Tuesday, February 15, 2011

modern medusas-setting up the femme fatale

It's that time of year again! That's right, the for the love of film (noir) blogathon hosted by the inimitable and irreplaceable Self-Styled Siren (aka Farran Smith Nehme) and Marilyn Ferdinand. They have teamed up for an encore, partnering with the film noir foundation to help restore a print of The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me. If you have a little money to spare ($5 or more) it's a fantastic opportunity to be a part of preserving film heritage for future generations. It's also sure to bring in some fantastic posts so be sure to check out the round-up at the above mentioned blogs.

So let's get to it!

Brief basics. Film noir is classically characterized as a genre based on a set of easily identifiable features: a low key style (lighting and camera angles) common themes (say, lack of regard for 'the law') and character types (the detective, the femme fatale, the token good girl).

The femme fatale is pretty easy to discern. She's the shady lady. The one who can match the leading man double entendre for double entendre and whose skirts remain teasingly above the knee.

I've chosen to focus on the construction of two of film noir's best known and best remembered femme fatales, Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945) as played by Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Tierney respectively.

What makes Phyllis and Ellen especially memorable are the murder scenes, two of the best known and referenced in film history. What I find so striking is how similar both are in their structure, as well as the ways both films build up to the impact of these moments.

What I'd like to attempt to sketch out in this post is the implications of this for a common style construction of the femme fatale. What it is about these scenes that make them (and these women) so horrifying.

The First Looks
The obvious focus in each murder is on the callous expressions of Tierney and Stanwyck as they sit by and watch someone die. It is this lack of activity that gives them a certain power and creates terror. The impact of the face is built up in each film by its previous de-emphasis.

Stanwyck's first introduction at a distance gives her a seductive, ethereal quality.

That focuses on and emphasizes her body in the famous pan up from her legs.

Tierney's intro into the film takes this one step further by concealing her face behind a book.

The focus of the camera is on their bodies and their seductiveness for the poor saps who will take up with them. It is not about them personally. It is a certain carefully constructed image.

The sudden focus on the face in the murder scenes is a shock because it is previously withheld. It suddenly thrusts into focus a personal ugliness at odds with what once was glimmering perfection.

While the editing of the two murder scenes is different (DI is short, this first murder in LHTH is long and drawn out, part of what makes it so completely terrifying) in each case sound is what gives the viewer a picture of what is happening.

It is only through sound that we know that Phyllis's husband has been murdered as the camera remains on her as she (barely) reacts to what is happening right next to her.

While Leave Her to Heaven relies more on inter cutting and we do see Danny drown, we hear his offscreen screams, then the ominous stillness as Tierney's face remains unchanged.

The greatest power of off screen sound is suggestion. By leaving the murder in Double Indemnity up to the imagination the viewer can make it as horrific as they please. By pairing the sound of suffering with these unfeeling females it makes them all the more terrible.

This only skids across the surface (what can be made of the use of sunglasses in both films, for example) but what it points to is the importance of the greater stylistic construction of the femme fatale aside from finding the perfect shade of lipstick.


  1. I like this analysis a lot--and of course it will help me learn how to become a femme fatale--or not, as the case may be!