By Joe Vidal
Shifting gender roles during the 1940s led to strong females in American films. As women were becoming more active in the workplace and the household, post-war anxieties allowed female roles in cinema to move beyond their status as mere objects of desire. Instead, the Femme Fatale is someone with her own agenda who is capable of using the male protagonist to achieve her own gains. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity seduces a salesman into killing her husband and then collecting on his life insurance. Likewise, in The Glass Key, our hero can't tell if Veronica Lake loves him, or is just using him for political gain.
But the types of power that these cinematic vixens held only revealed how little power American women had in real life. No femme fatale gains power honestly—she is either a crook, a seductress, or a good girl-temporarily misguided—and returned to her "true" (meek, docile) self by the end of the film. It would take a few more years before women were allowed a legitimate role in society, both on and off the screen.
In the meantime, please enjoy some of our favorite noir classics, and some of the best—looking girls you've ever seen.
(Fritz Lang, 1945) · In this wrenching remake of Renoir's Le Chienne, bank teller Chris Cross (Edward Robinson) becomes obsessed with Kitty (Joan Bennett), lying to her as well as himself (hes a big time painter and she's a really nice girl). Meanwhile, Kitty and her boyfriend take credit for his art, and cash in. But if they're self-loathing and self-deluded, then so is Chris, who commits a horrific crime, and then, to his own dismay... gets away with it.
runtime: 103 min format: Archival 35mm
(George Marshall, 1945) · This Oscar-nominated film--featuring the only screenplay that Raymond Chandler ever wrote directly for the screen--stars Alan Ladd as returning war veteran Johnny Morrison, who discovers that his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) was unfaithful during his absence. When she turns up dead, he becomes the prime suspect, and then a fugitive, encountering Helen's lover's seductive wife Joyce (Veronica Lake) in a dreamy drive up the coast to Malibu.
runtime: 96 min format: 35mm
(John Stahl, 1945) · This Technicolor melodrama-noir features Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, desperate for total control over her husband. I'll never let you go,' she tells him. "Never, never." Is Ellen a selfish psycho? Or just unable to stop herself from loving so much, and so painfully, that it kills those she most cherishes? David Thompson called Tierney's "frighteningly credible"; likely, it was influenced by her own ongoing mental illness.
runtime: Archival 110 min format: 35mm
(Charles Vidor, 1946) · Johnny, a cheating gambler, marries ex-flame Gilda (Hayworth), who used to be married to Mundson, his boss. Johnny thinks Gilda cheated on Mundson, and can't stop punishing her for it. Which means we spend most of the movie watching a man guiltily, painfully torment the woman he adores. How he can do this—the ways in which both hate and love expose, bring us close to people—burn at the heart of this aching cross between women's pictures and noir.
runtime: 110 min format: 35mm
(Stuart Heisler, 1942) · Alan Ladd was a would-be great with a little problem: at 5'6', all the starlets were taller than him. Enter bombshell Constance Ockelman: 4'11' and, thanks to Paramount, recently renamed Veronica Lake. While initially paired because they were both short, the Ladd-Lake duo quickly burned into real chemistry. Here, Ladd plays Ed, who is blindly devoted to his corrupt political boss, while Lake plays the boss's fiancé, who falls in love with Ed.
runtime: 85 min format: 35mm
(Orson Welles, 1947) · Michael (Welles), an out-of-work sailor, is smitten with Elsa (Hayworth) from the moment he sees her, in Central Park. He doesn't trust her, but he likes her anyway and finds himself working on her husband's yacht. He's desperate to win her over. Suddenly he is framed for murder and gets caught in a house of mirrors—both appropriate for this typically Wellesian film about missed chances and regret. After all, Hayworth was Welles' soon-to-be ex-wife.
runtime: 87 min format: Archival 35mm
(Billy Wilder, 1944) · Billy Wilder's classic proto-noir is best remembered for its snappy dialog, tight Wilder-Chandler script, and, of course, hard-as-nails Barbara Stanwyck. She meets salesman Walter Neff. He becomes obsessed with her, and agrees to help kill her husband and cash in on the life insurance. But Neff's voiceover turns this film into a confession. Neff narrates into a Dictaphone, trying to retrace how he became a broken-hearted liar and a murderer.
runtime: 107 min format: Archival 35mm
(Joseph H. Lewis, 1950) · Peggy Cummins marries John Dall. They’re in love. Then, the money runs out. Peggy tells John that if he won't become a criminal with her, she'll leave him. So he becomes a criminal, and, somehow, two seemingly good-natured people turn to robbing and killing as a frenzied way of life. The film features some beautiful location sequences, including a famous, single-take, point-of-view shot filmed from the back of a car during one of the bank robbery sequences.
runtime: 86 min format: DVD
(Fritz Lang, 1953) · Detective Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is investigating a colleague's suicide. He goes after a gang that might totally control the police force. Then a car bomb kills Dave's wife, and idealism spirals quickly into private revenge as Dave gets ex gang moll Debby Marsh (Gloria Graheme) to help him. But the scariest thing is Debby's face, twisted and burned when an ex-lover hurled a cup of coffee at her.
runtime: 90 min format: 35mm