Bad Girls of Film Noir

Who were the most memorable bad girls of Noir? There were many. A movie that comes to my mind immediately, is Sudden Fear. Perhaps not the most known film of the genre, it shows Gloria Grahame in great form here as a really nasty, nasty, nasty person, who teams up with an equally nasty man (Jack Palance) to kill the unwitting Joan Crawford for her money. In Too Late for Tears, Lizbeth Scott is the main character in a tangled tale of cold-blooded immorality and murder.

 

In my last blog, I talked about bad boys and why girls seem to like them. If you read my blog, you’ll note that I became interested in the subject  in high school. I kept asking, “What is it about bad guys that makes girls weak in the knees, and liable to fall down in a dead faint?”

The 1949 murder film Too Late For Tears, starring Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, follows a woman desperate to protect a new-found fortune

Women Who Have “Abandoned All Hope”

Women who willingly and consciously enter into a bargain with the dark side. Lady Macbeth, in Macbeth. Mrs. Danvers, in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Miss Havisham, in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In Literature we have many examples of women who seem to have made a clear decision: “Heck, I’m gonna be bad.” It seems to need no special talent to be good, which is an interesting take on our cultural values. In Too Late for Tears, when an opportunity to sudden wealth literally falls out of the sky like manna, Lizbeth Scott turns into a psychopathic manipulator during the first ten seconds of the movie.

Bad Girls in Noir – Two Kinds?

Jane Palmer, played by Lizbeth Scott, in TLFT,  is one example of an utterly irredeemable woman preying on society’s goodwill. When she makes an alliance with Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), she manages a coup that lands her a fortune, but Danny, who thinks he’s tough, isn’t up to her speed and suffers the consequences of Jane’s deadlier brand of nastiness.

There are bad girls who know they’re bad, like Lizbeth Scott in Too Late For Tears. And then there are bad girls who aren’t sure if they are, but they strongly suspect that they will inevitably fall to the Devil. We have to wait until the end to figure out whether she’s really bad or maybe she’s conflicted, like Clair Trevor in Born To Kill. Lizbeth Scott in Too Late For Tears, plays the totally bad woman from the moment a bag of money  literally falls into her possession, like Mana from heaven. Arthur Kennedy, who plays her husband, urges her to report the found money to the police, but he is slowly pulled into the fatal coils of her plan. It appears that Jane is determined to keep that money and will use any subterfuge to her advantage.

The two types of Femme Fatale are those that are 100% evil; they know it, they have no conscience, and are quite content with who they are.  And the second type struggles internally with moral issues and question their motives, like Claire Trevor, as Helen Brent in Born to Kill.

Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor in Born To Kill

The difference between the two is complexity of character.  Jane Palmer’s motivation is greed.  I’m not saying greed isn’t a great motive for a story, especially Noir.  The story can be great without any character arc, or inward struggle, simply becasue the narrative is convincing.  Great stories like The Maltese Falcon, are nothing but plot. But what a plot!

Bogart, Greenstree and Peter Lorre, in The Maltese Falcon

So, in saying that Jane Palmer’s character is less complex than that of Helen Brent, I’m not commenting on the value of the narrative. Helen Bren is driven by a number of factors that influence her decisions.  She’s an orphan, and an adopted child.  Her adoptive sister, Audrey Long, is an orphan, too, but a rich one.  Helen’s position in society largely depends on financial security.  That means she relies on her sister for too much.  But she is also engaged to marry Philly Terry, a very rich man.  Her financial insecurity underpins her anxiety as to her place in the family.  Not firmly rooted in this camp, when she comes across super-bad guy Sam Wilde, she is torn between respectability and depravity.  Over the course of this taut story, Helen bounces from place to place, like a kid jumping hopscotch, seeking safety, but if possible safety with money.  When she loses favor with Audrey, following a dispute with her fiancee which ends their relationship, she has only one direction to turn: the psychopath Wilde, aptly named.

Misogyny and Social Context In Noir

A clearly misogynistic threat to women to “keep their place.” Too Late For Tears

It’s easy to point to the men who invariably wrote these stories, and the men who directed and produced them in Hollywood, and blame them for their depictions of women as less than worthy of equal status.  If you are looking for examples of misogyny, you’ll find them in old movies. The misogyny is nothing more and nothing less than the prevailing social context of the time.  The poster for TLFT shows an aggrieved Lizbeth Scott being struck in the face by Dan Duryea.  It’s an unpleasant and shocking illustration of male domination in a society that is still trapped in the medieval construct of women as either saints or sinners. In Noir, this is often expressed by the actress’ hair, brunette for bad, blonde for good.  For evidence you need go no further than BTK, in which Claire Trevor as the conniving Helen Brent is a brunette.  Her adoptive sister (Audrey Long as Georgia Staples) is a blonde.  Innocence personified, next to evil personified.

Conclusion

What do we make of all this?  Ignoring the context of a previous generation’s prejudices poses problems for contemporary viewers, undoubtedly, as it has for me.  To appreciate such narratives, one must accept the disparity,  just as we accept literature from other periods of history.  We enjoy the literature of the Victorian authors, with the understanding that the depictions are rooted in that time. I am not defending misogyny, simply pointing out that in talking about this film and others I will be looking at, I am aware of the idiosyncrasy.  We are, in a way, delving into the history of popular entertainment.

 

 

 

 

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Author: Mike Lipinski

Born in Tel Aviv, Israel (when it was still Palestine, a British protectorate. I was 1 year old when we moved to England, where I grew up. At age 12, we left for Canada and I've lived here ever since.

8 thoughts on “Bad Girls of Film Noir”

  1. Very interesting post. I’m not a big movie buff, so to think about movies in that much depth was intriguing. I liked the comparisons you made, giving deeper thoughts about the characters involved in a movie.

  2. I love older movies and the way you described the characters is very thorough. Even though there are movies and books that still show prejudice, women are still ready to play the role.
    I really want to watch “Born To Kill” so I can find out if she really is a bad girl.
    I like older movies because you get to see what they thought of certain things back then, just like how they portray these women as bad girls. Movies today are about bad girls that kick butt.

  3. Being a huge fan of black and white film. you have inspired a new generation that should be watching these. They were well done, told a story and oh those actresses were the bomb. They played villains, heiresses, and the ever successful femme fatal. If you have never taken the time to look at old cinema, you should take the time and then compare to cinema of today. Introduce yourself to some of these actresses. You will never go back.

  4. Great series of articles! (Bad guys and girls)

    The bad people in Noir are what compels us – we see the worst in ourselves and we root for it!

    For my money, the more compelling of the two types of bad girl you identified here is the girl who doesn’t know shes’s bad, who can still be redeemed, or redeem herself. That kind of character keeps the audience teetering on the precipice!

    It would be great if we saw some of these archetypes come back in modern film. A lot of rather rigid character tropes in Hollywood these days, and could really use a shakeup!

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