The Greatest
Femmes Fatales

in Classic Film Noir


Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | Picture Guide | 1941 | 1944 | 1945 | 1946-1 | 1946-2 | 1947-1 | 1947-2
1948 | 1949 | 1950-1952 | 1953 | 1954-1956 | 1957-1959

Written by Tim Dirks

Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir
Movie Title Screen
Film Title and Director, Femme Fatale and Description

Double Indemnity (1944)
d. Billy Wilder

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)

Mostly told in flashback, Billy Wilder's (and Raymond Chandler's) adaptation of James M. Cain's 1943 crime novel included a persuasive, sinister brassy blonde - a beautiful, shrewd, predatory and dissatisfied femme fatale housewife named Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck).

The narrated flashback was delivered (mostly into a Dictaphone recording device) by the wounded, male protagonist, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in his downtown Los Angeles office late one night, after he had been shot by her (and had retaliated by killing her with two point-blank gunblasts). Would he survive before an ambulance arrived, or would his wish for death (either from blood loss or from the San Quentin gas chamber) come true?

In the early stages of the film, Phyllis first appeared draped in a towel during sunbathing when smart-talking agent Walter Neff came to her door. She enticed Neff with her blonde bangs and gold anklet. Her entrance was stunning. The cool blonde-wigged Phyllis - first in a towel as she emerged at the top of a stairs landing in her Glendale, California home, looked down and was wearing only a bath towel on account of being interrupted while sunbathing - she asked bewitchingly of Walter Neff standing below her: "Is there anything I can do?"; she noted that she wasn't "fully covered"; taking her in lustfully, he slyly joked about the Dietrichsons' insurance "coverage."

Enticing Femme Fatale Phyllis Dietrichson
Gold Anklet
Sunbathing in Nude

Soon after she dressed, the camera focused on her legs (from Neff's point-of-view as he observed her) where she wore an engraved, gold ankle strap on her left ankle, flashing it at him as she came down the stairs. He also watched her exhibitionism as she finished buttoning up her blouse and put on her lipstick.

In a classic sequence filled with sexual innuendo, they playfully and flirtatiously engaged in a double-entendre conversation about "speeding" and "traffic tickets" - a driving/fast car metaphor. She rebuffed him: "There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour" - she claimed he was going 90 mph. He was immediately entranced and attracted to her, but even early on, he understood her lethal, strangely-calculating look and smell:

It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?...But I kept thinking about Phyllis Dietrichson - and the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg.

During their subsequent business conversations, she described her older, boring husband's (Tom Powers) dangerous profession with the drilling crews in the Long Beach oil fields. And she complained about her loveless, emotionless marriage:

He has a lot on his mind. He doesn't seem to want to listen to anything except maybe a baseball game on the radio. Sometimes we sit here all evening and never say a word to each other....So I just sit and knit.

Obviously an experienced predator and knowing of Neff's undisguised lustful interest in her, she inquired about buying an accident insurance policy for her husband - without him knowing about it, "without bothering him at all...he needn't know anything about it." At first, Neff was suspicious of her motives ("Look, baby. You can't get away with it. You want to knock him off, don't ya?...Boy, what a dope you must think I am!") and thought he was clever to reject her: "So I let her have it, straight between the eyes. She didn't fool me for a minute, not this time. I knew I had ahold of a red hot poker, and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off."

But then like a moth to a flame/light, he was still allured to her: "I was all twisted up inside and I was still holding on to that red-hot poker. And right then it came over me that I hadn't walked out on anything at all, that the hope was too strong, that this wasn't the end between her and me. It was only the beginning."

She appeared at the door of Neff's darkly-lit apartment doorway, on the pretense of returning his hat from earlier that afternoon, although her real intent was to entice him into a dangerous affair. She peeled off her coat, and was revealed to be wearing a very tight, form-fitting white sweater designed to excite him. By the wet window pane, Phyllis reiterated more about the suffocating relationship she had in her marriage. She told how she was trapped like a caged animal in a loveless marriage to her domineering and mean husband Dietrichson (in his second marriage): "I feel as if he was watching me. Not that he cares, not anymore. But he keeps me on a leash so tight I can't breathe." But as she drifted away from Neff to leave, he grabbed her by the wrist and kissed her, feverishly telling her:

Walter: "I'm crazy about you, baby."
Phyllis: "I'm crazy about you, Walter."
Walter: "The perfume on your hair. What's the name of it?"
Phyllis: "I don't know. I bought it in Ensenada."
Walter: "You ought to have some of that pink wine to go with it. The kind that bubbles. All I got is bourbon."
Phyllis: "Bourbon is fine, Walter."

Back in the living room with their drinks, Phyllis again explained about being trapped in a loveless marriage to her domineering and mean husband Dietrichson. She was unable to convince the hateful Mr. Dietrichson to grant her a divorce. She married him out of pity after the death of his first wife (who was sick for a long time), when she served as the wife's nurse. Phyllis imagined killing her husband in an enclosed garage by carbon monoxide poisoning. Phyllis cried about her predicament as he held her on the sofa. He put his arms around her and told her: "And I don't want you to hang, baby. Stop thinking about it, will ya?" But Neff admitted that he was taken by her teary-eyed seductiveness, in a flash-forward.

The scene tracked/dissolved back to Walter's apartment, the same evening, where Neff reclined on the sofa smoking a cigarette, and Phyllis was fixing her makeup - presumably after they had sex. She expressed her disdain about returning to her husband. Neff had already decided to join her in scheming to kill her husband and help her make it look like an accident - to collect on her husband's accident insurance policy:

Phyllis: "I hate him. I loathe going back to him. You believe me, don't you, Walter?"
Walter: "Sure I believe you." (They kissed.)
Phyllis: "I can't stand it anymore. What if they did hang me?"
Walter: "They're not going to hang you, baby."
Phyllis: "It's better than going on this way."
Walter: "They're not gonna hang you because you're gonna do it and I'm gonna help you."
Phyllis: "Do you know what you're saying?"
Walter: "Sure I know what I'm saying. We're gonna do it and we're gonna do it right. And I'm the guy that knows how."

He told her that they were going to do it with a brilliant, scheming plot. A kiss (and more during a dissolve) sealed the murderous pact between them. He grabbed her tightly and dug his fingers into her arm. Neff expressed himself with a fierce determination in his voice, vowing that everything must be perfection "straight down the line."

"There's not going to be any slip up. Nothing sloppy, nothing weak, it's gotta be perfect. (They kissed each other and then he led her toward the door.) Call me tomorrow. But not from your house. From a booth. And watch your step every single minute. This has gotta be perfect, do ya understand? Straight down the line."

As she went out the door, she repeated his words: "Straight down the line." Ultimately, she had convinced Neff to murder her unsuspecting, boring husband (and make it look like an accident) so they could share 'double indemnity' accident insurance proceeds.

They continued to meet surreptitiously, often talking over shelves stocked with groceries, to cooly discuss the complicated details of the planned murder and wait for the right set of circumstances to arise. The murder occurred as Phyllis drove her husband to the train station - Neff reached from behind and killed Mr. Dietrichson by breaking his neck. A camera close-up of Phyllis's unmoving and stony face staring straight ahead was all that was revealed during the murder that was brutally carried out on the seat next to her.

The final scene - a deadly double-cross scene, occurred between the two plotters and conspirators in the darkened Dietrichson living room where Phyllis sat awaiting Neff. When he arrived, she admitted that they were both rotten:

Phyllis: "We're both rotten."
Neff: "Only you're a little more rotten. You got me to take care of your husband for ya."

Neff had intentions to kill Phyllis, but she upstaged him with 'plans of her own.' As he closed the window, she pulled out a concealed, shiny, metallic gun - Phyllis shot Neff once in the shoulder and he taunted her to finish him off with another shot: ("You can do better than that, can't ya, baby? Better try again. Maybe if I came a little closer? How's this? Think you can do it now?"), but she lowered her gun and hesitated to kill him for some reason (because of her love for him, or because of her conscience?).

He took her gun away, and she admitted her rottenness again: "I'm rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said." But he didn't "buy" her act.

She asked him to hold her close - and when she surrendered in his arms in a final erotic embrace, she drew slightly back in surprise and fear, realizing that it was her final moment when she sensed the barrel of his gun against her chest. Cold-heartedly, he coldly told her: "Good-bye baby." Walter grimly shot her twice at point-blank range - during their erotic embrace.

The Confession by Walter Neff - Flashback

First Meeting - Sexual Banter in Her LIving Room

Second Meeting - The Purchase of Insurance For Her Husband (Without His Knowledge)

The Start of a Dangerous Affair

Kissing in Neff's Apartment

Surreptitious and Furtive Meetings

Cold-Hearted Stare During The Murder of Her Husband

Final Erotic Encounter and Embrace - Neff: "Good-bye Baby."

Laura (1944)
d. Otto Preminger

Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney)

Preminger's hard-edged noir romance might be called a psychological study of deviant, kinky obsession, because almost everyone in the cast loved the title character Laura, who was not a classically amoral femme fatale.

The memorable opening scene featured a pan around the interior of a New York penthouse and the occupant's narration, delivered in voice-over by celebrated, acidic-witted, homosexual columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb):

"I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For Laura's horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her. And I had just begun to write Laura's story when - another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half-open door. I noted that his attention was fixed upon my clock. There was only one other in existence, and that was in Laura's apartment in the very room where she was murdered."

While investigating socialite Laura Hunt's (Gene Tierney) murder, obsessed homicide police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) rummaged through Laura's bedroom drawers and lingerie, inhaled her perfume, and peered into her mirrored closets and then stared at her haunting, domineering oil portrait - and fell in love with the dead woman in the portrait. In fact, at the beginning of the investigation inside of Laura's Manhattan apartment by Lydecker and McPherson, both stared at Laura's portrait above the fireplace.

The film contained troubling necrophiliac themes and sexual obsession by the hard-boiled detective for the dead woman. Laura's loyal "domestic" maid Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams) castigated McPherson for reading Laura's private letters and diary: ("You've been readin' 'em, pawin' over them. It's a shame in the face of the dead. That's what it is. It's a shame!"). She also stated her adoration for Laura: ("She was a real, fine lady..."). Columnist Waldo Lydecker also incisively described McPherson's obsession over the murdered bewitching woman ("...It's a wonder you don't come here like a suitor with roses and a box of candy...I don't think I ever had a patient who ever fell in love with a corpse").

Lydecker had functioned as Laura's Svengali-like mentor and protective confidant in a platonic relationship, when he helped her become a successful advertising executive. Womanizing, effete Southern playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), whose marriage to Laura was recently called off, was also a prime suspect (he confessed later to being present at the murder scene when the off-screen shooting occurred).

In a surprising and memorable scene, Laura Hunt suddenly walked into her own apartment - a murdered woman who mysteriously appeared over half way into the film - there were double-stunned looks. Laura was shocked to find a stranger in her apartment, and likewise, Detective McPherson had an astonished look when stirred from sleep as the "dead" Laura appeared. At first, he thought she was a ghost or figment of his imagination. He had already dreamed of what she was like from her portrait, her perfume, her clothes, her letters, her apartment's decor, and the recollections of others. He probably wondered if he had willed her into existence. Also later, Lydecker expressed a stumbling reaction to seeing Laura alive. She threatened to call the police: "What are you doing here?" - unaware of the news of her own slaying.

Laura was horrified to realize that she was caught in the middle of a murder case. The murder victim was actually a young model named Diane Redfern in her negligee, in a case of mistaken identity.

After reappearing, Laura herself became a prime suspect in the murder case, since it was possible that Laura killed Diane Redfern out of jealousy for her association with Shelby. Another suspect was Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson), Laura's wealthy, amoral spinster aunt who was neurotically in love with Shelby and decidedly defensive and jealous of the younger Laura, her engagement, and her possible forthcoming marriage to Carpenter. There was a tough interrogation scene in which McPherson grilled Laura about what she had been holding back: ("Let's have it").

In the film's conclusion, Lydecker was delivering a radio broadcast ("I close this evening's broadcast with some favorite lines...Brief Life - They are not long, the weeping and the laughter, love and desire and hate. I think they have no portion in us after we pass the gate...They are not long, the days of wine and roses. Out of a misty dream, our path emerges for a while, then closes within a dream").

Lydecker threatened to kill Laura with a shotgun blast rather than lose her to McPherson: ("The best part of myself - that's what you are. Do you think I'm going to leave it to the vulgar pawing of a second-rate detective who thinks you're a dame? Do you think I could bear the thought of him holding you in his arms, kissing you, loving you? There he is now. He'll find us together, Laura as we always have been and we always should be, as we always will be").

It was revealed that Lydecker was the actual murderer, who in a jealous rage mistakenly shot the wrong woman (in the face) with a blast from a shotgun, thinking Diane was Laura. Now, he was attempting to kill Laura a second time with a shotgun (hidden in the base of a grandfather clock) during a murder/suicide -- but she was saved in the nick of time by McPherson as Lydecker was mortally wounded in an exchange of gunfire with the police. Lydecker delivered his last words to Laura when she rushed to his side: "Good-bye, Laura. Good-bye, my love," accompanied by an image of the shotgun-damaged grandfather clock.

Lydecker Threatening to Kill Laura with Shotgun, But Shot by Police: "Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love"

Laura's Haunting Portrait - Stared At

Laura's Sudden Appearance to Detective McPherson

Interrogation Scene

The Shotgun-Damaged Grandfather Clock Where the Gun Had Been Hidden

Murder, My Sweet (1944)
d. Edward Dmytryk

Velma/Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor)

Edward Dmytryk's twisting story of intrigue starred singer Dick Powell as the down-and-out PI Philip Marlowe searching for ex-con Moose Malloy's (Mike Mazurki) missing ex-lover Velma Valento (revealed to be Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor)) in wartime Los Angeles - he claimed that his missing ex-lover had sold him out 8 years earlier for unknown reasons, although he still remembered her and had become obsessed to find her: "She was cute as lace pants."

The opening shot was of a blinding ceiling light and sounds of accusatory voices, and then a pull-back camera to the side of detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), with bandaged eyes as he was interrogated by police and then began to relate part of his tale - in flashback.

He described how a brooding figure had appeared in his office window-pane (flashing city lights reflected onto the face of brutish Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) standing behind him in the darkness). Malloy was the love-struck ex-con who hired Marlowe to look for a mysterious Velma Valento.

Marlowe was brought for a visit to the Grayle mansion in Brentwood where he met elderly Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander) and his much younger trophy wife and femme fatale vamp Helen (Trevor again), a gold-digger (with a double identity) who was prominently showing off her legs and ankle-strap high heels. The mysterious, flirtatious and slinky Helen Grayle hired the detective to locate a stolen $100,000 jade necklace (which she later revealed was never actually stolen!).

She was associated with aristocratic master-crook, psychic/quack therapist and underworld blackmailer Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) who was involved in setting up rich women as targets, with one of her paramours: the perfumed, effeminate 30-ish gigolo Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) - a Los Angeles resident and con-man.

Marlowe navigated through a perilous world, becoming further entangled with and threatened by despicable high- and low-class criminals. Marriott asked Marlowe to accompany him as a bodyguard late at night to a secluded canyon to pay off a ransom - to buy an allegedly stolen jade necklace back (during the altercation, Marlowe was knocked unconscious, and Marriott was bludgeoned to death). When knocked unconscious, Marlowe remembered: "I caught the blackjack behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom."

The final showdown occurred at the Grayles' beach house where Mrs. Helen Grayle/Velma Valento had set up numerous individuals over the alleged theft of her valuable $100,000 jade necklace (the film's MacGuffin), and was indeed a murderous femme fatale. Helen admitted to Marlowe that she fabricated the jade necklace robbery (Marlowe: "It was never stolen? There wasn't any holdup? You faked the whole thing.") She also confessed that she and Marriott had set up Marlowe to be killed in the canyon, because he was a "nosy detective" and would interfere with her schemes. Her intention was to kill Marriott and Marlowe, but her stepdaughter Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) had arrived at an inopportune moment, and she was only able to murder Marriott.

Then, during a climactic, violent shoot-out in the beach house, Helen was shot to death by her jealous, concerned husband. Her husband was in turn killed by Moose, who had already murdered Jules Amthor by snapping his neck. Marlowe's eyes were scorched and blinded in the process.

Philip Marlowe Blinded During Shoot-Out
Shoot-Out in Beach House

Marlowe Bandaged and Interrogated in Police Station

Moose Malloy in Marlowe's Office

Malloy and Marlowe

Femme Fatale Mrs. Helen Grayle

Marlowe with Mrs. Grayle

The Woman in the Window (1944)
d. Fritz Lang

Alice Reed (Joan Bennett)

This tense film noir - director Fritz Lang's dark noir masterpiece - featured a very detailed tagline:

A too-beautiful woman, a too-carefree man - and an evening of gay flirtation shifting madly into a panic of guilt and fear and crimson MURDER...That's excitement for you.

Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), a mild-mannered, law-abiding, middle-aged and married criminal psychology (Assistant Professor) at Gotham College, was soon to become enamoured by the requisite femme fatale - the film's main character. While his family was away on vacation, he met beautiful, strange painting model and femme fatale Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) - when she emerged as a reflection next to a painting in an art gallery window. He risked his entire future after meeting up with her.

Invited back to her mirrored apartment where she was wearing a diaphanous dress, they sipped champagne and talked. Then, at 1 am, a taxi pulled up, and Alice's hot-tempered and jealous boyfriend "Frank Howard" (Arthur Loft) abruptly arrived. (Later, he was revealed to be a wealthy and prominent Wall Street financier/businessman of World Enterprises Inc. named Claude Mazard.)

Frank Howard immediately slapped Alice and accused her of infidelity - he had misinterpreted Wanley's presence. The burly and jealous boyfriend fist-punched the Professor and began choking him on the sofa. With a pair of scissors handed to him by Alice, Wanley stabbed "Howard" to death in the back.

The conservative Professor became embroiled in a crime due to his unintentional self-defense murder of an assailant. Wanley suddenly found himself on the run when he and Alice decided to avoid contacting the police, and instead opted to put the body in his car's back seat (rolled into a blanket) and dump it far away in the country. During the cover-up, Wanley left a trail of clues (muddy tire tracks) and other witness sightings (the garage attendant, a policeman, Alice's upstairs neighbor, a toll booth collector, etc.). Alice planned to thoroughly clean her apartment, and discard the dead man's personal belongings (with a CM pendant) into the river the next day.

The headlines from the New York paper read: "MAZARD MURDERED: Body Discovered by Boy Scout in Suburban Woods." There were tense scenes when Wanley listened as his friend District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) took the case and began to discuss his findings - and Wanley became increasingly-desperate, paranoid, and tense during a visit to the crime scene with Lalor. He worried that there was evidence of a scratch on his hand from barbed wire and a case of poison ivy acquired while he was dumping the corpse in the woods.

Alice (and Wanley) were soon marked as the killers and blackmailed by Mazard's sleazy bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea), nicknamed "Pappy," a wanted ex-cop and "known crook with a blackmailing record." Alice's attempt to be friends with Heidt and poison him failed. Realizing that he had been double-crossed, Heidt proposed an even heftier blackmail sum from Alice.

Heidt (Dan Duryea)
Alice Trying to Ingratiate Herself With Heidt
Incriminating Evidence

However, as he left Alice's apartment, Heidt was shot to death in a gun battle with police (he was assumed to be the financier's murderer after the "CM" pendant and a large wad of Mazard's cash was found in his pocket - that he had just absconded from Alice). However, Wanley felt that he had come to the end of his rope - and was preparing to commit suicide with a drug overdose in his easy chair in his home.

However, in the comic (cop-out and fizzling) ending, now set in Wanley's men's social club, Wanley awoke to find that the entire plot had been a dream of his subconscious! And the hat-check attendant Charlie (Arthur Loft) at the club was none other than "Howard"/Mazard! Wanley exclaimed: "I can't tell you how happy I am to see you alive and in such good health." And Tim, the doorman was Heidt (Dan Duryea)!

Characters in Wanley's Dream at the Social Club
Charlie: Hat-Check Attendant
Tim: Doorman

Femme Fatale Alice Reed (Joan Bennett)

The Stabbing of "Frank Howard" -- Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft)

Alice and Wanley

"Mazard Murdered"

District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey)

Wanley Preparing to Commit Suicide

A Dream?

Previous Page Next Page