If cute couples make you want to hurl or if the mere mention of Valentine’s Day makes you cringe, then here’s the perfect viewing list for Cupid’s silly holiday. Here are 10 of the deadliest femme fatales from classic film noir (that’s American films from 1941 to 1959) to cast a glorious dark shadow over this romantic holiday.
These women can wrap men around their little finger and make them do their bidding, even if the guys knew they were being had. These dames operate in a male world and use their sexuality to get what they want. And sometimes they even fall hard for the men they are manipulating. These women have sometimes been described as victims or stereotyped as seductresses. But the femme fatale can also be read as someone who refused to submit to any conventional notions of womanhood. Her behavior is a direct assault on traditional notions of love, femininity, and the nuclear family. The idea of being a devoted wife or loving mother, the only roles society had deemed proper for women in the ’40s and ’50s, were unsatisfying to her and confining. These femme fatales prefer death to succumbing to society’s rules or expectations, or to surrendering to the control of a man.
This list highlights films noir where love – real, imagined, feigned, or just fueled by sexual desire – plays a key role. These femme fatales serve up a deliciously dark contrast to all those feminine role models who played by society’s rules in pursuit of some mundane happily ever after ending. These are films where decent men, despite better judgment, fall for femme fatales and pay a deadly price (yes there are spoilers ahead, you have been warned). Like a perverse twist on Romeo and Juliet, these noir-crossed lovers often take each other’s lives.
Make this Valentine’s Day a celebration of hard-boiled romance and enjoy the lethal allure of these fiercely independent, riveting, and dangerous femme fatales. They will redefine what you mean by “to die for” and they are the perfect antidotes to the saccharine sweetness of Valentine’s Day.
Top 10 Femme Fatales:
1. Out of the Past (1947)
Femme fatale: Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat may be noir’s femme fatale high priestess. She brings down multiple men without batting a single long, lovely eyelash. The story is told in part through flashbacks that revolve around Kathie shooting her lover Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and stealing $40,000 of his illicitly earned money. Whit hires Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) to find her and bring her back, with or without the money. When Jeff first spies Kathie he understands why Whit doesn’t care about the money. Kathie is a knockout.
At one point Kathie tries to explain away her past and Jeff (in a manner only Mitchum can muster) gives the classic response of a man surrendering to his fate, “Baby, I don’t care.” The film is based on a book called Build My Gallows High, and when Mitchum delivers that line in the film he makes clear that he knows what he’s in for with Kathie and will take what comes with a clear-sighted understanding of where it must all end.
Kathie: “Jeff, I’ve missed you. I’ve wondered about you, prayed you’d understand. Can you understand?”
Jeff: “You prayed, Kathie?”
Kathie: “Can’t you even feel sorry for me?”
Jeff: “I’m not going to try.”
Jeff: “Look, just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room.”
Kathie: “I never told you I was anything but what I am. You just wanted to imagine I was. That’s why I left you. Now we’re back to stay.”
2. Double Indemnity (1944)
Femme fatale: Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson
Barbara Stanwyck, her face framed by waves of blonde hair and severe bangs, moves through Double Indemnity like a woman who knows the power of her sexuality. When she first appears as Phyllis with just a towel between her and Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, we know immediately that she has him and us hooked. Phyllis convinces insurance agent Walter that they can kill off her husband and make off with the insurance money. Walter tries to resist but quickly realizes there is no denying Phyllis.
The film sizzles with sexual tension that is lusciously played out in dialogue that drips with double entendre. This film is also told through flashback and is framed by Walter recording his confession. Like Jeff in Out of the Past, he realizes there is a price to pay when you fall for a femme fatale but sometimes you simply can’t help yourself.
Walter: [after Phyllis has just shot him]“You can do better than that, can’t you, baby? You’d better try it again. Maybe if I came a little closer? How’s this? Think you can do it now? [She lowers her gun] Why didn’t you shoot again, baby? Don’t tell me it’s because you’ve been in love with me all this time.”
Phyllis: “No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me.”
Walter: “Sorry, baby, I’m not buying.”
Phyllis: “I’m not asking you to buy. Just hold me close.”
Walter: “Good-bye baby.” [He shoots her]
3. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Femme fatale: Lana Turner as Cora Smith
The femme fatale’s first appearance in a film is usually a stunner. She has to knock us out in order to prove how fatally attractive she is. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, a lipstick rolls toward John Garfield’s Frank Chambers and then the camera slowly pans up to where the object came from and reveals a pair of gorgeous gams. Cut back to Frank who immediately senses that those legs are wildly out of place in the quaint diner where he’s sitting. He picks up the lipstick, looks up, and then we get to see all of Cora in her white shorts, midriff revealing top, and turban. He asks if she dropped the lipstick. She says yes and then turns away from Frank to open her compact and look at her face. Then she holds out her hand waiting for Frank to return her lipstick. But Frank leans on the counter in a move that demands that Cora look away from her mirror to acknowledge his presence. It’s a scene that immediately establishes the sexual tension between the two and the attempts of each to assert dominance. When she gets her lipstick (which is like a weapon in her arsenal), she applies it and leaves, knowing full well that she has just hooked her next victim.
James M. Cain wrote both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, and both deliver a similar storyline about a dissatisfied wife who encourages a handsome man to aid her in disposing of her husband. Turner, with her blond hair and white costumes, is made to look deceptively pure and innocent. But she’s deadly. She gets Frank to kill her husband and then is ready to turn on him when the police suspect them of the crime. But as Frank says, “We’re chained to each other, Cora.” And so they are. Doomed to love each other in their own way and to die together.
Cora: “Listen to me, Frank. I’m not what you think I am. I want to keep this place and work hard and be something, that’s all. But you can’t do it without love – at least a woman can’t. I’ve made a big mistake in my life and I’ve got to be this way just once to fix it.”
Frank: “But they’d hang you for a thing like that.”
Cora: “Oh, but not if we do it right and you’re smart, Frank. You’ll think of a way. Plenty of men have.”
Frank: “He never did anything to me.”
Cora: “But darling, can’t you see how happy you and I would be together here, without him?”
Frank: “Do you love me, Cora?”
Cora: “That’s why you’ve got to help me. It’s because I do love you.”
Frank: “Yes you do. You couldn’t get me to say yes to a thing like this if you didn’t.”
4. The Killers (1946)
Femme fatale: Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins
Once again the first reveal of the femme fatale is key. The story is told through multiple flashbacks. It begins with a pair of hit men coming to kill the Swede (Burt Lancaster), a man who seems resigned to his fate and makes no effort to escape from the killers. It’s more than a half hour into the film before we see Ava Gardner’s Kitty Collins. The Swede, a boxer forced out of the ring by an injury, enters a party and Kitty, dressed in black, is in the background with her back to the audience. He approaches and is introduced to her. She finally turns around so we can see her stunning face but she quickly turns back to the piano she is sitting at. Her deliberate unwillingness to pay the Swede much attention ensures that he will need to get her attention later.
Kitty totally plays the Swede and double-crosses him with ease, setting him up to be killed. She leaves a few more men dead in her path and at the end tries to get one of her victims to clear her name from his deathbed. She’s ruthless but irresistible and the Swede accepted his fate once he succumbed to her charms and was broken by her betrayal. Love doesn’t just hurt, it kills.
Swede: “Why did you ever go back to him, Kitty?”
Kitty: “Maybe because I hate him. I’m poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me. I’d be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I’d do them.”
5. Gun Crazy (1950)
Femme fatale: Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr
Peggy Cummins’ Annie Laurie Starr is a sharpshooter in a carnival and we get introduced to her by a barker who proclaims: “The famous, the dangerous, the beautiful… so appealing, so dangerous…” He calls her “dangerous” twice in his introduction so you have been duly warned of her potential for destruction. We hear her guns blazing first; that’s also what appears in the frame first, her guns held high above her head. Then we see her smiling face as she surveys the audience and focuses on Bart Tare (John Dall). Then she points her gun right at him and fires… but it’s a blank. She smiles wider and you can see her already reeling him in.
From the moment we see her we know that settling down to become a wife and mother is not in her cards. She and Bart end up on a crime spree that ultimately ends up with them cornered by police up in the mountains. She wants to go down guns blazing but Bart shoots her to prevent her from killing anyone else and then he is killed by the police. That in a nutshell epitomizes the femme fatale romance in all its wild, dark glory.
Bart: “Let’s not argue. I’ll hock my guns. It’ll give us enough dough to make another start.”
Laurie: “There isn’t enough money in those guns for the kind of start I want. Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who will do anything, a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”
Bart: “Look, I don’t want to look in that mirror and see nothing but a stick up man staring back at me.”
Laurie: “You better kiss me goodbye, Bart, because I won’t be here when you get back. Come on, Bart, let’s finish it the way we started it, on the level.”
Laurie: “Next time you wake up, Bart, look over at me lying there beside you. I’m yours and I’m real.”
Bart: “Yes, but you’re the only thing that is, Laurie. The rest is a nightmare.”
6. Too Late for Tears
Femme fatale: Lizabeth Scott as Jane Palmer
Lizabeth Scott may not have the same star status as Rita Hayworth or Lana Turner but she was one formidable femme fatale. In more than one movie she brought men down with the cool assurance of a panther stalking its prey. Jane Palmer in Too Late for Tears is her best and most unflappable femme fatale performance. Jane and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) have a bag of money thrown into their car on a dark night in the middle of nowhere. Alan immediately wants to turn the money over to the police but Jane wants to wait. She sneaks money out to buy some nice things for herself, like a fur coat, but Alan insists they have to go to the police. Enter Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), a thug who claims the money is his and he wants it back. Jane decides that this is the perfect opportunity to dump Alan for good and use Danny to help.
Jane’s single-minded determination to keep the money no matter what the cost soon scares even tough guy Danny who says she’s more of a killer than he is. Like the Swede in The Killers and Jeff in Out of the Past, Danny seems to know his fate and chooses not to fight it. Jane poisons him and briefly escapes the law in Mexico but ultimately joins Danny and Alan in death. This film has some of the best dialogue exchanges between the reluctant partners and lovers; it’s savage, darkly funny, and perfectly delivered.
Danny Fuller: “Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart.”
Jane Palmer: “Did you notice where the liquor was when you went through my kitchen?”
Danny Fuller: “Sure!”
Jane Palmer: “Go make us a drink.”
Danny Fuller: “Stalling, honey?”
Jane Palmer: “What do I call you besides Stupid?”
Danny Fuller: “Stupid’ll do if you don’t bruise easily. Otherwise you might try Danny.”
7. Niagara (1953)
Femme Fatale: Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis
This is one of those rare films noir in color and I suspect it was shot in color just for the pink dress that Marilyn Monroe slithers into to drive all the men mad. When Ray (Max Showalter) sees Rose in that dress, he turns to his adorable wife Polly (Jean Peters) and asks why she doesn’t wear a dress like that. Polly’s response: “Listen, for a dress like that you’ve got to start laying plans when you’re about 13.”
Like Niagara Falls, Monroe’s Rose Loomis is a force of nature that cannot be denied. The film is also noteworthy as Monroe’s only turn as a ruthless femme fatale. She is far too much woman for her poor shell-shocked husband George (Joseph Cotton) to handle and she makes plans to dump him for another man. But her plans get disrupted by the all-American couple Ray and Polly staying at the same hotel by Niagara Falls. Monroe is sex incarnate as Rose and George realizes that his only option is to kill her or else more people may die. After he strangles her he tells her lifeless corpse, “I loved you, Rose. You know that.” And surprisingly it is the truth. Knowing he can neither escape the law nor live without Rose, he takes a boat to the edge of Niagara Falls and plummets to his death. How much more romantic can you get for Valentine’s Day?
George Loomis: “You smell like a dime store. I know what that means.”
Rose Loomis: “Sure. I’m meeting somebody, just anybody handy, as long as he’s a man! How ’bout the ticket seller himself? I could grab him on the way out, or one of the kids with the phonograph. Anybody suits me. Take your pick.”
8. Angel Face (1953)
Femme fatale: Jean Simmons as Diane Tremayne
Jean Simmons looks ever so sweet as the young Diane Tremayne. It takes her no time at all to distract Robert Mitchum’s Frank Jessup. In fact, one glance at Diane and he breaks a date with his girlfriend. Diane lures him with money and promises of better things than goody two shoes can offer. But Frank quickly discovers the dark heart beneath the angel face.
Diane wants to get rid of her stepmother who controls the purse strings in the family and Frank is reluctant to take part. As with the lovers in The Postman Always Rings Twice, arrest after the murders intensifies the rift between the couple but also forces them into marriage. A smart lawyer gets them off the hook but Frank doesn’t trust Diane and hopes to patch things up with his girlfriend (but she’s smart enough to have none of him). So even knowing that Diane rigged a fatal car crash for her stepmother and her father, Frank agrees to let her drive him to the bus station and it’s the last ride he’ll ever take. Diane decides that if she can’t have Frank, no one can so she drives them both over a cliff to their death. Love eternal.
Frank Jessup: [in reference to Diane’s stepmother]“If she’s trying to kill you, why did she turn on the gas in her own room first?”
Diane Tremayne: “To make it look as though somebody else were guilty.”
Frank Jessup: “Is that what you did?”
Diane Tremayne: “Frank, are you accusing me?”
Frank Jessup: “I’m not accusing anybody. But if I were a cop, and not a very bright cop at that, I’d say that your story was as phony as a three-dollar bill.”
Diane Tremayne: “How can you say that to me?”
Frank Jessup: “Oh, you mean after all we’ve been to each other? Diane, look. I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind that pretty little face of yours – I don’t want to. But I learned one thing very early. Never be the innocent bystander – that’s the guy that always gets hurt. If you want to play with matches, that’s your business. But not in gas-filled rooms – that’s not only dangerous, it’s stupid.”
9. Criss Cross
Femme fatale: Yvonne DeCarlo as Anna Dundee
Poor Burt Lancaster, once again he gets double-crossed by a gorgeous dark-haired femme fatale. At least with Robert Mitchum he always seemed aware of what he was getting into and went into lethal relationships with his eyes wide open. But Lancaster seems to believe both Ava Gardner’s Kitty and Yvonne DeCarlo’s Anna when they proclaim their love for him.
Criss Cross reunites Lancaster with The Killers’ director Robert Siodmak. This time out Lancaster plays Steve Thompson whose ex-wife Anna (DeCarlo) suggests they get back together but then she decides to run off and marry a mobster. What follows is an armored truck robbery and multiple double or should I say criss crosses. Steve believes that Anna truly loves him and is stunned to discover that she thinks nothing of him only of herself and her survival. The final scene leaves everyone dead and Anna’s body draped over Steve’s. Ah, sweet noir love.
Steve Thompson: “I take my hat off to you.”
Anna Dundee: “Yeah… yeah, I’m a prize.”
Steve Thompson: “Tramp.”
Anna Dundee: “Tell me all about it.”
Steve Thompson: “Tramp! Cheap little no good tramp!”
Anna Dundee: “Stick around. You make it all so nice and sad.”
10. Murder My Sweet (1944)
Femme fatale: Claire Trevor as Helen Grayle/Velma Valento
This is a Phillip Marlowe film with Dick Powell as the private dick. Claire Trevor is the femme fatale but it’s not Marlowe that she brings down but a lot of other men around her. Marlowe takes a good beating for her and definitely sees what her appeal is but he’s smart enough to know dynamite when he sees it. Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his beloved Velma who has disappeared. Marlowe eventually realizes that the high society dame Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) that is part of another case he’s working on is actually Moose’s Velma.
When the film comes to an end Helen/Velma is responsible for a handful of deaths and an attempt on Marlowe’s life. She is shot by her husband and even after her demise she is the cause for more deaths as Moose and Grayle engage in a shoot out over her. The truly lovesick Moose is a sweetly tragic figure that would do anything for his sweet Valentine Velma.
Helen: “You shouldn’t kiss a girl when you’re wearing that gun… leaves a bruise.”
Ann Grayle: “Sometimes I hate men. All men. Old men, young men, beautiful young men who use rosewater and almost heels who are private detectives.”
Helen Grayle: “Oh, I’m sorry, darling, I couldn’t help laughing; but you should know by now that men play rough. They soften you up, throw you off guard, and then belt you one. That was a dirty trick, but maybe it’ll teach you not to overplay a good hand. Now she doesn’t like you. She hates men.”
Ann Grayle: “That was only the first half of the speech. The rest of it goes like this: I hate their women, too – especially the ‘big league blondes.’ Beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got… all bubble bath, and dewy morning, and moonlight. And inside, blue steel, cold, cold like that only not that clean.”
Bonus pick: Here’s a contemporary noir that says it all in the title, To Die For, with Nicole Kidman as the femme fatale taking down men with her ditzy feminine charms before meeting her own unpleasant fate.