The Trouble with Being a Femme FataleThe Trouble with Being a Femme Fatale

The Perils of Watching 1940s Hollywood Film Noir with an Overactive Imagination


“I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman” (Charles Hassell in Detour)

I guess I’ve watched too many 1940s films. I’ve started thinking in shady black and white and plotting my revenge. There’s no colour in my nightmares.

Ann Savage and Tom Neal in Detour (1946)

It was an obscure, rain-sodden, monochrome dream. I’m watching the layered montage of women on a screen – 1940’s Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, backstreets at night glimpsed from behind blinded windows.

You know me. You will have seen me on your cinema screen. In shadow. With a hat. And a cigarette. My lips curl and my eyes hypnotise.

If you’re a man I will have bewitched and seduced you in a smoky mist as I walked down a stair case, or sang on a half-lit stage, or as one anklet-wearing leg emerged from a car. I am a fever-dream of a woman. I am a publicity still. I am a pose. I am a sneer. I am a muse.

“Do I rate a whistle?” (Vera in Detour)

Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

If you’re a woman, you won’t have talked to me. But you’ll have seen the way he looks at me and slapped his arm. You will think I’m cheap, but copy my lipstick.

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it” (Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon).

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)

There was a woman beyond the screen who never got to tell her story. Her troubles don’t matter. She is just there to cause chaos. It’s all the dame’s fault.

No back story, I just turn up to ruin your day, to take you away from the sweet girl, the one you were going to marry. I’m a different world. I’m a foreign threat. Exotic, dangerous.

The score is low strings in a minor key – a threat you feel in your chest.

My dialogue sizzles as I draw you in.

“See what I mean, Walter”

“Sure I got good eyesight.” (Walter and Phyllis in Double Indemnity)

As above

But here’s the thing, I’m lonely. Of course I’m lonely. There’s just me. No family, no friends, no big brother to keep you away. Just a broad on her own. I need protection. Or I’ll end up dead. Or worse – penniless.

And then you come to me. With your internal dialogue and flashbacks. Your ability to take control of the narrative.

But I want my say. If I’m going to be a corpse, I’d like the opportunity to speak first.

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman. And I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” (Walter Neff in Double Indemnity)

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950)

But you also killed me. Don’t forget.

You see, I’m only this highly-sexed siren, because I need to keep poverty at bay. There was supposed to sweetness and romance in my life, but then the men went off to war and I had nothing but my wits and my slim ankles for company. I waited for the men to return, not knowing that they would become caged animals, traumatised, paranoid, hiding in dark corners, big eyes in the headlights.

So, let’s start the voice-over from when you murder me, because you always do. But this time, let’s hear my voice. It won’t make timid excuses. It will roar with the indignities of lost opportunities.

Instead of you dictating the terms, let me say what it’s like to have unwanted hands on my body. To have to dye my hair. To hate my face without lipstick and lashes. To smoke instead of eat. To know my value falls with every passing birthday. That I only matter if I you can call me your dame.

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” (Dixon Steele, In a Lonely Place)

There’s nothing in your script about my insecurities. About how I have to see my face on a big screen and can count the flaws. About how I have to believe that you find me sexy because there is nothing else for me. Knowing that I wasn’t the first choice for the role, but I was available.

You slap my face, but nothing stings as much as knowing that every word I utter and every move I make was created by men. Everything I say and do is because a man wrote me.

Gloria Grahame in the Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

“I don’t want others to remember the details – just the image” (Gloria Grahame)

If you’ve enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you’d like to support my writing, you can do so by leaving a one-time tip. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *