The films Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Basic Instinct (Verhoeven, 1992) will be analysed with particular focus on the respective central female characters: Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) – two of the most infamous femme fatales in film history; and patterns of recuperation evident in the text. Ultimately, in examining the social conditions in which each film was produced, it will be shown that the femme fatale operates as a cultural barometer of the contemporaneous concerns of male anxiety and paranoia over the independence of women.
A femme fatale is an attractive and seductive woman, especially one who ultimately brings disaster to a man who becomes involved with her; and in French, the term translates literally to ‘disastrous woman’ (OED). Her history and evolution in cinema can be traced all the way from the ‘vamp’ in the original Italian and French silent films, to the ‘spider woman and seductress’ of the 1940s and 1950s noir era, to the more contemporary figuration of a dangerously independent career woman (Boozer 1999:20; Cook and Bernink 1999:187; Tasker 1998:121). Janey Place (cited in Hayward 2006:151), suggests that ‘[t]hese women are symbols of “unnatural” phallic power: toting guns and cigarette holders like the best of the men.’ Tasker (1998:117) notes further that the femme fatale is both ‘an archetype which suggests an equation between female sexuality, death and danger’ and a ‘textual space within which women function as the…centre of the narrative’.
In Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, the feminist film theorist Annette Kuhn (1994:32) suggests that an analysis of ‘woman’ as an organising structure in films and the way in which a ‘woman-structure’ activates narratives, can be used to reveal wider concerns of the ‘position of women in the society which produces the narrative.’ In this regard, any recurrent structures of enigma resolution in the classic Hollywood narrative model of order/disorder/order-restored can reveal the dominant ideology residing in the text and reflect power structures at large in society (Haywood 2006:109; Humm 1997:12). For example, Harlovich (cited in Kuhn 1994:34) notes that narrative closure is always dependent on the resolution of enigmas centring on heterosexual courtship. Kuhn (1994:34) adds further that this resolution often takes the form of recuperation, whereby a transgressive female may be ‘restored to the family by falling in love…by getting married, or otherwise accepting a “normative” female role’; and any who refuse to return to the social order are punished by ‘exclusion, outlawing, or even death.’ Therefore, structurally and thematically, it can be said that the classic Hollywood narrative attempts to recuperate woman to a ‘proper place’ (Kuhn 1994:34).
However, in the process of being recuperated the femme fatale must be investigated and exposed by the law of patriarchy and found guilty before she can be restored to her ‘proper place’ or punished by death (Hayward 2006:151). This notion of guilt and punishment becomes clearer when the femme fatale is examined from a psychoanalytic perspective. Laura Mulvey (2009:22) in her influential essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema argues that ‘the female figure [in cinema] poses a [deep] problem.’ In the psychic paradigm of the Oedipus complex, woman connotes lack; that is, lack of a penis, which implies a threat of castration to the male (Mulvey 2009:22). The male unconscious, and by extension Hollywood cinema, solves this threat in one of two ways: via the narrative structure of recuperation as noted above, or through fetishism (Mulvey 2009:22; Smelik 1998:11).
In the case of fetishism, the threat of castration is negated by the substitution of a fetish object; that is, ‘turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous’, thereby denying sexual difference (Mulvey 2009:22). This is achieved in Hollywood cinema ‘[b]y a fragmentation of her body and an over-investment in parts of the body (breasts, legs, etc)’ (Hayward 2006:288). The scene in Double Indemnity where Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) first meets Phyllis is a clear example of fetishistic fascination. As she begins to come down the stairs, we see a close-up of her legs and golden anklet, before we see her entire body; she is a piecemeal and fragmented woman made of moments and parts (Johnston 1998:92; Bronfen 2004:108; Dick 1980:48).
According to Johnston (1998:90), the title sequence of the film sets it under the ‘mark of castration’. The silhouette of a male figure in a hat and overcoat looms towards the camera on crutches. In the next sequence we see Neff, injured and bleeding, enter the offices of his insurance company and begin his ‘confession’ to Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Johnston (1998:90-91) suggests that Neff’s confession to Keyes establishes him in the patriarchal order as representative of the Law – the symbolic father; and ‘[i]n the all-male universe of the insurance business, women are seen as untrustworthy’. For example, Keyes comments that women “should be investigated”, before any relationship is undertaken. Women, then, represent the possibility of social excess – “they drink from the bottle” – which the insurance business (patriarchy) seeks to contain (Johnston 1998:91).
Throughout the narrative both Neff and Keyes investigate Phyllis to reveal her ‘guilty secret’. Firstly, in the scene where Neff returns to the house the day after their first meeting, Phyllis complains about the boredom of her married life and asks about taking out accident insurance on her husband’s life. Neff interrogates her asking why she married her husband, and after she daringly asks how the policy could be taken out without her husband’s knowledge, tells her she “can’t get away with it”. Her guilt is confirmed in the love scene at Neff’s apartment when she reveals she wants her husband dead (Johnston 1998:93-94). For Keyes, however, because Phyllis is a woman, she is automatically guilty, and it’s his job as both claims manager and representative of patriarchal Law to relentlessly investigate the insurance claim and expose her guilt (Dick 1980:49). Finally, in the death scene, her duplicity is made emphatically clear for the audience when she says she “is rotten to the heart” and confesses that she never loved Neff (Johnston 1998:97).
In Basic Instinct, the investigation of the woman is situated within a legal discourse; in fact, all the women in the film come under scrutiny by the law (Sherwin 2008:175). Catherine Tramell is clearly coded as a femme fatale through her aggressive sexuality and criminality, not to mention her cigarette smoking. She is the suspect in a sex crime: the brutal murder of her former lover who was stabbed to death with an icepick during sex. Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is the detective assigned to investigate her, and despite his initial belief that she is guilty, starts an affair with her (Sherwin 2008:176). During the investigation Tramell is called in for questioning, and in the infamous “crotch shot” scene asserts her power by fleetingly exposing her vagina to the male interrogators; and she further embarrasses them by ‘openly discussing her sexuality in terms that they would only have expected from men’ (Deleyto 1997:35). Her threat as a castrating woman is therefore reinforced visually by her revealing her ‘lack’, or as Gus (George Dzundza) crudely puts it, her “magna-cum-laude pussy”.
Remarkably, all the killings that take place in the film are motivated by rage specifically directed at men. For example, in investigating Roxy (Leilani Sarelle) and Hazel (Dorothy Malone), it is revealed that they both killed their families. The manner in which Roxy did it with “Daddy’s razor”, situates her symbolically as a castrating figure; and in Hazel’s case, using the knife she received as a “wedding present” connects her rage to marriage. Even Tramell has killed her parents, although Curran is unable to prove it (Sherwin 2008:177). Elizabeth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) also comes under investigation as Curran tries to unravel the enigma surrounding the truth over her obsession with Tramell after they had a one-night-stand in college.
A pattern of guilt/innocence oscillates in the narrative between Tramell and Garner, and Curran eventually comes to believe Tramell’s version of the events – that Garner staged the initial murder to frame her. Whilst Garner’s guilt is never confirmed, she is killed by Curran after Gus is killed in her vicinity (Sherwin 2008:176). The film’s denouement deviates from the traditional recuperation/punishment structure in the traditional femme fatale film (Sherwin 2008:177). The ending neither establishes Tramell’s innocence (after all the evidence piled up against her), nor punishes her for her guilt. This ambiguity is demonstrated in the final scene, which refuses narrative closure. The film teases the spectator that Tramell may be reaching for something to kill Curran with during sex, but she turns towards him, kisses him passionately and they launch into a final round of love-making. The camera then tracks down the side of the bed towards where she was reaching and fades out signalling the end of the film. However, an unexpected fade-in reveals the camera still tracking to rest finally on an icepick under the bed. In a remarkable twist, the audience is left wondering if Garner was really the killer, and that Tramell may actually be a psychopathic killer (Deleyto 1997:25). The significance of this will be discussed shortly.
The narrative attempt of recuperating the guilty female object may not always be successful, and in the particular case of the femme fatale, it actually reveals the hegemonic work of recuperation obfuscated in the text (Hayward 2006:151). This can be seen in terms of the ideological contradiction she poses by being a strong, active and sexually expressive female vis-a-vis her domestic and passive sisters (Hayward 2006:151). Therefore, she must be recuperated or punished if the dominant ideology is to be maintained. This becomes clearer when we examine the patriarchal motivations for containment by looking at the socio-historical conditions in which the two films were produced.
In the case of Double Indemnity, the role of the femme fatale ‘emerged in the wake of World War II when gender roles were disrupted as soldiers returned from war to discover that their women had replaced them in the workplace’ (Rowe and Lindsey 2003:176). The returning veterans assumed they could ‘retake command of the family home front’, but to do so a defensive and repressive attitude against independent women had to be taken (Boozer 1999:21). Additionally, Mary Ann Doanne (cited in Bronfen 2004:115) suggests further that the femme fatale was a symptom of patriarchal anxiety about feminism. The femme fatale, then, was evoked against ambitious women, and in her role as catalyst for criminal behaviour in men, blame was directed at women’s sexuality, furthering ‘calls for her sexual repression and restriction to the household’ (Boozer 1999:21).
This can clearly be seen in Double Indemnity, whereby the unhappily married Phyllis, seduces and becomes sexually involved with Neff, and convinces him to set up a phoney insurance claim and kill her husband, so that they (or perhaps just she) can collect the payout and be together. Not only is Phyllis a deadly seductress who ‘threatens the moral and legal codes of marriage’, but she jeopardises ‘the economic codes of society at large’; and it is in ‘her longing for financial independence by way of sexual initiative that makes her so threatening to traditional phallocentric authority’ (Boozer 1999:21).
In the 1990s, the femme fatale’s desire for economic independence generally took the form of ‘careerist excess’. In this regard these seductresses were now portrayed as ‘sociopathic in their single-minded determination to dominate their chosen field’ (Boozer 1999:29). This behaviour is consistent with the ‘ethically corrupted marketplace competition and sexual exhibitionism’ which marks this period of post-modern and post-feminist sexual consumerism (Boozer 1999:29; Andrews 2006:60). However, compared to her traditional counterpart, the contemporary femme fatale’s ‘sexually tainted avarice is more deviant and perverse as a focus for blame’ (Boozer 1999:29).
The male anxiety that is clearly of concern in Basic Instinct, can also be situated in a socio-historical context; that is, the product of the successive rearrangements in gender relationships brought about by several waves of feminism and gay liberation movements, especially since the sixties (Deleyto 1997:32). Furthermore, as a bisexual (or perhaps a lesbian who faked her heterosexual desire), Tramell represents the ultimate threat of the independent woman to patriarchy. She manifests the real male fear that he might be expendable (Hoberman in Deleyto 1997:25). As Luce Irigaray notes, ‘male sexuality has traditionally been defined monolithically, in relation to the penis, but female sexuality…is plural’ (cited in Sherwin 2008:177; original emphasis). Therefore, the female as ‘polysexual’ suggests that men and heterosexual intercourse are not necessary to fulfil female desire; man is dependent on an other for sexual satisfaction, while woman is autoerotic and therefore needs no one (Irigaray in Sherwin 2008:177). Returning to the ambiguous ending of Basic Instinct, the significance of the final scene becomes clearer. By not punishing her with death, incarceration or recuperation into a patriarchal zone of containment, the film ultimately suggests that the threat of the ‘autoerotic woman’ is ever present.
In conclusion, it has been shown how the recuperative nature of Hollywood cinema seeks to keep woman in her place in the interests of maintaining the hegemony of patriarchy. This was achieved by demonstrating how a woman-structure informs Hollywood cinema through the pattern of investigation of the guilty object, with the ultimately aim of recuperation or punishment. As a contradictory figure, the femme fatale was demonstrated as a disruptive power which reveals the dominant ideology in the text. Examples were provided from Double Indemnity and Basic Instinct, and when considered in their socio-historical contexts, the femme fatale can be seen a cultural indicator of contemporaneous concerns of male anxiety and the paranoia over the independence of women.
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