Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-Up

Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-Up

Julie Grossman

Language: English

Pages: 189


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

The 'femme fatale' figure in film noir has long served as a central defining feature of these rich and compelling films of the post-war American period. In Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir, Julie Grossman shows the extent to which the women often labelled as 'femmes fatales' are in fact sympathetic modern women, whose stories of strength, wit and privation command fascination. This study undertakes to erode the category of the 'femme fatale' in favour of careful close readings of film noir and a larger consideration of the drawbacks of labelling women as angels and 'femmes fatales', a perverse cultural inheritance from the Victorian era. Moreover, the book offers a case for reorienting attention in studies of film noir away from the narrow construction of the 'femme fatale' phantom and toward a more open receptivity to the vibrant women, the compelling female narrative, and the imagery sympathetic to both that, Grossman argues, are all commonly on offer in film noir.

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(Cowie, 125), I want to shift emphases from assuming a shared understanding of “femmes fatales” to engaging critical insight into the logic of the narrative and character development of particular texts. At that point, we can broaden our understanding of how social roles and gender fantasies (of men and women) intersect with and within film noir. Film noir strongly indicates the problems that remain in our cultural imaginings of and about women. For all the feminist critique that has re-viewed

their lives. Possessed (1947), the film Joan Crawford made after Mildred Pierce, portrays a woman’s sanity as the cost of modernity. In Possessed, Louise’s ambition to have a meaningful life that is valued by others and over which she has some control has driven her to psychosis. The film makes clear that class and gender are not only the source of but, further, even define Louise’s illness. Louise Howell, played by Crawford, arrives at the “psychopathic department” of the hospital in what is

station scenes. Here, Ann is shown to be panicked by the gradual understanding that she is helpless to combat the evidence applied to her case by circumstances and rational explanations (as quoted above, “You won’t believe me! You think I’m lying! . . . You don’t believe me!”). Here, I think it’s important to note that the film undermines the hermeneutics of knowability that so often undergird the reading of women in noir. On the one hand, knowing Ann—analyzing her using rationalist evidentiary

and passive country girlfriend Ann in the sleepy town of Bridgeport, California. In an inevitable return of the repressed, his past relations with the “femme fatale” Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) and the corrupt Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) resurface; Jeff’s repressed past life as a cynical private investigator who fell in love with a deadly seductress proves, in the end, fatal. Although the woman is identified within the film and in critical discourse as the single source of desolation in the

(Sheen and Davison, 172), and Betty’s talent never bears fruit. While Nochimson’s observation is interesting, I think the “shock of authentic contact” between Adam and Betty (Nochimson, Film Quarterly, 41) is more a register of their bond and shared recognition of a yearning for connection and meaningful expression—the scene, in other words, is more about what’s possible, rather than what isn’t (Betty’s being discovered). There are two other central scenes in the film that reach beyond their

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