Synthetically Eroded: Femme Fatales in Double Indemnity and Chinatown
The femme fatale is, according to Elisabeth Bronfen, a ‘fundamentally unstable figure’; she is multiple and unfixed. Her nuance is born out of her ambivalent construction and in spite of her definitional contradictions. Though she can constitute a projection or a sexual fantasy, aligned to a male hero’s gaze, she manufactures demise, plot inevitability and sustains the noir genre as a landscape of fateful entrapment. She is the closest representative of all that is attributed to the loosely defined noir genre; the noir text as ‘replete with ambiguity, subjectivity and unreliability’. The femme fatale depends, meta-cinematically, on deception by way of overt constructedness: she, like the male hero but far more obscurely, is quite simply ‘a character in the play they are living’. With Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity) at the epicentre, and Evelyn Cross Mulway (Chinatown) at the neo-noir peripheries, the femme fatale is a representative of ‘a world out of joint’, a world which boils beneath the surface of social realism, one which remains irremovably tethered to a stylised, infected core.
Mary Ann Doane observes that the femme fatale is encoded with disparity, existing necessarily in between ‘seeming and being’. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity luminously demonstrates this disparity; its plot unfolds within an analeptic, framed narration of the male hero, enabling the deception of the femme fatale. It ‘introduces perspective and subjectivity’ as fundamental to the film’s construction, actuating a sever between Walter and Phyllis. Phyllis’ position, as the object of Walter's perception, with her character legible only via the medium of Walter’s memory — except for the occasions the camera exposes Phyllis’ duplicity beyond Walter’s experience, such as the penultimate scene wherein the audience sees her concealment of a handgun — empowers the detachment necessary for Phyllis’ deception. Chiefly, the role of the femme fatale is necessary to the structure of the genre in both directions: she requires a clinical distance from the male hero in order to mobilise the plot, reliant on his ignorance for her manipulation, and because ‘she knows all along that she is fated and can, therefore, turn what is inevitable as a source of power’. As fatefully entrapped as they are, only the femme fatale can harvest power from their nihilistic reality: they can only move in one direction, “straight down the line” where "the last stop’s the cemetery". This phrase, a metaphor for their criminal companionship, is continually recited by Phyllis, though it never truly binds her and Walter together. Critically, the monotonous repetition of this phrase nullifies their unity. Ironically so, “straight down the line” does not describe their closeness, but their separation; it reveals their trajectories as parallel, unable to synthesise.
Notably, Phyllis is not an isolated embodiment of corruption: Walter confesses he had always fixated on ways to “crook the system”. As coincidentally as he arrived in Phyllis’ newfangled world of criminality, he longed to be a part of it, and it is precisely his complicity and desire which position him as diametrically opposite to Phyllis. Bronfen claims ‘both are tragically framed within a narrative of fate… [yet] one must not overlook the fact that as bearer of the hero’s look, it is the femme fatale who manipulates the outcome of their fatal meeting’. Though Walter projects a fantasy onto Phyllis, who wilfully conserves his projection, Phyllis is not undermined by Walter's gaze. In the space between seeming and being, her power is concealed and thus she is able to mobilise her own crime narrative unbeknownst to Walter, and the audience. In Russian formalist terms, Walter presents the syuzhet according to his own constructed projection, through the act of looking, while Phyllis dictates the fabula, choosing ‘destruction at every turn’.
Distance is always aesthetically indicated, with Walter’s apartment as one notable example. Interior shots of Phyllis and Walter inside his apartment are the most earnest visualisation of their relationship, symbolising the ‘noir hero’s wilful blindness’ and his separation from the femme fatale; materially at first, separated by a door, and then in their choreography, occupying opposing sides of the davenport. Phyllis even vocalises their metaphoric separation, “it’s so tough without you, it’s like a wall between us.” Thus, when Walter holds Phyllis and pulls her into his chest, concealing her face from the camera’s view, Wilder ‘underlines once more that these two fated lovers are not, in fact, present to each other’. Bronfen continues, ‘the fact that [Walter] has been tragically caught in the femme fatale’s trap also indicates his desire to be deluded…his desire - at all costs - not to look at her, to fixate on a substitute’. Presence, or a lack thereof, foregrounds the dynamic of the noir text, and reveals that Phyllis and Walter are rarely in each other’s presence. Instead, between them lies two opposing fantasies in simultaneity.
In tandem with Wilder’s film, the same duality is integral to 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. Whereas Phyllis complexly yet rather vehemently generates her own agency through the disparity of seeming and being, Evelyn’s construction is far more insidious. It would be a mistake to recognise her character is 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, or rather, as a tragic symbol of noir violence.
Evelyn does initially epitomise the femme fatale, she embodies the allure of feminine mystery that sustains the enticement of male hero Jake Gittes, yet the disparity between seeming and being for her character is, in fact, rooted in tragedy. Bronfen examines film noir in relation to tragic sensibilities, wherein ‘protagonists [are] unable to master their destinies’. While the mechanisms of fate operate across film noir, with the femme fatale positioned at its unstable core, tragedy and melancholia seem almost unique to Chinatown, or, at the very least, these themes are far more explicit than in its predecessors. Perhaps this is contextual: ‘post-war crime fiction highlights the paralysis of the legal system where the only solution to this powerlessness is violence, vengeance and vendetta’. Perhaps Evelyn, in contrast to Phyllis, is a victim of this powerlessness rather than resistant to it.
Further, Evelyn’s embodiment of the femme fatale is in direct connection to the ills of modernity. 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 system of social ills. Thus, it is unsurprising that in latter decades wherein popular culture is flooded with criticism towards untrustworthy authorities, directors use their films to challenge social environments and conditions: during the final scene, Evelyn, armed with a handgun 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 stylistically in Double Indemnity, the supermarket motif and the imprisoning shadows cast over interior spaces, in Chinatown, social critique plays out to the expense of the femme fatale. Evelyn endures violent, sexual trauma (incestuous rape), and, by the end of the film, graphic assassination. Harrowingly, and most indicative of the grittiness of the genre, the most memorable image of Polanski’s femme fatale is her death; her hollowed out skull collapsed onto a steering wheel.
Edgar Allen Poe famously claimed ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’ In film noir, and the American crime tradition more extensively, the death of women is expected if not inevitable, even for the more autonomous femme fatales. Thus their stylistic and narrative framing necessitates examination, if only to fully understand the brevity of the femme fatale’s construction and her genre conformity, and whether this conformity liberates or inhibits her agency. Exemplifying the latter, Evelyn’s death is tragic to the core. Her victimisation overrides her conformity to the femme fatale, even if the narrative itself prioritises latter: only by the end of the film is it revealed that Evelyn is a victim of incestuous rape. As such, Evelyn’s appearance to Gittes, cool and calculated, conceals a much darker truth, and this disparity reveals that she is far from being the autonomous femme fatale. Phillip Novak aptly summarises that, by the end of the film and once her tragedy is exposed, Evelyn is ‘seen for what she is, a not uncomplicated, but surely sympathetic, victim - first of her father, then of Jake, and ultimately of patriarchy’. Returning to Poe’s sentiment, Evelyn's death exposes the film's departure from the genre; her character development and eventual death are far closer to social realism than Phyllis’ histrionic trajectory: when Phyllis dies, a death which is notably only registered ‘indexically as a facial expression’, it seems to analogise a curtain fall, a theatrical end for a tale of artifice.
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, navigates this space with a firm grip on social reality and that which is far more systemically deceptive. 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.
Here, it feels appropriate to note the decisions of such a contested director. Analysing Polanski’s employment of statutory rape and incest should not be facetious, nor elided under the guise that cinema exists in a vacuum. For in this case, if any, it certainly does not. This directorial context rightfully envelops the film with far more sinister debates than that of the femme fatale. As this essay is indebted to her spectated position, to acknowledge the circumstances which surround her construction feels an appropriate place to conclude. The femme fatale, according to Jack Boozer, has ‘continued to serve as a barometer of cultural repression and desire, victimisation and reification’; her role is not simply the product of artistic imagination, but her corruption is ever only reflective of the world, or industry, from which she is created.