The Fading Femme Fatale in Contemporary Genre Films

Thomas Sobchack claims that genre films rely on iconographies for characterization and, once established, the character’s actions are defined by their type (106-108). The first half of this claim is easy to support. Television commercials, with very little time to develop character, are excellent examples of how iconographies quickly establish, for example, the coolness of the Mac user and the hopelessness of the PC user. At least since the 1970s, a post modern self-consciousness in films and other factors have made the second part of Sobchack’s claim suspect. This essay considers a group of films that could be considered neo-noirs. In each film there appears to be a femme fatale but in each case the character’s actions are ultimately more passive than the conventional femme fatale and the character is reduced to that of a victim for the hero to save.

The films are Klute (Alan Pakula, 1971), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), and L. A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997). The use of the label neo-noir to describe these films is problematic, as noir itself is a fluid term. In this essay, the label neo-noir is not exclusive, and used to indicate that each of these films use a number of stylistic and structural elements associated with films that have been identified as noir, hard boiled detective, or more generically, detective genre films. All four films feature the figure of the detective investigating a mystery more complex than initially presented, in a gritty urban setting marked by moral decay, criminal corruption or both. Klute uses a contemporary setting, in keeping with its deliberate use of noir elements metaphorically rather than literally (Pakula qtd. in Gledhill, 20). The other films use a period setting to reinforce the association with older films. Blade Runner’s period is the future, but it uses imagery from the past. For example, Bryant’s office, with its venetian blinds, old furniture, and old style fans, is a visual cliché that matches the plot cliché taking place there, that of the detective forced out of retirement for a case.

Each film introduces a strong female character whose appearance or behaviour, and relationship with the detective figure, identifies her as being in iconographic role of the femme fatale. In each case, as expected, a sexual relationship with the detective ensues despite his being unable to fully trust her. However, in each case the danger of the relationship is limited, and the detective’s choice between the relationship and personal moral code, if required, is not difficult. Despite initial representations, the character is eventually shown as a victim. In the course of this transition, the detective assists or tries to assist the female character away from challenging moral norms to accepting them.

In detective genre films, the investigation helps bring the couple together, but in the case of the femme fatale figure, she may also pose a danger to the detective. Bree (Jane Fonda) in Klute is initially a character who may have been involved with the disappearance of Tom Gruneman, but nothing contradicts her denials, and the film soon reveals the existence of the actual killer. The only danger she poses to Klute (Donald Sutherland) is to his morality. She attempts to gain some measure of power over him, as she claims to have over other men, by treating him as a john, but confesses to her therapist and the viewer that she is, if not obsessed, at least drawn to him through the physical enjoyment of sex with him. Though there are elements of the female gothic in Klute, and there are parallels between Klute and the killer, Bree does not seem to recognize the parallels. Neither she nor the viewer sees Klute as threatening her with any more than moral condemnation. Christine Gledhill notes that the development of the relationship between Bree and Klute is parallel, not integral, to the criminal investigation (117). However, there are elements of the couple coming together through the investigation, so it is not that isolated.

In Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) actions suggest a more conventional femme fatale, but the early revelation that it was an imposter who hired Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) sets up uncertainties. Evelyn repeatedly withholds information from Jake, leading him to occasionally suspect her of killing her husband, but as in Klute the sexual relationship is neither particularly obsessive nor in itself dangerous. Jake never appears concerned that she might kill him, and there are elements of the investigation bringing the couple together, such as Evelyn’s rescue of Jake from the farmers, and their joint investigation at the nursing home. Her character is strong enough to shoot her destroyer but, in keeping with the film’s theme of corruption dominating, she only wounds, and does not stay to finish the job. Her actions are initially defined by type, but later defined by the film’s positioning of the detective figure as a failure.

Blade Runner’s Rachel (Sean Young) is visually coded as a femme fatale, with a distinctive dress, hair, make-up and clothing that also sets her apart from other women in the film. Her attraction to Deckard (Harrison Ford), her uncertain alignment, and her ability to kill when necessary are consistent with the femme fatale. Her identification as a replicant should make her an enemy, but she does not appear to share the other replicants’ desires, or at least have sympathy with their methods, so Deckard’s decision not to kill her is understandable. In addition, his moral code is not challenged by letting her live, as killing replicants is his job as an agent of the state, something he was not given any choice in, not an action in support of his personal morality. Rachel’s decision to leave Tyrell, her maker/father (although she probably was more in the role of mistress), and enter into a relationship with Deckard, the man who sees her as she really is, is essentially the dependent daughter growing up and moving from the father’s house to the husband’s. This is not the action of an independent woman. The origami unicorn at the end suggests innocence and links her to Deckard’s dream, (and suggests that Graff is aware of Deckard thoughts as a replicant) but the symbolism is awkward. The unicorn is a fierce beast that is partial to laying its head in the lap of a female virgin, after which it becomes tame and can be captured. Thus it can be read that Rachel has captured the once free running Deckard. However, he appears to be protecting her. When she kills Leon, this is the element of the couple working together on the investigation, but in the context of the film this is an action that reinforces Deckard as a danger primarily to women. This should make his affection for her more difficult, yet he never seems to struggle with his decision to save her.

Lynn Braken (Kim Basinger) of L.A. Confidential is the most obvious femme fatale of this group. Her character is not metaphorical like Bree, and not structurally or visually reminiscent like Evelyn or Rachel, but a deliberate and named imitation of Veronica Lake. Despite this, she is the weakest character of the group. The relationship between her and Bud White (Russell Crowe) is even more isolated from the criminal investigations than the relationship in Klute. She is presented as being in danger only once, briefly, and later seen to have never been in danger. She plays no part in the investigation, instead supporting Bud’s character growth, confirming his heterosexuality, and serving as both victim for him to rescue and explicitly as a prize for solving the investigation. She serves some important narrative functions, particularly setting up the confrontation between Bud and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), but in this she is a pawn of others. As in Chinatown, the character’s role is defined by the theme, not the generic convention. Lynn’s Veronica Lake appearance is a pose as a star persona, not a character, and the contrast between Lynn and the figure of the femme fatale emphasizes the star persona as a constructed image.

In each of the four films, the female lead is initially represented as a strong figure, and eventually revealed as a victim. As a prostitute, Bree is more blatantly sexual than earlier femme fatale figures, but she is also more conflicted about her sexuality. She likes being in control, but as the early scene with a john makes clear, and as she later claims to Klute, she does not take pleasure in the sex itself. The first session with the therapist reveals that she wishes to stop being a prostitute, and as the film progresses Bree starts to reject the world of casual sex and drug use. She is haunted by both her stalker and the fate of her friends. Verbally she rejects the notion of becoming domestic, but is happy to tag along behind her man, holding his shirt, while they engage in the domestic chore of grocery shopping. Klute rescues her from Cable, rescues her from unenjoyable sex, and despite the ambiguity of the ending, at least for a while he is rescuing her from her lifestyle.

Evelyn’s moderately aggressive sexuality that manifests itself in extra-marital affairs is given a tidy psychological explanation. Her father refers to her “a disturbed woman,” and this assessment is no less accurate for him being the cause of it. She is initially Jake’s helper, but once she is identified as a victim, he takes charge and she acquiesces.

Rachel’s father is also the cause of her victim status. Tyrell identifies her as “an experiment, nothing more,” but the science fiction cliché of the female “pleasure model” robot has already been introduced with reference to Pris (Daryl Hannah). Rachel is sexually confident, asserting during questioning that her husband would not need to display a poster of another woman, as she should be enough. She is also capable of killing Leon, even though he posed no threat to her and was about to kill Deckard, who could be a threat to her. This shows her as having both strength and compassion, the latter not a trait usually identified with the femme fatale, and in the end, as in Klute and Chinatown, the female submits herself to the decisions of the male.

Lynn, like Bree, is a confident and successful but conflicted prostitute. Unlike Bree, Lynn wants to leave the big city and does not claim to be liberated. She does not deny Ed’s accusation that Pierce taught her how to look, and reminds Ed that Pierce also taught her “how to fuck” which may be true. Like Rachel, Lynn lives a life entirely constructed by others. This is visually reinforced by twice showing her on her porch in a performance space: A dramatically lit archway viewed from a distance. Bud rescues Lynn from her lifestyle and the image of Veronica Lake, but at least there is some strength in her true self. At the end, the couple go off together, and while the woman is in the traditional female role of care-giver, this also makes her the dominant figure of the couple. Bud is mute, she is driving, and their destination is her rural home town, where presumably she can satisfy her ambition to open a dress shop.

The representation of the lead females as victims, desiring rather than rejecting moral norms, is reinforced by the representation of other women in the films, and makes it easier for the detective figures to choose them without issues of moral code.

Klute deserves some credit for showing a few women in positions of power. The therapist is obviously a successful woman, and woman are shown running both a high class brothel and a low class sex club. However, this is overshadowed by the number of times where men determine the fate of women, and Bree’s own passivity. Her attempted path out of prostitution is modeling or acting, as opposed to a more reliable career less dependent on presenting the body, such as clerical work. She goes to auditions, but does not appear to be in any classes to support her vague ambitions. Cable blames Bree and women like her for being lazy, preying on the sexual fantasies of men, and taking advantage of men’s weaknesses. Bree’s actions and words suggest Cable is not entirely wrong in his accusations. Together with the presentation of Cable and Klute as parallel figures and Bree’s own rejection of her lifestyle, the film’s overall representation of sexually active women is that they are dangerous social elements.

Jake initially ignores Evelyn’s suggestion that Noah Cross may be behind everything Jack is investigating, including the death of her husband, just as the police ignore Jack when he tells them Noah is crazy, and they accept Noah’s word that Evelyn is crazy and killed her husband over an affair. This lack of respect for Evelyn is physically manifested when Jake repeatedly hits Evelyn to get the truth about Katherine, in the only fight he wins. His uncertain attitude towards her may be shaped by her own dissembling and casually admitted infidelity. Chinatown does not blame the victim to the extent that Klute does. Noah’s rape of his daughter is part of what he feels is necessary to “create the future,” and not sexual per se. However, a clue to the film’s overall position is the opening images of photographed sex, quickly identified as proof of a woman cheating on her husband. In this context, Evelyn’s own infidelity is wrong but normalized, and as previously mentioned, justified. The woman’s sexuality is not condemned so much as ignored.

Blade Runner takes a strong position against female sexuality. Deckard has the task of hunting down four replicants, two males and two females. One of the females is “a basic pleasure model” which has a number of implications. Even among the technological advanced replicants, sexuality is not a component of all females. The female that is not the sex model is the exotic dancer, displayed and then repeatedly shot in slow motion. Pris also suffers a gory death after a drawn out fight. Of the men, Leon is quickly dispatched, by Rachel, and Roy is allowed to die “naturally”. Deckard only kills the females, and both are associated with sexuality. Rachel looks and acts the part of the sexually aggressive femme fatale, but it is not clear that she is a “pleasure model.” Given Deckard’s killing of the other female replicants, it may be Rachel’s lack of sexuality that saves her as much as anything else.

Women in L.A. Confidential are largely figures of innocence. The police clerks and secretaries fade into the background, Dudley Smith’s wife and daughters are out of town, the beaten wife, the rape victim, and Bud White’s mother are entirely blameless, and Susan Lefferts’ mother takes no action against the disliked boyfriend beyond expressing her disapproval. The many glamour shots of Susan, at all ages, on display at her mother’s house, suggest that the process of image construction began long before the cosmetic surgery on her nose, but in the context of the film, this is the fault of society or men, not her mother. Bud’s usual respectful treatment of women is missing when he first encounters Lynn, and it may be this lack of idolization that allows him to form an intimate relationship with her. Her resigned acceptance of prostitution, “at least we still get to act a little,” her desire to leave the corrupt city, and her ability to have an apparently romantically based sexual relationship with Bud all stress her innocence and desire to return to moral norms. Ed’s incorrect assumption about the Lana Turner character and his ability enjoy a romp with Lynn despite his apparent dislike of her reveal his ability to live a double standard, later shown in his shooting of Dudley Smith and his participation in the cover-up.

Each of these four films deliberately use generic conventions in new ways, demonstrating the fluidity of genres, so it is not surprising that the female figures do not act as expected. What is surprising is that all four work to suppress and contain female sexuality. Christine Gledhill argues that Klute, despite its attempt to present “a modern version of the independent woman”, “operates in a profoundly anti-feminist way, perhaps even more so than the forties thrillers from which it derives” (112-113). This is an accusation that could apply to all the films discussed here. The sexuality of women is acknowledged, more frankly than earlier films allowed, but it is also more restrained, by the woman’s rejection of it (Klute and L.A Confidential), by its presentation as a manufactured surface image (Blade Runner, L.A Confidential,) by its psychological justification (Chinatown), or by its brutal suppression (Klute, Chinatown, Blade Runner). What is left after the sexuality is removed is a victim for the detective to prove his strength or humanity by rescuing, or demonstrate his failure in not rescuing.

Works Consulted

Gledhill, Christine. “Klute Part 2: Feminism and Klute.” Women in Film Noir. ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 1978. p. 112-128.

Sobchack, Thomas. “Genre Film: A Classical Experience.” Film Genre Reader. ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986. p 102-113.

Copyright © by Tim Covell, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

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