Masculinity in Film Noir

The Fall-guy

The Swede, Kitty's fall-guy

Since femme fatale means "fatal woman", she needs someone for whom she can prove fatal. This person is the fall-guy. He is the man naive enough to believe that the femme fatale is as pure as she is beautiful. She makes him feel special, and he deludes himself into thinking that she loves him, when she is really only using him to accomplish her goal--the murder of her husband, for example.
Even when he knows she'll be trouble, he gets sucked in to her schemes through the potent combination of her beauty, and her damsel in distress routine. If she can make him think that she needs his help, she has already won the battle. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson has her way with Walter even after he has seen through her plot and already turned it down once. Walter Neff perceives immediately that she plans to kill her husband and collect on his insurance money. He tells her he wants no part of it, and walks out. Of course, it's obvious that that wouldn't be the end of it. He can't stop thinking about her, and when she shows up at his apartment later that night, they both know what will happen. Neff describes his entanglement with Mrs. Dietrichson as though it was fated to be so. All she has to do is cry a little and act dependent, before he is putty in her hands. He watches himself go down the road toward destruction, and he knows exactly where it leads. He does this because he is fascinated by her, and he thinks she loves him. When she tells him in the end that she never loved him or anyone else, he finally understands.

Elsa in The Lady from Shanghai is much more convincing as a maiden in distress. Unless you had seen the movie trailer, which exposed her for the black widow spider that she was, you would not really be sure of her evil intentions until the end. The reason for this is that our view is entirely shaped by Mike, who narrates the story. Until the very end, he projects onto her the fragility and helplessness that he wants to see.

In this clip from Lady from Shanghai, Mike (Orson Welles) is quite literally, the fall-guy.

...and I was the fall guy...

Your would-be fall-guy is dead...
Particularly devoted fall-guys are willing to die for the women they love. In The Killers, the Swede willingly serves a prison sentence for Kitty. In the end of the movie, though, there's nobody left alive to take the rap for her. She tries to get her dying husband to tell the police that she's innocent, but he dies before saying anything. If he had been alive, he probably would have done it for her.

Male Bonding

One of the ways in which the femme fatale works is by destruction of bonds between males. In The Killers, because of Kitty, the Swede actually punches his best friend, a cop; the cop is forced to take the Swede in and book him for a crime that Kitty committed.
In Double Indemnity, Neff starts hiding things from his father-figure, Keyes. He cannot maintain his closeness with Keyes while at the same time carrying on illicitly with Phyllis; she is the wedge between them. The set-up for the movie takes the shape of an extended confession to Keyes, after which the balance of relationships in the movie is reinstated. After Walter destroys the obstruction (Phyllis), he and Keyes can get back on the footing they were on before. This is the last scene in the movie. The two men communicate love to one another by lighting each other's cigarettes. This is an echo of a time earlier in the movie when Walter lit Keyes' cigarette.
I love you, too.


These men are important foils for the fall guys, functioning like markers where the fall-guy careened off the road. Jonesy in the Big Sleep made all the pathetic fall guy mistakes, thinking Agnes actually cared about him and carrying out her bidding. He dies protecting her from a mobster who is trying to find her. (See the clip below.)
Somebody just gave out the wrong address. When Marlowe tells Agnes that Jonesy is dead, she seems inconvenienced, but unfazed. She probably had other tasks for Jonesy, and now she has to find herself a new fall-guy. Marlow meets pays her for the information he needs, and before he leaves, she tells him, "Wish me luck, I had a raw deal." "Your kind always does," Marlowe retorts. Her kind-- manipulative women who make their living with their looks and their cunning, Femme fatales usually end up dead, so she's doing better than most. What makes the Jonesy subplot especially pathetic is that it is a subplot. Jonesy's death does not ultimately matter to anyone, not even Agnes.
While the fall guy is emasculated by the femme, the ideal man's powers of judgement remain unclouded by female charms. Humphrey Bogart's characters often epitomize this strength, e.g. in The Big Sleep. Even the femme he falls in love with cannot excise his power of self-determination. His retention of his own self-interest is what separates him most vividly from the fall guys. Vivien probably would not love him if he were so malleable. Marlowe's love for Vivian is not emasculating, which is why it works, and does not destroy him. Instead of becoming her slave, he actually forces her to submit to him to some extent. Marlowe is not invincible--he would be much less interesting to watch if he were superhuman. In this clip, we see some of Marlowe's most human moments.

...I'm scared angel. Sore, too.


Although it is cliched to point to guns as phallic symbols, guns are undeniably associated in these films with masculinity and a particular kind of masculine power. The female weapon of choice in these movies is sexuality. This method has many benefits, among them is that, unlike a naked gun waving around, the threat such women present escapes notice until it is too late. Usually the femme works through the guns of men. In the clip on the left, Marlow has confiscated Carmen's gun, and she wants it back. She had entered the scene in control, wielding a gun, but because it was so awkward for her, Marlowe quickly disarmed her. Gunless, Carmen immediately (and clumsily) falls back onto her feminine wiles--note the music cue--in this situation. Normally, these would probably work on other men in other films, but Marlowe is impervious to them.

Can't you talk without pointing that gun?

Can I have my gun back?

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