to enjoy it almost to the point of taking pride in it, which made her somewhat endearing. It is refreshing to see her being proud of what she’d accomplished. Women in that day and age had limited options anyway, so why not celebrate what you're good at and your willingness to stop at nothing to get what you want. She was comfortable in her underhandedness and had fun with it.
These women are dangerous, but the movies they appear in don't fit squarely into the film noir genre.
Nicole Horner, “Diabolique”
[SPOILER ALERT] An unusual choice, but Simone Signoret’s character in “Diabolique” definitely qualifies as a femme fatale. In most cases, there’s a man in cahoots with a woman trying to get rid of her husband. Nicole Horner is unusual because instead of trying to get rid of an unwanted husband, her plot was with her lover to get rid of his wife. They switched it up so that’s what makes this one more interesting and different and a great big spoiler if you’ve never seen the movie. Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Florence Carala, “Elevator to the Gallows”
This movie could qualify as a film noir, but it is more definitively a product of the French New Wave movement. Jeanne Moreau’s character Mrs. Carala must have been bad because she plotted with her lover to kill her husband. The only problem is we don’t learn much about her in the movie because all she does is wander around the streets of Paris looking for her murderous lover when circumstances prevent him from meeting her after he does the deadly deed. Director: Louis Malle
Charlotte Inwood, “Stage Fright”
Marlene Dietrich is terrific in this early Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Even though I wouldn’t call it a film noir, the film does have film noir elements to it, and the character, Charlotte Inwood, was certainly quite the femme fatale. The qualifications are essentially the same as all the others: She seduced and manipulated some poor schlub who was happily willing to murder her husband. Director: Alfred Hitchcock