Kiss Them Deadly: Get Cool & Sweaty with the Great Femmes Fatales of Noir

Sunday Features (O!) GRANT BUTLER in The Oregonian:

In the opening minutes of 1944’s film noir classic Double Indemnity, sultry Barbara Stanwyck crosses her shapely legs and in one sexy move sends poor Fred MacMurray careening toward his inevitable doom.

A small ankle bracelet has caught his eye, and the mere sight of the bauble is enough for him to toss whatever good sense he has into the heart of the black widow’s web.

“That’s a honey of an anklet you’re wearing,” he growls lasciviously.

Stanwyck demurely tussles the hem of her blue dress, covering the jewelry. But it’s too late. MacMurray’s trapped, a willing pawn who will obey every treacherous word as she hatches a plot to kill her abusive husband, then make his death appear an accident so she can cash in on a secret life insurance policy. She has MacMurray by the neck –or an anatomical ZIP code a bit farther south –and in the nasty game of premeditated murder, there’s no letting go.

Moments later, he inquires whether she’ll be at home the next time he comes calling: “Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?”

“I wonder if I know what you mean,” she answers with feigned innocence.

“I wonder if you wonder.”

He might as well turn himself over to the coppers. He’s a goner.

All because of an anklet.

Raging tension

Double Indemnity - Femme Fatale and Sucker

That bit of raging sexual tension is just one of the terrific moments that makes Double Indemnity easily one of the best American movies ever made. With its taut script co-written by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder (based on the potboiler novel by James M. Cain), and a career-topping supporting performance by Edward G. Robinson, there’s not a second that’s anything less than perfection.

The film is just one of the delicious high points of the Northwest Film Center’s “Killer Ladies” series, which begins Friday at the Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum. Running four consecutive weekends, it’s a showcase of 10 must-sees from the golden age of film noir, all of them featuring femmes fatales the likes of which should send men both brave and cowardly running in the opposite direction.

With the exception of Fritz Lang’s obscure Woman in the Window, all of the films are readily available on DVD. But seeing these moody black-and-white gems on the big screen is a rare treat. With noir, demons lurk in shadows and shades of mysterious gray that even the finest home theater systems can’t distinguish.

And there are shades of feminine deceit you may pick up only by catching these movies side by side.


Take the opening weekend double-header of Mildred Pierce and The Manchurian Candidate. At once, they have nothing and everything to do with each other. 1945’s “Pierce” stars Joan Crawford, who won an Oscar for her performance as a working woman who will do anything for her spoiled daughter. “Candidate” from 1962, is a political thriller about a secret assassination plot involving brainwashed Korean War veterans.

What makes the two films kindred spirits is their portrayal of warped motherhood. In “Candidate,” Angela Lansbury is a scheming harridan with a lust for power so intense she makes Lady Macbeth seem as threatening as a meadow of petunias.

“We have come almost to the end,” Lansbury says to her patsy son as she sends him off on a bloody assignment. “One last step. And then when I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me.

Mildred Pierce

Compare those viper’s fangs with Crawford’s tortured martyr complex in “Pierce.” She’s a total doormat for her daughter Veda, and one of Mildred’s chums doesn’t like what she sees: “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”

Yet when gunfire erupts, Mildred shows that no one should underestimate her, either.

A repeat victim

Moms aren’t the only women with a deadly streak in this series. Home wreckers, hussies and harlots also prove lethal, with Robert Mitchum a repeat victim. In 1947’s Out of the Past, a gangster’s mistress sends him careening out of control. Then in 1952’s Angel Face, lives hang in the balance because of Mitchum’s obsession with a young woman.

The art of seduction takes a lot more than a pretty face. In many of these films, the femme fatale is dressed in wildly elaborate gowns just as the pistol is drawn, juxtaposing the brutality of the gun with the beauty of beads and spangles. It’s as if the director has taken the movie’s costume designer aside: “This is when she pulls a gun. That dress you have her in? Make it 10 times more gaudy!”

Another recurring theme is the feline analogy. In several films, house cats pop up symbolically to hint at conniving games of cat and mouse. It’s never more overt than in 1955’s gripping Kiss Me Deadly, a hard-boiled detective story played out against the paranoid canvas of the Cold War. Cats are everywhere – on a secretary’s desk, sleeping on top of a telephone operator’s panel, in an old maid’s apartment.

“You have the feline perceptions that all women have,” one bad guy barks at a murderous gal, before learning that there are also claws that go with those perceptions.

A wild bobcat

If Kiss Me Deadly’s femme fatale is a housecat, Gun Crazy‘s Annie Starr is a wild bobcat. She’s a carnival sharpshooter whose bullets are so accurate they can light a cigarette held in an assistant’s clenched teeth. When she meets a man who’s just as good a shot, a Bonnie and Clyde-like crime spree ensues. First they’re knocking off gas stations and liquor stores, but their targets get progressively bigger. It’s a rampage out of control but rooted in a fella’s lust for a cute lady in a cowgirl suit.

Through history, men have committed crimes for far less. The ancients went to war over stolen glances. Empires have fallen because of whispers in the night. Who wouldn’t go over the edge because of a cowgirl hat tilted just the right way?

Or a golden anklet on a golden gam?

It did Fred MacMurray in. Don’t let it be your undoing.”


From APPLAUSE 19 April 2007 Steven Uhles Column
Augusta Chronicle

Dark streets, femme fatales and the quick crack of gunfire make film noir an easy genre to identify.

Nobody channel-surfs over to one of the eternal broadcasts of The Maltese Falcon and wonders what romantic comedy they have stumbled across. Still, some of the most popular noirs don’t take place in the grit and grime of a Middle American metropolis, but near the sun- soaked sands and endless freeway tangle of the left coast.

Blame it on Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe, the City of Angels’ favorite private dick. The sprawl of Los Angeles is the setting for a variety of noirish tales – despite its trench- coat-resistant climate. In fact, Los Angeles noir is a site- specific genre unto itself. Here are a few favorites.

Sunset Boulevard

SUNSET BLVD. (1950): Opening with the protagonist doing a face- first float in an aging star’s swimming pool, this darkly comic tale of love, death and obsession in Hollywood stars William Holden as a failing screenwriter looking for an easy score, and silent- film star Gloria Swanson as the aging actress who proves his undoing. A near-perfect jab at the studio system.


CHINATOWN (1974): One of, if not the, greatest screenplays ever written, this tale of an L.A. private eye who gets caught up in political intrigue and the darkest of family secrets stars Jack Nicholson as sad sack P.I. Jake Gittes and John Huston in a towering performance as a SoCal politico who might or might not have it in for him. Complex and compelling.

La Confidential

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997): A masterpiece of cinematic adaptation, L.A. manages to squeeze the juice out of James Ellroy’s epic novel, refining it into a stunning film. Though much has been made of the inspired performances turned in by Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kim Basinger, the film’s real success is in communicating a sense of time, place and peril. An oft-overlooked film well worth checking out.

The Big Sleep

THE BIG SLEEP (1946): No overview of L.A. noir would be complete without acknowledging the father of the genre, Raymond Chandler. Though many actors have played Los Angeles investigator Philip Marlowe, the role will forever be owned by the great Humphrey Bogart. Like his Sam Spade a few years earlier, his take on this tough, taciturn, hard-bitten hero defines what the great noir protagonist is all about.

BLADE RUNNER (1982): Set in the not too distant future, Blade Runner transforms sunny Southern California into an ecological nightmare, perpetually soaked in poison rain and overcrowded with lost souls looking for a way out. Sounds pretty noir already, doesn’t it? Harrison Ford plays a burned-out cop tasked with hunting down and assassinating a small cadre of escaped androids. The spiritual descendant of the Marlowe tales, this movie understands that noir is all about the atmosphere.

Killer Ladies

From an article in The Oregian by MacrMohan on The Northwest Film Center’s series “Killer Ladies: Film Noir” in April:

“The femme fatale is an indispensable staple of noir, and three of the most memorable are served up this weekend. Perhaps least known is Angel Face, Otto Preminger’s 1953 thriller starring Robert Mitchum at his sleepiest. He’s a working-class ambulance driver who becomes ensnared by the beautiful, wealthy and (it almost goes without saying) deadly Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons). Diane, in addition to boasting a fantastic noir name, is a paragon of obsessive love, and the movie has one of the all-time great final scenes (just watch Mitchum’s face as they pull out of the driveway). It’s hard to say which is the bigger cult classic, Joseph H Lewis’ 1950 Gun Crazy or Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly, but a chance to see both on the big screen and decide for yourself shouldn’t be passed up. The former is a tale of doomed love between a mild-mannered firearm aficionado and the carnival sharpshooter who shares his fascination. The latter is often dubbed the last classic film noir, a burst of feverish atomic- age madness and sadism that could only come from the mind of Mickey Spillane. Both are full of the dark, quasi-intentional subtext that make the best noir films so arresting even today.”

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