Laughter in the Dark: The Femme Fatale

She had the look of an insect – the cold, glittery eyes that hollowed you out, left you empty and numb as if she’d just latched onto your brain like a parasite sucking every last semblance of humanity from your dead flesh, leaving nothing but the dark carapace of some inhuman thing twitching and wriggling out of your cracked skull like a centipede. She was sitting at the end of the bar in the Greek’s place on Colfax.

Our eyes met briefly, just long enough that I smelled trouble. She had that soft pouting mouth, long black hair flowing round her shoulders with just a hint of coppery flesh hidden in its folds. I was hooked the moment I saw her as if the Medusa herself had appeared in the night to claim my flesh as her own. I’d had a hard day, working a case that wasn’t going anywhere but south. I was tired, hungry, and most of all in need of drink.

I was supposed to meet Joey Briscoe here, but he’d already left shortly before I’d arrived the Greek said as he fixed me a cool one. I wanted to forget Joey and the case, wanted to get up and walk slowly down to the end of that bar and talk to her, ask her in a cliched tone what such a beautiful woman like her was doing in clip joint like this. But I just sat there like an idiot, passive and alone. I looked at the Greek, saying:

“Who’s the looker?”

“Forget her,” he said. “She’s nothing but trouble, Johnnie.”

That intrigued me even more. I said, “Give the lady what she wants.”

He shook his head, didn’t say a word. He knew better. He poured a double-splash of vodka and soda, squeezed a fresh lime in and topped it with a couple of ice cubes, walked down and place it in front of her. She looked up briefly in my direction, but not directly at me, like she was staring straight through me at a ghost. I felt a chill.

The Greek came back, pondered me for a moment, said she wanted to know if I’d like to join her at a table.


– Laughter in the Dark (a work in progress)

The rendition above is more parody than anything, a sort of throwback to the old school noir and hard-boiled. I love to piddle with such scenes, work them up see where they’ll lead me. It’s like drinking a nice glass of wine, listening to one’s favorite jazz record, sitting back imagining a sort of sordid night in a lonely bar somewhere just west of the Twilight Zone.

Playing around with this psychopath madness in a short story. Lauren Becall above among other women of the screen has that allure of the Medusa about her, the seductress who can love you and murder you as you willingly submit to her dark sorceries.

The term “femme fatale” circulates in literary, cinematic, and cultural portrayals of women. As a standard figure (even a cliché) in popular culture, the femme fatale is deemed to be sexually voracious, irresistible, and dangerous, leading men to their ruination. She is an archetype, one as old as Eve – a figure who has existed in various forms since ancient times, in folklore, myths, and literatures. She comes to life in different guises: the spider woman, the evil seductress, the sexual predator; she stands for the vampire, the temptress, the wild woman, the prostitute, the murderess. She still makes her presence felt in literary works and films. The femme fatale became a stock component of mid- twentieth century crime fiction and film noir in the United States from the interwar period extending to the post- World War II period. She particularly dominates the texts of hardboiled crime fiction, a distinctively American tradition of crime writing that originated in pulp magazines, most notably Black Mask in the 1920s. Hardboiled crime narratives tell stories of violence, corruption, and betrayal, and portray characters (both detectives and criminals) enmeshed in urban chaos and an amoral underworld, an underworld in which the femme fatale is more often than not a criminal: a beautiful and perhaps promiscuous woman with a gun who, by the end of the story, might shoot a man dead.1

The lady strange made answer meet,
And her voice was faint and sweet:—
Have pity on my sore distress,
I scarce can speak for weariness:
Stretch forth thy hand, and have no fear!

—Coleridge, Christabel

She rises out of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel like a dark woman on the threshold in-between the wild places of nature and the warm fireplace of some ancient castle. Her Gothic forms were to inhabit Edgar Allen Poe in many stories, while her visage would rise from those gothicisms into the hard-boiled worlds of Black Mask magazine during the pulp era of crime fiction.

Shrinking from my touch, she let fall from her head, unloosened, the ghastly cerements which had confined it, and there streamed forth, into the rushing atmosphere of the chamber, huge masses of long and dishevelled hair; it was blacker than the raven wings of the midnight! And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me. “Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never –can I never be mistaken –these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes –of my lost love –of the lady–of the LADY LIGEIA.”

—Edgar Allan Poe, Ligeia

The nineteenth century is an important moment in that it witnessed an explosion of femmes fatales, especially in the literature and art of the fin- de- siècle period, and has consequently been the focus of many critical studies. The pervasive presence of the femme fatale at that time denotes the “confluence of modernity, urbanization, Freudian psychoanalysis and new technologies of production and reproduction (photography and cinema) born of the Industrial Revolution”. Examples of the scholarship on the nineteenth- century femme fatale include Bram Dijkstra’s 1986 study, which examines images of women in the second half of the nineteenth century in both European and American art, and shows that the representation of the femme fatale was influenced by quasi- scientific discourses of the period, such as evolutionary theory and Darwinism. Rebecca Stott (1992) also studies the femme fatale in the Victorian age, contending that she is “fabricated” – that is, she is constructed according to the specific preoccupations and predilections of the Victorians. For Stott, the positionality of the femme fatale is intimately related to and probably dependent upon dominant nineteenth-century notions of sexuality and class – the seductive woman with destructive sexuality thus embodies fears about threats to the normative sexuality of Victorian society. (Jaber, 6)

The French phrase “femme fatale” literally means “deadly woman,” which understates the human embodiment of lust and peril, that intoxicating allure of sex and death that makes these creatures so fascinating. The femme fatale is a sleek and sensuous creature, dangerous either physically or emotionally to her victims. Unlike the more overtly aggressive warrior-woman archetype (see our book The Modern Amazons), the femme fatale’s weapons are more covert and elusive. She would often use poison instead of a knife and employ intelligence and sexual prowess to further her quest for power. But although femmes fatales differ from warrior women, at times they overlap in that they too assault the patriarchy, albeit from behind the scenes and more to fulfill their own personal needs or transgressive desires rather than any ideals. They are Mata Haris, as opposed to Boudiccas. A femme fatale slowly drains her victims of their morals, values, their friends, and often their money. She is sexually insatiable, and may even love her victims in her own way, but it doesn’t stop her from driving them to obsession. The male’s resulting exhaustion leads to confusion and inability to make sensible or rational decisions. Men who pursue the femme fatale risk being cuckolded, humiliated, and driven to poverty and despair in the pursuit of her attention.2

In the modern crime novel from Hammett onward women are depicted within a dark urban space of chaos and crime where they are portrayed outside of the domestic context, and are usually not married or attached. Their transgression from traditional values thus illustrates how the narratives both invert and critique not only the classical formula of home life and family values, but also the institutions that create and support these values, such as the police. (Jaber, 22) Many of these more misogynist views stem from a long history of folklore some scholars trace back to the image of the Witch in Medieval times and before in such works as the tragedians like Sophocles Medea or Antigone. Male fear and need to dominate women would cast them as angels or devils, goddesses or whores. The literary workers of crime fiction in the pulp stage and into noir films and novels would exaggerate this whole complex of myth, folklore, and criminality.

The femme fatale is seen against the backdrop of her male predators or victims. As Megan Abbott tells us these “men repeatedly find themselves dissembling, fainting, unconscious, overpowered, and out of control while their ideals of masculinity continue to require of them self-discipline, toughness, and the quintessential hardness that gives the genre its name.”3 She goes on to give a gender reading of the Hard-Boiled tradition saying: “Without question, a central characteristic of hardboiled fiction is the configuration of gender through binary structures—in particular, binaries produced in the service of constituting a fearless and potent maleness. Two binaries in particular predominate, that of the private eye/femme fatale and that of the sap-driven-to-crime/femme fatale—the former binary operating in Chandler, the latter in Cain, and both within Himes.” (7).

While sexually insatiable male characters and “hommes fatales” from Don Juan to James Bond are generally enviable heroes in movies, the sexually insatiable woman is usually cast in a darker manner, as an anti-heroine or villain and frequently making her appearance in horror films as a monster or vampires. There is a tendency to attribute supernatural qualities to these women, as their power has such a mesmerizing, enchanting quality. Femmes fatales are present in countless murder mysteries, and of course a staple of film noir that enhanced the careers of legendary actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Hedy Lamarr. (Ursini)

Raymond Chandler more than any other crime fiction writer of his time would make substantial use of the figure of the femme fatale. In fact, he habitually places the dangerous woman at the center of his plots, in what many have interpreted as a neurotic response to the sexy manipulativewoman, associated with ‘the nastiness’ of which Marlowe fears he has become a part. Resistant to the depraved society around him, Marlowe assumes a role often compared to that of the questing knight, undergoing tests that involve skill in arms, fearlessness, and integrity. Marlowe’s knightly qualities are hinted at by the history of his naming: the ‘Mallory’ of an early Black Mask story, ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’, eventually became ‘Marlowe’, a ‘coded version’ of the medieval romance-writer’s surname. Chandler further drew attention to the image of the knight-at-arms in his description of the man ‘good enough for any world’, who must go down ‘these mean streets’. In creating such a protagonist, Chandler can be seen as promoting the positive side of what Auden calls the ‘Great Wrong Place’ myth: against this pessimistic vision, he sets the American dream of the ‘last just man’ whose alienation guarantees his honour.4 As Horsley suggests the stereotypes of the femme fatale have been challenged by feminist criticism and critique.

An often-voiced feminist criticism of male-authored crime fiction is that women’s roles tend to be confined to clichéd versions of the victim or transgressor––the good but weak woman who is the murder victim; the evil woman who is the femme fatale. This not an unfounded generalization, but there are some very notable exceptions to this reductive view, the most interesting of which is the representation of the femme fatale. Hollywood was constrained both by the Hays Code and by expectations that the sexual or aggressive woman would be subjugated. For these reasons it tended to contain the femme fatale narrative, limiting the ‘progressiveness’ of the cycle and confirming popular prejudices by reasserting male control over the independent female. Novelists, on the other hand, were free to play much more extensively against stereotype, often setting up plots that initially lead us to judge according to stereotype and then reversing our expectations, or complicating our judgements and in the process establishing strong female figures who, though sexual, are admirable and/or indomitable. In novels which focus our perceptions through a single protagonist, some of the most effective mid-century male writers––especially Charles Williams, Charles Willeford, and Jim Thompson––structured entire narratives around the satiric presentation of the male point of view. They implicitly reassessed the role of the tough and triumphant femme fatale, subverting male stereotypes and creating a space within which the strong, independent woman could get and even sometimes keep the upper hand. (Horsely, 257).

Coming out of the various decadent traditions of the Nineteenth-Century in which she is found in the paintings of the artists Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck and Gustave Moreau. Along with her literary image in such novels as À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans where he portrays her in the fevered images of Salome from contemplating a Moreau painting:

No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.

— Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours, Sisters of Salome

Tramp, whore, goddess, temptress and seducer whose wiles trick and enmesh men in her ancient world of sorceries she seems to live on like a dark angel riding out our darkest fears and most persistent dreams of sensual languishment.

  1. Jaber, Maysaa Husam. Criminal Femmes Fatales in American Hardboiled Crime Fiction. Palgrave. 2016.
  2. Ursini, James; Mainon, Dominique. Femme Fatale: Cinema’s Most Unforgettable Lethal Ladies. Limelight Editions. 2009.
  3. Abbott, Megan. The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. Palgrave. 2002.
  4. Horsley, Lee. Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. Oxford. 2005.

6 thoughts on “Laughter in the Dark: The Femme Fatale

      • Yeah I disliked my grammar above too. Let me try to fail again: repulsed/etc by the centre we try looking elsewhere, a space of femme fatales/etc. Of course we probably find nothing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yea, the femme fatale was a sort of delusion of men’s own feminine nature, the shadow side of their own delusions, miseries, and darkness. I call it the Medusa Syndrome… we all have our snake queen ready to turn us to stone somewhere in the paranoia of life. 🙂


  1. I like your comparison of Lauren Bacall to Medusa. Those eyes! (Actually the closest comparison to Medusa I’ve seen was Hitler’s mother compared to Franz von Stuck’s painting of Medusa).
    Another favorite Femme Fatale of mine is Rachel Ward. In movies like Against All Odds (Out of the Past remake), After Dark, My Sweet, and Sharky’s Machine. What did you think of the Charles Willeford film adaptation of Woman Chaser? A case could also be made for Alicia Vikander for Ex Machina and Irma Vep (the latter of which I haven’t seen yet).

    Liked by 1 person

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