In postwar cinema, the change of popular genre switched from melodrama to film noir. The new elements of film noir were artistically exciting, as seen in its mise-en-scene. The mise-en-scene of film noir became more visually mysterious and provocative, demanding a transformation of women characters. While still holding on to elements of the women in melodrama, the sexuality that was once muted, was turned up to create the femme fatale. The femme fatale is a necessary component of mise-en-scene in the film noir genre. *
The femme fatale was first seen in pre-WWII. During the time of the time of the war, melodrama, a genre that did not include the femme fatale, became the popular genre of film. After the war, with the birth of film noir, the femme fatale became more widely featured. Post WWII, many women became independent from men, simply due to men fighting the war and not being on the home front. While away at war, women began to become empowered and self-reliant. The feminist melodrama genre gave women the chance to be the strong protagonist instead of a man in films. Once men returned from the war, the feminist melodrama became less popular, and the once-demanded American gangster was desired. After the war, America became more of a “melting pot”. Groups of people from war effected countries, mostly Germans, immigrated to America. Taking elements of the American gangster and the German expressional genres, film noir was born.
Not to loose the women viewers that enjoyed the empowered women characters, the femme fatale was formed. She became an indispensable character that added the element of femininity, sex appeal, and danger to film noir. The femme fatale became “a nightmare version of the economically and sexually emancipated woman of the postwar period” (Lewis 204). The femme fatale became noticed by “inevitable beauty…sexually promiscuous…and willing to protect herself and her freedom at all costs” (Lewis 204). The femme fatale is not just a one-dimensional character, but plays,
“a remarkable series of unmotivated character switches.. (1) sex-bomb; (2) hardworking ambitious woman; (3) loving playmate in an adulterous relationship; (4) fearful girl in need of protection (5) victim of male power; (6) hard, ruthless murderess; (7) mother-to-be (8)sacrifice to law” (Kaplan/ Gledhill 31).
Although many woman did not want to be like the femme fatale, she became relatable to women who did experience similar experiences, “of the three types of noir women, the femme fatale represents the most direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family” (Blaser). The femme fatale is a trade mark character in any noir film. She can be noticed by her thick, red lipstick, dark made-up eyes, and seductive, revealing clothing. The femme fatale is the visual representation of lust and sex appeal; *
“Ever since film noir’s heyday in the 40’s and 50s’s, high femme characters not only carry the mark of sexuality but also stand charged with deceit and potential violence. And yet the femme fatale has multiplied in meanings and possibilities, not only as a result of socio-historical factor…but also due to an increase of explicit, on-screen sexual imagery”(Kaplan/Straayer 152).
The femme fatale “is characterized as unknowable (and this is the lure of her attraction)”(Doane 102). Although the character development of the femme fatale is strong, she would be nothing without the mise-en-scene of film noir. The use of lighting, set design, costume and make-up, and props makes the femme fatale a source of “unrestrained female sexuality [that] constitutes danger” (Doane 103).
Mise-en-scene in Film Noir
The film noir genre is a compilation of the American gangster genre and German expressional. Whereas story line, character development, props, and some lighting strategies are pulled from American gangster, many of the other elements of mise-en-scene are drawn from German expressional as...