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The Trouble with Being a Femme Fatale

The Perils of Watching 1940s Hollywood Film Noir with an Overactive Imagination

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 2 months ago 3 min read
Top Story - October 2023
Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)

“I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman” (Charles Hassell in Detour)

I guess I've watched too many 1940s films. I've started thinking in shady black and white and plotting my revenge. There's no colour in my nightmares.

Ann Savage and Tom Neal in Detour (1946)

It was an obscure, rain-sodden, monochrome dream. I’m watching the layered montage of women on a screen – 1940’s Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, backstreets at night glimpsed from behind blinded windows.

You know me. You will have seen me on your cinema screen. In shadow. With a hat. And a cigarette. My lips curl and my eyes hypnotise.

If you’re a man I will have bewitched and seduced you in a smoky mist as I walked down a stair case, or sang on a half-lit stage, or as one anklet-wearing leg emerged from a car. I am a fever-dream of a woman. I am a publicity still. I am a pose. I am a sneer. I am a muse.

“Do I rate a whistle?” (Vera in Detour)

Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

If you’re a woman, you won’t have talked to me. But you’ll have seen the way he looks at me and slapped his arm. You will think I’m cheap, but copy my lipstick.

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it” (Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon).

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)

There was a woman beyond the screen who never got to tell her story. Her troubles don’t matter. She is just there to cause chaos. It’s all the dame’s fault.

No back story, I just turn up to ruin your day, to take you away from the sweet girl, the one you were going to marry. I’m a different world. I’m a foreign threat. Exotic, dangerous.

The score is low strings in a minor key – a threat you feel in your chest.

My dialogue sizzles as I draw you in.

“See what I mean, Walter”

“Sure I got good eyesight.” (Walter and Phyllis in Double Indemnity)

As above

But here’s the thing, I’m lonely. Of course I’m lonely. There’s just me. No family, no friends, no big brother to keep you away. Just a broad on her own. I need protection. Or I’ll end up dead. Or worse – penniless.

And then you come to me. With your internal dialogue and flashbacks. Your ability to take control of the narrative.

But I want my say. If I’m going to be a corpse, I’d like the opportunity to speak first.

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman. And I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” (Walter Neff in Double Indemnity)

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950)

But you also killed me. Don’t forget.

You see, I’m only this highly-sexed siren, because I need to keep poverty at bay. There was supposed to sweetness and romance in my life, but then the men went off to war and I had nothing but my wits and my slim ankles for company. I waited for the men to return, not knowing that they would become caged animals, traumatised, paranoid, hiding in dark corners, big eyes in the headlights.

So, let’s start the voice-over from when you murder me, because you always do. But this time, let’s hear my voice. It won’t make timid excuses. It will roar with the indignities of lost opportunities.

Instead of you dictating the terms, let me say what it’s like to have unwanted hands on my body. To have to dye my hair. To hate my face without lipstick and lashes. To smoke instead of eat. To know my value falls with every passing birthday. That I only matter if I you can call me your dame.

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” (Dixon Steele, In a Lonely Place)

There’s nothing in your script about my insecurities. About how I have to see my face on a big screen and can count the flaws. About how I have to believe that you find me sexy because there is nothing else for me. Knowing that I wasn’t the first choice for the role, but I was available.

You slap my face, but nothing stings as much as knowing that every word I utter and every move I make was created by men. Everything I say and do is because a man wrote me.

Gloria Grahame in the Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

“I don’t want others to remember the details – just the image” (Gloria Grahame)

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About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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Comments (21)

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  • kamika eleanor2 months ago

    This is so well written!! Top story worthy, well deserved.

  • something about those back and whites. This was so well delivered, great job. Congrats on top story

  • Novel Allen2 months ago

    It's as if you stopped time and recreated the days of wine and roses so perfectly, it resonates down the corridors of time. I can actually hear the voices of those old movies as they become new again. Gosh, golly gee, you certainly did a great number on this one. Congrats.

  • Gerald Holmes2 months ago

    I really love the way you did this. Such brilliant writing. Congrats on a well deserved Top Story.

  • Phil Flannery2 months ago

    Great writing. Captivating, much like the movie sirens you write about. I think the comments before mine capture what you were saying better than I possibly could.

  • Naveed2 months ago

    Impressive! You've shared some remarkable insights and observations, and those pictures are truly outstanding. Well done!

  • Thavien Yliaster2 months ago

    This reminds me of Jessica Rabbit. "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." There's a lot of movies and shows where people, women more than average, are objects. I think in an Iron Movie after Black Widow walks away at the end of the movie Tony says to his wife/fiance (I don't really remember, I think it was before he proposed in Spiderman after Peter was like "is this a test?") "I want one." Then if You take that line of thinking and spread it to several different types of anime the whole genre of "harem" is more about collecting than it seems to be about establishing any actual relationship. However the worst thing about the doll concept is that if Hollywood ever gets tired with their favorite 'toy,' or if it breaks they just replace it. I haven't seen the Barbie movie but I'm reminded of the dolls. The way this article is written is that the men that run Hollywood and put women on the screens are just their dolls to play with while the cameras are rolling, but what we don't see is how the 'dolls' are handled backstage or what it takes to look the way they do. I think I remember a movie montage scene from when I was a kid where Sandra Bullock was trying to do things on set of a movie like: she went to eat a slice of pizza and somebody snatched it out of her hand replacing it with a stalk of celery, when she walked on set with a towel it was stripped off of her body then the words "action" followed, or how she had done something to her face so a team of makeup artists piled on her. As a child where life is just bits of memories between waking daylight movies like that were weird. Then again, most if not all movies are weird. Call me crazy, but "Pride and Prejudiced" has a heckuva a lot of feminism in it that was expressed in the book and movie that Hollywood still has trouble incorporating into their regular works without overdoing it just to send a message of "girl power!" Movies and books have themes and those are lessons. People want to enjoy them not be lectured about them. Looking at You HBOMax's Velma. Female Fatales get a bad rap, and an even worse one if they're redheads. They're treated like venomous snakes, "Look but don't touch, but you just want to feel and see all those pretty colors, and when you get bit (which was probably Your own fault anyways for not respecting its personal space/distance) make sure to strike the head and remove it from the body. That might not get rid of the venom, though (even though that's how the plot plays out)." The most common problem with being a femme fatale is probably the entitlement. Like how You mention about "unwanted hands." It's either entitled to something from You or to You. If You're not a sex object You're a success object, and sometimes You're often both. "Look at the person I was able to attract!" Either way, great article, Rachel.

  • Alex H Mittelman 2 months ago

    I love 1940s films. Such a different style then today!

  • Kendall Defoe 2 months ago

    This hit a nerve with me. I too have watched too much noir, and I wonder if it has had an effect on me... You dirty rat!

  • Naomi Gold2 months ago

    You nailed it. You distilled all the problems of modern society into a 3 minute read. It all started with Hollywood. This “naughty” feminine archetype that seemed like she had it all when actually she had no one and nothing. And the “nice” women having no autonomy, being little more than support animals for their men. These two types of women in the same boat, both of them subservient, yet pitted against one another as if they were opposites—when actually they were one and the same. The subliminal programming of film and television is not to be underestimated. Wanna know where we’ll end up as a society? Just pay attention to the patterns in the current entertainment. The masses will mimic it, and model that behavior for their children. It’s no coincidence that the sexual revolution of the 60’s came a generation after the explosive popularity of film noir and the starlet. I could say more, but I’ll leave it at congrats on your Top Story. 🥂 This was a fine piece of writing, and I loved the quotes and stills.

  • Awesome 👍 and Congratulations on your Top Story 😉👌♥️🎬🍿🎉🎉

  • Lamar Wiggins2 months ago

    Wow! That was pretty amazing and well worth anyone's time to read. I'm not huge on those types of movies but the iconic lines you tossed in here makes me wonder what i've been missing. This was a great way to tell their story. 🤩 Congrats!

  • StoryholicFinds2 months ago

    great story, congrats ❤️

  • Gene Lass2 months ago

    Congrats on Top Story! Yes, my wife and I are huge film noir fans. We reference "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" all the time. Bogie and Bacall are as classic as ever, and Rita Hayworth will be forever a goddess. I saw a great quote from Hayworth in which she talked about her trouble with relationships. "The problem is, men go to bed with Gilda and they wake up with me."

  • L.C. Schäfer2 months ago

    So glad to see this get T.S.!

  • Donna Renee2 months ago

    danggggggg. This was amazing. "Or I’ll end up dead. Or worse – penniless." oof!

  • The Dani Writer2 months ago

    That's some mighty powerful writing, Rachel! Wowsers!

  • Some great insights and observations, and those pictures

  • Marie Wilson2 months ago

    Loved it!

  • L.C. Schäfer2 months ago

    "I am a pose. I am a sneer." 👏👏👏👏 This knocked me off my feet

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