Femme fatales have become a vital part of noir films in the past century. They are one of the most characterized figures in film history. If there is a femme fatale in a film, the role they play is obvious. Noir films appear mysterious and sexual because of the femme fatale’s look and actions. They usually commit or are part of the crime that occurs in the film. The association between female sexuality and criminality in Bound and Psycho make the femme fatales appear dangerous and malevolent to the audience.
The characteristics of femme fatales in classic and neo-noir films are explicit which makes them easily identifiable. Not only do they have similar physical characteristics and appearances, but they also generally have the same intentions. In noir films, femme fatales are usually in relationships with men. In these relationships, they tend to be financially dependent and cannot remove themselves from the relationship unless they commit a crime. The definition of a femme fatale according to Virginia Allen is that she is seen as a “woman who lures men into danger, destruction, and even death by means of her overwhelmingly seductive charms.” (Hales, 227) In both Psycho and Bound, the femme fatales must steal a large amount of money in order to get out of the relationships they have with the men in these films. These relationships do not necessarily have to be romantic relationships. In Psycho, Marion steals $40,000 from her boss after he gives her the money to deposit in his bank account. In order to get away with the crime, she uses her looks and personality with her boss’ client to leave her job early. In Bound, Violet uses her sexual appeal to get rid of any suspicions her boyfriend might have of her stealing the money. Many scenes of the film present Violet, Caesar and piles of money in the same shot. In every scene, Violet’s sexuality is undeniable from the camera focusing on her legs and chest to the way she walks and speaks. Although both Marion and Violet appear beautiful and sexual, they also appear “treacherous, criminally depraved and castrating in their desires.” (Boozer, 21) If the characters in these films do not have all of the typical characteristics of a femme fatale, such as being financially dependent on a man, being overly sexual, seductive and dangerous, she is not considered a femme fatale. “The inflexibility of the category of the femme fatale” makes it difficult for these characters to develop over time. (Grossman, 20) This category also includes their strong ties to criminality in every film.
The femme fatale’s seductiveness makes it easier for her to become a criminal because suspicions about her do not arise. Their partners have trust in them so their intentions are never revealed until the end of the film. The femme fatale is a criminal because she “uses her sexuality to destroy the men around her.” (Hales, 228) Since femme fatales are usually financially dependent, they commit a crime in order to become independent, not only financially but independent from the relationship. In Psycho, Marion was not satisfied with her job but she could not quit because she would not have any financial support. In Bound, Violet and her lover, Corky, decide to steal $2 million because Violet wants to leave her boyfriend who is involved in the mafia. It is clear in the film that she was never with Caesar because she was genuinely interested in him but only because of his money and power. It is revealed that she is actually interested in Corky and in Caesar’s money. Both Marion and Violet have a “longing for financial independence…[which] makes [them] so threatening to traditional phallocentric authority” (Boozer, 21) When they are escaping with the money or attempting to escape, standard noir film techniques are used to imply criminality and danger. While Marion is getting away with the money from her boss, the music that is playing in the background suggests she is ill-intentioned with her actions. Marion is suspicious to many characters in Psycho, such as the police officer who sees her sleeping in her car, the car dealer who is preoccupied with the fact that she wants to trade in her car immediately and Norman who is curious when she does not use her real name to sign into the motel. Although all these characters suspect her, she uses her charm and sexuality to rid them of those suspicions. In Bound, while Violet is stealing the money with Corky, the scenes are darker than usual and there is a hint of mystery. In both scenes, the audience is not sure whether or not they will get away with the money. They tend to bring out the criminality in other characters in the films as well. Corky becomes involved in her crime once Violet seduces her as well. Their actions together cause a lot of violence to occur in Bound. It results in a large number of deaths in the mafia crowd that Caesar was associated with as well as Caesar’s death. Right before Violet kills Caesar, he claims that he know that she will not shoot him. This is an example of how her actions throughout the entire film result in Caesar trusting her and not believing that she would actually murder him. This is proof of how “high femme characters not only carry the mark of sexuality but also stand changed with deceit and potential violence.” (Straayer, 152) All of these characteristics combined make the femme fatale a sexual criminal. Again, their primary intention for committing these crimes is because they want to become independent.
The sexuality of femme fatales is purely used for personal gain. They use their appeal to manipulate characters in order to get what they want. Femme fatales show “reluctance to perform her familial/reproductive duties.” (Hales, 107) They do not find it necessary to create a family but rather gain their independence and determine their future after doing so. This can be interpreted in two ways. To feminists and supporters of the femme fatale, it is empowering and gives femme fatales agency. Other audiences perceive her as the complete opposite of the “good” woman who “passively accept[s] impregnation, motherhood, domesticity, [and] the control and domination of her sexuality by men.” (Hales, 227) This characterization of the “good” woman originated from the time period before World War I where women would stay at home and take care of their home and children. Once women realized they could get jobs, there was a shift in the regularity of women staying at home. This is one of the main reasons femme fatales want to liberate themselves from their relationships with men. At the end of Bound, it is clear that Violet is running away with Corky to start a new life but not necessarily a family. Throughout the entire film, they do not talk about long-time commitments. This also leads to the difference between classic noir femme fatales and neo-noir femme fatales. The classic femme fatale’s “lust was overwhelmingly for money rather than sexual pleasure” (Straayer, 152) as opposed to the neo-noir femme fatale who “wants sexual pleasure as well as economic power” (Straayer, 153) Although both Marion and Violet’s sexual identities are explicit in the films, only Violet expresses her desire for sexual pleasure several times. The neo-noir femme fatale is more of a progressive model for the social construction of women. Marion steals the money to run away with her divorced boyfriend whereas Violet steals the money for her own personal reasons and decides to include Corky in the crime.
The femme fatales in noir films are against many of the social constructs of women. To society, they are “viewed as a figure of cultural disaffection and revolt, the disruptive noir temptress can also be seen to look toward the future and more liberated views of women’s self-assertion in marriage and work.” (Boozer, 22) They wear colors that are not typical for women to wear because red and black imply sexuality and darkness. They feel empowered because they are breaking the rules that most women follow. They do not assimilate into marriage and having children. Usually, they tend to have “destabilizing effects on film narratives” because they do not follow the traditional role of a woman. (Boozer, 20) The representation of femme fatales as rule-breakers has changed the social construction of women. The way they are portrayed in these films demonstrate that women have another option than what they are socially constructed to believe they have to do. The “ideological myths about women are as much a part of the real world as any other construct” because it influences the people that watch the films. (Kaplan, 3) This shift in ideologies for women was seen as threatening to everyone who was accustomed to the normative role of women in society. Although they are portrayed as criminals and dangerous characters, in reality they hold a lot of agency.
Julie Grossman (2007): “Film Noir’s “Femme Fatales” Hard-Boiled Women: Moving
Beyond Gender Fantasies”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 24:1, 19-30
Boozer, Jack (2000): “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition”, Journal of Film and Video, University of Illinois Press, 51:3/4, 20-35
Kaplan, Ann (1998): “Women in Film Noir: Introduction to New Edition, London: British Film Institute,” 2nd Edition, 1-14
Hales, Barbara (2007): “Projecting Trauma: The Femme Fatale in Weimar and Hollywood Film Noir”, Women in German Yearbook, University of Nebraska Press, Vol. 23, 224-243
Hales, Barbara (1996): “Woman as Sexual Criminal: Weimar Constructions of the Criminal Femme Fatale”, Women in German Yearbook, University of Nebraska Press, Vol. 12, 101-121
Straayer, Chris (1998): “Femme Fatale or Lesbian Femme: Bound in Sexual Difference.” Women in Film Noir. 2nd ed. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 153-61