Thursday, March 13, 2014

The rise of the Femme Fatale

“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Famous words from a loving homage to Film Noir vixen. Jessica Rabbit, the ‘femme fatale’ of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while a cartoon and a contemporary creation, is a prime example of how sex and sexuality was used in the film noir genre. She is a prime example of how women have been pegged as the femme fatale for centuries. It isn't simply the femme fatales who utilize sexuality to further their goals in film noir. It permeates every inch of these films from the sets to the music to the thoughts running through the characters minds.
Double Indemnity is a prime example of film noir dripping with sexual overtones. Stanwyck’s Phyllis understands her appeal and uses it to her advantage. “Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale isn't as much a testimony to her beauty as it is to her superb acting and the magical noir cinematography of John Seitz. She's no voluptuary, no garter-belt maw of erotic death, but an atmosphere.”  Phyllis’s appeal is not some much physical, even though Stanwyck is luminescent in the film, her appeal is more visceral. She uses sex like a weapon and her pleasure is more political then sensual. Recalling the scene when Neff kills her husband, the audience sees a look on Phyllis’s face unlike any she has anywhere else in the film. It is a look of sheer pleasure. For the Phyllis character, the death of her husband and the pinnacle of her manipulation of is the climax of her planning. “Within the modernist sets of the classic film noir sex is primarily an act of self-destruction.” 
            “Marilyn Monroe and ‘Niagara’ – a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” In 1953, and in today, Marilyn Monroe was the sexiest film star of them all. While the movie Niagara may not fall into the classic pantheon of accepted film noir standards it contains all the ear marks of the genre. In a role entirely different from anything she played prior, or after for that matter, Monroe transforms herself into the quintessential femme fatale. The character of Rose manipulates her husband, the unsuspecting Cutler couple, and everyone else around her. Like every good film noir, the bad guy gets it in the end. Monroe meets her fate at the bottom of a stairway, seductively placed of course. The film was not a critical success garnering a less than stellar from the New York Times. “Perhaps Miss Monroe is not the perfect actress at this point. But neither the director nor the gentlemen who handled the cameras appeared to be concerned with this. They have caught every possible curve both in the intimacy of the boudoir and in equally revealing tight dresses. And they have illustrated pretty concretely that she can be seductive—even when she walks.” 
            Modern Noir uses sexuality in a more overt manner. With the dissolving of the Hayes code, the film world has become free to paint a stronger picture with sexuality. Films like Chinatown and Sin City parade their sexual content out in front. It is no longer kept hidden or suggested such as in films like A Touch of Evil or Gun Crazy. Vera in Gun Crazy is a meant to be a femme fatale, whether the actress pulls off this title is debatable, but her seduction of Al is subtle. For Vera, as with Phyllis and Rose, the seduction occurs with a look or a subtle touch. This is in direct conflict to Nancy in Sin City. Hers is an overt sexuality.
            L.A. Confidential blends the delicate seduction of the Golden Age of Hollywood films with the post Hayes code films. The character of Lynn is our femme fatale, but she doesn't truly fit that mold. She is used by Pierce Patchett to manipulate police officers, high political officials, and studio heads. But with Bud the seduction is wholly for her enjoyment. She is drawn to Bud much the same way Annie and Bart are drawn together.
            While the love affair, sexual relationship, in Gun Crazy ultimately leads to the deaths of both Annie and Bart it is still different kind of relationship then say in The Big Sleep. Vivian and Philip have a slow and methodical relationship that takes almost the entire course of the film to develop. Annie and Bart are all but inseparable by the first twenty minutes of the film. This kind of relationship burns fast which is reflective of the end scene. Gun Crazy gives us a moralistic view of love and sex. The couple is not married and gives into their passions for each other and guns, giving them some kind of Bonnie Clyde feel. In Hayes Code Hollywood, this kind of relationship can only end badly, which in the case of Annie and Bart it does, with their deaths.
            Music also plays an integral role in the seduction of not only the protagonist but also the audience. For example, L.A. Confidential utilizes its soundtrack to set the mood and to suggest irony. The film starts off with Johnny Mercer singing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Postive” just underneath the voice over of Danny Devito talking about the darker aspects of life in the City of Angels. Two of Mickey Cohen’s men are brutally murder by gunshots through the windshield of their car and the audience instantly hears Betty Hutton singing “Hit the Road to Dreamland.” Much of the music is utilized in this fashion. The underscoring of instrumental music beneath almost all the scenes containing Lynn succeeds in adding to her seductive Veronica Lake qualities.
            Love and sex are two sides of the same coin in the film noir genre. If the characters fall in love and try to refrain from succumbing to the physical side of the romance everything will result in a happy ending. For the characters of Annie and Bart and Vera and Al it is the opposite. In Detour, the filmmaker gives us the impression that Al never gives into the seduction that Vera attempts. However, one must assume based on the scenes in the car, the scenes in the hotel room, and Al’s inability to shake Vera that they have moved passed the suggestive stage of their relationship and have become physical.
            What does all this mean for the modern film interpretation of woman? One recent and prime example that comes to mind is The Avengers. In this film we are given two strong females, Agent Hill and Natasha Romanov a.k.a the Black Widow. However, if the viewer looks at the movies poster we see the male members of the Avengers, i.e. Iron Man and Captain America, in stances of power and strength, where the Black Widow has her back to the viewer showing of her posterior. Yes, the actress portraying the character is lovely but that is not the main tool of the Black Widow. So then we must ask why do the men in the film populate the poster in heroic poses and yet we accept the woman in a glorified sexual position?

            Sex and love, even in Hayes code Hollywood, played an integral role in Film Noir, as well as many modern genres. It was used to further the plot and to add a subtle, tangible essence to the films.  However, it seems it is always the woman who must bear the brunt of the misuse of sexuality. She is the creation that leads the seemingly good guy into a dark path. The Neo-noir films have also picked up on this aspect and have attempted to continue the trend. The old age rings true, sex sells and it will continue to be used as long as audiences are crying for it. 

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