You’re a private eye working late. There’s a glass of scotch on your desk. The air is filled with cigarette smoke. Suddenly you see her profile through the frosted glass. She enters with a glint in her eye that holds as much beauty as it does destruction. She is the femme fatale, that lovably problematic archetype of the classic film noir. As seen in The Lady from Shanghai, Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, she’s a seductive woman who uses her femininity to lure men to their moral demise. As irresistible as she can be, she rarely rises above object status, always secondary to the thoughts and actions of male characters.
These films all have something in common: they are adaptions of books by men. Countless noirs originated in stories written by Sherwood King, Daniel Mainwaring and James M. Cain. But it’s vital to acknowledge the ones that came from women. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place was based on a novel by the journalist and poet Dorothy B. Hughes and Otto Preminger’s Laura on a novel by Vera Caspary. Whether seeking justice (Lonely Place) or independence (Laura), their femmes come with more depth and nuance than the standard fatale.
Dorothy B. Hughes wrote In a Lonely Place in 1947. The novel was groundbreaking for the unblinking way in which Hughes got inside the head of serial killer Dix Steele: a war veteran whose troubled consciousness leads him to prey on young women, an activity which offers ‘excitement and power and the hot stir of lust’. With the introduction of Laurel, his beautiful neighbour, and Sylvia, the astute wife of a police detective, Hughes’s story gains two strong women. Dix is a violent, misogynistic sociopath but through the actions of the female characters, some semblance of rightness is restored.
In 1950, Humphrey Bogart bought the rights to adapt Hughes’ novel to the screen but The Breen Office for film censorship required major revisions. Screenwriter Andrew Solt made Dix Steele a screenwriter, cut the gratuitous murders and put a romantic gloss on his relationship with Laurel (Gloria Grahame). With the casting of Bogart in the lead, Dix transformed from perpetrator to American antihero. He was still flawed and haunted by unspecified guilt but Bogart turned him into the sort of everyman that audiences could trust. Director Nicholas Ray made further changes, including an improved ending. Lonely Place became a doomed romance. The resulting film is dark and wonderful, though significantly different from Hughes’ novel.
What remains, however, is the strength of Laurel’s character. Neither malicious vixen nor passive victim, she defies the femme fatale label because instead of causing Dix’s downfall, she’s the only one who can prevent it. On the night that he allegedly murdered a teenage girl, she saw him in the courtyard of their apartment complex. Serving as his alibi, she’s afforded the power of sight and the traditional male/female dynamic of seeing vs. being seen is reversed. When the police take her in for questioning and ask why she was paying attention to him in the first place, she replies, “I noticed him because he looked interesting. I liked his face.” Her words are plain and clear-headed. There’s nothing coy or flirtatious about her.
Vera Caspary wrote 18 novels, 10 screenplays and four plays. From her treatments, 24 movies were made including Joseph Mankiewicz’s Letter to Three Wives, Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia and George Cukor’s Les Girls. It’s a shame she’s not a household name. Born in Chicago, she was determined to be a writer from a young age. She moved to New York in the 1920s and took a job as a stenographer, then as a copywriter. She soon began writing novels and in 1942, Laura was published to critical acclaim. The New York Times called it ‘a fascinating study of human emotions’ and ‘something quite different from the run-of-the-mill detective story’. The following year, it was adapted by Otto Preminger with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in leading roles. With its urban setting, stark cinematography and murder mystery plot, it went on to become one of the great noirs of the century.
The film opens on the aftermath of a murder. A successful ad executive named Laura Hunt was shot and disfigured. Detective Mark McPherson (Andrews) is on the case and he meets a cast of suspects including Laura’s possessive mentor (Clifton Webb) and her noxious fiancé (Vincent Price). Appearing in flashbacks, Laura (Tierney) casts a spell over everyone she meets. Even McPherson falls for her, transfixed by her portrait on the wall. If it sounds like Laura is more object than subject, you’re not wrong. When Caspary first read the script, she was irate over the way Preminger downplayed Laura’s career and emphasized her sexuality. While the novel had stressed Laura’s achievements and independence, Caspary claimed that Preminger turned the character into ‘the Hollywood version of a cute career girl’.
Preminger’s Laura nevertheless rises above being a generic femme fatale. When she turns up alive and becomes a suspect, McPherson grills her with questions to which she responds coolly, ‘What difference does it make what I say? You’ve made up your mind I’m guilty.’ She knows he’s trying to cast her in the fatale role and she’s wise enough to call him out. Tierney’s performance is especially striking because she’s never trying to be sexy – she just is. Every word that comes out of her mouth is clever, confident and fully her own.
The tradition of female crime writing that began with Caspary and Hughes – balancing the thrill of vamps, vixens and victims with some deceptively forward-thinking ideas about how women can and should be – is continued today by writers like Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott. Their stories tap into domestic insecurities and gender relations in a way that mysteries by male authors almost never do. We can only hope that future adaptations of their work will have more women writing the scripts – and holding the cameras.
Erica Peplin is a Brooklyn-based writer and film critic for Spectrum Culture, Vagues Visages and PopOptiq. She has also written for GAYLETTER and The Brooklyn Rail.