Updated: Mar 25, 2020
“Darwin says somewhere that the fittest to survive will always be a recently widowed redhead with brains and looks and style. Any door will open for her. A car will collect her rain or shine. She will never need to light a cigarette or dine alone or carry folding money. And for one wild, dark glance a policeman will make her allowances he makes for nobody else, because she brings out the Walter Raleigh in him.”
So says Newman, the shamus in Shamus Dust, reflecting on a woman who’s been way ahead of him since they first set eyes on each other, and wondering if he’ll catch up before all this is over. The woman, of course, is the story’s femme fatale. And the story is set squarely in my personal golden age of transgressive women. Which, of course, may not be everybody’s golden age. So I’d better explain. I’ve long been fascinated by a decade and more that starts, more or less, when Billy Wilder writes and directs his stunning version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. In other words, we’re in the period of classic films noirs.
Films noirs? They were a phenomenon that grew almost magically in a Hollywood short on resources but long on talent. They gripped a generation that had come through the pit of Depression and years of World War. And for audiences that had lost the temperament for Happy-Ever-After endings, they were the movies that nailed their dark, disillusioned times.
A sea change was afoot in crime writing too, I know. But our subject is criminal women, and no question, the most striking and the smartest, the down-lowest and certainly the best dressed were the cast of choice female transgressors that Hollywood put on film in those years. Women at home with the slickest of grifters and seen-it-all survivors, racketeers, the opulent and the corrupt. Women tough enough to get places even in that crowd, and then hold on as if her life depended on it – as it often did. In my golden age, they’re hands down better drawn, more complete and more convincing on film than their contemporaries on the page.
How so? Well, the screenwriting is a help, and the studios attracted the very best. Billy Wilder (no slouch himself) could still bring in Raymond Chandler, to lift his dialog for Double Indemnity into the stratosphere. Likewise the photography - silvery to let a criminal woman shimmer, shadowed to let her menace - was in the hands of visionaries ready to experiment. Their male leads weren’t so bad to bounce off either: a Fred MacMurray, a Bogart or a Mitchum are first-rate foils for a broad who can find her way around the block. And of course, there are the magisterial performances of the women themselves, placed right at the heart of the story. In my golden age she’s liable to be that stop-the-traffic redhead Newman is contemplating, who can finger a handgun just as well as a hemline.
The femme fatale in literature is as old as sex, power and money. Which is to say as old as women who, without any other kind of leverage, noticed the connection and decided to make it a career. Perhaps for that reason, when you meet her on the page in my golden age, she can read as little more than a cipher reached off the shelf. Glassy, knowing, manipulating and corrupt, naturally. But once cut out of that cloth, she’s routinely hung out to dry; undeveloped and unexplored as a character, unconvincing and on the whole unlikely. Much as I’m a fan, the same Raymond Chandler - who writes an evil but terrifyingly sane Phyllis Dietrichson for Billy Wilder - writes Carmen Sternwood (in The Big Sleep) and Eileen Wade (in The Long Goodbye) as simply unhinged in his own novels. It’s quite a loss. Martha Vickers shows how big a loss when she fleshes Carmen out brilliantly in the movie.
And the fleshing out is the point. Because in my golden age the femme fatale is put in the hands of the most incendiary silver screen goddesses. Likely you’ll already have favorites of your own. If not, try Barbara Stanwyck (in that Double Indemnity, 1944), Jane Greer (Out of the Past, 1947) or Lizabeth Scott (Dead Reckoning, also 1947). Each one takes that crime fiction commonplace of sex and power and makes it three-dimensional onscreen. Each one can weigh a hapless male with her cocktail eye: one measure You’re Sold Already, one measure It Shouldn’t Be This Easy, one measure The Possibilities are Endless. For a decade or more it became the transgressive woman’s look for those dark, disillusioned times. Hollywood showed us how to write it.
This aticle by Janet Roger was first published by It's All About the Books - 13 October 2019