The question about women in Film Noir is always a question of what is seen on the screen as a woman and what the woman represents in the ideology of the film and how this is interpreted. The image of women in the film Noir is very diverse and can hardly be described as a single image, rather, there are different images of women. Mostly, a crucial characteristic, namely the clear demarcation from the conventional image of women, the good housewife and mother, as well as the Film Noir also distinguishes itself from other genres, especially by its different and abstract character.
Double Indemnity is a prototypical Film Noir. It deals with crime, love and intrigues. The Film Noir, which emerged in the 1940s in America, tend to revolve around heroes who are unusually vicious and morally questionable. The femme fatale is the character most likely to be associated with Film Noir, though by no means all the classic Film Noirs show this character.
In comparison to the classical Hollywood films female characters in Film Noir have finally the opportunity to determine their own movements and statements.
The decade of Film Noir starts when men returned from war and women had to go back from their nearly independent roles to their roles as housewives, even if they didn’t want it. So, the Film Noir dealt with the issue of the powerful woman and her role in family and society.
With doing so, the role of women in films changed as well. What before was shown as weak, ineffectual figures which needed the male hero’s affection and protection turned to the powerful, provocative woman who was able to seduce men; the femme fatale.
As mentioned before, the most profound change for women in the development phase of Film Noir was, at least temporarily, their entry into the labor market. While the men were at war, the women who remained behind took over their work on the ground. After the return of the men, there were huge conflicts which, among other things, led to an unusually high divorce rate for this time. Despite, attempts to prioritize certain jobs for returning veterans, and to displace women from the labor market or at least low-profile jobs, many women insisted on their newfound right to pursue a job. Thus, it also becomes clear that the femme fatale is not only about stopping the corruption of men, but also to keep their independency and her strong status in the current society.
That leads to two prototypes at that time: On the one hand, there is the good girl, who is characterized as reliable, honest, loyal and obedient she went back to her role as a housewife and mother. She is kind of represented by Ida Corwin in Mildred Pierce (1945). And on the other hand, there is the femme fatale, the evil, sexually attractive, often self-confident, quick-witted woman who does not seem to be trustworthy, but who is so fascinating because of that. Phyllis
Dietrichson (Double Indemnity, 1944) is shown as a prototypical femme fatale. She has a dominant demeanor, a stunning personality, is independent and beautiful. She is also a rebel at the same time and always follows the latest fashion trend. Also, she is a plotting character and is playing with men and their life to achieve her own aims, what is a typical plot for Film Noir as well. Also typical is, that she convinces others to help her – here she convinces Neff to help her to murder her husband. For her it is easy to wrap men around her finger and she is used to always getting what she wants without putting so much effort in it. Nevertheless, the main topic both typed of women must deal with is the patriarchy and to fight against sexual harassment at their working place.
In conclusion, the Film Noir reflects the uninterrupted ideological struggle within the patriarchy for the control of female sexuality and the femme fatale is forced by the society to always seem invulnerable, but it loses the opportunity to experience the sensation of sensibility in all its facets and is just reduced on her outward appearance in fact she is very smart and forward-looking even if it is not for the best reasons. Also, the femme fatale is an ambivalent character who works for the rights of women, but at the same time for their own pleasure and their own advantage.
Grossmann, Julie: “The Proletarian woman’s film og the 1930’s: contending with censorship and entertainment.” In: Rethinking the femme fatale in film noir ready for her close-up. New York 2009: p.176. b
Schrader, Paul: “Notes on the film noir”. p.581-591.