Film Fatales

MFAH film series celebrates the femme fatale of classic Hollywood film noir.

By Michael Hardy July 30, 2013

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Femme Fatales: The Women of Film Noir
Gilda Aug 2 at 7 & Aug 4 at 5
The Blue Dahlia Aug 10 at 7 & Aug 11 at 5
Road House Aug 16 at 7 & Aug 18 at 5
Kiss Me Deadly Aug 23 at 7 & Aug 25 at 5
$9; students & seniors $7
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet St

Like the stoic cowboy of Hollywood westerns and the fast-talking heroine of screwball comedies, the femme fatale has become an American film archetype, inspiring a song by The Velvet Underground and the 2002 film Femme Fatale by Brian De Palma, starring Rebecca Romijn as the eponymous ingénue. Even today, decades after the femme fatale made her first appearance in 1940s detective movies like The Maltese Falcon, no self-respecting film noir is without one—think Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential or Carrie-Anne Moss in Memento.

Tracy Stephenson, the assistant curator of film at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, says she was inspired to program a film series devoted to the femme fatale by David Thompson, the long-time publicity manager at Houston’s Murder by the Book. “We thought this would be a good way to honor him, and to expose people to film that they may not have seen before,” Stephenson says. Murder by the Book, the independent bookstore devoted to mystery and crime fiction, is a community partner with the MFAH for the film series.

First up on the calendar is Gilda, the classic 1946 gangster film starring Rita Hayworth. Next is The Blue Dahlia, also made in 1946, the only film ever produced from an original Raymond Chandler screenplay. (Stephenson also had another reason to show the film: “My mother always had a crush on Alan Ladd, so I wanted to show something with him in it.”) The leading lady of Road House (1948) is Ida Lupino, who takes a job as a (very poor) roadhouse singer and gets involved with the sleazy owner, with violent consequences. Kiss Me, Deadly (1955) was based on a classic Mike Hammer mystery novel by Mickey Spillane, and features a corrupt cop on the trail of a mysterious, glowing briefcase—the inspiration for similar “MacGuffins” in Repo Man, Ronin, and Pulp Fiction.

What’s the appeal of the femme fatale? Stephenson conjectures that after World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American women entered the workforce to replace deployed soldiers, there was a greater demand to see powerful women in the movies.

“It was kind of a reflection, I think, of women having a more productive role in the war,” Stephenson says. “And I think it’s fun to see strong women who can use their looks and charms to get what they want, and bring about the downfall of men. That’s what it’s all about, right?”

Decide for yourself this month at the MFAH.

[Friday’s screening of Gilda will be introduced by Regina Scruggs, a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Saturday’s screening will be introduced by Peter Vonder Haar of]

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