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Synthetically Eroded: the Femme Fatale in Double Indemnity and Chinatown

The femme fatale is, according to Elisabeth Bronfen, a ‘fundamentally unstable figure’. She is multitudinous and difficult to trace, functional and characteristically recognisable. Her nuance is born out of her ambivalent construction and in spite of her definitional contradictions. While she constitutes a projection or a sexual fantasy, as aligned to the male hero’s gaze, she alone manufactures demise, plot inevitability, and sustains the noir genre as the art of fateful entrapment—as the threat of illegibility. She is synthetic and eroded; her agency relies upon the ways in which she reveals these attributes and ensnares her victims. As Mary Ann Doane observes, the femme fatale is encoded with disparity, existing necessarily in-between ‘seeming and being’. With Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity) at the epicentre of this classification, and Evelyn Cross Mulway (Faye Dunaway, Chinatown) at its neo-noir peripheries, this essay aims to investigate the complex archetype of the femme fatale while proposing that her deception is necessary to the architecture of the noir genre, that which swells beneath the surface of social realism yet remains tethered to a stylised, infected core.

Phyllis Dietrichson (Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity) generously embodies the disparity between seeming and being. Owed to the memorable presence of Walter Neff’s framed narration, a critical distance between Phyllis and Walter is actuated to visually and stylistically enable the deception of the femme fatale. Without this retrospectively focalised narrative structure, Phyllis' power to deceive not only Walter but also the audience itself would be feckless. Phyllis' occupation as both the object of Walter's perception and as seen only via the medium of Walter’s recent memory actuates her obscurity; it primes her deception.

Perhaps then, the role of the femme fatale is necessary to the structural integrity of the genre in both directions; she necessitates a clinical distance from the male hero in order to mobilise the plot—the film is focalised upon his gaze and reliant on his ignorance to her deception—and, because ‘she knows all along that she is fated and can, therefore, turn what is inevitable as a source of power’(Bronfen, 2004). Indeed, as fatefully entrapped as they are, the femme fatale is the first of the two to truly recognise their inevitable demise and thus she is able to traverse their nihilistic reality; fated “straight down the line” where "the last stop’s the cemetery". This phrase, a metaphor for Walter and Phyllis’ criminal companionship, is continually recited by Phyllis. And yet, despite its romantic sentiment, it deliberately fails to bind her and Walter together. Rather, the monotony and repetition of this catch-phrase sterilises its meaning and actually epitomises their disharmony. That is, ironically, “straight down the line” loses all meaning once it becomes apparent that there is, in fact, a continual gap between them. Walter and Phyllis inhabit their own versions of the truth, and much like two straight parallel lines, they are, and can only ever be, separate. It is precisely here, between the traffic of seeming and being, and under the illusion of affinity, that the femme fatale emerges. Subversive by design, the femme fatale poisons the milieu. Her sexuality, combined with her self-awareness of its enticement, is food for the success of her deception.

Reconciling the femme fatale’s occupational balance of seeming and being with the male hero demands an assessment of Wilder's film's aesthetics. Precisely through her artificial, exaggerated stylisation, visually punctuated by Stanwyck's synthetic blonde wig, Wilder’s femme fatale is crafted as deliberately, visibly artificial; her existence is predicated on the idea of an archetype, a falsity, as opposed to a figure of realism. In tandem with the film’s focalised construction, the audience’s reception of the femme fatale is reliant upon Walter’s recent memory and is thus indelibly obscured, what we see of the narrative, and of Phyllis, is exclusively conjured from Walter’s perspective. Seeing, therefore, becomes a vessel of (un)reliability—much like Walter, as he attempts to piece together the series of events that lead to his demise, the audience must turn to the visual clues peppered throughout the conceptualisation of the femme fatale.

For the femme fatale, seeming and being manifest sartorially. For Phyllis, this begins at her first introduction: atop the stairs donning a towel and an anklet, an image referential to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: “her legs.. seemed to be arranged to be stare at”. Phyllis is crafted to radiate transparency, to earn the trust of Walter in her vulnerable introduction. However, her semi-naked inception is far more complex than sexual fantasy, though, of course, the male hero is entirely distracted by its explicit sexual appeal. This is the earliest example of Phyllis’ character toying with the boundaries of seeming and being. Her nudity is a false representation, one that signifies the beginning of Walter’s eroticisation of her as a sexual body; its exposure establishes a dynamic that will later contribute to the efficacy of her duplicity and the potency of her manipulation. Thus, bizarrely, therein lies a sense of agency for the femme fatale, no matter how warped it is realized in its manipulation, or how ironic this agency may be. In the most embodied metaphor possible, Phyllis entwines a false sense of transparency with lustful temptation, and for Walter, this is irresistible.

Phyllis Dietrichson embodies the most generous definition of the femme fatale as she is legibly “rotten to the core”—her intentions are easier to decipher, her agency is simpler to defend. Of course, this is not always the case, especially in later films that see the femme fatale contest greater systems of evil than internalised misogyny. Seeming and being is manufactured in the very narrative structure of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, wherein the first introduction to the character of Evelyn Cross Mulway is another woman’s impersonation.

Unlike Phyllis Dietrichson, however, Evelyn is a far more precarious femme fatale, partly due to the context of her crafting; neo-noir as retroactively writing back to film noir in the succeeding decades, conceptualising the femme fatale amongst an already complex canon of deceitful women. Indeed, whereas Phyllis obscurely yet rather vehemently generates her own agency through the disparity of seeming and being, Evelyn’s construction thirty years later is far more insidious. It would be a mistake to recognise Evelyn Cross Mulway as wholly emblematic of the femme fatale; though she succumbs to the same fate, and her character rather coolly dips into laconic, stylised noir-isms, she is best read as a victim/hero of the same genre, or rather, as a tragic symbol of noir violence.

Whilst the mechanisms of fate operate across film noir, with the femme fatale wittingly positioned at its disjointed core, the sensibilities of tragedy and melancholia seem almost unique to Chinatown, or, at the very least, these themes are far more refined. Perhaps this is contextual: ‘through vengeful detectives, small town monsters, deviant doctors and criminal femmes fatales, post-war crime fiction highlights the paralysis of the legal system where the only solution to this powerlessness is violence, vengeance and vendetta’ (Maysaa Jaber Husam, 2016). Perhaps Evelyn, in contrast to Phyllis, is a victim of this social paralysis, unable to orient the godless, alienating sensibilities of modernity—unable to acclimate to a world driven by instinct and desire.

Concurrently, Evelyn’s embodiment of the femme fatale is in direct correlation to the social ills of urbanity. That is, although Double Indemnity does resonate with capitalist critique, Phyllis represents far more archaic and individualistic modes of decision making and destruction. She is “rotten to the heart”, or so she believes, rather than a pawn in a labyrinthine system of social ills. Thus, it is unsurprising that in successive decades wherein popular culture was flooded by international distrust and criticism towards authority, articulated through transnational impulses of existentialism, cinema directed its criticism towards this newfangled, rather exotic milieu. In the post-war epoch, individuals felt they had lost their power and stability, and this became a source of fascination for the directors of film noir.

During the final scene, Evelyn, armed with a handgun and attempting to escape the grasp of the police and her father, is told by Gittes to “let the police handle this”, to which she replies, speaking of her father, “he owns the police”. If social critique is played out aesthetically in Double Indemnity, with imprisoning shadows cast over interior spaces, in Chinatown, social critique plays out to the expense of the femme fatale. Harrowingly and most indicatively of the grittiness of the genre, the most memorable image of Polanski’s femme fatale is the representation of her death; her hollowed-out skull collapsed onto the steering wheel scored with the guttural cries of her daughter.

Edgar Allen Poe has famously claimed ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’ Certainly, Evelyn's death exposes a far more sombre reality than is expected of the titillating noir genre; her tragic end is in far closer proximity to desolate social realism than the splendour of Phyllis’ demise. When Phyllis dies—subtly indicated by a facial expression—it seems to almost analogise a final curtain fall, a concise, theatrical end for a tale of narrative and meta-cinematic artifice. By contrast, Evelyn’s death is far more transparently gritty; its tragedy plain to observe.

If crime fiction can be understood as a history of looking, film noir negotiates its power and danger. In her orientation of the space between seeming and being, Wilder’s femme fatale relies on the deception and wilful gaze of the male hero, whereas Polanski’s, by contrast, reckons with that which is far more systemically deceptive. Indeed, bureaucratic power, and more violently, patriarchy—in a literal sense of the word, as referential to Evelyn’s father—deceive far more surreptitiously than the femme fatale ever could.


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