Life and Death in L.A.: Femmes Fatale Are Deceptively Charming, Dangerous and Often Lethal; But One Among Them Tips the Scales When It Comes to Evil Doings — And She’s Probably Not The One You’re Thinking Of

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Femmes Fatale Are Deceptively Charming, Dangerous and Often Lethal; But One Among Them Tips the Scales When It Comes to Evil Doings — And She’s Probably Not The One You’re Thinking Of

Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, “The Killing” (1956).

By Paul Parcellin

Be forewarned: Many spoilers are included throughout the text below.

Sure, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the husband liquidating murderess of “Double Indemnity” (1944) might be your go-to gal whenever the term “femme fatale” is mentioned. She’s as coolly detached and methodical as a hangman, and wily enough to nudge her fall-guy, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), into killing her husband, and she even makes him think that the whole thing was his idea.

Cunning shapeshifter Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), who almost puts one over on private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), is skilled at stitching together tissues of lies that disarm and misdirect the circle of men who orbit her. She’s after a prized jewel-encrusted falcon statue and will use lethal means to get it. We’re not sure until the very end of the film whether or not Spade, the role model for filmdom’s hard boiled shamuses, is buying her act. Anyone would be well advised to do so at his or her own risk. 

Speaking of trench-coated private dicks, in “Out of the Past” (1947) Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) tries to leave behind his checkered past. He used to snoop for crime kingpin Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). The mobster’s henchman drags him back into the life he’s tried to shake off. Jeff’s former lady friend, who happens to be Whit’s current squeeze, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), is expert in playing both men as pawns, even as Whit tries to frame Jeff for a murder. It doesn’t occur to the erstwhile detective exactly how deadly Kathie can be until he finally sees he at her worst. And by then it’s too late.

In “The Killing” (1956), George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) makes the costly error of telling his unfaithful wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) about a big score he’s in on. George is supposed to keep his lips zipped, but he tries to impress the drifting Sherry in a futile attempt to keep her from wandering. Trouble is, she’s got a boyfriend, and the two of them decide to grab a piece of the loot George and his partners aim to snatch in a racetrack stickup. George, the milquetoast racetrack cashier, is unaware of the evil steps Sherry will take to stuff her pockets with greenbacks and blow this crummy town — the femme fatale’s credo if there ever was one.

Gloria Grahame, “The Big Heat” (1953).

Many others deserve honorable mention for their underhanded onscreen efforts. This is hardly an exhaustive list, just a few of my favorites, including Peggy Cummins, the bank robbing sharpshooter of “Gun Crazy” (1950); Lana Turner, who, with John Garfield, deep-sixes her husband in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946); Gloria Grahame enters a tempestuous romance with Bogie in “In a Lonely Place” (1950), and was gangster Vince Stone’s (Lee Marvin) moll in “The Big Heat” (1953) — it has the scene where Vince serves her a faceful of scalding coffee. Grahame’s other noir performances include “Crossfire” (1947), “Macao” (1952), “Sudden Fear” (1952), “Human Desire” (1954) and “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959); Joan Bennett tormented Edward G. Robinson in two Fritz Lang films, “The Woman in the Window” (1944) and “Scarlet Street” (1945). In both, she conspires with Dan Duryea to fleece him for all that he’s worth. Other noirs she also appeared in include “The Scar” (1948) and “The Reckless Moment” (1949).

I’d be remiss to leave out Lizabeth Scott, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, and especially Ann Savage, the spitfire hitchhiker in “Detour” (1945) whom Tom Neal wishes he never met. (For an in-depth look at the women of noir, check out an excellent book, “Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film Noir,” by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry.)

But among the high priestesses of noir there must be one who reigns supreme. She may not be portrayed by the most accomplished actress, yet she makes others pale in comparison. The top femme fatale — my personal favorite — displays breathtaking wickedness. She has no redeeming qualities — none. Her maniacal quest for dirty loot and her Arctic-cold acts of pure mayhem are so over the top I laughed out loud the first time I saw her American screen debut. 

The worst of the worst femmes fatale simply must be Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie), the cold-blooded double crosser of “Decoy” (1946). Other murderous dames offer stiff competition, but for sheer cruelty and her outsized zest for sadism, Margot stands out among noir’s most treacherous females. Others may leave a greater number of stiffs in their wake. Some even look their paramour, boyfriend or husband in the eye and coolly pull the trigger. 

Edward Norris, Jean Gillie, Herbert Rudley, “Decoy” (1946).

But there are three reasons why the others cannot hold a candle to the “Decoy” star:

1) She pulls off a murder that is as hideous as any committed by woman or man onscreen at the time. In her crazed pursuit of a $400,000 stash of loot, she disposes of an accomplice in a most chilling of manners. Motoring toward the site where the money is allegedly hidden, their car gets a flat. One of the two men riding with her changes the tire. As he lowers the jack beneath the front bumper, Margot slams the car into forward gear and runs over the unsuspecting sap, who happens to be a cold-blooded killer, himself. She hops out, rifles through the dead man’s pockets, grabs the tire changing tools and gets back behind the wheel …

2) Once she's in the driver’s seat, Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley), who has been hoodwinked into aiding in Margot’s scheme, sits shell-shocked in the passenger seat. He mutters to her, “I’d like to kill you.” Without hesitation, she hands him a loaded revolver. He points the weapon at her — Hippocratic Oath be damned — but can’t summon the moxie to pull the trigger. She takes back the gun and they drive off. Margot knows that Craig is a broken man and likely would not shoot. But she wants to demonstrate her dominance over the hapless physician. It’s a sizable gamble on her part, but she willingly risks her life just to rub his nose in the dirt, which leads us to …

3) The last and perhaps most badass gesture on Margot’s part, assuring her top placement in the Legion of Film Noir Femmes Fatale: She’s been shot and is on her death bed. Police Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), who has been trailing Margot and her hoodlum associates for a while, stands over her. She asks him to come down to her level. It’s an odd request, but he crouches down to oblige, bringing his face closer to her’s. We expect an intimate, soul-baring moment. She’s about to unburden herself and express regret for all she has done, we think. But the mood is abruptly dashed. With her dying breath she cackles hysterically in his face. A ring of police officers looks on as Portugal blushes, realizing he’s been had. She uses her last gasp to con a policeman and leave him humiliated in front of his peers. She can now leave this mortal coil, warmed by the fact that she’s had the last laugh at another in a long line of suckers. With her rotten-to-the core exit, Margot is the very model of a film noir femme fatale.


  1. Loved, loved, loved this, Paul! Margot is one of my all time favorite fatal femmes, and I greatly enjoyed reading about her here, along with the other deadly dames!

    1. Thanks Karen! I know this topic is one of your areas of expertise, so your compliments mean a lot. Glad you enjoyed it.