Perhaps one of the most fruitful ways in which to trace the evolution of Film Noir as a genre is to examine, from the genre's heyday to the present moment, the metamorphoses of one of film noir's most reliable tropes: the femme fatale. The notion of a woman who is fundamentally untrustworthy -- and possibly murderous -- is a constant within the genre, perhaps as a way of subverting the standard role that would be played by the female lead in a Hollywood film of the 1930s or 1940s, as a love interest for the hero. The film noir femme fatale in her classic iteration usually functions as a way of complicating sexuality with death: we think of Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941) attempting (and failing) to get Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade to overlook her murder of his partner Miles Archer because of his attraction to her, or we think of Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford as Veda and her mother, the title character in Mildred Pierce (1945), a daughter and mother who have both been sleeping with the same man, whom Veda murders while Mildred attempts to take the blame. These are classic femmes fatales, insofar as they actually do commit murder -- although in both cases, despite their attempts to escape punishment, the film ends with the femme fatale awaiting her just punishment. However, a closer survey of the changing nature of the femme fatale in a series of noir and neo-noir films -- Billy Wilder's two late classic noirs Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), and then later riffs on the noir genre including Ridley Scott's futuristic Philip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner (1982), Robert Zemeckis's cartoon noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and Nicolas Winding Refn's neo-noir Drive (2011) -- we can actually see a commentary on the genre itself through the different manifestations of this crucial trope of the genre.
Billy Wilder's 1944 Double Indemnity presents a classic version of the film noir femme fatale in Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson. It is Phyllis who has the idea to murder her husband, and she is not doing so because she has a lover: instead, she takes her lover, the insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), purely to assist in killing her husband. Her motivation, as the film's title indicates, is purely financial -- however, it is also transparent enough that Neff is able to figure out that Phyllis has murder on her mind just from the questions she asks regarding insurance policies. However, the plot hinges upon Neff's attraction to Phyllis before knowing all about her -- it requires her stepdaughter, Lola, to reveal her suspicions that Phyllis also murdered the first Mrs. Dietrichson and took her place. Then Neff discovers that Phyllis has been sleeping with Lola's (much younger) boyfriend. What is uncanny about Phyllis is, of course, her seeming ability to slowly usurp an entire family: killing the mother and marrying the father, then killing the father as she sleeps with the daughter's boyfriend. The satisfaction therefore comes at the film's climax, where Neff intends to confront Phyllis but discovers that (sociopathically) she has anticipated even his betrayal, and shoots first. At this point, comes the offer of love -- as Phyllis admits she didn't love Neff until this moment, "when I couldn't fire that second shot" -- which the hero duly rejects as a false promise. The double shot with which Neff kills Phyllis seems to chime with the film's title, but in some sense Phyllis has been the shadowy "double" of the entire Dietrichson family all along. The femme fatale here is defined as the ultimate threat to the nuclear family, and fittingly enough she manages with her one shot ultimately to kill Neff -- who survives only long enough to tell this cautionary tale about a certain kind of woman.
But six years later, when Wilder would make Sunset Boulevard, the femme fatale and film noir itself were on their way out of fashion. As a result, Sunset Boulevard dramatizes the femme fatale through ideas of fashionability -- indeed, the central locus of the femme fatale in Sunset Boulevard is not in Norma Desmond herself, but in the dream role that Norma Desmond wishes to play, Salome. This harkens the femme fatale back to the pre-history of the trope in the late nineteenth century decadent movement -- clearly Norma Desmond's idea of Salome has derived from Oscar Wilde's fin-de-siecle version -- but also all the way back to the New Testament. But here the enemy of the femme fatale is not the all-American nuclear family as in Double Indemnity -- Norma Desmond is rich enough that she could buy as many families as she'd ever want -- but time itself. In the way that time had worn down the noir genre, and the notion of a femme fatale, by 1950, Sunset Boulevard is itself a meditation on what it would mean to set oneself up in opposition to the passage of time itself. But this is also, crucially, a film about screenwriters -- not only does Norma Desmond have her own self-penned crackpot version of the Salome legend, and of course Joe Gillis is a screenwriter, but the love interest that is sufficient enough to lure Joe out of Norma's time-stopped fantasy world is also a female screenwriter, one who believes in Joe's talent and has an interest in genuine collaboration. However, the murder at the end of Sunset Boulevard -- where Norma actually proves herself a femme fatale just like Salome -- seems like a way of emerging into art by way of psychosis. Norma stops attempting to find a suitable script for her Salome, and instead starts living it -- and the cameras oblige her by rolling, revealing infamy (or notoriety) to be another version of Hollywood fame.
By the 1980s, the film noir femme fatale has become such a memorable trope that filmmakers toying with their own versions of noir are obliged to include it. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner certainly dresses Sean Young as Rachael like a noir heroine, but she is not necessarily murderous -- the trouble is that she is not human, either. Fittingly the clue for Rick Deckard that Rachael is a replicant comes when she admits, a little too quickly, that she would not hesitate to kill an insect that might potentially sting her ("I'd kill it"). Rachael's shadowy opposite is Darryl Hannah's Pris, who is a robot built for sex, a "basic pleasure model": it is Pris who turns into an acrobatic doll by the film's end and quite nearly manages to kill Deckard. But in both cases, we have women playing out simulations of the sex-and-death complex that characterizes the noir femme fatale. The difficulty is that, in perceiving the idea of the femme fatale as a kind of dramatic fiction, Blade Runner cannot allow its women to be doing anything else other than playacting at pre-ordained roles. This idea of the femme fatale as a robot programmed to play a role is not far off from the winking depiction of a (harmless) femme fatale in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Jessica Rabbit notoriously defends herself by claiming: "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." The replicants in Blade Runner could make the same basic claim, in a certain sense. Of course the trope has become mechanical by this point, but it also indicates a post-feminist awareness that the queasy mix of sex and death in the classic noir's depiction of the femme fatale may conceal a covert misogyny. The safest way to repackage the trope in the 1980s is to turn it into a form of roleplaying.
This gradual deconstruction of the trope brings us to Drive (2011), where notions of female guilt and innocence are further complicated. The female cahracters here (and the protagonist's relation with them) are divided into innocent Irene and guilty Blanche. Yet the irony is that Ryan Gosling's unnamed hero manages to dodge Blanche's attempt to kill him (and watches her die instead) but then actually ends up dying in order to keep Irene alive. What has changed here, of course, is the motivation: Irene is the mother of a small child, and so essentially Ryan Gosling's Driver is willing to die for the sake of sentimental notions about motherhood. So in some sense we have come full circle: if the covert agenda of the femme fatale in Double Indemnity is one who seemingly wishes to subvert the American family at every opportunity (victimizing mother, father, and daughter with adultery and murder) the covert agenda of drive seems to be a hero who is willing to die purely for the valorization of an idealized single mom, while the woman who attempts to have him killed somehow ends up the victim of her own plot.