Filmmaker Magazine: Todd Haynes & Carol
Something Wild & The Strange One

She's Discontent: The Femme Fatale


I wrote a defense of femme fatales in the the Fall 2015 issue of the Film Noir Foundation's magazine, Noir City and it's now available, with contributors Meagan Abbott, Ben Terrall, Krista Faust, Renee Patrick, Rose McGowan and more inside. Make a donation and read it all here. Here's an excerpt from my much longer piece.

Taking on the topic of the femme fatale, and what she means, is as hard to untangle as the seductive inscrutability of The Big Sleep. It’s a question that can be answered simply, sure, but the answer is almost always the same and a bit boring, or open to extensive interpretation, one that goes beyond girls and guns and gams and double-crossing dames. The femme fatale is a woman, an experience, a hypothesis, a history, a story someone like Thomas Pynchon could wind into a narrative that coils into splintered theories—theories that could be interpreted ten different ways, fraught with arguments and frustration and even anger. Because nothing angers a person like a double-crossing dame. And nothing angers a woman like being called a double-crossing dame, particularly with such simplistic intent.


But, to be simplistic about it, maybe—as Martha explained to husband George while trying to decipher the name of that goddamn Bette Davis picture in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—maybe that double-crossing dame is just … “Discontent.”


They never do figure out the title of the picture; it’s King Vidor’s noir-stained melodrama Beyond the Forest (1949) and Martha surely understands Bette’s dilemma as a vulgar, loudmouthed, but strangely sympathetic seductress with her “what a dump” attitude. Martha discusses the movie and Bette’s marriage to a modest small town doctor (Joseph Cotten) in a scene that unravels with delicious simplicity, yet deeply embedded complexity.

Woolf 4 Kept Your Body

It explains the idea, and answers the question of what is a femme fatale with both hilarity and a resigned crystalline clarity. Is it really that simple, Martha? No. But let’s indulge her for a moment as Martha deconstructs Bette Davis’s two-timing housewife, the porcupine-handyman-killing Rosa Moline, for her husband George, who’s clever and hyper intelligent but nevertheless the “bog” of the history department. To me, this exchange is one of most perfect distillations of the femme fatale (delivered by a woman who tells her husband, “You can’t afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary!”).

So, again, pardon my indulgence - I'm going to print the entire brilliant exchange here:

Martha: ‘What a dump.’ Hey, what’s that from? ‘What a dump!’    

George: How would I know?    

Martha: Oh, come on, what’s it from? You know! What’s it from, for Christ’s sake? What’s what from? I just told you. I just did it. ‘What a dump!’  Huh? What’s that from?    

George: I haven’t the faintest idea.    

Martha: Dumbbell! It’s from some Bette Davis picture... some goddamn Warner Brothers epic.    

George: Martha, I can’t remember all the films that came out of Warner Brothers.    

Martha: Nobody's asking you to remember every Warner Brothers epic. Just one single little epic. That’s all. Bette Davis gets peritonitis at the end. And she wears a fright wig throughout the picture.  She’s married to Joseph Cotten or something. Somebody. She wants to go to Chicago because she loves that actor with the scar. She gets sick... and sits down at her dressing table...    

George: What actor? What scar?    

Martha: I can’t remember his name! What’s the picture? I want to know the name of the picture. She gets peritonitis and decides to go to Chicago anyway.    


George: ‘Chicago!’ It’s called 'Chicago.’    

Martha: What is?    

George: I mean the picture. It's ‘Chicago.’    

Martha: Oh, good grief! Don’t you know anything? ‘Chicago' was a ‘30s musical starring little Miss Alice Faye. Don’t you know anything? This picture. Bette Davis comes home from a hard day at the grocery store...    

George: She works in a grocery store?    

Martha: She's a housewife. She buys things. She comes in with the groceries and she walks into the modest living room of the modest cottage modest Joseph Cotten set her up in.    

George: Are they married?    

Martha: Yes, they’re married. To each other. Cluck. And she comes in and she looks around this room and she sets down her groceries. And she says… ‘What a dump! (Pause) She’s discontent. [1]

She’s “discontent.” Not evil. Not a dastardly double-crosser. Not greedy. Not a bitch. Not a conniver. Discontent


In her own simple fashion, Martha describes what many femme fatales are struggling with in film noir—this idea that the world is not theirs for the taking, but why shouldn’t it be? Why must they be trapped in the expectations of the bonds of matrimony, why can’t they live their life as a man can? Why must they be one of the … normals? One idea consistent with the femme fatale is that these are not normal women. To me, that’s a beautiful, empowering thing. But, alas, they are punished for it. Or they punish others for knowing they’ll be punished. Or they punish themselves. More than likely they do, or try to, take everyone down with them.

A glorious example of the frustrated woman living among the normal is Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven (1945). I’ve referenced this movie countless times, and I'll repeat a few thoughts here, always with a sympathetic bent towards Tierney’s diabolical but in many ways sad character, Ellen Berent. Yes, I feel a little sorry for Ellen.  Was she misunderstood and, so, murderously frustrated? She was certainly discontent.


She’s a woman trapped in an obsession, of course, an obsession with her father, but she’s also trapped within the un-permissiveness of the times. Permission for Ellen to do…what would Ellen do? Perhaps that’s the problem. This was a time when one was not allowed the strength of being… Ellen. I’m not sure when anyone is allowed to be Ellen, exactly, but she is certainly trapped by some force beyond mere psychopathology. Maybe being born so impeccable, so unfaltering, she even frightens herself? She’s not normal. And Ellen doesn’t want to be normal. Indeed, it’s impossible for her to be so. 

She tries. She yearns for marriage (to Cornel Wilde, though we’re never sure why. Perhaps because he’s normal) and a private honeymoon, but after that, it all goes wrong. She cannot stand Wild’s younger, disabled brother, who knocks on the wall after their sexy morning wake-up, and she takes the kid out on that famous swim in which she watches him drown. Well, as Walter Neff said, “that tears it.” No more normal family life after that. She does get pregnant, but changes her mind, and far too late in the game and with a solution that’s as dastardly as it disgustingly glamorous. Clad in beautiful light blue dressing gown, she throws herself down the stairs, removing one petite, perfectly matching light- blue satin slipper.


Here’s a question: Perhaps she should have remained single? I’ll defend Ellen a little because she, was, after all attempting normalcy (and I know she’s hard to defend), to fulfill a role society deems appropriate, but it’s her superiority, her looming genius that creates such problems. One could call her a narcissist, but that’s not what’s entirely what is going on. Consider that she never boasts so much as arrives—all she needs to do is walk into a room with those startlingly beautiful green eyes, flop on a couch and eat a sandwich with that perfect overbite. It’s not that she’s a mere mortal trapped in some super-human, celestial cage—she’s both sensitive and smart, maybe even a tortured genius. She may even suspect that her husband isn’t such a great writer after all (I bet you she’s got five better novels in her than he does). She knows men desire her, she’s yearned for as the ultimate trophy wife (gorgeous, smart, strong,), but in the end, what she learns is, what men really want is, yes: “The girl with the hoe.” As in, her sweeter, younger, more normal sister, played by Jeanne Crain. Ellen could never be that, swampy...

Read the entire piece in which I further discuss Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, Claire Trevor in Born to Kill, Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy, Beverly Michaels in Wicked Woman and more. Go to the Film Noir Foundation's site and make a donation to access their magazine.


[1] This excerpt is from the 1966 film version of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, adapted for the screen by Ernest Lehman, directed by Mike Nichols, and performed, famously, by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.



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