With lust in her heart and a smoking gun in her hand, the femme fatale inspired detective fiction and noir films. Rosemary Neill explores how these gun- toting dames stack up against real- life felons
FROM the sirens of Greek mythology who lured mariners to their deaths to executed spy Mata Hari and the sinful seductresses of film noir, the femme fatale is an enduring archetype. With high sex drive and low morals, she at once excites and repels us. She is brazen, beautiful and dangerous to know.
She enjoyed her heyday in the 1940s and ’ 50s when, with lust in her heart and a smoking gun in her hand, she animated detective fiction and noir films. Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe famously described the essential femme fatale thus: ‘‘ I like smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin.’’
But how do those dames compare with real female felons? A new book and forthcoming exhibition set out to answer that question by juxtaposing images of imaginary bad girls with the genuine article: criminals incarcerated in Sydney’s Long Bay jail when it was known as the State Reformatory for Women.
The book, Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal , by historian and curator Nerida Campbell, is a largely pictorial work. It compares impossibly glamorous representations of fictitious femmes fatales with photographs of inmates taken at the reformatory between 1914 and 1930. Staring at the camera with mournful eyes and tight, grim mouths, the prisoners seem far removed from the wicked glamour girls of the silver screen with their throbbing red lips, couture gowns and permanent attitude of defiance.
Some of the inmates, who are photographed in their civilian clothes, dress glamorously ( or attempt to) in hats, stockings and furs; others look as if they haven’t washed in weeks. One young inmate, a cocaine addict, has filthy, parched skin and the bridge of her nose has caved in.
As Campbell writes: ‘‘ The charm of the French phrase [ femme fatale] disguises its true meaning, ‘ fatal woman’, just as the glamorous version of female criminality portrayed in literature and cinema of the period belies the unfortunate reality of female offenders.’’
According to Campbell, the types of crimes committed by the Long Bay women also contrast sharply with those of their chimerical sisters. Bigscreen and pulp fiction femmes fatales tend to be talented conspirators and ardent adulterers.
Lana Turner schemes with her lover to kill her older husband in The Postman Always Rings Twice , while Bette Davis shoots dead her illicit lover in The Letter . A deluded Gloria Swanson guns down her toy boy in Sunset Boulevard. In the classic Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck seduces an insurance salesman into helping her kill her husband for his life insurance payout.
Femmes fatales also played defining roles in classic novels turned films ( The Maltese Falcon , Farewell My Lovely , The Big Sleep ). From the ’ 30s to the ’ 50s, the lives and crimes of wayward vamps were implicit in racy magazine and pulp fiction titles such as Gun Molls , Deadly Wanton , Good Knife Sweetheart and ( my favourite) When women go wrong, men go right after them.
— Mae West Slaughter in Satin . In contrast, Campbell found that in early 20th-century Sydney, thieves were the most common category of female criminal. Still, her gallery of rogues includes more exotic offenders such as bigamists, cocaine addicts and murderers. Several of the inmates were involved in abortion-related crimes, as this procedure was then common but illegal; two abortionists were implicated in patients’ deaths.
Asked to name the most notorious of her Long Bay subjects, Campbell says without hesitation: ‘‘ It would have to be Tilly Devine . . . she was quite shrewd and tough and incredibly violent.’’ Devine was a prostitute turned madam in Sydney’s ’ 20s underworld. The press called her ‘‘ the worst woman in Sydney’’. She was often at war with another underworld queen, Kate Leigh, a sly grogger. ( Their ferocious rivalry was documented in Razor , a vivid crime history by Larry Writer.)
‘‘ I think it was a remarkable period in Australia’s history, with two females the dominant figures in Sydney’s underworld,’’ Campbell says.
Devine was well known to journalists: late in her career, she held press conferences to update the media on her comings and goings. But she could be vicious. In 1925, she was jailed for slashing a man with a razor while he sat in a barber’s chair.
The mug shot of her in Femme Fatale shows her to be a stocky, sad-eyed woman wearing a man’s blazer, demure long skirt and high-heeled shoes with elaborate, jewelled buckles. Tilly, in turn, was beaten by her husband, Big Jim Devine. ‘‘ Often movies don’t capture that, that these women weren’t just criminals, they were often also victims,’’ Campbell says.
The author says the most bizarre crime mentioned in her book was committed by Eugenia Falleni. Falleni was known as the ‘‘ man woman murderer’’ because she spent much of her life ( with the aid of a dildo) posing as a man. She killed her first wife in 1917 before marrying another woman. Only when she was charged and on her way to the cells did she reveal her real identity, causing a media sensation.
Poisoning, Campbell observes, is a common modus operandi for female killers because it can be concealed in food. Louisa Collins, dubbed the ‘‘ Lucretia Borgia of Botany’’, poisoned both her husbands for their life insurance. She was the last woman to be hanged in NSW.
Her execution, in 1889, caused an outcry, partly because Collins was a mother, partly because there was a view at the time that women, barred from voting and sitting on juries, should not be held accountable to the same laws as men. ‘‘ There is that odd sense of chivalry,’’ Campbell says. ‘‘ The execution of a woman is always a difficult issue for society.’’ She agrees this unease runs counter to the age-old tendency to define female criminals as more evil than their male counterparts. Or as an Italian proverb has it: ‘‘ Woman is rarely wicked, but when she is, she is worse than a man.’’
‘‘ Women’s crimes simultaneously appal and entice us, exciting an interest not generated by male felons,’’ Campbell says. One of the reasons is that violent female offenders are relatively rare: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women comprised just 7 per cent of the prisoner population ( about 24,000) in 2006.
For her research, Campbell foraged in the vast forensic photography archive in Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum, a former police station built in colonial times and overshadowed by a grove of glass and concrete towers near Circular Quay. She consulted police, court and prison records dating back to the 1860s.
The assistant curator at the museum, Campbell has the careful manner of a taxation lawyer. You’d never suspect her of procuring nooses used in executions for the Femme Fatale exhibition, which opens at the museum in March.
The female criminal has special relevance to Australian culture, she argues, as about one in five First Fleet convicts were women. A British officer’s notorious denunciation of these women as ‘‘ damned whores’’ has distorted ideas about them, Campbell says. ‘‘ Most of the estimated 25,000 women transported had been convicted of theft, not prostitution. But the pairing of criminality and loose sexuality became deeply ingrained in the colonial psyche.’’
Nevertheless, being attractive to men seems to have played some role in the crimes and survival skills of other home-grown female criminals. Elizabeth Scott was the first woman to be hanged in Victoria. Executed in 1863, she had been found guilty of conspiring with two men — one was rumoured to be her lover — to murder her husband. In an approach that might have come from a noir film ( had they been invented then), the prosecution accused Scott, who was goodlooking, of using her feminine wiles to talk her coaccused into shooting dead her husband.
The last woman hanged in Australia, Jean Lee, has been the subject of a verse biography, postpunk musical, documentary and CD. In 1952, this attractive redhead was executed for the murder and torture of a 73-year-old bookmaker. Two male accomplices, including her boyfriend, were also hanged. It has been speculated that Lee initially took the rap for her lover.
Critics of her execution believe Lee was punished so severely because — like fictive femmes fatales — she strayed from the path of idealised femininity: she was divorced, a prostitute, associated with criminals and left her child to be reared by her mother.
According to some estimates, there are as many women as men writing crime fiction these days. This means female characters in contemporary crime novels are likelier to hunt down the bad guys than join them. We now live in a world where women have more sexual freedom than any gangster’s moll.
Have these social changes made the femme fatale redundant? ‘‘ To a certain extent, bad girls will always sell movies,’’ Campbell replies. But she adds that in contemporary popular culture, we rarely encounter the classic femme fatale who is hyper-feminine and highly sexualised and whose evil deeds are never explicated.