I. The House on the Hill
“While films about men with dangerous jobs showed them returning home to supportive, contented wives, films that focused on domestic settings showed women caught in oppressive relationships or warped by the narrowness of their emotional lives.”
“That gloomy, horrible house . . . the slit of sunlight slicing through those heavy drapes — you could smell that death was in the air, you understood why she wanted to get out of there, away, no matter how.”
— Barbara Stanwyck on Double Indemnity
From the outside, the Dietrichson house appears to a visiting salesman almost as desirable as the platinum-blonde housewife who greets him wrapped in a towel. It’s a big, handsome Spanish-style home on a quiet street up in the L.A. hills, white stucco and red tiles surrounded by palm trees and honeysuckle. But the interior is somber and oppressive, as Stanwyck later recalled it; furnished with heavy, ornate chairs, Turkish carpets and wrought-iron banisters. The rooms are always dimly lit, and dust hangs in the bars of light coming through the Venetian blinds. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) finds the living room “still stuffy from last night’s cigars,” and an atmosphere of inert boredom lingers in the air, left over from quiet evenings of Chinese checkers. Goldfish swim around and around in a small bowl on the piano.
The irony is that Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) fought to get into the cage she schemes to escape in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). A former nurse, she let her husband’s first wife die so that she could have the house and the luxury and security it represents. “I wanted a home,” she tells Walter; but now her husband “keeps me on a leash so tight I can’t breathe.” She’s shut up, never allowed to go anywhere. Family life suffocates her; there are evenings when she and her husband sit not saying a word to each other. She envies Walter’s apartment and his bachelor lifestyle, with a cleaning lady who comes twice a week and breakfasts at the drug store. “Just strangers beside you,” she muses. “You don’t know them, you don’t hate them.”
For women in film noir, the home is often a goal that turns out to be a trap. The “woman’s picture” was among the genres infected by the noir mood in the late forties and fifties, and this hybrid produced a number of films that blurred the dichotomy of good girl vs. bad girl (avaricious temptress vs. apron-wearing wife happily keeping her husband’s supper warm), not defining women by their effect on men but exploring their own feelings of confinement. While films about men with dangerous jobs showed them returning home to supportive, contented wives, films that focused on domestic settings showed women caught in oppressive relationships or warped by the narrowness of their emotional lives.
The female captive is not unrelated to the femme fatale: both respond to the limitations imposed on women after World War II, when they were pressured to leave the workplace. Conventional wisdom held that working women took jobs away from men who needed them, neglected their families, and threatened their husbands’ egos.1 In fact, many women did continue to work out of necessity or inclination (in 1960, forty percent of married American women with children had jobs), but the stay-at-home wife was an ideal and a status symbol of middle-class success. But while women were discouraged from pursuing careers, they were also typed as gold-diggers and husband-hunters out to trap men into supporting them. Men, it seems, both feared losing power if women became economically independent, and feared or resented being treated as meal-tickets. In movies of the thirties and forties, fur coats and diamond jewelry are women’s ultimate symbols of achievement: badges that prove they are valued by men.
Only rarely (for instance in the 1957 Stanwyck vehicle Crime of Passion) did noir explicitly address the issue Betty Friedan would define in 1963 with the publication of The Feminine Mystique: the lack of fulfillment and vague sense of anxiety and unease among women who followed the postwar trend of devoting their lives exclusively to home and family. More often, this theme was submerged in thrillers about women who become endangered prisoners in their own homes.
Melodramas like D. W. Griffith’s 1912 An Unseen Enemy and Lois Weber’s 1913 Suspense set the template for the classic housebound, woman-menaced-by-male-intruder story. Because it represents refuge, the home when violated becomes the most frightening place of all: if you’re not safe there, where can you be safe? Beware, My Lovely (Harry Horner, 1952) is the purest noir version of this motif: a simple, claustrophobic miniature about a lonely widow’s struggle with a psychotic handyman who locks her inside her over-decorated Victorian gothic house. During the whole of her ordeal, Mrs. Gordon (Ida Lupino) is separated by the thinnest boundary from the comforting normality of her small-town neighborhood: children playing, dogs barking, the visits of grocery boys and telephone repairmen. Yet she remains isolated and helpless, since Howard (Robert Ryan), who has locked the doors from the inside and ripped out the phone cord, threatens to harm the neighborhood children if she tries to alert them to her imprisonment or seek help. This improbable and overwrought story might be taken as a vivid allegory of an abusive marriage: a secret psychodrama going on undetected under the noses of friendly neighbors. The home can be dangerous because it is private and isolated, cut off from the larger community.
Dramas about women menaced by their husbands ironically invert the notion of marrying for “security.” The word may be euphemistic in any case: “What is security?” a young woman asks in Caught: “Money! Period.” Caught, Max Ophuls’s first film with an American setting, is a superficially simple warning about the pitfalls of marrying for money. Under the credits, magazine illustrations flip past: seductive images of fashions, furs, cars, vacations, the trappings of wealth and ease. Leonora Ames (Barbara Bel Geddes), an ambitious car-hop, is leafing through the magazine with her roommate, who convinces her to scrounge up the money to pay for a course at a charm school. Learning social graces and how to exploit her looks is the only way she’ll ever get to meet the right men and escape dingy apartments and menial jobs. Leonora is unformed and ordinary, a blonde with a girl-next-door face, a nice young woman whose hunger for luxury seems more conventional than personal.
She gets a job as a department store mannequin; two middle-aged women paw the mink coat she’s modeling and discuss whether their husbands’ salaries can pay for it; one decides she’d “rather make him buy me a new bracelet anyway.” One customer sees Leonora, rather than her clothes, as a product for sale, and invites her to a yacht party. Though the set-up makes her feel “cheap,” she reluctantly agrees to go, and meets Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a vastly wealthy and powerful tycoon. Ohlrig is chilly, rude, and neurotic; he wants nothing more than a fling, but when his psychoanalyst diagnoses his fear of being married for his money and tells him the marriage would be a mistake, he decides to marry Leonora out of spite. She insists that she loves him and isn’t marrying him for his fortune, but no one believes her. Newspapers treat the Cinderella story as front-page news: “This is America,” one headline gushes, showing Leonora’s humble birthplace and the Long Island mansion where she will live.
The mansion itself is strikingly European, a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles with the grandeur of a palazzo, full of marble columns and objets d’art. A workaholic industrialist who inherited millions from his father, Ohlrig is so used to getting his way that he flies into rages and suffers nervous heart attacks if his will is crossed. He calls Leonora an “employee” and treats her as such, expecting her to be at his beck and call, ordering her around and humiliating her in front of guests.2 He forces her to stay up all night in order to act as hostess, telling her the house is her “place.” The situation feels feudal, more Old World than American, a sense heightened by the presence of Franzi, an Austrian former headwaiter who is Ohlrig’s toady; a cynical, malicious little man with no illusions about himself, his employer or Leonora. She hates the Strauss waltzes he plays on the piano, which offer a reminder of Ophuls’s origins. The film is full of his trademark fluid, encircling camera movements, which draw attention to the way people move through interiors; very few scenes are set outdoors.
Tormented by his petty, domineering habits, Leonora finally leaves Smith and goes to work for a doctor with whom she falls in love. But she returns to her husband when she discovers she is pregnant; despite all she has learned, she wants to secure her baby’s “future.” She spends months cowering in her bedroom while Smith, sadistically determined to destroy her, drags her off on nocturnal drives, never allowing her to sleep. When he has one of his attacks while playing pinball — a one-man game that suits his immature solipsism — she refuses to help him or call a doctor. Though he survives, she is so distraught that her baby is born prematurely and dies. Under the circumstances, this is a happy ending, leaving her free, and the dead baby is a fitting issue of their sterile union. Ophuls connects this nightmarish caricature of a traditional marriage — in which the husband demands obedience and humility in exchange for idleness and finery — with American materialism, stressing the assumption on all sides that Leonora has sold herself for wealth and luxury.
The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951) is “the house on the hill,” an explicit symbol of the affluence some are willing to lie or kill to gain. The heroine is not an ambitious working girl but a Polish refugee who has survived Bergen-Belsen. When her best friend dies in the camp a few days before liberation, Victoria Kowelska (Valentina Cortese) steals her papers and assumes her identity, knowing that Karin Dernakova has wealthy relations in America who have adopted her child. When she tracks them down, they are suspicious of her claim, and she exerts herself to seduce the boy’s guardian, Alan Spender (Richard Basehart). She’s not greedy, just frightened and tired, convinced that marriage to a wealthy American will give her safe harbor.
But as soon as she enters Alan’s house in San Francisco, she begins to feel uneasy. It’s an old-fashioned mansion full of carved wood, heavy antiques, family portraits, and sinister undercurrents. The house is perched at the top of a precipitous slope, and two murder attempts make use of its location: Victoria almost dies when the brakes in her car suspiciously fail as she drives down the hill, and Karin’s son Chris narrowly escapes an explosion in his playhouse, which leaves a gaping hole over a sheer drop. Alan is a poor relation ensconced in the house only as Chris’s guardian; he is determined to cling to what he believes is his rightful inheritance, and begins to shadow his wife’s every move. The house and its furnishings, which Alan desires and fetishizes, increasingly menace Victoria. In this self-consciously Hitchcockian thriller, everyday things — a branch tapping at the window, a phone lying off the hook, a pitcher of orange juice — exacerbate the heroine’s terror and sense of helpless imprisonment.
Looming in close-up, the orange juice resembles the phosphorescent glass of milk Cary Grant serves to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, another film about a woman who suspects her husband is trying to kill her; Victoria’s near-fatal drive also recalls that film’s hair-raising climax on a winding mountain road. Like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, she knows she is being watched and fears being poisoned; like Fontaine in Rebecca, she feels that secrets from the past overshadow the present. All of these stories turn on the vulnerability of brides who know little about their husbands, whether they are entering their husbands’ homes or taking their (gold-digging) spouses into their own. As the house is supposed to be a secure space, husbands are supposed to protect their wives. Trusted, and with access to women’s intimate spaces, they can become the most dangerous predators.
Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948), like Beware, My Lovely, was adapted from a radio play. A narrative consisting solely of a series of telephone conversations is a clever idea for radio but problematic for film, and despite the director’s best efforts it remains talky and oddly disembodied. Since there is often no action at all, the camera prowls around the rooms where people are talking, especially the bedroom of Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck), an invalid whose only link to the outside world is the telephone. The windows of her room look out on the Queensboro Bridge and the power stations of Manhattan’s East Side, but the city feels distant and unreal, and Leona is imprisoned by her illness. Her Sutton Place mansion is shadowy, lavish, and unwelcoming. Left alone when her servants have the evening off, she frantically calls in search of her husband, who has failed to come home on time. Someone reassures her that “You’re right in the heart of New York City and there’s a telephone beside your bed.” But after inadvertently overhearing the conversation of two men planning the murder of a woman, she becomes more and more panicked, shrieking, “I’m all alone in this horrible, empty house!”
Leona is a spoiled heiress (the “cough-drop queen”) whose widowed father has indulged her every whim since she was a child. She marries Henry (Burt Lancaster), a working-class young man who enjoys the luxurious life she gives him but feels stifled, caged, and humiliated, like Leonora in Caught. He’s given the title of “vice president” in his father-in-law’s pharmaceutical company but no responsibility, and is told that as long as he’s in the family mansion he must obey his wife. He tries to get her to move into an apartment, but she prefers to stay under her father’s roof with his stuffed hunting trophies. Frustrated and resentful, Henry begins stealing drugs from the company and selling them on the black market. When he’s caught trying to double-cross his fence, the racketeer demands money and suggests that Henry save himself by killing his wife for her fortune.
The role of Leona was originally played by Agnes Moorhead; the casting of Stanwyck, who usually played dynamic, assertive women, makes the character’s bedridden feebleness even more frustrating. Stanwyck does nothing to make Leona more appealing; indeed, she may be the most unattractive character Stanwyck ever portrayed. Pushy, selfish, and hysterical, Leona is also weak and needy. Her heart condition turns out to be purely neurotic: like Smith Ohlrig, she has an attack whenever she doesn’t get her way, and uses her condition to demand attention. But her conviction that she is “a very sick woman” saps all her strength. By the time Leona finally speaks to Henry and tells him that the racketeer is in jail, the hit man he’s sent to kill her is already in the house. No longer needing the money, he tries to save her, urging her to run to the window and scream. But Leona, too frightened to move and paralyzed by her self-inflicted helplessness, simply screams, “I can’t! I can’t!” as the hit man approaches and calmly murders her.
In Sudden Fear (David Miller, 1952), Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is also an heiress, but unlike Leona she is a successful career woman. She’s a playwright who, when asked why she works when she doesn’t need to, replies, “I suppose it’s a desire to achieve, to earn my keep, stand on my own two feet.” Observing a rehearsal of her latest play, she radiates confidence and importance, attended by an admiring, girlish secretary. She casually fires Lester Blaine (Jack Palace), the play’s leading man, because she feels he’s not sufficiently romantic-looking for the part. But when he angrily protests, she falters; she’s easily hurt and too eager to be liked. When they meet again, apparently by chance, on a train taking Myra from New York back to her home in San Francisco, she succumbs readily to his attentions. The romance between Crawford and Palance brings together two of the harshest faces in cinema, but while Palance’s taut features remain unreadably reptilian, Crawford’s hard, mannish mask opens into a soft, glowing appeal, an almost painful plea to be loved. Soon she is telling Lester, “Without you I have nothing,” overcoming his pretense of discomfort at courting a wealthy woman.
“It’s a cozy home,” he says sarcastically the first time he sees Myra’s Nob Hill mansion, where most of the film is set. The house is opulent, comfortably appointed, and deeply insulated from the city. When Myra finds out that Lester and his girlfriend Irene (Gloria Grahame) are planning to kill her (believing she has made a new will unfavorable to him), her familiar surroundings take on an ominous cast. The look of the film changes from plain, well-lit realism to murky, distorted expressionism. A double interiority lies at the heart of Sudden Fear: many long scenes follow Myra alone, the camera exploring the rooms she is in as they blend into the interior of her mind. She discovers the truth about her husband when she plays back the Dictaphone in her study, which was accidentally left on to record Lester and Irene making love (“I’m so crazy about you, I could break your bones”) and discussing how they might kill her (“I know a way” plays over and over as the record sticks). The Dictaphone, like the telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number, simultaneously connects and alienates. It allows Myra to be present during a secret meeting, but it breaks the illusion of intimacy with her husband and makes her realize she is truly alone.
Lying awake all night, she devises an elaborate, diabolical plan to kill Lester and frame Irene for it. The clever and almost quaint work of a playwright, the scheme involves faked handwriting and pillows arranged under the covers to look like a sleeping body. This is Myra’s attempt to regain the control she had in the first scene, to assert the god-like power to determine events on a stage. But even as she carries out her plan she appears ever more narrowly confined, both within enclosing spaces — Irene’s apartment, barred with shadows from Venetian blinds, and finally the darkness of Irene’s closet, where Myra hides after realizing she can’t bring herself to shoot Lester — and within her own tortured mind. In the closet, one sliver of light from the door illuminates her ravaged face, beaded with glistening tears and sweat, as she cowers among the furs and dresses. In the ultimate transformation of the quotidian into the terrifying, a wind-up toy dog toddles across the floor toward the closet, almost revealing her presence to Lester.
Myra is first seen in a theater, then on a train, then in a succession of rooms, and finally in a closet. Only in its last scene does the film move outside, with a chase through a classic noir cityscape of dark, twisting, deserted alleys. Lester, believing Myra has killed Irene, chases her in a car as she runs on foot through the streets (typically, the only person she encounters callously refuses her pleas for help). Lester ends up accidentally killing Irene, who is dressed in a fur coat and white scarf just like Myra, and dying himself in the crash. As she strides away, Myra’s face composes itself; she is once more free, strong, and confident. She is an independent woman with wealth, fame, and rewarding work, for whom romantic love has been a nightmare of humiliation, fear, and disillusionment.
II. A Life Sentence
“The curse of America — sheer, helpless, well-ordered boredom. And that is going some day to be the curse of the world.” — Rudyard Kipling (letter to William James, 1896)
“We lived on Corvallis Street, where all the houses looked alike,” Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) recalls. “I was always in the kitchen. I seemed to have been born in the kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.” Mildred (Joan Crawford) is an ordinary housewife, except that to her daughter’s shame she adds to the family’s income by baking cakes to sell. Though she becomes a wealthy, successful businesswoman, she has no desire for a career. She’s driven instead by a devotion to her daughters, especially the snobbish Veda, who becomes the center of her life after the younger daughter dies of a sudden illness. After breaking up with her husband, who is repelled by her obsession with the children, Mildred goes to work as a waitress to support the family. The class-conscious Veda is disgusted when she finds her mother’s “degrading” uniform.
Mildred and Veda represent two poles of noir femininity: the nurturing martyr and the greedy glamour-puss. The mother spoils her daughter, and the daughter lives off the mother she looks down on. Men are marginal, at least for Mildred. She seems hardly to notice her first husband’s absence, and marries her second only because he’s a playboy who can give Veda the kind of classy excitement she yearns for. He’s from an upper-class family but broke, and Mildred frankly and contemptuously buys him. Turning her one talent, cooking, into a thriving chain of restaurants, Mildred is hard-working and successful, but feels her life is empty without her daughter; she’s like a man in thrall to a femme fatale. Even after Veda tries to steal her husband and shoots him when he refuses to marry her, the disillusioned Mildred attempts to take the blame herself; she’s been taking care of Veda too long to stop now.
Veda is brilliantly played, with loathsome smugness and girlish petulance, by Ann Blythe. Glossily pretty, shallow and brittle, she is incapable of caring about anyone but herself. Mildred reflects Joan Crawford’s own fanatical perfectionism, a peculiar blend of steely competence, strained refinement, and unappeasable emotion. Mildred is sympathetic, yet frustratingly wrong-headed and ultimately pathetic. The film finds a gaping hollowness in both the greedy, seductive minx and the capable, no-nonsense professional. Mildred gets everything a woman can have: love, marriage, motherhood, a high-powered career, a fur coat, yet none of it gives her real happiness or security. This was the paradox of the “woman’s picture.” It offered women in the audience wish-fulfillment fantasies — gorgeous clothes, glamorous surroundings, passionate love affairs, rewarding careers — and at the same time made suffering the defining female experience.
In Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 1957), Kathy Ferguson (Stanwyck) reverses Mildred’s transformation, going from career woman to housewife. The opening scene establishes Kathy, a San Francisco advice columnist, as a busy, competent woman. Already, however, the role differs from the reporters played earlier by Stanwyck in Meet John Doe or Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Her editor derides her work as schmaltz and condescendingly urges her to get the “woman’s angle” on a murder case; women are plainly supposed to care only about relationships. When Kathy confronts two Los Angeles policemen, demanding information because she and the other newsmen have a job to do, one of the cops tells her, “Your work should be raising a family, getting dinner ready for your husband.”
Kathy succeeds in tracing the woman the cops are after, who is wanted for murdering her husband. She writes an open letter, “from one woman’s heart to another,” offering sympathy and asking the fugitive to call her. We see a series of women — taxi drivers, housewives, grandmothers — reading the letter, a collage conveying solidarity among women in “a world made by and for men.” Her coup in capturing the killer (despite her expressions of compassion, she has no qualms about turning the woman over to the police) earns Kathy an offer from a New York paper, and she exultantly prepares to pursue her career. But she has already fallen for one of the L.A. cops (not the one who told her she should be home making dinner), and when he calls and asks to see her, she eagerly changes her plans.
On their first date she tells him she has no plans to marry: “For marriage I read life sentence. For home life: TV nights, beer in the fridge, second mortgage. No, not for me. For me life has to be something more than that.” But in the very next scene they’re being married (by a female justice of the peace!), and she tells him her only remaining ambition is to make him happy, be a good wife, darn his socks. He lives in the suburbs, a staid, serene neighborhood of low bungalows, with kids playing in the street and tacky flowered wallpaper in the living room. The horizontal, flat-lit spaces of Los Angeles dominate the film; the feeling of claustrophobia does not come from noir lighting or urban density.
Kathy almost immediately begins to suffocate in the tedious, enclosed social world of policemen and their wives. Night after night the men play poker and discuss their pensions while their wives prepare canapés and talk about clothes and whose husband is popular with the boss. Bored to tears by the vapid chatter, the former career woman begins to crack up. “Is this all you have to look forward to, this mediocrity?” she demands of her husband. He tells her that he only works in order to support them, so they can be together — he values love and domesticity over his career (he is even willing to quit and move to another police department to please her), while she insists, “I want you to be somebody!” She projects her own thwarted ambition onto her easy-going, complacent husband, who refuses to “stick his elbow in the other guy’s eye.”
So Kathy begins scheming to get her husband promoted, putting her brains and her wiles to work behind his back. She conspires to meet and seduce the Chief Inspector, Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), so that he will favor Johnny. Pope sees through her immediately, but is happy to get what he can from her. He keeps a file of “strange offenses committed by seemingly normal people”; Kathy notices they the perpetrators are mostly women, and he explains that this is because “they reason with life only so far.” Kathy sleeps with Pope in order to secure a promotion for her husband, and when the Inspector passes over Johnny, bluntly telling Kathy that he’s just not good enough, she snaps and shoots him. In the end her husband arrests and turns her in. For marriage, read life sentence.
Stanwyck was initially reluctant to take the role of Phyllis Dietrichson, fearing that playing such a “bitch” would ruin her career. But film noir would become her cinematic lifeline in the late forties and throughout the fifties, allowing her to continue playing complex, attractive, powerful women at an age when many actresses are forced into mother roles. These parts reflected how the world had closed in on ambitious, independent women; in film after film Stanwyck feels stifled by the limitations of her life and schemes to escape, resorting to both seduction and violence, usually ending up imprisoned or dead. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946), she’s a wealthy businesswomen who runs a steel mill, but laments that she’s always been “so choked with wanting something else, with wanting air and room to breathe.” In Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952), Stanwyck is a hard, poised woman of the world, yet insists “I want to be looked after . . . I want a man to give me confidence.” She marries for security and is so oppressed by the boredom and confinement of being a working-class housewife that she betrays her husband with his bitter, misogynistic best friend.
Barbara Stanwyck was both the toughest of noir women and the most wounded. In Baby Face (Alfred Green, 1933), her definitive pre-Code role as a women who decides to turn the tables on men and be the exploiter rather than the exploited, she says, “My life has been hard, bitter. I’m not like other women. All the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed.” Pre-Code Hollywood showed considerable understanding and sympathy for women driven to unscrupulous acts by economic desperation. Film noir, officially following the strict morality of the Hays Code, made the “black widow” more like the vamp of silent movies, who was sexually aggressive yet contemptuous of men. The vamp generally lacked the femme fatale’s economic motives but shared her unrepentant selfishness. In the 1920 film Sex, Louise Glaum (who performs “the spider dance”) explains her philosophy: “Grab everything you want and never feel sorry for anyone but yourself.” In truth, even the iciest women in noir usually betray some softer feelings and feminine weakness. Even Phyllis Dietrichson finds herself unable to shoot Walter Neff in the end, though he has no such qualms, plugging her in the belly with a brusque “Goodbye, baby.”
III. Hothouse Flowers and Parachutes
“What you’re saying is women are made to be loved.” — Lizabeth Scott, Dead Reckoning
Although the femme fatale is usually a cold and selfish woman driven by greed, for whom sexual relationships are a means to get money, some films reverse this pattern, centering on women who already have money but are consumed by the need to be loved.
Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons) in Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1952) the spoiled, lonely daughter of an English novelist, lives unhappily in the mansion of her wealthy stepmother, perched high up on a Los Angeles hillside — another perilous house on the hill. Diane is chic and eerie: black Cleopatra hair frames her pale, elfin face and huge dark eyes. She wears sleek cocktail dresses and drives around in a snazzy roadster, but she’s also sad, needy, and quietly crazy, clinging to her father, a doting but weak man suffering from writer’s block. Both Diane and, less openly, her father blame his creative block on his wife, a slightly self-absorbed and insensitive but basically good-hearted rich woman. Diane hates her stepmother so much that, as the film opens, she has tried to kill her by opening the gas valves in her bedroom. When Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) arrives at the house as part of the ambulance crew, he finds Diane playing the piano, spookily unconcerned. It’s only when she hears that her stepmother will live that she becomes hysterical.
Diane was ten when her mother was killed in the bombing of London. (Like Victoria Kowleska, haunted by the concentration camps, she’s a feminine version of the traumatized veteran.) Childlike, alternately creepy and charming, Diane fastens on Frank, throwing herself at him and separating him from his girlfriend, a level-headed nurse. Diane has no friends, no one in her life except her father. She lures Frank to the house with the offer of a job as chauffer and the indefinite promise of sex and money for the garage he wants to open. When he tells her they’re from different worlds, that she has money and beautiful clothes and he has nothing, she answers like Myra Hudson, “All I want is you. I can’t let you go.”
She clings to Frank even more desperately after her father dies in the “accident” she devises to kill her stepmother, rigging her car to drive backwards over the cliff. Unhinged by this horror, she retreats into her troubled mind. She and Frank are put on trial for the murder, but are acquitted after a lawyer shrewdly convinces them to get married in order to gain sympathy. In what must be the saddest wedding in film noir, they are married in the prison psych ward where she’s confined; the other crazy ladies present them with a cake and serenade them with “Oh, Promise Me.”
Their union is a fatal combination of a woman who cares too much and a man who cares too little. Frank Jessup could come across as just a chump, a none-too-bright guy who falls for the lure of easy money and a beautiful woman. But Mitchum turns him into something else, a man pathologically uncommitted; a disenchanted, passive drifter unmoved by anything but the thrill of speed (he’s a former racecar driver). He easily sees through Diane’s lies and doesn’t want to get involved in anything, yet is incurably opportunistic. At the end of Angel Face, Frank bluntly tells Diane he’s “clearing out,” but accepts her offer to drive him to the station so he can catch a bus to Mexico. The only way to watch this without groaning — of course she puts the car into reverse and drives them both off the cliff — is to assume that Frank’s indifference encompasses his own fate: baby, he doesn’t care.
Robert Mitchum embodied a particular brand of masculinity: the unattached, rootless loner who resists ties and responsibilities. Diane Tremayne represents the contrasting extreme of femininity: clinging, dependent, consumed by emotions. Like Myra Hudson, she is trapped in interiors, in the house and in the distortions of her mind, her fantasies and lies. In a long, wordless sequence near the end of the film, Diane, who has tried to confess to the killing and been shocked to learn she can never be punished for it, wanders through the empty rooms of the house. She’s pitifully lonely and lost, touching objects that remind her of her father and the vanished family’s life, caressing Frank’s belongings and wrapping herself in his coat. She’s like a ghost doomed to wander the vacant house.
Leave Her to Heaven (John Stahl, 1945) moves through a series of rustic retreats — a desert lodge, a Maine cabin, a beach cottage — that look like magazine spreads. Shot in luscious Technicolor, the whole film has a glowing, unnatural perfection, impeccably desirable as a store-window display. Such material fantasies are part of what women’s movies offered. But, typically, Leave Her to Heaven exposes a shocking emptiness beneath this gorgeous façade. Ellen (Gene Tierney) is a woman who has everything but remains unsatisfied, who loses her husband’s love by trying too hard to hold onto it. She “loves too much,” her mother says, and her love is exclusive, possessive, and destructive. She even destroys her unborn child, throwing herself downstairs to induce a miscarriage, because she fears losing her figure and doesn’t want to share her husband’s attention with a baby. She dons a soft, frilly, baby-blue bathrobe to perform this act, tumbling down the carpeted stairs outside the newly-painted nursery. In the next scene she runs out of the surf in a bathing suit red as fresh nail-polish, so happy and healthy and sexy it’s frightening — she’s like a nuclear-powered pinup girl.
Ellen is both hyper-feminine and unfeminine. Despite her beauty she is consumed by jealousy of her homier, more bookish sister, fearing (rightly as it turns out) that she has more to offer Ellen’s writer husband. Ellen has no nurturing warmth or sociability, though she presides over immaculate households and works obsessively to please her husband. There’s an Amazon-like hardness beneath her sweet appearance. In an early scene at the desert lodge where she and her husband meet, we see her riding along the ridge of a canyon in a cold blue dawn, scattering her beloved father’s ashes in defiant handfuls, her face set as stone. In the film’s most famous scene, Ellen sits in a rowboat on a sparkling Maine lake, watching impassively through a pair of cat’s-eye sunglasses as her husband’s crippled younger brother drowns. She’s repeatedly seen swimming: in the pool at the desert lodge, in the lake and the ocean; she’s like a mermaid, cold-blooded and alien, preying on a hapless human male. Ellen ultimately performs a supremely destructive act, committing suicide and making it look as though her sister has poisoned her.
Both Diane and Ellen already have wealth and luxury, the femme fatale’s usual goals, but use their beauty to gain the attention of men and deviously scheme to hold it. Their husbands are stand-ins for their fathers, whom they have either lost through death or been forced to share with a stepmother (Ellen is first attracted to Richard Harland because of his striking resemblance to her Dad). The women’s demand for total attention is like a child’s, or even an infant’s selfish need. They have never matured into the independence that makes adult relationships possible. This Peter Pan-like refusal to grow up, crystallized by Ellen’s refusal to bear a child, seems linked to the actresses’ girlish physical perfection and the spotless newness of their surroundings.
In The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (Robert Siodmak, 1945), Lettie Quincy (Geraldine Fitzgerald) does not even bother to transfer her affections from a family member to an eligible man. She is exclusively devoted to her brother Harry (George Sanders), a mild-mannered, repressed bachelor who lives in his old family home and works every day at a mill that looks like a prison, painting endless rosebuds in fabric designs. The local children call him Uncle Harry, a nickname that suggests benign asexuality; his sisters fuss over him as if he were a child, bickering with each other and competing to pamper and smother him. The usually suave and caddish Sanders succeeds in making Harry ineffectual and thwarted without making him a hen-pecked milquetoast. He hints at a sophisticated, bitter intelligence submerged by lack of will; he’s wearily resigned to the smallness of his life but still harbors unspoken longings. Based on a play, Siodmak’s film accentuates the feeling of confinement to interiors rather than opening out the script to make it more cinematic. Even the camera remains largely static and passive, like the characters it observes.
One day Harry meets Deborah Brown (Ella Raines), a glamorous, bold young woman from his company’s New York office. She strides around in menswear-inspired tailored suits and sexy high-waisted pants, making it clear that she is an experienced woman whose door is open to a potential lover. She teases, entices, and hectors Harry to get out of his rut. Lettie immediately views Deborah as a threat. Her attachment to her brother is romantic and possessive, as unhealthy as the atmosphere of the hothouse where she habitually lounges in a soft, revealing negligee. Harry shows no sign of returning her incestuous affection, though it may be significant that Deborah looks rather like dark-haired and slender Lettie.
While older sister Hester is a typical gossipy matron, Harry and Lettie seem isolated and aloof, living in their own private world. Lettie tells Deborah, “His world is inside him, and it’s rare and beautiful and lonely — and you’ll spoil it!” Harry at least has his men’s club, where he sings barber-shop quartets with middle-aged storekeepers, but Lettie never goes anywhere; she has no friends or hobbies. What she wants above all is to be alone with Harry, to maintain a special, private relationship with him, as if they were still children. Like the women in Angel Face and Leave Her to Heaven, she’s warped by the confinement of her world and obsessed with exclusive possession of the man she loves.
Lettie holds up Harry’s marriage first by refusing to move out of the house, declaring all the available houses impossible; then by begging Deborah to put off the wedding or agree to share the house with her. She tells Deborah that she never married because Harry needed her; but in fact she knows that he is “sorry for everything” and exploits his soft-heartedness, posing as a chronic invalid and faking “attacks” to hold onto him (just like Leona Stevenson and Smith Ohlrig). Finally, when Harry is about to elope to New York, she has another “attack” and takes to her bed. Despite Deborah’s ultimatum, Harry refuses to leave while she’s ill.
“People don’t understand how pleasant and comfortable living in a small town can be,” Lettie gloats as she and her brother share cocoa before bed after Deborah has returned to New York and married another man. Harry has put poison in her cocoa — poison that Lettie herself bought to put the family dog (named Weary!) out of his misery. She inadvertently gives the poisoned cup to Hester, who dies; known for constantly quarrelling with her sister, Lettie is tried and condemned to hang for the murder. Harry remains as helpless as ever, his life still controlled by his sisters. Finally unable to bear the guilt, he tries to confess, but can’t get anyone to believe him. Lettie cruelly plays along, saying that it’s just the “gesture” she would have expected from him. She knows he will suffer more from not being punished. She no longer wants to live, knowing Harry hated her enough to kill her, but she realizes with bitter triumph that she can hold onto him for the rest of his life through his guilt. “I just wanted to be free,” he protests hopelessly.
In the same year, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street got away with this conclusion: Edward G. Robinson allows an innocent man to be executed for the murder he committed, but is so haunted by the act that he becomes a homeless lunatic. But RKO, worried about censorship and audience response, demanded a new ending for Uncle Harry. Perhaps taking a page from Lang’s Woman in the Window, of the previous year, they went for the ultimate cop-out: Harry wakes to find that the bungled murder was all a dream. Moments later Deborah bursts in to say that she didn’t get married after all, and they make plans to elope. Producer Joan Harrison resigned in disgust, but the ending is so blatantly tacked on that it can be easily ignored; there is no attempt to make it dramatically plausible. Harry has done nothing to deserve Deborah’s change of heart or to shake her conviction that he will always remain under Lettie’s thumb.
In Uncle Harry, the independent, sexually available city woman is the savior, while the traditional chaste, family-bound, home-making women are destructive to a man’s identity. When tough-minded, single working girls turn up in noir, they are often presented attractively as honest, intelligent, and helpful to men: Ella Raines’s secretary who puts herself in danger to clear her boss of a murder charge in Phantom Lady; Lili Palmer’s artist who acts as her estranged husband’s conscience in Body and Soul; even Valentina Cortese’s waterfront prostitute in Thieves’ Highway, who turns out to be less mercenary than the hero’s nice-girl fiancée. Mistresses and molls — women who live off men — tend to be either gold-diggers who seduce their lovers into crime to support them, or helpless, victimized possessions, like Jean Wallace in The Big Combo.
It has often been said that the femme fatale was an embodiment of male anxiety about the empowerment of working women during the war. Because men felt threatened by newly independent women, the theory goes, they depicted ambitious, undomesticated females as evil and destructive. But the femme fatale is never a working woman; she always uses men to further her ends, exploiting the economic bargain implicit in traditional sexual relationships. Her first assumption is that men have the money and power, and it’s only through them that she can get what she wants.
The femme fatale can never stand on her own; she’s constantly looking for security, leverage, a protector, a fall guy, a chump. She relies on male violence, but also suffers from it. She deceives and betrays, but her power can dissolve with a man’s disillusionment. She uses men’s protectiveness against them, claiming to be weak and in need of a champion; but her fear is real. When Jane Greer in Out of the Past tells Robert Mitchum that she had to return to the gangster she claims to hate — she had no choice; she was afraid and helpless — he replies disgustedly, “You’re like a leaf the wind blows from one gutter to another.” The femme fatale may reflect male fear of strong women, but she surely also expresses men’s fear of their own vulnerabilities being exploited; fear of being blinded by sexual attraction or by their own chivalrous impulses.
This seems to be the point of a notorious exchange in Dead Reckoning, when Humphrey Bogart tells Lizabeth Scott that women should come capsule-sized, so they won’t get in a man’s way. When he wants her “full sized and beautiful” he waves his hand, but if she starts to interrupt or ask too many questions he can just say, “Get back in my pocket.” Rather than bridling at this chauvinism, Scott smilingly responds that “What you’re saying is that women are made to be loved. . . . Yes, it’s a confession. A woman may drive you out of your mind, but you wouldn’t trust her, and because you couldn’t put her in your pocket, you get all mixed up.” Bogart spends most of Dead Reckoning insisting that he never trusts women, and thinking the worst of Scott, only to finally succumb, falling in love and believing her professed innocence. It turns out she’s a liar and a killer after all. But as she lies dying, she appeals to Bogart: “I’m scared . . . I wish you could put me in your pocket now.” Rather than the security of a man’s pocket, he offers the image of a parachutist jumping from a plane, leaping alone into darkness and emptiness. “Geronimo” is not a word of comfort, but an admission of equality.
- In City That Never Sleeps (John H. Auer, 1953), a wife blames herself for the fact that her husband planned to participate in a robbery and use the money to run off with his stripper mistress. It’s her fault, she says, because she made more money than him, and she promises to quit her job to keep him happy. [↩]
- Though Smith Ohlrig is obviously modeled after Howard Hughes, the incident in which he forces Leonora to entertain his guests was inspired by the behavior of Preston Sturges, who helped Ophuls get his first job in America, five years after he arrived. [↩]