Put the Blame on Mame: Violent Femmes and Beyond at the 2023 Kit Noir Film Festival

Emily Johnson
April 19, 2023

Rita Hayworth swinging her hips in a black satin gown in Gilda (1946); Barbra Stanwyck’s’ girlish blonde curls framing a chilling smile in Double Indemnity (1944)—the much-vaunted femme fatale is a staple of film noir, and probably what first comes to mind when we consider women in the genre. 

This year’s Kit Noir Film Festival—subtitled “Beyond the Femme Fatale: the Women Who Made Noir”—dedicated itself to exploring women behind the camera, featuring films produced, written, or based on novels by women, and in one case, directed by a woman. The festival revealed the robust role women played in shaping the genre as storytellers, but also as audiences and consumers of noir and true crime. 

Perhaps inadvertently, the festival was still very much about the femme fatale—not as an isolated aesthetic feature of the genre, not as an object for men, but as a figure deeply connected to women’s postwar experiences, interests, and appetites.

The Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival is funded by a generous gift from alumnus Gordon Kit (Columbia College ’76), and is dedicated to celebrating and exploring the film noir canon from new perspectives. Programmed by Rob King, the Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Columbia Film Program, it brings together academics, writers, film students, movie buffs, and noir neophytes for a week of screenings and talks. 

The series keynote, delivered by film historian Shelley Stamp on March 1, kicked things off with a fascinating look at how noir was sold to women. 

Films in the 1940s and 1950s were marketed to women through fashion and beauty merchandising, with movie stars selling skincare, clothing, and jewelry in large-circulation general interest magazines and glossy monthlies. 

Despite their violent subject matter, noir films were no exception to this kind of promotional technique: Lauren Bacall sold pearls as part of promotional campaigns for The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948). Max Factor cosmetics were featured in tie-in campaigns for Double Indemnity (1944) and Gilda (1946).

“Donning fashions to match one’s favorite star, styling one’s hair to copy hers, grooming one’s body to look like hers and painting one’s face in her style,” Stamp said, “this shared intimacy between female stars and female fans, becomes particularly striking in the world of film noir.

Readers of Photoplay were invited to dress like Jane Greer’s character Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past (1946) through a sewing pattern for the outfit she appears in when she has just murdered her lover. It’s also the one she wears when she is gunned down in a police shootout orchestrated by the film’s male star.

“The outfit promoted,” Stamp explained, “was the one Kathie wears when she is at her most violent, and simultaneously, the target of violence.”

This was no coincidence or oversight, Stamp argued. “More likely, audiences reveled in the strength and power exhibited by a femme fatale like Kathie Moffat In spite of the fact that she is punished and killed in the end.”

Similarly, viewers were offered the chance to buy a replica of the suede jacket actress Lizabeth Scott wore as Jane Palmer—” an especially murderous and cold-blooded femme fatale”—in Too Late for Tears (1949.) The suede jacket is also Jane’s attire for murder, a chance for women to share in what the femme fatale wears “when she is at her most murderous and deviant.” 

Wearing her clothes, fans could indulge in her transgressive white femininity, and “feel the big, dangerous desires that Scott’s character inhabits, to imagine a life beyond domesticity and heterosexual marriage.”

Importantly, Stamp notes, female viewers “were ultimately invited to channel these desires into consumption and self-adornment,” rather than actual extra-normative behavior.

There was another surprising phenomenon unique to noir marketing: Stamp explored how these films were also sold to women “through publicity that highlighted the careers of female producers working behind the scenes on noir titles.” 

She drew attention to the frequent magazine coverage of three key ‘gal-producers:’ Harriet Parsons, Joan Harrison, and Virginia Van Upp. These producers behind Clash By Night (1952) Phantom Lady (1944) and Gilda (1946) respectively, were profiled as heavily involved on film sets, with a strong authorial role. 

This message was underscored by photo spreads that featured them on set, collaborating with directors, actors and crew. Profiles emphasized their roles in pre-production planning and post production, documenting their work with editors, designers, and publicists. 

As Parsons explained to one journalist, “A producer is the picture’s overall boss.”

Slides showed Screenland pages of Joan Harrison, producer of five noir films, on the phone in her spacious office above the looping headline “The Boss Man is A Lady.” In another profile, Virginia Van Upp leans up against a film camera. Hip to one side, wearing cat eye glasses and a fitted skirt suit, she holds a cigarette between her polished fingers. Her pose is almost reminiscent of the title character of the deeply influential film she produced, Gilda—only Van Upp stands in front of a director's chair with her name on it.

“With studios especially cognizant of the need to cater to female movie-goers during the war years when noir first emerged, it’s no accident that so much publicity focused on the female producers...press coverage often championed their ability to cater to this vital segment of the audience.”

Stamp quoted an LA Examiner profile of Parsons: “Though the industry focuses much of its efforts on products with feminine appeal, few are made under the guidance of a feminine hand.”

“Reports,” Stamp continued, “often reveal that these ‘gal producers’ understood the tastes of women differently than an industry that had long catered to female moviegoers with romances, musicals, and ‘women’s weepies.’ Female audiences, these profiles insisted, had a taste for crime and violence.”

The complexity of the relationship between noir, crime narratives, and the female viewing public was also taken up in the March 5 panel discussion between crime writers Megan Abbott—the award-winning author of ten crime novels, and Sarah Weinman—journalist, editor, and crime fiction authority. 

Beginning their conversation with the importance of the women novelists and writers behind film noir, like Dorothy Hughes and Patricia Highsmith, they soon expanded to the power that crime narratives have for female audiences. 

They considered real life femme fatales: accused or convicted women who have electrified the public imagination with their so-called deviant behavior—Amanda Knox, Casey Anthony, Betty Broderick—who have seemingly become “feminist folk heroes.”

“When the Casey Anthony case was happening, I just kept seeing parallels to Alice Crimmins,” Weinman said. Crimmins was a woman tried, convicted, cleared, and tried twice more for the murder of her children in the mid-60’s. “What she was on trial for was her sex life…she didn’t behave in the ways that were expected of a housewife living in Queens in 1965. To the point that the investigating cop [was quoted as saying] ‘You take the husband and I’ll take the bitch.’”

As Abbott observed, “True crime has always been consumed more by women than men…because true crime is a place where ‘women’s issues’ are actually explored, the ones they’re not supposed to talk about—domestic abuse, fear, trauma, crime in the family, in the home, female aggression and rage.”

“If you see a lot of these movies, it’s really not the woman who does it, it really is the man,” Abbott said, “Gilda is a perfect example—she doesn’t do anything wrong, she’s just trying to take care of herself and protect herself.”

Dorothy Hughes’ novel In A Lonely Place (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947) on which the 1950 noir film was based, completely shatters the notion of the femme fatale, Abbott argued: “The man is the problem here, he’s the homme fatale, but one that the two women are not going to fall for. It really reverses the whole story”.

In her keynote, Stamp pointed out that in the postwar period, women were asked to shoulder the burden of PTSD for demobilized GI’s. Women were asked to “tolerate his outbursts” with gentleness, exposing themselves to violence. 

Weinman pointed out the same postwar difficulties in her panel discussion: “As soon as the men came back [from WWII,] society expected [women] to snap back into some simulacrum of the traditional family, and many of them chafed, or cracked. The women who were chronicling this in crime fiction were drawing from real anxieties and channeling it into fiction.”

These discussions were an important reminder that women have never been strangers to crime and violence. In fact, women’s appetites for crime narratives as writers, readers, and movie-goers have been as much born of catharsis and recognition as a desire for entertainment.

Before this year’s Kit Noir Film Festival, film noir might not have occurred to many as a rich site for women’s stories. But as Stamp, Weinman, Abbott, and the week’s many other experts explored, women are inextricable from noir—as artists, creators, and consumers.