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Woman in Distress vs. Femme Fatale

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The table below is certainly not comprehensive. That is, I am sure there are film noirs missing from both columns. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that the outstanding refutation of the legitimacy of the hardboiled paradigm rests on the equal if not greater presence of the woman in distress compared with the femme fatale in American film noir.

On the other hand, the success of the hardboiled paradigm in dominating the literature, to say nothing of public consciousness, about film noir is shown by the absence in the literature of any studies of the woman in distress in film noir. This is shameful.

The above paragraph was published on this website on October 19, 2012. I had first recorded my complaint about the absence of any study of the woman in distress in film noir in an essay I wrote in 1987, “The Rise and Fall of the War Noir.” In the following years I submitted the essay to some film journals, but it was always rejected. Nonetheless, my complaint was still valid when the editors Alain Silver and Jim Ursini included my essay in Film Noir Reader 4 (Limelight Editions, 2004). (Since its publication, I have updated the essay to include other “war noirs” I have seen, which are both spy noirs as well as crime noirs. See the page Film Noir Plot Elements: WWII vs. Postwar.)

In 2010, Andrew Spicer’s Historical Dictionary of Film Noir (The Scarecrow Press, Inc.) was published. Under the three-page entry for “WOMEN,” Spicer has a paragraph that addresses the woman in distress.

“Noir’s debt to horror included the figure of the imperiled female victim, notable in the early Gothic noirs where they are psychologically abused and physically threatened by the deranged homme fatal – Joan Fonataine in Suspicion (1947), Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944), Heddy Lamarr in Experiment Perilous (1944), Gene Tierney in Dragonwyck (1946), Dorothy McGuire in Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946), or Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948). This scenario was transferred to a contemporary setting as in The Arnelo Affair (1947) or Cause for Alarm (1951), where suburban housewives are the victims of their husband’s obsessive jealousy.” (330)

This wasn’t much of course, but it was something. Unfortunately, a later opportunity to discuss the woman in distress at more length was utterly missed. As editors of A Companion to Film Noir (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson recruited Yvonne Tasker for the essay, “Women in Film Noir.” In 14 pages, Tasker never mentions the woman in distress even once. Furthermore, although there are many references cited in the index for “femme fatale,” there is no entry for “woman in distress” or a similar term.

In October 2017, enormous progress took place in recognizing the character of the woman in distress with the publication of David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (University of Chicago Press). Bordwell does not offer a study of the woman in distress (which he calls the woman in peril) in film noir specifically. However, he has much to say about the “woman in peril plot,” as indicated by the many page citations for this topic in the book’s index. (There is no reference in the index to “femme fatale.”)

Bordwell shows the woman in peril plot is significant as a new kind of “thriller,” one which is psychological, in contrast to earlier thrillers associated with “international intrigue” and “hard-boiled detectives.” The key thing, he says, is that, “While other genres, such as the war film, put their characters in danger, the psychological thriller makes suspense the dominant emotion of the film. It demands that the film focus on the potential victim.” (384-385).

For a definition of suspense, Bordwell quotes Patricia Highsmith, “who proposed that suspense entailed ‘a threat of impending violent action.’ In the purest cases of 1940s suspense, a sympathetic character is put in great danger and pitted against a menace that will stop at nothing.” (384)

Without referring to them as film noirs, Bordwell’s examples of psychological thrillers are women in distress film noirs that are included in my list below. (Note the book’s cover photo is of a woman in distress/peril: Joan Crawford from the film noir Sudden Fear).

The femme fatale, as represented by the hardboiled paradigm, has been challenged. Julie Grossman’s Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-Up (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) analyzes “misreadings of women, first by men whom they encounter within the films, and second, by film viewers and critics who then perpetuate, and eventually institutionalize, these misreadings.” (41)

Although proponents of the hardboiled paradigm have cited Rita Hayworth’s Gilda as a femme fatale, the film doesn’t doesn’t support this claim. Therefore, I don’t include Gilda in the femme fatale column. (For Julie Grossman’s similar interpretation of Gilda, see the Addendum at the bottom of the page Women’s Noirs in Hardboiled Books.)


The Glass Alibi is in both lists because Anne Gwynne is a femme fatale and Maris Wrixon is a woman in distress. Also, in Shock Lynn Bari is a femme fatale and Anabel Shaw is a woman in distress.

Although I have not made these lists in accordance with any particular source, I benefited from the references to these two character types in Michael F. Keaney’s Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959 (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003).


Women in Distress Date Femmes Fatales Date
Abandoned 1949 The Accused 1949
Accused of Murder 1956 Alimony 1949
Affair in Trinidad 1952 Angel Face 1953
The Amazing Mr. X 1948 Another Man’s Poison 1952
The Arnelo Affair 1947 Apology for Murder 1945
Autumn Leaves 1956 Beyond the Forest 1949
Backlash 1947 Blueprint for Murder 1953
The Beat Generataion 1959 The Blonde Bandit 1950
Bedlam 1946 Blonde Ice 1948
Beware, My Lovely 1952 Born to Be Bad 1950
Bewitched 1945 The Brasher Doubloon 1950
The Big Bluff 1955 Calcutta 1947
The Big Heat 1953 Crime of Passion 1957
The Blue Gardenia 1953 Cry Danger 1951
The Brighton Strangler 1945 The Dark Mirror 1946
Bury Me Dead 1947 The Damned Don’t Cry 1950
Cat People 1942 Dead Reckoning 1947
Caught 1949 Decoy 1946
Cause for Alarm! 1951 Detour 1945
Christmas Holiday 1944 Double Indemnity 1944
Crime Wave 1954 Drive a Crooked Road 1954
Criminal Court 1946 The File on Thelma Jordan 1950
A Cry in the Night 1956 Flaxy Martin 1949
Cry Terror! 1958 Framed 1947
Cry Wolf 1947 The Glass Alibi 1946
Danger Signal 1945 The Great Flamarian 1945
Dangerous Crossing 1953 Guest in the House 1944
Dangerous Intruder 1945 The Guilty 1947
Dangerously They Live 1941 Guilty Bystander 1950
The Dark Mirror 1945 Gun Crazy 1950
Dark Waters 1946 Hell’s Island 1955
Desperate 1944 Highway Dragnet 1954
Destination Murder 1947 Highway 13 1948
Dial M for Murder 1954 Hit and Run 1957
Dishonored Lady 1947 Human Desire 1954
Doorway to Suspicion 1950 Hunt the Man Down 1950
Double Jeopardy 1955 I, the Jury 1953
A Double Life 1947 Impact 1949
Dragonwyck 1946 Ivy 1947
Escape in the Fog 1945 Jeopardy 1953
Experiment Perilous 1944 The Judge 1949
F.B.I. Girl 1951 The Killers 1946
Female Jungle 1956 Kiss Me Deadly 1955
Female on the Beach 1955 The Lady from Shanghai 1948
Flamingo Road 1949 Lady in the Lake 1947
Gaslight 1944 Leave Her to Heaven 1945
The Glass Alibi 1946 The Letter 1940
Hangmen Also Die! 1943 A Life at Stake 1954
Highway 301 1950 The Locket 1946
Highway West 1941 The Louisiana Hussy 1959
Hitler’s Children 1942 The Macomber Affair 1947
House by the River 1950 The Madonna’s Secret 1946
House on Telegraph Hill 1951 The Maltese Falcon 1941
The Human Jungle 1954 The Man Who Cheated Himself 1951
I Confess 1953 Mildred Pierce 1945
I Walked with a Zombie 1943 Murder, My Sweet 1944
I Want to Live! 1958 Niagara 1953
In a Lonely Place 1950 Nightmare Alley 1947
Jennifer 1953 No Man’s Woman 1955
Jeopardy 1953 No Questions Asked 1951
Johnny Eager 1942 Out of the Past 1947
Julie 1956 The Paradine Case 1947
The Killer Is Loose 1956 Please Murder Me 1956
 Kind Lady 1951 Port of 40 Thieves 1944
A Kiss Before Dying 1956 The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946
The Lady Confesses 1945 The Price of Fear 1956
The Lady Gambles 1949 Pushover 1954
Lady in the Death House 1944 Queen Bee 1955
Lady on a Train 1945 Race Street 1948
Laura 1944 Railroaded 1947
The Leopard Man 1944 Ride the Pink Horse 1947
The Limping Man 1953 Roadblock 1951
The Lodger 1944 Ruby Gentry 1952
The Lost Moment 1947 Scarlet Street 1945
Love from a Stranger 1947 Scene of the Crime 1949
Lured 1947 Shadow on the Wall 1950
The Madonna’s Secret 1946 Shed No Tears 1948
Make Haste to Live 1954 The Sign of the Ram 1948
Man Hunt 1941 Shock 1946
Man in the Attic 1953 Shockproof 1949
The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956 Sleep, My Love 1948
Manhandled 1953 So Evil My Love 1948
Miami Exposé 1956 Song of the Thin Man 1947
Missing Women 1951 Stage Fright 1950
Money Madness 1948 Strange Fascination 1952
Monsieur Verdoux 1947 Strange Impersonation 1946
Moontide 1942 The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946
Moss Rose 1947 Strange Triangle 1946
Murder by Contract 1958 The Strange Woman 1946
Murder Is My Beat 1955 Strangers in the Night 1944
My Name Is Julia Ross 1945 Temptation 1946
Naked Alibi 1954 Tension 1949
The Narrow Margin 1952 They Drive by Night  1940
Never Trust a Gambler 1951 Too Late for Tears 1949
Niagara 1953 Unholy Wife 1957
Night Has a Thousand Eyes 1948 Where Danger Lives 1950
The Night of the Hunter 1955 Wicked Woman 1954
No Man of Her Own 1950 Woman in the Window 1944
Nobody Lives Forever 1946 World for Ransom 1954
Not Wanted 1949 Where Danger Lives 1950
Notorious 1946 Wicked Woman 1954
One Girl’s Confession 1953 Woman in the Window 1944
Over-Exposed 1956 World for Ransom 1954
Party Girl 1958
Phantom Lady 1944
Pitfall 1948  
A Place in the Sun 1951
Playgirl 1954
Possessed 1947
Rage in Heaven 1941  
Rebecca 1940
The Reckless Moment 1949
The Red House 1947
Repeat Performance 1947
Second Chance 1953
The Second Woman 1951  
Secret Beyond the Door 1948
The Secret Fury 1950
Shack Out on 101 1955  
Shadow of a Doubt 1943
Shadow of a Woman 1946
Shadow of Fear 1956
Shadow on the Window 1957  
Shock 1946
Shoot to Kill 1947
Short Cut to Hell 1957
Sleep, My Love 1948  
The Sniper 1952
So Evil My Love 1948
Sorry, Wrong Number 1948
Specter of the Rose 1946
Spellbound 1945  
The Spiral Staircase 1946
Stage Fright 1950
The Steel Jungle 1956
Step Down to Terror 1958
Storm Warning 1950
Strange Impersonation 1946  
Strange Intruder 1956
The Stranger 1946
Sudden Fear 1952
Suspense 1946  
Suspicion 1941
Sweet Smell of Success 1957
They Won’t Believe Me 1947
This Gun for Hire 1942
Tight Spot 1955
The Two Mrs. Carrolls 1947
Under the Gun 1951
Undercurrent 1946
The Unfaithful 1947
The Unguarded Moment 1956
The Unseen 1945
The Unsuspected 1947  
Violated 1953  
Violence 1947  
When Strangers Marry 1944  
While the City Sleeps 1956  
Whirlpool 1949  
Without Warning! 1952  
Witness to Murder 1954  
Woman in Hiding 1950  
The Woman in White 1948  
Woman on the Run 1950  
A Woman’s Devotion 1956  
Women’s Prison 1955