Top 10 Most Persuasive Film Noir Femmes

How do I love film noir femmes fatales? Let me count the ways.

I love them for their striking beauty – how did Virginia Christine expect to stand a chance with Ava Gardner slinking around in that single-strap black dress in The Killers (1946)? Or Alice Faye as long as sexy diner waitress Linda Darnell was serving it up in Fallen Angel (1945)?

I love them for their sheer audacity. When Lizabeth Scott wanted to keep that satchel of cash that was mistakenly tossed into her car in Too Late for Tears (1949), she not only killed her second husband for it, but also the guy who was the bag’s rightful owner. (Oh, and did I forget to mention what happened to her first husband?)

And I love them for their persuasiveness – a seemingly innate ability to know just what to say to get just what they wanted – be it tearful begging, dispassionate urging, or aggressive insistence. And they almost always accomplished it in one sitting, with one well-spoken, highly effective pitch. No matter the objective, these shadowy dames simply didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They didn’t even think about it.

It’s a pleasure, then, to offer up 10 of my favorite persuasive femmes fatales from noir’s classic period. Dames that were decisive, determined . . . and just didn’t give a damn.

Margot knew how to pull out all the stops.

Margot knew how to pull out all the stops.

Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) in Decoy (1947)

What did she want?

For her lover (well, one of them), Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley), to be her accomplice in her quest to – bear with me here – resuscitate her executed convict boyfriend, so that said boyfriend could lead her to his buried stash of stolen loot. Not surprisingly, her respectable, highly principled lover is less than enthusiastic about joining Margot in this enterprise – no matter how much he lusts after her. So Margot pulls out all the stops with a sure-fire whopper.

What did she say?

“Do you remember the first time I came to see you in your office? Your dingy, gloomy office on that dingy, dirty street? The rotten smell from the factory chimneys pressing down on the shabby little houses? The slovenly women? The gray-faced, dirty little children starting out with everything against them? I remember that street. I remember every little thing about it. And if I’d never seen it, I still could’ve described it. Because that street runs all over the world. I know. Because that’s the street I came from. Six thousand miles from here. In a little English mill town. But it’s the same rotten street. The same factories, the same people. And the same dirty little gray-faced children. I can’t go back to that sick, unhealthy street. The street I came from. I can’t go back to it. I can’t, Lloyd – I won’t.”

Did it work?

Not at first, but it didn’t take long for Dr. Craig to come around.

"He's so mean to me. So...kill my husband, 'kay?"

“He’s so mean to me. So…kill my husband, ‘kay?”

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944)

What did she want?

For her new beau (and when I say “new,” I mean that this was only their third encounter, and the first that lasted more than 10 minutes) to help her kill her boorish husband. This wasn’t the first time she’d broached the subject (see what I mean about the nerve of these dames?), but she opted for a different tack this time around. Instead of the direct, no-nonsense approach, Phyllis decided to tug on a heartstring or two.

What did she say?

“I feel as if he was watching me. Not that he cares, not anymore. He keeps me on a leash so tight, I can’t breathe. . . . He’s so mean to me. Every time I buy a dress or a pair of shoes, he yells his head off. He never lets me go anywhere. He keeps me shut up. He’s always been mean to me. Even his life insurance all goes to that daughter of his. That Lola. . . . Walter, I don’t want to kill him. I never did. Not even when he gets drunk and slaps my face. . . . The other night we drove home from a party. He was drunk again. When we drove into the garage, he just there with his head on the steering wheel and the motor still running. And I thought what it would be like if I didn’t switch it off. Just closed the garage doors and left him there.”

Did it work?

You betcha. In fact, Walter was way ahead of her.

Cora didn't have to say much to get Frank to say yes.

Cora didn’t have to say much to get Frank to say yes.

Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

What did she want?

For her lover, Frank (John Garfield), to help her knock off her husband.  Like many a hapless paramour, Frank was initially appalled at the very notion of murder. So Cora ramped up the stakes and pulled out a trio of trump cards from her persuasion deck: the Love Card, the Sympathy Card, and the Ego-Stroking Card. Frank didn’t stand a chance.

What did she say?

“What are we going to do? Oh, Frank, if only I’d met you first. Frank, do you love me? Do you love me so much that nothing else matters? There’s one thing we could do that would fix everything for us. . . . Listen to me, Frank – I’m not what you think I am. I want to keep this place and work hard and be something, that’s all. But you can’t do it without love. At least, a woman can’t. I’ve made a big mistake in my life, and I’ve to be this way just once to fix it. . . . You’re smart, Frank – you’ll think of a way. Plenty of men have. Darling, can’t you see how happy you and I would be together here? Without him?”

Did it work?

Like a charm.

That sweater almost did the trick, but not quite.

That sweater almost did the trick, but not quite.

Vicki  Buckley (Gloria Grahame) in Human Desire (1954)

For her lover, Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford), to kill her abusive spouse (are you sensing a pattern here?). Vicki put on a persuasive little pity party in her effort to achieve her goal.

What did she say?

“Carl’s been fired. He’s selling the house and we’re leaving town tomorrow. He says I’ve got to go with him.  I don’t want to go. But there’s nothing else for us to do. . . . If he finds out about us, he’ll kill me. What is there to do? Say goodbye to each other. I’ll go with Carl, and when I can’t bear the sight of him any longer, I’ll . . . You’ll forget me. It’s no use. There was nothing for us to look forward to, even if I weren’t going away. . . . We weren’t meant to be happy. It won’t be as difficult for you – at least you’ll be free. If I’d met you long ago, everything would’ve been different. But now it’s too late. It’s always too late, isn’t it? If only we’d been luckier. If something had happened to him. In the yards.”

Did it work?

At first, it appeared to, and Jeff headed right out, like a good little boy, to carry out the dastardly deed. But at the last minute, he couldn’t follow through. Fail.

Effective? Yup.

Effective? Yup.

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in Gun Crazy (1950)

What did she want?

For her husband, Bart Tare (John Dall), to abandon the notion of earning a living the old-fashioned way and try something new and unique. Robbery. She wasn’t coy or entreating, she didn’t bite her tongue, and she didn’t whitewash the facts – Laurie told Bart, straight out, without question, exactly what she wanted.

What did she say?

“Bart, I want things. A lot of things. Big things. I don’t wanna be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who’ll do anything. A guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”

Did it work?

I’ll say. She topped off her spiel with a seductive kiss, and before you could say “Bob’s your uncle,” Bart was pointing his gun at some poor slob at the Traveler’s Aid.

Kitty could even persuade Chris to paint her toes!

Kitty could even persuade Chris to paint her toes!

Kitty March (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street (1945)

What did she want?

For her would-be lover, Chris Cross (heh), to be her Sugar Daddy.

What did she say?

“I’m sort of keeping things bottled up, too, Chris. The truth is I’m in a jam. Ah, you probably guessed it – I’m broke. Even this dress belongs to Millie. I can’t afford to pay my rent. Oh, forget it. I shouldn’t have told you. It’ll spoil your day. I’ll get out of it somehow. I couldn’t take anything from you. No, no, I couldn’t – I’ve never taken money from a man, and I’m not going to now. And I’m not going to spoil our friendship. I couldn’t pay you back.”

Did it work?

Sure did. Within days, Chris (Edward G. Robinson) had set Kitty up in one of the swankest apartments this side of Mad Men. If you know what I mean.

Close, but no cigar, Martha.

Close, but no cigar, Martha.

Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

What did she want?

For her lover, Sam (Van Heflin), to murder her husband, the alcoholic, spineless, and altogether rather pitiful local District Attorney, Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas). Of all the dames on this list, Martha’s mode of persuasion was the most concise and to the point. Pithy, even.

What did she say?

“Now, Sam – do it now. Set me free, set both of us free. He fell down the stairs and fractured his skull, that’s how he died – everybody knows what a heavy drinker he was. Oh, Sam, it can be so easy.”

Did it work?

She thought it did, and for a couple of moments, it looked like she was right. But I doubt that Sam ever seriously considered taking Martha up on her succinct suggestion.

"I'm just warning you." (Sheesh!)

“I’m just warning you.” (Sheesh!)

Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) in Born to Kill (1947)

What did she want?

It was more what she DIDN’T want – which was for Reno boardinghouse owner Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard) to continue her quest to bring Helen’s lover to justice for murder.

What did she say?

“If you go to the police, you’ll see Laurie sooner than you think. I’m just warning you. Perhaps you don’t realize – it’s painful being killed. A piece of metal sliding into your body, finding its way into your heart. Or a bullet tearing through your skin, crashing into a bone. It takes a while to die, too. Sometimes a long while.”

Did it work?

Sadly, yes. Mrs Kraft was defeated and deflated by Helen’s cold-blooded commentary. Still, she did manage to get one good dig in – as Helen was leaving her motel room, Mrs. Kraft spit on her and slammed the door in her face.

Would YOU say no to this femme? (I didn't think so.)

Would YOU say no to this femme? (I didn’t think so.)

Lona McLane (Kim Novak) in Pushover (1954)

What did she want?

For her policeman lover, Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray), to kill her bank robber boyfriend so the two could pocket the proceeds from her beau’s most recent venture.

What did she say?

“We could have that money, Paul – you and I. Harry’s going to die no matter what we do. So what difference will it make if he shows up and he’s killed? Think what that money could mean to us, Paul. You and me.”

Did it work?

Paul was initially insulted at the very idea. But it didn’t take him long to come around to Lona’s way of thinking.

Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in The Killers (1946)

What did she want?

For her boyfriend, Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster), – known as the Swede – to do something, ANYTHING, so she wouldn’t have to take the rap for the stolen brooch she was sporting. Kitty pulled out all the stops – in a rare public display – babbling, pleading, sobbing, the whole nine yards.

With that look, Kitty could get Swede to do anything.

With that look, Kitty could get Swede to do anything.

What did she say?

“It’s not true, Swede, I didn’t take it. I had no idea it was stolen. Oh, Swede, make him listen. I’ll give it back, I’ll do anything if he’ll just let me go. Please, don’t let him take me in, Swede, or they’ll throw the book at me.”

Did it work?

Sure did. The Swede, rendered figuratively sightless and literally senseless by his love for Kitty, ended up confessing to the crime and landing a three-year stretch in the Gray Bar Hotel. Ah, love.

So that’s my top 10 of noir’s most persuasive femmes – the dames with the disarming smiles, the influential whispers, and the thoroughly compelling caresses. What are some of your favorite persuasive film noir femmes?

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 “Femmes Fatales” issue of The Dark Pages.

~ by shadowsandsatin on October 13, 2014.

10 Responses to “Top 10 Most Persuasive Film Noir Femmes”

  1. My favorite two are Clare Trevor and Ava Gardner — Clare had the man-eater role down pat, and Ava was good in every role she every played.

  2. Great selection and I love how you laid out their strategies!

  3. I love reading the quotes because I can here each actress saying the lines in all their pouting wickedness.

  4. Glad to see Lona from Pushover on the list; she’s an underrated femme fatale in film noir history.

  5. A marvelous piece that I missed when originally published. So glad that you included Peggy Cummins’ femme fatale from GUN CRAZY!

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