Audrey Totter, Joan Bennett, Barbara Stanwyck, etc: a femme fatale controls her destiny

Movie Tension (1949) directed by John Berry, starred by Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter and Cyd Charisse

Richard Basehart and Cyd Charisse during the filming of Tension

"Audrey Totter, playing one of the meanest women the movies have ever seen this side of Claire Trevor's entire canon of work, is a riot, slithering into frame with the same trashy trumpet squawk accompanying her on the soundtrack. After she leaves her pharmacist husband for another man, the country's new contact lens craze gives the pussy-whipped David (Richard Basehart) the idea to create an alter ego in order to kill his wife Claire's (Audrey Totter) lover. The actress gives grotesque face, most hilariously during a David-versus-Goliath standoff at the beach that has Claire yelling out "You know how I want it" to her meathead boyfriend". Source:

"Adapted from Renoir’s La Chienne (once again, the European influence at work), the film observes a masochistic weakling who falls prey to the machinations of a particularly slovenly specimen of femme fatale, of a strain that would make Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson seem downright genteel by comparison. Indeed, Bennett’s Kitty March — nicknamed ‘Lazy Legs’ by the smarmy, abusive pimp she dotes upon — had the dubious distinction of being the most graceless, classless and altogether vulgar piece of cheap fluff ever to make an appearance in high-grade film noir (due in no small part to the influence of Scarlet Street, she wouldn’t be the last.)

Lolling about her filthy walk-up in a tacky negligee, scattering candy wrappers and cigarette butts on the floor while waiting for her worthless boyfriend to materialize for rough sex and even rougher treatment, Lazy Legs is indolent to the point of inactivity; lack of ambition would be her most salient characteristic if not for her total lack of sensitivity or scruple. Stretching her whisky-soaked alto into a slatternly drawl, Bennett embellished the role with subversive flashes of humor; seductive and repellent at the same time, Lazy Legs is all the more alluring for her lack of any appealing trait beyond her beauty". Source:

Ivonne de Carlo and Dan Duryea as Anna and Slim Dundee in "Criss Cross" (1949) directed by Robert Siodmak

Duryea created a unique type of screen villainy. Richard Widmark and Lee Marvin became bigger stars playing similar roles, but not even they could replace Duryea in a film. He was a weird blend of weakness and menace, sex and slime, evil and smiles. This is all the more remarkable since in real life he was just Dan Duryea, husband and father. A charming man.

When asked who was one of his favorite actresses to work with, he replied: “Joan Bennett … she was a true professional and so easy to work with in the two films we made with Eddie Robinson: The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street … and I found her very attractive and before you ask, Hedda, no, I did not have an ‘affair’ with her or any other of my co-stars … for one very good reason: I was very happily married and never broke my vows.”

Lang called Duryea “one of the best actors” he ever directed, in his press release of The Woman in the Window. Source:

Classic Femme Fatale A tribute to the femme fatale in classic films.

Ann Savage in "Detour" (1945)

Jean Gillie in "Decoy" (1946)

"In the restless middle of the 20th century, the femme fatale, the dark queen of film noir, jolted the silver screen with an electric sexuality and lethal cunning it had never seen before. She smoldered, she coveted, she hated, she schemed and, above all, she manipulated the men in her life — alternately offering and withholding the promise of love and a mind-blowing screw, playing the poor saps like puppets as the moment required.

Jane Greer plays Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past (1947) directed by Jacques Tourneur

Along the way, she provided a group of gifted, intrepid Hollywood actresses a chance to shine in a way few of their rivals ever did or could, which is to say darkly: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947) — unforgettable performances all, in every case a career zenith.

Marilyn Maxwell

Bette Davis

Ann Dvorak

Lana Turner

Gene Tierney

Audrey Totter

Peggy Cummins

Martha Vickers

Linda Darnell

Ivonne de Carlo

Jan Sterling

Irene Manning

Veronica Lake

Lizabeth Scott

"It was Stanwyck who scored the series’ first major triumph. (Mary Astor claimed the territory first, as the poisonous Brigid O’Shaughnessy in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, but lacked the requisite sex appeal and, perhaps in consequence, enough screen time to make a lasting impression.) Stanwyck’s smoky-voiced Phyllis Dietrichson greets Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who fancies himself a fast talker, wearing what Neff calls “a honey of an anklet,” her shapely leg strategically outstretched for its display. Before he knows it — and he knows so little, until it’s too late — he’s her slave:

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray as Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff in "Double Indemnity" (1944) directed by Billy Wilder

"We’re both rotten", Phyllis tells Walter. “Only you’re a little more rotten,” he shoots back, but she has made her point. For all her lying, the femme fatale was a truth-teller, a bad woman whose real crime was to introduce a man to his own innate badness.

And then she was gone. By the early 1950s, the femme fatale all but disappeared from the big screen, displaced by the politely swooning housewives of Douglas Sirk and, later, empowered ass-kickers like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. And although the femme fatale occasionally flickered to life in the decades to come — in homages like 1981’s Body Heat (with Kathleen Turner in a scintillating big-screen debut) and 1994’s The Last Seduction (with Linda Fiorentino), sensationalist hybrids like 1992’s Basic Instinct (with Sharon Stone), genre spoofs like 1993’s Fatal Beauty (with Sean Young) and the rare fresh take on the archetype (1995’s To Die For, with Nicole Kidman) — she was essentially dead.

But for every argument against the femme fatale as politically retrograde, there’s a counterargument for her as protofeminist forerunner. The femme fatale isn’t passive, waiting for her life to improve on its own. Instead she takes the initiative, attacking the problem with nerve, drive and intelligence. Yes, she uses cat’s-paws, rather than her own paws, to accomplish her goals. But whose fingerprints do you want on the smoking gun, yours or someone else’s? Yes, she uses her sexual power over a man to get what she wants, but power is power. She is the actor, he the acted upon. It’s she who controls her destiny, for better or worse". Source: