The following three points distinguish the femme fatale in spy noirs of the WWII era from the “spider woman” in crime noirs at the end of the war and in the postwar years.
I. Spy Noirs Are Distinct from Crime Noirs
We must expand our understanding of the femme fatale. In spy noirs, she is deadly as an enemy government agent, an informer against the underground or a fifth columnist.
For an analysis of spy noirs in the Second World War era, as well as the relationship of spy noirs to film noir, see the page Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir.
II. Periodization of the Femme Fatale: First Spy Noirs and then Crime Noirs
We must revise the periodization of the femme fatale. In crime noirs, the femme fatale becomes a recurring character as of 1944. The historical context is the Allies’ impending triumph and the perceived economic and sexual threat that women, who experienced newfound independence during WWII, posed to postwar men.
The list below has the following information: film title, actress who plays a femme fatale, month of release in 1944.
Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck, April
Port of 40 Thieves, Stephanie Bachelor, August
Strangers in the Night, Helene Thimig, September
The Woman in the Window, Joan Bennett, November
Guest in the House, Anne Baxter, December
Murder, My Sweet, Claire Trevor, December
In spy noirs, the femme fatale is a recurring character mainly before and up to 1944. The historical context is the Axis’ initial widespread victories and the perceived threat of female espionage operators working against the Allies.
In a crime noir, a femme fatale is mixed up with very few killings. A femme fatale in a spy noir is involved either in mass murder (sinking Allied ships, betraying the resistance) or sabotage that can cause many deaths (blowing up critical facilities, stealing top-secret military plans).
The list below has the following information: film title, year of release, country of origin (UK or US), actress who plays a femme fatale, whether she is a seductress (alluring to a man in the film) or a spy-ring leader (not alluring to any man), whether she is involved in mass murder or lethal sabotage (yes or no).
Under Secret Orders, 1937, UK, Dita Parlo, seductress, yes
The Spy in Black, 1939, UK, Valerie Hobson, seductress, yes
Federal Fugitives, 1941, US, Doris Day, seductress, yes
International Lady, 1941, US, Ilona Massey, seductress, yes
Mr. Dynamite, 1941, US, Elisabeth Risdon, spy-ring leader, yes
Eyes in the Night, 1942, US, Katherine Emery, spy-ring leader, yes
Little Tokyo, U.S.A., 1942, US, June Duprez, seductress, yes
Quiet Please, Murder, 1942, US, Gail Patrick, seductress, no
Spy Ship, 1942, US, Irene Manning, seductress, yes
Assignment in Brittany, 1943, US, Signe Hasso, seductress, yes
The Fallen Sparrow, 1943, US, Maureen O’Hara, seductress, no
Passport to Suez, 1943, US, Ann Savage, seductress, yes
Yellow Canary, 1943, UK, Lucie Mannheim, spy-ring leader, yes
Crime by Night, 1944, US, Faye Emerson, seductress and spy-ring leader, yes
Hotel Berlin, Andrea King, 1945, seductress, yes
House on 92nd. Street, 1945, US, Signe Hasso, spy-ring leader, yes
III. The Femme Fatale: First Workers and then Slackers
We must change our view of the femme fatale’s relationship to work.
Mark Jancovich’s essay, “Phantom Ladies: the war worker, the slacker and the ‘femme fatale’,” only relates the femme fatale to crime noirs.1 (For clarity, I have changed Jancovich’s references in his examples from the first name of femme fatale characters to the titles of films.)
“[F]ar from being independent working women, most of the key characters identified as examples of the femme fatale are actually the mistresses of criminals [Scarlet Street, The Killers, Out of the Past, Criss Cross, Dead Reckoning] or the wives of wealthy men [Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet, Woman in the Window, The Lady from Shanghai]….2
“It is therefore significant that most of the female characters that have come to be seen as classic examples of the femme fatale are rarely seen in public space, but are almost always located in domestic interiors or nightclubs, where they wile away their time in boredom as they await the return of their men or are presented to the world as spectacles that display their partner’s power. Furthermore, their demeanor and attire also contributes to this image: they are often dressed in evening gowns, bathrobes and lingerie, and are frequently reclined in a bored and languid pose. The world in which they operate is not one productive labor but of leisure and consumption, even if they are an object of someone else’s leisure and consumption.3
“Rather than independent working women, these dangerous women were clearly presented as selfish, greedy and parasitic, qualities that clearly associated them with the private and domestic sphere rather than with public activity.”4
Contrary to Jancovich’s observations about femme fatales in crime noirs, in spy noirs in the WWII era, nearly all femme fatales have jobs, which are usually integral to their espionage work.
The list below has the following information: film title, femme fatale’s job (when indicated), whether her spying and her job are connected (yes or no).
Under Secret Orders, doctor, no
The Spy in Black, British undercover agent, yes
Federal Fugitives, assistant to a Washington, DC lobbyist, yes
International Lady, concert pianist, yes
Mr. Dynamite, no job indicated
Eyes in the Night, theater director, yes
Little Tokyo, U.S.A., no job indicated
Quiet Please, Murder, rare books dealer, yes
Spy Ship, aviatrix and spokesperson for a pro-isolationist organization, yes
Assignment in Brittany, waitress at an inn, no
The Fallen Sparrow, hat model/saleswoman, no
Passport to Suez, journalist, yes
Yellow Canary, no job indicated
Crime by Night, head of a theatrical agency, yes
Hotel Berlin, Andrea King, actress, no
House on 92nd. Street, store-owner and designer of fashionable gowns, yes
Hard Femme Fatales and Soft Femme Fatales
Just like crime noirs, there are both “hard” femme fatales and “soft” femme fatales in spy noirs.
For a discussion of these two types of spider women, as well as a review of a spy noir with a soft femme fatale, see the page International Lady.
For a review of a spy noir with a hard femme fatale, see the page Quiet Please, Murder.
1. Mark Jancovich, “Phantom ladies: the war worker, the slacker and the ‘femme fatale’” (New Review of Film and Television, Volume 8, Issue 2, 2010), 164-178.
2. Jancovich, “Phantom ladies,” 171.
3. Jancovich, “Phantom ladies,” 172.
4. Jancovich, “Phantom ladies,” 175.