With unbridled sexuality and smarts, the femme fatale often proves deadly in the classic movies of film noir. While their unconventional plays for power might have proved shocking to a post-war audience, these lethal ladies of film noir are the predecessors of the modern leading lady: a working woman who values her independence above all else. And sometimes, just sometimes, a gal can make her own luck.
Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity
“Straight down the line” is how you might describe Barbara Stanwyck’s performance as the scheming Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir masterpiece, Double Indemnity. When salesman Walter Neff sees an opportunity to make a buck, Phyllis sees her opportunity to finally get rid of her husband. Stanwyck had qualms about playing an “out-and-out killer”, as she was, at the time, the highest paid actress in America. But Stanwyck’s performance and the film itself went down in history as the paradigm of the femme fatale and film noir.
Related: Double Indemnity: The Real-Life Murder That Inspired a Crime Noir Classic
Jane Greer, Out of the Past
Jeff Markham knows what he’s getting into when he goes in search of Kathie Moffat, who’s escaped from shooting (but not killing) her professional criminal boyfriend. But he can’t help falling in love with Kathie, in spite of the fact that he knows he can’t trust her. In this complex, near-perfect example of the noir genre, both Jeff and Kathie are dirty, double-crossing rats ... making theirs the ultimate double-cross. Greer’s performance as the doe-eyed Kathie who turns on a dime into a cold-blooded killer is simply one of film noir’s finest.
Rita Hayworth, Gilda
Twenty-eight-year-old Rita Hayworth had already made a name for herself as the most popular pin-up girl of WWII thanks to her work as an actress and dancer in Hollywood. Then, she earned a new accolade with her performance in 1946’s Gilda: bombshell. Gilda is a girl who makes her own luck—until it turns out Johnny, the guy who left her high and dry, is her new husband’s right-hand-man. Hayworth’s freewheeling sexuality makes it near impossible to take your eyes off her, nearly eclipsing her sensitive and nuanced portrait of a modern woman.
Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place
Despite the fact that 1950’s In a Lonely Place is a moody, absorbing film noir starring none other than Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame as his femme fatale, the source material for the movie, the novel by the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes is a more interesting deconstruction of the classic double-cross. But Hughes herself was a fan of the adaptation, largely because of the performance of Grahame, who turns Laurel from a caricature into a believable, strong heroine.
Related: Film Fatale: 9 Noirs and Their Literary Inspiration
Ann Blyth, Mildred Pierce
It’s not always romantic relationships that prove lethal in film noir. Sometimes it’s our kith and kin that do us in. In 1945’s Mildred Pierce, the indomitable Joan Crawford stars in the title role as a woman trying to make the best of a tough situation for herself and her daughter. But her spoiled, conniving offspring Veda, played by Ann Blyth, has other ideas, and she’ll do anything to make it her way. Blyth was playing against type when she took on the role of the deeply evil Veda, and the performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Crawford infamously went on to win Best Actress for her work as Mildred Pierce.
Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon
The silhouette of a woman in the frosted glass of a private dick’s office was made famous as a film noir trope by 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. It was director John Huston’s directorial debut, and Mary Astor stars as the femme fatale, who gets detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, embroiled in a deadly affair involving a statue of a bird. Though her performance as the desperate Brigid O’Shaughnessy was critically acclaimed, Astor never went after starring roles, preferring to play the character parts she considered to be more interesting. She famously said, “"There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?"
Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice
In this tragic noir, the gorgeous Lana Turner stars as a depressed and neglected wife, Cora Smith, who embarks on an affair with another man and conspires to murder her husband. Obviously, things don’t go according to plan. Turner was one of the most popular stars of her day, and her personal life also had the echoes of the femme fatale. In 1958, her teenage daughter Cheryl Crane stabbed Turner’s abusive boyfriend Johnny Stompanato to death in her mother’s defense. A jury found the crime “justifiable homicide”.
Rita Hayworth, The Lady from Shanghai
Hayworth returns in another bombshell performance in 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai, directed by her then-husband, Orson Welles. This time, Hayworth sports a short blonde hairstyle (shocking, as she was known for her long red hair) as Elsa, the wife of a disabled attorney who tries to frame an innocent man for her husband’s murder. Like many of Welles’s films, production was a disaster and the movie was poorly received. But modern audiences have recognized its contributions to the genre. Welles and Hayworth divorced shortly after the movie premiered. At the end of the film, after all is revealed, Michael O’Hara, played by Welles himself, sums up the allure of the femme fatale: “Maybe I’d forget her. Maybe I’d die trying.”
Featured still from "Gilda" via Columbia Pictures Corporation