During the 1940s, a new film genre started to emerge. The film noir genre flourished into life during the post war era in America, starting what was described as “the golden age” of the genre, until it disappeared from prominence during the early 60s. Film noirs were bleak representations of the world and very rarely sported a happy ending, the perfect genre for a world struggling to rebuild itself after the devastation of World War Two. But with the new film genre came one of the most iconic of characters.
The femme fatale was more than an on-screen male fantasy; it was a representation of how men were threatened by women. During the war when the majority of male adults were off fighting on the front line, women were forced to stop being the stay at home housewife and go out to work. In some cases many of the weapons used during the war were made by women in the weapons factories. Once the war had concluded though, men suddenly found their masculinity under threat from women, now bored with the domestic life and wanting a career for themselves. The femme fatale is almost a fight against domestic life. Nearly all of the characters have no children, and whenever they are referred to it is always as a handicap to a woman’s independence.
The idea of gender role reversal in film noir is still considered rather radical to this day, and many feminist critics have often delighted in examining the male and female relationships in these movies. Take for example Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street, where Joan Bennett plays Kitty Marsh, a young beautiful woman attempting to trick an older man (Edward G. Robinson) out of his money by seducing him and pretending to fall in love with him. Edward G. Robinson’s character is presented as a very lonely and desperate man, and from the very moment he meets Kitty Marsh she is in complete control of their relationship. It is a classic example of how male protagonists are affected by the presence of the femme fatale. Most of their actions are done for love, but come the film’s conclusion we usually find that love had nothing to do with it.
The male protagonist often becomes obsessed with the femme fatale, and the femme fatale usually exploits this by any means necessary. They often deploy men as their hitmen, henchmen, decoys, and sometimes even pray. They are always politically very ambitious characters, but in the end they are usually punished for the indiscretions. They are of course a male fantasy, an unpredictable character who could kiss you one minute then kill you the next. The mysteriousness and rather opaque nature of the characters made them very intriguing to men.
Some feminist critics have said that the femme fatale is not just a male fantasy but a female fantasy also. Femme fatales are often breaking out of the system and throwing away shackles of repression. Back in the late 1940s marriage was an institution that should never be broken, so it was often deemed a deep delve into a fantasy world when femme fatales criticised monogamy and marriage. Rita Heyworth’s performance in Gilda is a classic example of that.
Considering that femme fatales are often considered a critique on marriage, how can a femme fatale exist in today’s world where marriage is no longer considered an institution? The character Alice (played by Ruth Wilson) in the British TV drama Luther is a good example of how the screen icon has changed. Instead of the male protagonist being obsessed with the femme fatale, in the case of Luther the role is reversed. Perhaps in this case the real fear is that the femme fatale will know too much about the male character, as appose to the more traditional vice versa. The character no doubt will undergo more philosophical and thematic changes, but either way the femme fatale will still remain one of the most complex and iconic characters in cinema history.
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