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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Could there ever be a detective film noir with a female lead and a homme fatale?

film noir

The other day, reader Drave tweeted at me:

Has there ever been a detective noir flick with a female lead and a homme fatale? I’m having trouble thinking of one.

I can’t think of one either. And I figured it would be interesting to throw the query out to the readership and see if anyone can think of one. But I suspect you’re all going to have trouble coming up with even one title that fits these criteria because of the more interesting side of the question:

Could there ever be a detective film noir with a female lead and a homme fatale?

A hardbitten woman detective isn’t a stretch — in fact, we see characters who verge close to this on television quite frequently these days. It’s the homme fatale bit that’s harder to see working in a serious way (though it could likely worth well in a parody or comedy). The notion of women as dangerous to men — in a metaphoric way, when it comes to sex and romance, and literally, when wielding a smoking gun — works because it’s an unexpected exaggeration male anxiety. The notion of men as literally fatally dangerous to women is… well, an actual fact of life for far too many women to feel like it could serve a similar archetypal purpose that the femme fatale character serves in film noir.
As always, I’d be delighted to be proven wrong by a really good film noir with a homme fatale.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  •  Yay! I love whenever something I send gets used.

    You bring up a good point about the inherent difficulties of doing a homme fatale without him just being a regular evil dude. I don’t think it would work with the archetypes from a regular noir flick simply swapped. What I mean is you couldn’t just have the kind of guy who usually plays the detective playing the client, and obviously the female detective wouldn’t be as overtly sexy as the femme fatale tends to be. I can almost picture this working with the detective as someone similar to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in Hudsucker Proxy, and the client being rich, boyish, and possible a little on the fey side. Maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt could pull it off. Now, would it work better with the client’s method being seduction, or manipulation? Hmmm….

  • mdm

    I’d argue that in a feminist interpretation, Edward Cullen is a homme fatale, but Bella is so far from a hardboiled detective (indeed, it seems everyone’s an idiot, for not figuring the Cullens’ secret out by themselves) it doesn’t really count.

    I don’t know if intelligence agent counts as hardboiled detective, but I’m certain James Bond has been a sort of homme fatale to such a woman at least once. Deliberately, even.

    But the “classic” arrangement, of female detective protagonist and homme fatale vacillating between pro- and ant- in a noir film…you’re right, none that I can think of.

  • RogerBW

    It seems to me that the conception of a femme fatale is wrapped up in contradiction: the (physically) weak being (emotionally) strong. The character is always unexpected – the tough manly hero is thinking he’ll go up against more tough men, and instead meets someone his cultural conditioning tells him is to be protected – and outside the context of sexism which provides that cultural conditioning I think the idea falls apart.

    Even in the original setting, if we were dealing with Brion O’Shaughnessy and Samantha Spade, she’d already be on her guard against yet another man trying to do her down and/or take advantage of her because that’s what they all do. And in a modern setting, the idea that one sex is to be deferred to by the other simply doesn’t exist.

  • Speaking to the TV version of a homme fatale, the closest character I can think of is Logan Echolls from Veronica Mars. He began the show as an antagonist to the title character, and even after the switch to protagonist, he was never seen as person who was good for Veronica. Even in his best moments or when he meant well, things seemed to blow up in Veronica’s face with only the very occasional exception.

  • PJK

    I’d completely forgot about Veronica Mars (one of my favorite shows when it first broadcast)! A very good suggestion.

  • LJS

    If we’re going that route, the Buffy/Spike relationship particularly in the last few seasons has a simliar dynamic. Spike is the villain of Season Two, less so in Season 3. Then sort of ally for Season Four, ending up as Buffy’s lover in Season Five. Definately not a healthy realtionship for either of them. Buffy isn’t hard boiled in the way that Veronica is, tho.

  • PJK

    I think the closest thing I’ve read that in concept comes close to this
    idea (strong women vs weak men) is the book “Glory Season” by David Brin which tells the story of a society where women are the strong gender (even going so far as predominantly reproducing via pathogenesis), where men are kept around for reasons of genetic variation (having been genetically re-engineered to be more docile). The protagonist, Maya,  is the offspring of male-female reproduction (called a var in the book). She and her twin sister are  send on their way to find their own niche in this society. With the arrival of an off-world visitor, Maya’s life takes a different turn from what she initially expected.


  • Arthur

    The mention of James Bond made me think of the man for whom Eva Green’s Vesper Lund (an intelligence operative) became a traitor in CASINO ROYALE and was part of the denouement in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. BTW it should be “homme fatal” (“fatale” being the feminine form).

  • I don’t know if this fits exactly, but when it comes to a compelling, enigmatic male who has a complicated relationship with (and is possibly dangerous to) the main female investigator, my first thought was Hannibal Lecter.

  • Brian Baier

    If it were a period piece, I’d expect anywhere from the 20s to the 50s, it would have to be an alternate reality in which women held the same or greater societal dominance as we are familiar with men having then.  In order to create such a world convincingly, you’d have to also develop earlier history as a backdrop and prevent the paradigm from seeming forced or contrived.  I’d like to see such a thing.

  • Danielm80

    I can’t think of a better suggestion than Veronica Mars, but if you step outside the detective genre, there are other stories about hommes fatales. I’d suggest the David Mamet film House of Games, which is a story about a woman facing off against con artists. And you might count any of the many different versions of Les Liaisions Dangereuses–although the story includes both a homme fatale and a femme fatale.

  • “Murder, She Wrote” actually has a lot of Noir-inspired plots, even if the visual style was more “Miss Marple” than “Sam Spade”.

  • Anarawd

    Ooh, I loved that book.  the Glory Season of the title being that time of year when the strong women would become receptive to the men (who had to be coerced).

  • Lynn


    Though she’s less detective and more victim.

  • Ide Cyan

    Aside from Veronica Mars, there was the “Brown Betty” episode of Fringe…

    It’s hard to think of examples. There are film noir stories with women as leads, but they’re rarely detectives.

  • My novel, ‘Death of a Dreamonger’ though not a strict gumshoe detective story, takes a lot of its structure from those types of story.

    The heroine, Eve, is a quick-witted person, adept and finding what she needs to do. She meets a strange young man who may know a lot of things called Morgan – is she playing him or is he playing her?

    Here’s a link to some of it.


  • Kaithymos

    Isn’t Peeta from “Hunger Games” sort of an “homme fatale”?  I haven’t read the books, but in the film he plays masterfully on Katniss’ emotions to survive.

  • LJS

    It’s do-able in the 1920s to 1930s at least. The Women who Wrote the War has a plethora of female reporters, many pretty hardbitten, who could be models for noir protagonists. There’s a host of other female reporters in the 1920s and 1930s. (Someone really needs to do a book on Sigrid Schultz, the Chicago Tribune’s chief foreign correspondent in the late 20s and 30s, stationed in Berlin — I keep coming across references to her in books on Germany in the 30s.)

    The 1920s in particular are a time of relative sexual license, where a female protagnoist could be more sexually active without being a social pariah. True, men still have dominant roles overall, but that doesn’t mean one couldn’t have a man who’s in a weak position and becomes the homme fatal.

  • madderrose74

    Hitchcock played with the idea, both in Shadow of a Doubt,  where a headstrong young woman (Teresa Wright) comes to realize her adored uncle (Joseph Cotten) is actually a serial killer, and Suspicion, casting Cary Grant as a charming schemer and possible sociopath who may or may not be trying to kill his wife (Joan Fontaine.) I’d say Shadow comes closest to inverting the trope.

  • PJK

    Not quite a detective story, but I’m reminded of Haywire, where Mallory Kane is constantly surrounded
    by men she can or can not trust, with Paul (Michael Fassbender’s
    character) coming closest to the Homme Fatale (though Ewan McGregor is a close second).

  • Tonio Kruger

    I can think of plenty of on-screen hommes fatals (Dracula, Svengali, Dr. Jekyll, etc.) but unfortunately, the one example that comes closest to being in  a conventional detective story would be the Ron Silver character in Blue Steel, a serial killer who turns out to be the eventual nemesis/lover of Jamie Lee Curtis’ police officer character.  

    Of course, I’m also tempted to include the Hannibal Lecter character in Hannibal but er, no. That movie is a bit too stupid to take seriously as anything other than an over-literal adaptation of author Thomas Harris’ fu to the traditional publishing establishment.

  • trooper6

    Take a look at a femme fatal type like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. That core of that femme fatal is that she is an improper woman. What makes her improper? She doesn’t care about love/motherhood/etc, she’s unemotional…rather she only cares about money & sex. The “good woman” is emotional and nurturing. The Femme fatale has no warm emotions…basically she has male interests, but uses her sexuality to fulfill them by tricking a man into “protecting” her and then screwing him over. In this situation, you can’t have an homme fatal because men aren’t assumed to be emotional and nurturing in the first place–nor are they viewed as needed protection.  The femme fatal presenting as sexually vulnerable object but who is really a predator is a central trope. (Note: I don’t think that some of the original femme fatales out of German cinema like Marlene Dietrich in the Blue Angel or Louise Brooks in Lulu are doing this at all–but that is a topic for my next book).

    I’d say in most noir-y sorts of things with female hard-boiled leads…the homme fatal is just usually a straight up predatory villain…and a sexual subject not a sexual object. So…he doesn’t work as an homme fatal. 

    Now, I do think there are homme fatal in media where men who are supposed to be emotionally warm, but then the heroine discovers that actually he is a sociopath. Those homme fatal are usually in Lifetime movies, and the men usually present themselves as loving husbands or devoted boyfriends…but then it turns out they are mafiosi, or psycho killers, or wanting to kill the woman for the insurance–something like that. I think that is the closest to the noir femme fatale. They are men who are tied to the domestic realm but who are defective and deceptive in their inhabiting of that space.

    Some of those Lifetime films are even noir-ish. But if one wants to avoid Lifetime, you can go back to noir that isn’t detective noir…Monte from the classic Mildred Pierce would count. And maybe that one guy in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Oh wait, there is an homme fatal in the classic hardboiled sense in the comic book series Ms. Tree (about a hardboiled female detective)–but I don’t want to give spoilers–and needed some special set up. I read the Hard Case Crime series of hardboiled pulp novels and Christina Faust wrote two novels with a female protagonist…I haven’t read them yet…but maybe she has some homme fatals as well?

  • LaSargenta


    Yes! THIS is what I was trying to explain to my son all those weeks ago about a femme fatale versus an homme fatal. (I can’t find the thread I mentioned it on, can’t remember what the subject was.)

    Trooper6, u did it! Thanks.

  • trooper6

    Your welcome LaSargenta! 

  • I am not sure about it because now there are many movies, novels, articles are made only on male detectives and very few of them are for the female may be in future a female detective can take this position.

  • Murkat

    I know I’m a little late to this discussion but I’ve been thinking about this issue a great deal in my own work and I’d like to offer a couple of possiblities.  Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke in Taking Lives would, I think, fit the bill.  While I wouldn’t claim it as a *good* noir or even film, it is an intriguing one.  And the other possibility, although it’s a bit difficult to find is Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944).  Although both films still operate off the notion of male anxiety, neither homme fatale has a “proper” kind of masculinity.  

  • femmefatale

    There’s a film from 1947 with Jane Greer, Susan Hayward, and Robert Young called “They Won’t Believe Me”… Young plays an homme fatale. That’s the only one I could think of. Good movie :)

  • Gabbi

    Actually, there have been plenty of noir films with strong, hardboiled women as their main protagonist. Woman on the Run (1950) with Ann Sheridan is a great example. Another one is Phantom Lady (1944), although I can’t remember who played the main lady. The idea of the “homme fatale” is that of a man who is charming, good-looking and seems to be interested in helping the protagonist. Of course, he later turns out to be the real killer, whose only intention was to murder our female protagonist all along. So I suppose you could say that the homme fatale isn’t a far stretch at all. He doesn’t show up in a towel with fabulous hair a la Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), but he’s sensual and alluring nonetheless, and equally authoritative and psychopathic.

  • Stephen Robinson

    Agreed! I thought of Lifetime movies while reading MaryAnn’s original post and Trooper6 summed it up well while tying it into the noir world.

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