The idea of the femme fatale has gone beyond the confines of film noir. It is a concept that has entered into the common lexicon. A dangerous woman, no matter the genre in which she appears, or whether or not she is fictional or real, is a femme fatale. She ensnares an unwitting man with her beauty and her mystery, and persuades him to do her dirty work. He normally dies in the end, or his life has been so ravaged by his involvement with her, that he wishes he was dead.
But what about a dangerous man? A man who ensnares women, and men, with his beauty and his mystery. Who whispers seductive words into the ears of those who became obsessed with him, and devoted to him. A man who schemes and plots, and destroys anyone who poses a threat to his desires. A man who may do the killing himself, or get others to kill for him. He is often driven by a desire for money, prestige, power and control over others. But his motives are concealed by a charming smile, a seductive quality that means that no one suspects him of any deadly motives.
Unlike his female counterpart, he is often regarded by others as being harmless. Too handsome and charismatic, or gentle and unassuming to pose any kind of serious threat. Where a femme fatale is often regarded by the male protagonist as immediately deadly because of her beauty and her involvement with the underbelly of society; this is often not the case with the homme fatale. His is a concealed deadliness that slowly becomes more evident as the story progresses, and his victims struggle to escape his web.
There have indeed been many articles written and commentaries made on the figure of the femme fatale in film noir, but there have been far less on the idea of the homme fatale. In the documentary Possessed: The Quintessential Noir, the idea of the homme fatale is discussed because of Van Heflin’s role in the film Possessed, starring he and Joan Crawford. Because the documentary served as the inspiration for this article, I think it’s fitting to start with Van Heflin’s deadly engineer.
Possessed (1947) features a tour de force performance by Joan Crawford, who plays Louise, a practical young nurse who falls in love with her employer’s engineer neighbour, David, played by Van Heflin.
David is handsome and charming, but when Louise states her love for him and her desire to become his wife, David coldly and smartly rebuffs her. He just isn’t the marrying kind. Nor is he the kind to have any concern for anyone else’s feelings, especially the women who he becomes involved with. And he becomes involved with a lot of women off screen, when he stays in Canada for many months.
Upon his return, he informs Louise of this as if he’s talking about what he had for breakfast, and is completely dismissive of how distraught she is. When Louise marries her kind and caring employer, Dean (played by Raymond Massey), David soon shifts his attentions to her stepdaughter, Carol (played by Geraldine Brooks).
As her mental state enters a steep decline, Louise scrambles to keep them apart. But David is quite intent on marrying Carol, and he smugly tells Louise his motive for doing so: he wants Carol’s money, and he’s going to have it and spend it until the piggy bank is shattered into a million, penniless pieces. But David has miscalculated just how far Louise is willing to go to make sure that David doesn’t betray her again, and the film reaches a brilliant climatic showdown between the pair.
Van Heflin is breathtaking as David. It is unlikely that you will ever watch him in another role and hate his character quite so much. While Joan’s character, Louise, is portrayed as being debilitatingly mentally ill; David’s character is far more threatening and unnerving. The viewer feels pity for Louise as she tries to cling to her sanity, but David isn’t insane. He knows exactly what he’s doing the entire film, and he acts out his desires with cool efficiency, making sure that Louise looks like the one with unsavoury motives, whilst he casts himself in the light of victim, and lover to a naïve girl.
He is portrayed as an object of desire for the entire film: Louise and Carol want him, and while Louise is prepared to go to great lengths to obtain him, Carol is also prepared to revert to past feelings of malice towards her stepmother at David’s say so because of her desire for him. He makes Dean think that he’s someone to be trusted, both as a friend, and as a suitor for Carol. It is only to Louise that he reveals his mercantile motives, and he only does so when he has made sure that Louise has discredited herself in her bid to hold onto him. David may have studied how to build structures, but what he’s really constructing is a web of deceit and sociopathy.
Deceit and sociopathy are something that seems to be a trademark of most homme fatales, as Alain Delon’s portrayal of Tom Ripley in the neo-noir Plein Soleil (AKA Purple Noon) shows. In the French language adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom is a mysterious, almost intangible figure. He lies about his background and constructs a fantasy one that only Phillip Greenleaf (played by Maurice Ronet) knows is fabricated.
Tom is initially unremarkable. He seems willing to suffer much abuse at Phillip’s hands because he has no money of his own. But things begin to gradually shift when Tom, Phillip, and Phillip’s long suffering girlfriend, Marge, go on a boating trip together. Tom manipulates things so that he and Phillip are eventually alone on the boat, and then he puts his plan to become Phillip into action. And so begins Tom’s transient existence as both himself and Phillip, while the story’s tension is ratcheted to breaking point.
Tom is perhaps the ultimate fatal male, who has no conscience and no desires that do not play into strengthening his own material position. The only person who seems to have any vague affection for is Marge, although his motive for pursuing her is also ultimately material. He typifies the behavioural pattern of the homme fatale as being outwardly unassuming but inwardly deadly and pathological. His persona also shifts as the story progresses. While David in Possessed is always an object of desire, Tom becomes one, slowly morphing into a seductive being who uses his looks to draw Marge under his influence. Alain Delon is shockingly beautiful in this film, but his outward appearance changes as the film’s events go on. He begins with a boyish, almost disheveled look, unsure of his own style; until he eventually becomes the embodiment of sexual desire, with slicked back hair, tanned skin and an intense, erotic gaze. It’s difficult not to lapse into bodice ripper territory when describing his physicality. And I mean that in the best possible way.
At the film’s end, Tom has shifted into a persona that is almost entirely removed from what is portrayed at the beginning of the film. The viewer is left wondering if there ever really was a Tom Ripley at all.
Flower’s deadly due
Unlike David and Tom, Henry Pebble’s (played by Raymond Burr) motives in The Blue Gardenia are not monetary, but he has a no less devastating effect on the film’s main character, Norah Larkin (played by Anne Baxter) than David and Tom had on Louise and Marge respectively.
While he may not want money, Henry’s pursuit of women shares the same sexual deceptiveness and carelessness. He prays on women who are naïve and therefore easily taken in by his charms, which can be turned on and off at will. Henry won’t accept Norah’s rejection and tries to rape her before he is murdered by an unknown assailant. Even in death Henry’s destructive powers seek to ruin not only Norah’s life, but the lives of any woman he has snared.
Because he is murdered early on in the film, Henry’s presence as a homme fatale is different, but no less deadly. He exists within the story’s narrative like a dark shadow, following Norah around until she feels like prey. His influence expands like a great bloated thing as others seek to find out who the “Blue Gardenia” killer is. He is portrayed as the victim in the eyes of the press, and even Norah’s friends, even though his activities as a ruthless Casanova were well known. Even in death his punishment is not entirely complete, and he claims one last victim before the film’s end.
Put the blame on Johnny
While Gilda (played by Rita Hayworth) is positioned as the femme fatale of this tale: mysterious and beautiful, leading men to destruction, it is really Johnny on which the fulcrum of both Gilda and Ballin (played by George MacReady’s) desire hinges.
Johnny is the rock upon which Gilda and Ballin smash themselves to pieces. While many interpret Gilda as the driving force behind the story’s dissent, it can be argued that if Johnny had not known Gilda before she knew Ballin, and if he did not know Ballin before he knew Gilda; then much of the film’s tension would not exist. Gilda and Johnny are supposed to be bound together, but Johnny binds both Gilda and Ballin to himself. Johnny tortures Gilda because of her betrayal of her husband, but it is really his own guilt that drives him to act this way, as he is the vital force that keeps the obsessive qualities of the narrative alive.
Many elements of the genre are subverted in Gilda, especially the idea of the active femme fatale. Gilda’s agency is stripped away by Johnny’s actions, until he, too, is imprisoned within the web he has weaved. Johnny has to be the one to free himself and Gilda from what seems to be an almost inevitably tragic fate.
I wrote a more comprehensive analysis of Johnny’s role as the object of desire in the film here.
A Murderous Exchange
In film noir, it is often the seductive femme fatale who comes to the story’s protagonist and draws him into her world of murder, sex and danger. But in Strangers on a Train it is the homme fatale, Bruno Antony (played by Robert Walker), who opens up a dark world to the main character, Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger).
Initially it seems that the two meet quite by chance, but as the story progresses this is thrown into increasing doubt. During a long train ride, Bruno propositions Guy with a murder pact: if Guy will kill Bruno’s father then Bruno will kill Guy’s unfaithful wife. Guy finds the idea to be disturbing, but also attractive. However, he does not commit to the deal, and when Bruno kills Guy’s wife, things begin to really unravel.
Bruno becomes more deadly as the story goes on. He hounds Guy, trying to push him to fulfil his “part” of the deadly deal. Guy becomes increasingly revolted by the prospect, but as his revulsion grows, so does Bruno’s madness and determination to punish Guy for defaulting, and the film’s stakes become higher.
Robert Walker died prematurely, but his performance as Bruno in Hitchcock’s suspenseful masterpiece shows his talent. While it is clear right from Bruno and Guy’s first meeting that Bruno has psychotic tendencies, Walker’s performance shows how this insanity gradually grows, creeping over the character and those around him like a red mist. His murderous motivations, like Tom Ripley’s, are money related, but he has no interest in becoming someone else. He wants to put the blame for his murderous impulses onto others, specifically Guy, who he feels has betrayed him. In this way, Guy and Bruno’s relationship throughout the film is like a seductive death dance.
Anton Walbrook and Charles Boyer played the husband intent on driving their wife to madness in Gaslight 1940 and 1944 respectively. Although their names differ in the film, Walbrook is called Paul Mallen and Boyer is named Gregory Anton, they both have one objective: to find precious jewels and hide this activity by convincing their wife that she is slowly going mad. In the 1944 version of Gaslight, Gregory tries to convince his wife that her madness is hereditary, passed down from her mother, but both films explore the terrible reality of the 19th century, which dictated that the husband had carte blanche over his wife’s existence. Instead of pushing the happy marriages scenario that has been pushed since matrimony became a thing, both versions of Gaslight show that the homme fatale can be the female protagonist’s own husband.
Walbrook and Boyer are both perfectly cast, but their portrayal differs quite markedly. Walbrook imbues his performance with immediate menace, his eyes dark and staring, completely pitiless. He treats his wife, Bella (played by Diana Wynyard) like a child who must be disciplined but also terrorised. He treats her with mock kindness and intense cruelty from the moment we are introduced to the pair. At the end of the film, he is the one who has gone utterly insane, driven to madness by his all consuming greed.
Boyer’s portrayal gradually shifts as the film progresses. Initially he is the ardent lover, gentle towards Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman), but like Walbrook, their is something in his eyes that belies this. Although Boyer’s eyes are initially gentle and wide, they became more void like, almost as if they will swallow not only Paul into a world of insanity, but the viewer, too. Both actors had intensely dark eyes, and Thorold Dickinson and George Cukor who directed the 1940 and 1944 films respectively, draw attention to this, often showing close ups of Walbrook and Boyer’s faces, which become increasingly unnerving as their cruelty increases.
Both Paul Mallen and Gregory Anton are the most dangerous kind of fatal male, for they are protected by the law and social convention. Although it is a man who brings them to justice in the end, the reasons for their imprisonment is not trying to drive their wife insane.
A Deadly Performance
Sudden Fear (1952) features another powerhouse performance from Joan Crawford. This time she plays a successful playwright, Myra, who is taken in by the charm of failed actor, Lester Blaine (played by Jack Palance). Early in the film, she fires him from her play because she feels he’s not romantic enough, but when they meet again on a train, Lester woos Myra until they get married. Myra has never been so happy in her life, but when Lester’s ex-girlfriend, Irene (played by Gloria Graham in another smashing femme fatale role), reappears, things take a decidedly deadly and tense turn, with Myra battling for her life while Lester and Irene plot and scheme.
Lester is not the usual pretty homme fatale, but there is something decidedly masculine and predatory about him. Although he seems young and boyish early in the film, as the story plays out and his intentions become less and less moral, something shifts, until he is a frightening, intimidating figure. Unlike the other homme fatales I’ve discussed so far, he has a partner in crime, who is just as dangerous and seductive as he is. While he charms and deceives Myra, Irene wraps him up tighter in her own web, so a double bind begins to form where Myra desires Lester and Lester desires Irene. While Lester’s motives are also mercantile, they are primarily sexual, much like Henry Pebble’s.
While Joan is the focus of the film, and gives an Oscar nominated performance, Palance was also given a nod by the Academy, and his performance matches hers perfectly. They circle each other as the film progresses, although Lester is unaware that Myra knows about his less than lively plans for her. This adds an interesting dynamic to the story, because the homme fatale is usually not suspected of any foul play, but even in Sudden Fear it is only Myra who knows that he exists behind a facade. Although this knowledge is delivered to her like a shock of cold water.
Watch the rocks
In Female on the Beach (1955), Joan once again plays the menaced female with absolute panache. However, the homme fatale who pursues her is different to David and Lester. Although his motives are also mercenary. Drummond Hall (played by Jeff Chandler) is beautiful and desirable from the start of the film, but like Jane Greer in Out of the Past, his beauty is like a poisonous flower. He seems to be responsible for the death of a wealthy older woman, who he was pursuing at the direction of two con artists who have adopted him as a son they can use him to secure the largess of lonely, moneyed women.
Almost as soon as his previous target has taken a nose dive off of the terrace, he has moved onto Joan’s character. But she isn’t as easily taken in by his charming neighbourly act as his other marks were, and it becomes unclear who’s pursuing who as the film goes on. Lynn (Joan’s character) is afforded more agency than the other women who fall victim to the homme fatale’s snare, but even she eventually gives in due to loneliness.
What is interesting about both Lynn and Drummond’s characters, is that they are both lonely and vulnerable. While they wrestle for control in their relationship, neither of them is ever really the one dictating terms. Although the danger of Drummond’s physicality becomes evident at certain parts of the film, causing the viewer to fear for Lynn’s safety.
The film’s denouement further complicates Drummond’s character, causing him to be very much akin to Johnny Farrel in Gilda. He is the object of desire throughout the film. While the male gaze casts the femme fatale in a certain light, the male and female gaze combine in regard to Drummond. In the end, the audience is left to decide if he is really as deadly as they thought.
Fooled Me Once
Like Johnny Farrell and Drummond Hall, Tom Garrett (played by Dana Andrews) is a morally unclear character. He is initially presented as the good guy who falls victim to unfortunate circumstances beyond his control. Everything seems to conspire against him so that he takes the blame for a crime he didn’t commit. The only person who consistently believes in his innocent is his fiancée, Susan ( played by Joan Fontaine).
But as the film goes on, Fritz Lang makes subtle hints that confuse the viewer, until no one is sure what the eventual outcome will be. The truth of Tom’s character is a brilliant shock to the system, and the film’s characters and audience are left scrambling to make sense of it all.
Dana Andrews’ portrayal of Tom is a masterstroke in subtlety. He is the desperate man, intent on proving his innocence, but there is something about him that doesn’t entirely fit the bill. Andrews does not spell this out to the audience. He is aware that the story needs to play out without any interference from an overblown or obvious portrayal. While he is the rough around the edges good guy in Laura, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956) gives him the perfect opportunity to show that he wasn’t always “the good guy”, and that he could convincingly play a character who made you doubt your own perception of things in a film.
In the eye of the beholder
Torsten Barring (played by Conrad Veidt) shares the same motive as the other homme fatales: money. And is just as deceitful and psychopathic as David, Tom, Henry or Lester. But there is somehow something far worse about him, because not only does he draw a disfigured woman under his influence and seek to use her insecurities and loneliness for his own purposes; but he also wants to murder a small child so that he may become wealthy.
A Woman’s Face (1941) features one of the finest performances of Joan Crawford’s career. Her character, Anna, breaks down the usual stereotypes around disfigurement in film automatically guaranteeing that the character will also have a deformed soul and conscience. Anna initially seems to be of Torsten’s ilk, while the brilliant surgeon, Gustaf (played by Melvyn Douglas) is the foil to both of them; but as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the really dangerous one will always be Torsten.
Torsten could have easily been the twirling moustachioed villain, two dimensional and very easily dismissed in favour of focusing on Anna and Gustaf. But Veidt’s performance does not allow that to happen. He is a seductive figure, perfectly coifed hair and tailored suits. He is not handsome in the usual way, he lacks the almost painful and unnerving beauty of Alain Delon’s Tom, but it is entirely believable that Anna would seem to fall in love with him. His attraction is made up of many different things: the caressing words he speaks, the smooth movements of his body, which are almost snakelike but not so obviously menacing, and the way he touches Anna, as if he is the only one who would ever want to touch a scarred woman. He is a narcissist and a psychopath, but he does not break into maniacal laughter or have claw-like hands. He is the charming sophisticate. There is nothing clumsy or boyish about him. In this way he seems to be akin to Paul Mallen and Anton Gregory, and like them, he is only exposed very late in the game.
There are many more examples of the homme fatale than the ones I have discussed, such as Joseph Cotton in Shadow of A Doubt, Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce, Dick Bogard in Cast A Dark Shadow and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.
The femme fatale may be an irresistible figure. A beautiful, mysterious woman who leads men to their deaths like a siren. But her male counterpart is no less deadly. Perhaps he is even deadlier because he is protected by the belief that men cannot be as ruinously seductive as women. Women have often been associated with the vagina dentata, devouring men from the inside out. But men are capable of this, too. And they are more likely to get away with it because they are less likely to be associated with fatal sexuality. This is not always true, of course. But the jig is normally up for a femme fatale far sooner than it is for a homme fatale. Think of the ending of Plein Soleil in comparison to Out of the Past.
Homme fatales are afforded the undeniable independence of men. The freedom of movement that comes with being the sex who is normally in control of the situation. While a dangerous woman is seen as being an outsider, usually juxtaposed and compared with the bonne femme, “good woman” of film noir: the long suffering wife, the patient, selfless girlfriend and the waiting mother; the homme fatale is a not seen as such, until he goes just one step too far, and his control becomes murderous. And even then, it isn’t always guaranteed that he’ll pay the price for what he’s done in the same unobscured, final way that a fatal woman will. He may be cleared of sins because of the love of a woman. See Drummond Hall and Johnny Farrell.
We can make comparisons between femme fatales and homme fatales all we like, because they do share some common facets. But we cannot deny that there is a far finer line between a homme fatale and an anti-hero, than there is between a femme fatale and a bonne femme. Sam Spade, who we all root for in The Maltese Falcon, may have more in common with Henry Pebble than we’d care to admit.
Let me know if you can think of any more examples of homme fatale, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.