In film noir, women were frequently portrayed as opposite ends of a spectrum of acceptable behavior. At one end was the conventional, supportive helpmate, a nurturer with good intent but little personality or visual appeal, reflecting gender conventions for mid-twentieth century America. The other, vastly more interesting extreme was the “dark lady” archetype, a mysterious, sexually alluring, complex character who provided the motive force behind the male protagonist’s undoing and was somewhat tantalizing for moviegoers of the era.
Influenced by detective fiction, German Expressionism, and urban anxiety, film noir dealt primarily with human taboos and transgressions, giving audiences a glimpse of human nature’s dark side. Such films often showed characters drawn into crime or misdeeds against their will and ultimately punished for them. Film noir focused on male protagonists, but women were always key elements of the stories, usually as one of two character types – the “good woman” and the “femme fatale,” who occupied opposite ends of the moral scale.
Often, they reflected social expectations of women as dependent wives and dutiful helpmates, or “good” women. However, noir filmmakers presented this conventional, widely accepted archetype in a somewhat uninteresting manner, both visually and in terms of narrative. Film scholar Janey Place says that, like the “normal” world which rarely appears in film noir, “the ‘good’ but boring women who contrast with the exciting, sexy femmes fatales . . . [seem] so dull and constricting that [they offer] no compelling alternative to the dangerous but exciting life on the fringe” (Place 50).
Much more appealing and interesting in all senses was the femme fatale, or what Place calls the “dark lady” or “spider woman,” characterized by an open, aggressive sexuality that transgressed accepted gender norms of the time. Often, such a character in noir films provided the driving force behind the story, often leading not only to the male protagonist’s ultimate ruin but often to her own. As Place comments, “The dark woman of film noir had something her innocent sister lacked: access to her own sexuality (and thus to men’s) and the power that this access unlocked” (Place 36).
Also, as a sexually forward woman in an era before women’s sexuality (or, for that matter, independence) was widely accepted, dark ladies and spider women were taboo – forbidden in real life and seen only under certain conditions in mainstream films. Such women could not be heroines or freely practice their sexuality without consequences. Film scholar Mary Ann Doane writes that “the femme fatale in film noir is characterized as unknowable (and this is the lure of her attraction) . . . [but] the message is quite clear – unrestrained female sexuality constitutes a danger” (Doane 102-103).
Film noir evolved from the early 1940s to the late 1950s as the genre itself evolved, turning more into a wide umbrella than a narrow style. As Place observes, film genres “express a wide and changing range of ideologies . . . [and thus] the characteristics of film noir style . . . are not ‘rules’ to be enforced” (Place 37-39). The depiction of women was always rather flexible within film noir, and it clearly evolved between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s. The female characters in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and Touch of Evil (1958) attest to this flexibility and evolution.
In the first example, the female lead embodies all of the archetypal traits of the film noir female, while Kiss Me Deadly distributes them among three principal female characters (while still adhering to the basic ideas of women as either good helpmates or wicked vamps), and Touch of Evil displays its lone “dark lady” without exploring her actions or imposing moral consequences. The Postman Always Rings Twice offers perhaps the clearest example of the film noir woman as a complex, calculating, ultimately ill-fated agent of men’s doom, and, in keeping with the genre’s moral framework, she is punished for her evil doings.
Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) encounters Cora (Lana Turner), who initially appears as a literal vision in white, photographed in soft-focus and with hair dyed platinum blonde. (Indeed, she wears white through much of the film, which belies her true nature as a transgressor. ) In the start, she appears as a dutiful wife, working in her husband’s roadside restaurant, but as she reveals her latent, powerful sexuality, she evolves into an archetypal “dark lady. ”