Cora is by far the film’s most complex character, attesting to what scholar Nicholas Christopher describes as a kind of transformative power. As he claims: [The] femme fatale . . . is nearly always the more intriguing and energetic figure in the films, imbued with intelligence, guile, charm, and unambiguous sexual electricity. . . . While the hero remains a constant – often a passive, self-destructive one – in these films, the femme fatale often undergoes numerous metamorphoses, sometimes at a dizzying rate (Christopher 197-198).
She has elements of both accepted and transgressive female behavior; she has an affair with Frank and conceives the idea of murdering her much older, much less appealing husband, Nick, thus corrupting the otherwise harmless Frank and sends his life into chaos. As Place says of the femme fatale, “Whether evil . . . or innocent, her desire for freedom, wealth, or independence ignites the forces which threaten the hero” (Place 46). Though they escape legal punishment for Nick’s death, a perverse form of cosmic justice claims them both, as Cora dies in a car accident and Frank is wrongly convicted and executed for her murder.
Though her death is not Frank’s fault, she is still the immediate catalyst for his own demise. If a moral exists in this tale, it is that overtly sexual women are dangerous to men. In Kiss Me Deadly, the film noir female’s characteristics are spread out among three different characters, rather than compacted into one, and the male lead is by no means a hapless victim of circumstances beyond his control, though women do draw him into dangerous situations. The first, Christina (Cloris Leachman) appears only briefly but is very much the innocent victim, fleeing from the criminals who soon torture and kill her.
Though she is not protagonist Mike Hammer’s love interest, she is sexualized by wearing only a trenchcoat. The helpmate, Hammer’s secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper), is generally not a very sexual creature, despite a scene in which she teasingly practices ballet moves and playfully purrs at her employer. As a “good” woman, though, she fits Place’s criteria for the nurturer, standing by Hammer, doing much of his legwork, and asking little in return. However, she is “rewarded” in the end when he rescues her from her captors.
On the other hand, the “dark lady,” Gabrielle/Lily (Gaby Rodgers), goes through the transformation, beginning as a sexually alluring woman and gradually revealing herself as an evildoer who lures Hammer into danger – though he escapes by not succumbing to her wiles. Touch of Evil (1958) is very much a film noir, but it reflects both the fluidity Place mentions and changes in Hollywood, because its female characters deviate from the standard formula. Though two of the film noir archetypes appear, they do not drive the story, intimidate any of the men, or lead any characters to their doom. Instead, they are almost peripheral to the real action.
The “good” nurturing female, Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh), is morally upright and a proper helpmate for her husband (Charlton Heston), but she is not rendered wholly unappealing. Also, though she finds herself victimized (when kidnapped by the criminal Grandi family), she is rescued, showing how good can indeed prevail, rather than the cynical view of the good receiving unjust bad ends. The other archetype, manifested in aging madam Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), appears as a somewhat faded femme fatale who escaped the punishment that earlier film noir “dark ladies” would have received; then again, her transgressions are only implied.
While she runs a house of prostitution, she does not ruin anyone in the film and her deeds attract little attention. In a corrupt milieu, she is by no means the worst character, so there is little reason for her to be punished. She is a part of corrupt police chief Hank Quinlan’s past, but she is not the agent of his destruction. Still, a woman motivates him to his own ruin, albeit innocently; unable to capture his wife’s murderer, Quinlan (Orson Welles) is driven to years of corruption, which finally claim him.