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Friday, June 1, 2012

Cinema, Sex and Cigarettes: My 11 Favorite Femme Fatales

Femme fatale literally means deadly woman, but she usually only murders a man's ego.  A femme fatale is an alluring and mysterious woman who uses her charms to entrap a man into an irresistible asymmetrical relationship.  She can be manipulative, often leading a man to his ruin, but at least the journey to his demise is always filled with  pleasure.

The ancient archetype is rooted in man's innate fear of unbridled female sexuality and his reverence for the  mysterious female reproductive system. Examples of the femme fatale exist in the folklore and mythology of every culture on earth, from the Biblical tale of  Samson and Delilah, to the Greek myth of the Sirens; beautiful, sweet sounding sea creatures who lured male sailors to their untimely deaths.

Fellas, think twice before you let a woman grease your scalp.

The femme fatale trope was popularized in America during the 1940's when Hollywood began to  produce hundreds of hard boiled crime dramas, stylistically referred to as film noirs. Film noirs were literally dark pictures. The main characters were often cloaked in heavy, oppressive shadows and the lighting was dramatic. These films explored the dark side of human behavior, reflecting the growing pessimism of a post-war, post-Depression America.The story line often revolved around a femme fatale who seduced the male protagonist and lead him directly into harms way.

Within the patriarchal construct, the femme fetale is most often vilified, juxtaposed with a less intimidating, sweet and loyal woman, and maybe even reformed by film's end. Perhaps the message men are trying to send is that we women should not aspire be so cunning and evil... but don't be naive. There is a lot a girl  can learn from the deadly woman.

The femme fatale knows how to seduce. She is alluring, even if with the help of a lush head of hair, a painted face and dazzling clothes. Her sexuality may be palpable, but her aims are never overt. Her desires lurk just below the surface, in a coy look, a double entendre, or even her low, raspy, post-coital voice. She makes her target come to her, and no matter what, she never allows him to feel he completely possesses her. She is like water in his hands. She is witty. She is smart and an absolute master of seductive one-upmanship. Watching a femme fatale on screen is pure cinematic magic, and a lesson in love for those girls who are willing to learn.

Below I've listed my personal top eleven (couldn't narrow to ten) favorite  fatale performances, that I think every woman who wants to hone her skills should see. Some are classic film noir, others and neo-noir (coming after the classic period), and one is a romantic comedy that just so happens to feature one hell of a leading lady.

Happy watching.

11. The Postman Always Rings Twice- Based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain that was considered so sexual and so violent when first published,  it was banned in Boston. Lana Turner plays a buxom blond trapped in a loveless marriage with a much older man. She seduces a drifter that ends up working in their diner and together they conspire to kill her husband. The combination of Lana's innocent gaze, and not so innocent tight white shorts prove to be irresistible.

10. The Last Seduction- Linda Fiorentino plays a ruthless bitch Bridget Gregory who steals 700,000 from her husband and goes on the run. She ends up in a small town called Beston where her crooked lawyer advises her to lay low.  While there, she seduces a nice small town guy and turns him into a practical killer. The way she plays with his mind, keeping him on edge and using sex to enslave him, is pretty legendary.

9. Niagara- In this 1953 technicolor film noire, Marilyn Monroe plays Rose, the younger and very attractive wife of a depressed vet. She and her lover conspire to kill her husband and fail. The tables turn when her husband sets out for revenge. Niagara has a morbid ending, but the sight of Marilyn in a tight fuschia dress, writhing in such a way that seduces everyone on screen and off is indelible. There's a ten-second shot of Monroe just walking away. Her presence in this movie is hypnotizing and proves that unbridled female sexuality can truly  drive a man to death and destruction.

8. To Have and Have Not- To be honest, this is a romance-war-adventure film, not a classic noir, but any woman would be remiss to not watch this often over-looked gem. This was Lauren Bacalls very first movie role. She was just 19 but her famous bewitching 'look' and her breathy, low way of talking suggested she was far more mature. It's no suprise that during the course of the film her much older co-star Humphrey Bogart fell madly in love with her, left his third wife, and embarked on a long and storied romance with Bacall. The on screen chemistry is palpable.  Also the dialogue between Bogie and Bacall in this movie is phenomenal. Here's the line no one can forget:
"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. (She opens his door and pauses.) You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together - and blow."

7.The Big Sleep- Following To Have and Have Not, Bogie and Bacall appeared together in several classic noirs. I most enjoy The Big Sleep, in which Lauren plays Vivian Rutledge, the oldest daugther of a wealthy general who hires a detective (Bogart) to resolve some gambling debts. In this film, Bacall is not a femme fatale in the classic  sense of the term, but she is a mysterious, irresistably captivating woman. Once again, the  chemistry between Bogie and Bacall is off the charts, and Bacall's seductive langour and slow, suggestive delivery is worth study.

6. Double Indemnity- This is considered the definitive film noir and Barbara Stanwyck the definitive femme fatale. If you only watch one film noir ever, this is the one to watch. From the moment Stanwyck appears at the top of the stairs in nothing but a towel, an anklet, and some pom-pom heels, the seduction is on. She seduces an insurance agent and convinces him to kill  her husband and make it look like an accident so that she can collect the insurance money. The only downfall of the masterful movie is the horrible blonde wig the director made Stanwyck, an otherwise gorgeous movie, wear. But... he wanted her to look cheap.

5. Basic Instinct- If you can get past the  gore of the opening scene during which a blonde woman mercilessly stabs a man to death with an ice pick while having sex with him... This is a great movie. It's actually one of my favorites. Sharon Stone plays Catherine Tramell, a crime novelist and the last person to be seen with rocker Johnny Boz before he was killed. Michael Douglas plays a homicide detective assigned to the case who is determined to convict Tramell of the crime, only he gets caught in her seductive lair and the two begin a torrid affair. Stone plays the Hitchcockian icey blonde to the hilt and who can forget the gutsy interrogation scene where Stone uncrosses her legs revealing her you know what....

4. Body Heat- Another fantastic neo-noir, if there's one word to describe this 1981 flick, it's steamy. It takes place in Florida during a heat wave. Matty Walker, a rich man's wife begins an affair with an inept, somewhat sleazy attorney. She later convinces him to kill her husband so she can collect the insurance money. Kathleen Turner's (also the voice of Jessica Rabbit) frank sexuality and use of coquettry in this film demonstrates how a seduction, albeit a dramatic one, should be played out, step by step. She also proves that every siren should own a diaphonous white dress.

3. Vertigo-Kim Novak plays an icy blond in Hitchcock's psychological thriller about a detective hired to follow an acquaintance's wife because she's been acting possessed. Despite her obvious neurotic tendencies, Madeleine, Novak's cool character, proves immensely seductive and the detective falls in love. Novak plays the quintessential cold coquette, an enigmatic beauty with a strange ability to make a man not just fall in love, but become obsessed. Beautifully shot, wonderfully complex, this happens to be my favorite Hitchcock movie.

2. Gilda- Gilda is the film known for making Rita Hayworth a superstar and the 'love goddess' of her time. She plays a hedonistic and flirtacious femme fatale married to an older man, a cold, wealthy casino owner. Unbeknownst to her husband, Gilda has history with his right hand man, Johnny, and the two embark on a heated love hate relationship in which she taunts him with her sexuality. It's hard to put Hayworth's performance in Gilda into words. She is everything a woman aught to be; healthy, exuberant, dazzling and utterly bewitching to watch.

1. Boomerang- Yehp. This is my favorite movie and as I've written in the past Jacqueline Broyer is my sheroe. In the movie, Robin Givens plays marketing exec Jacqueline Broyer, who becomes boss to Marcus Graham, a successful play-boy, after a corporate take over. Graham, who is used to loving and leaving countless women, is dumb founded when Jacqueline doesn't immediately respond to his advances. She makes him sweat. He has to put in effort to seduce her and even when he thinks he's got her, she spurns him for trying to get too close. The comedy demonstrates how easily roles are reversed when a woman keeps her options open. Broyer is smart, witty, refined, gorgeous, and dressed to kill in every clip. In a movie filled with beautiful women (Halle Berry for heaven's sake) Givens steals the show.

Flyness and Funk(y femme fatales),