The Scariest Women in Film Noir
The women of film noir could be deceitful, disdainful, and imposing, not to mention steely, wily, callous, and relentless. But some, more than any other quality, were downright scary. Here are my picks for the scariest women in film noir.
- Annie Laurie Starr: Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1950). Trigger-happy was putting it mildly – Annie Laurie was murder-happy. Her first killing seemed to be out of desperation – later, she seemed to pull that trigger for the sheer pleasure of the outcome.
- Anna Thompson: Yvonne DeCarlo in Criss Cross (1949). Talk about not being able to trust a dame as far as you could throw her – Anna was definitely out for number one. Always. No matter what. She said it herself: “You have to watch out for yourself. That’s the way it is.”
- Evelyn Harper: Hope Emerson in Caged (1950). This character was accurately described by a film reviewer as “evil incarnate.” Evelyn certainly took advantage of her job as matron of a woman’s prison to exercise her sadistic tendencies.
- Kathie Moffett: Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947). Kathie wouldn’t hesitate to use a man – or several, if need be – in order to further her own desires. She also didn’t shirk from using a gun.
- Sheila Bennett: Evelyn Keyes in The Killer that Stalked New York (1950). Sheila wasn’t a ruthless schemer or a conscienceless murderer – but I’d be pretty scared that she’d cough on me. The smallpox, you know.
- Madge Rapf: Agnes Moorehead in Dark Passage (1947). Madge was a killer, a shrew, a potential man-stealer, and a jealous friend. She didn’t hesitate to kill, and didn’t hesitate to send an innocent man to prison for it. Plus, her voice was really annoying.
- Coral Chandler: Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning (1946). The equation: beautiful and sexy torch singer, plus pathological liar, multiplied by desperate murderer equals scary, scary lady.
- Jane Palmer: Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears (1949). When keeping up with the Joneses goes bad. Jane didn’t just want to keep up with them, she wanted to BE them. And it didn’t matter who she had kill in order to make the transformation.
- Lorraine Minosa: Jan Sterling in The Big Carnival, AKA Ace in the Hole (1951). Lorraine once admitted that she didn’t pray because “kneeling bags my nylons.” What else do you need to know?
- Claire Quimby: Audrey Totter in Tension (1949). A liar and killer was Claire. And she was downright mean. Need an example? In announcing to her unassuming spouse that she is leaving him for another man, she tells him: “I’ve got what I’m looking for and I’m gonna grab it while I’ve got the chance. A real man.”
- Martha Ivers: Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Tough as nails, sharp of tongue, and steely to the core, Martha didn’t suffer fools gladly. Actually, she didn’t suffer them at all. She was especially hard on relatives.
- Helen Grayle/Velma Valento: Claire Trevor in Murder, My Sweet (1944). Helen/Velma’s appeal to men was like kryptonite to Superman – once she batted her lashes, murmured a few words in that honeyed, affected voice, and gave them a glimpse of her crazily coiffed hairdo, they seemed to be lost.
- Helen Brent: Claire Trevor in Born to Kill (1947). So many scary moments, so little time. Was it when she stumbled on a double murder and decided not to call the police? (“It’s a lot of bother – coroner’s inquests and all that sort of stuff,” she explained.) Or the fact that she continued to carry on a secret affair with her brother-in-law, even though she knew he was the killer? I can’t choose.
- Dr. Lillith Ridder: Helen Walker in Nightmare Alley (1947). Anybody who can keep a cool smile on their face while calmly revealing that she has successfully blackmailed you out of thousands of dollars is one scary chick.
- Irene Williams: Helen Walker in Impact (1949). Irene was like three wives in one: scary devoted wife, scary murdering wife, scary jealous wife.
- Mrs. Frankie Neal: Marie Windsor in The Narrow Margin (1952). Or WAS she Mrs. Neal? Whoever she was, I wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark train corridor.
- Vera: Ann Savage in Detour (1945). Hard, coarse, and terrifying, Vera could have been the poster girl for the dangers of picking up hitch-hikers. In the words of the hapless driver whose misfortune it was to give her a lift: “Vera was just as rotten in the morning as she’d been the night before.”
Honorable mentions go to four women who couldn’t help it – they were crazy scary. And I do mean crazy.
- Louise Howell Graham: Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947). Louise first shows scary signs when she tells her boyfriend: “I want a monopoly on you – or whatever it is that people have when they don’t want anyone else to have any of you.” But when her boyfriend dumps her, she goes nuts, eventually killing him – right after she matter-of-factly tells him, “I explained to you how important it was for you not to leave me again.”
- Nell Forbes: Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952). Nell’s crazy-scariness didn’t manifest itself in malicious violence – basically, although she was as nutty as a fruitcake, she didn’t mean any real harm. But let’s just say I wouldn’t want to hire her as my babysitter.
- Nancy: Laraine Day in The Locket (1946). Poor Nancy. She seemed so normal, so sweet, so loving — so filled with sincerity. It wasn’t her fault that she was a thief, a liar, and a killer. In fact, I’m not even quite sure that she was aware of it.
- Ellen Berent: Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). I went back and forth on whether to include Ellen in the crazy scary category, or just scary. But when you are so possessive of your husband that you allow his disabled brother to drown in front of your sunglassed eyes; when you are so obsessed with your spouse that you refer to your unborn baby as a “little beast” and cause a miscarriage to get it out of the way; and when you commit suicide in order to facilitate an accusation of murder against your adopted sister . . . well, let’s just say you qualify as being at least a little crazy.