Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Top 10 Noir Femme Fatales

1) Kathie Moffett played by Jane Greer in “Out of the Past” (1947)
A classic performance and iconic femme fatale role. Robert Mitchum must choose between the good girl next door and the sexy, but cruelly manipulative, specter from his past. Jane Greer makes a great case for making the wrong choice without compromising her venomous meanness.

2) Bridget Gregory played by Linda Fiorentino “The Last Seduction” (1994)
Linda Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory is an ultra-aggressive woman who knows exactly what she wants. She handily dominates the entire movie, completely in control of all the men she encounters. Director Dahl wisely chooses to focus primarily on her and many critics championed her for a best actress Oscar though the film’s cable debut made her ineligible.

3) Elsa 'Rosalie' Banister played by Rita Hayworth in “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)
Handicapped by cropping the locks that made her famous in the earlier noir “Gilda” (1946), Hayworth redeems herself by turning in one of her best performances. Wealthy and oozing with sexuality, Mrs. Banister is the perfect lure to trap an Irish sailor (played by Orson Welles, with whom she had a notorious real-life relationship) in an elaborate web.

4) Matty Walker played by Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat” (1981)
Kathleen Turner became the classic femme fatale figure of the eighties with her debut across from William Hurt. Her famously deep, husky voice would later be used for Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), but her seductive role as Matty Walker is where it all began.

5) Ellen Berent played by Gene Tierney in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945)
Berent may be one of the most aberrant femme fatales in screen history, lethal not because she secretly doesn’t love her partner, but because she loves him obsessively. She coldly watches his beloved brother drown and even falls down a set of stairs to miscarriage her child, just so that she can have all of her husband’s attention for herself. Tierney is stellar as the ice cold, overly-attached psychotic.

6) Violet and Corky played by Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gerschon in “Bound” (1996)
The Wachowski brothers (of “The Matrix” fame) debuted with this unusual noir told from the perspective of a pair of lesbian femme fatales. Straddling the fence between feminist empowerment and shameless exploitation, the feminine Tilly and butch Gerschon clearly have a lot of fun (not to mention chemistry).

7) Mona Demarkov played by Lena Olin in “Romeo is Bleeding” (1994)
Lena Olin’s sexy Russian assassin is the best part of the otherwise ho-hum “Romeo is Bleeding,” and she steals every single scene she’s in from the rest of the dazed cast. Her outrageously over-the-top performance is complimented by ridiculous outfits: pinstripe dress suits over kinky lingerie. As she revels in her mercenary disdain for men as anything more than sex objects, it’s clear that Olin’s the only one in the movie who’s having fun and not taking it all seriously.

8) Phyllis Dietrichson played by Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” (1944)
I’ve never found Barbara Stanwyck to be very attractive, but her sultry performance, from gesture to dialogue, would certainly convince anyone that she meets the femininity and fatalism criteria. Greedy, two-faced and totally irresistible, Stanwyck makes this role an instant classic.

9) Laure Ash played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in “Femme Fatale” (2002)
Brian DePalma’s “Femme Fatale” is a passable guilty pleasure despite feeling like a product of its times the moment it came out. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos doesn’t win any points for originality (and very few for talent), but her trashy homage to the archetype is certainly accurate.

10) Kelly Van Ryan and Suzie Toller played by Denise Richards and Neve Campbell in “Wild Things” (1998)
“Wild Things” is one of the more successful of the late nineties genre exploitation blends, and it owes a lot to Denise Richard’s and Neve Campbell’s amusing performances. Richard’s play the WASPy Kelly Van Ryan (hilarious name) to Suzie Toller’s trailer-park beauty. The convoluted plot is actually intriguingly twisty, but it takes backstage to the erotic interplay between Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon and the two women, both of whom turn out to be magnificently untrustworthy.

For a great overview of classical era noir sirens, check out this article at DVDBeaver.


Molly said...

In all my film noir watching I noticed that real femme fatales seem harder to find than you'd think they should be. It's always almost disappointing to find out that seductive sexpots like Gilda and Jessica Rabbit or mysterious beauties like Laura aren't really malicious at all, in spite of all the stupid, violent and self destructive things men do for them.

I may take some (more) time off my dissertation to write up my own detailed top ten lists for you, since you're baiting me with film noir, but until then I'll just poke around at your lists.

My own addition to your femme fatale list would be Joan Bennet as Kitty March in Scarlet Street, though she would have to come hand in hand with her very own homme fatale, Dan Duryea as Johnny. I think that both characters provide excellent depictions of believable and attrictive sexual manipulation, which results in the violent demise of all three characters involved - Kitty, Johnny, and Edward G. Robinson's Chris Cross.

FilmWalrus said...

I completely agree with your first paragraph. It sort of takes the punch out (and the point) when femme fatales end up being entirely fantasy depictions with no agenda of their own. Gilda and Jessica Rabbit are both ones that I enjoy (perhaps irrationally or simply in a male gaze way), but neither qualified for the list in terms of fatality (or development or, really, acting). I think Laura works well because her innocence is revealed as a second twist.

Joan Bennet is a good pick and she could definitely use representation on the list. She's had several good film noir roles. I need to see Scarlet Street again (I do own two copies so that theoretically isn't a problem), but you are right about the triangular unity of three characters. Lang is, after all, a genius at that type of thing.

I'd love more input on the femme fatale section. As Katie mentioned to me, it is less interesting than the other lists because there is so much overlap in what makes them great (sex --> betrayal) and so little nuance, development or originality in many cases ("Leave it to Heaven" and "Bound" being the only cases offhand with really good twists on the topic). I also worry about being blinded by sex appeal (which is certainly a factor in how effective I find them) and you are probably capable of giving me much more objective analyses.

FilmWalrus said...

I don't know if I already mentioned this already, but I am super excited for the upcoming remake of "The Lady from Shanghai" by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. Hugh Jackman is filling in for the Orson Welles role and Nicole Kidman for Rita Hayworth. Also there is Rachel Weisz...

There is still a good chance the project could be canceled (or suck), but word is that it will depart significantly from the original and the Wong has tailored the part for Kidman and won't make the movie without her. I've got my fingers crossed into knots.

Molly said...

A remake of Lady of Shanghai, eh? hmmmm . . . Honestly, I don't really have that much more objective to say on the subject of femme fatales, since most of the really nefarious ones do really have a lot of the same characteristics. I have thought of one more unique femme fatale you should perhaps include:

Ann Savage in "Detour" (1945). Unlike the usual femme fatale, Vera isn't particularly interested in sexual manipulation. She's much less glamorous, and more overtly brutal than many of her counterparts, but she has the unfortunate hero wrapped around her little finger as she ruthlessly blackmails him for a crime he didn't commit and draws him into a horrible downward spiral of crime, murder and inescapable anonymity.