“Darling, can’t you see how happy you and I would be together here…without him?” Bathed in a soft glow, Cora begs her lover Frank to help her kill her husband, white light bouncing off of her pristine blonde hair and shining in her desperate, pleading eyes. The depiction of women as fatal temptresses dates back long before Cora and Frank appeared onscreen in 1946 in The Postman Only Rings Twice and their cinematic portrayals first appeared in the early years of narrative cinema. Unlike culturally specific earlier depictions, the femme fatale version of the dangerous independent woman traverses borders and appears in various national cinemas during the 1940s and 50s. Popularized in American film noir, the femme fatale emerges as distinctly more complicated than previous fatal women who functioned as a cultural sounding boards for national identity crises. Although she appears in versions throughout the Americas and Europe, I will focus on the femme fatale in the U.S. and Italy to compare the ways the trope acts transnationally as well as nationally specific to social climates in each respective country.
The tragic seductress character has appeared in art for centuries, but it was particularly popular in Victorian era literature as a way to explore changing gender roles (Grossman 93). This trend of examining social norms through the experiences of female characters is one that has continued throughout cinema history and can be seen in both the vamp of American cinema and the Italian diva. Julie Grossman discusses the vamp in relation to the femme fatale in “Looking Back — Victorinoir: Modern Women and the Fatal(e) Progeny of Victorian Representation.” She explains, “These ‘fatal women’ represent, on the one hand, the efforts of women to better position themselves and, on the other, the cultural opposition to formulations of modern female independence.” Vamp films emerged in America in the 19-teens around the time of women’s suffrage and appear to address societal concerns about women’s changing roles in society. Different from bloodsucking mythological vampires, the cinema vamp was a woman who preyed on weak men, seduced them with their feminine wiles, took them away from their families, and took their money. When she was done with him, a vamp’s victim would be a shell of his former self. Rather than a clear-cut critique on modern women, vamp films served more as explorations of changing roles. Some scholars think that the trope actually helped the suffrage movement because it tired people out on the idea of the dangerous liberated woman (Levine 274).
The Italian diva emerged in Italy in the silent film era as a bridge between the theater and the cinema, incorporating performance styles and stardom from the stage. A form of fatal woman, the diva was a glamorous woman who refused to accept oppressive limitations. Mary Wood describes the Italian diva as “a woman of strong emotions” who “is often the focus of hyperbolic and melodramatic narratives in which her dangerous sexuality brings about the downfall of the male protagonist” (158). She is also characterized by her link to human suffering — making men suffer, suffering herself, and then ultimately suffering a tragic death.
Although the vamp and the diva are specific to their national backdrops, they both serve as cinematic predecessors for the femme fatale, which crosses country lines and appears in many different versions and post-war social atmospheres. The term femmes fatales is most commonly associated with American film noir but something about these characters lends them to social exploration as both Italy and America adapted the trope for specific cultural uses. Unlike the American vamp, the femmes fatales are not driven by sexual appetites but by an ambition, or a desire to fulfill a specific goal (be it sexual, financial, or otherwise) (Grossman 3). In this way, the Italian diva seems to anticipate the femme fatale even more than the American vamp. James Cain’s American 1936 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, on which the 1946 American movie is based, depicts the fatal Cora as walking the line between vamp and diva. Although she has an animalistic sexuality like early vamps, she is obsessed with the idea of making something of herself and growing her husband’s restaurant into a more successful business, which aligns her more with the ambitious diva (Grossman 202). A line can be traced from the 1915s vamp, through the 1920s diva, and past Cain’s 1930s depiction of a fatal woman to the cinematic adaptations of his novel in Italy and America and the appearance of the femme fatale. In comparing American and Italian similarities and deviations in femme fatale depictions I will examine both the Italian and American cinematic adaptations of Cain’s novel: Luchino Visconti’s 1943 Italian adaptation, Ossessione, and Tay Garnett’s 1946 American adaptation, The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Ossessione focuses on a drifter who finds himself captivated by the wife of a cafe owner, Giovanna. Together, they hatch a plan to rid themselves of Giovanna’s husband and escape their current situations as transient and miserable housewife. The plan backfires when guilt and complications over Bragana’s murder begin to tear the lovers apart. Released in the latter part of WWII, Ossessione reflects shifting social understandings of the roles of the family, echoed in Giovanna’s discontent with her loveless marriage and domestic responsibilities. As Giuliana Minghelli explains in “Haunted Frames: History and Landscape in Luchino Visconti's Ossessione,” shifting economic turns in 1940s Italy saw reorganizations of familial roles, transforming the symbol of the home and family in Ossessione into “a site of oppression and bourgeois squalor” (180). For Giovanna, the house, the kitchen, and all the responsibilities they imply have become an overbearing oppressive force. The drifter, Gino, seeks comfort in the idea of a stable home, though his idea of a home centers around Giovanna rather than any physical space. He does not quite fit in Giovanna’s home while her husband is alive so he returns to wandering, working odd jobs and sleeping in hotels. His homelessness and sense of displacement reflects changing political tides (Mussolini would be ousted in July of 1943) and the struggle to survive in a fascist society. Minghelli argues that Visconti portrays the trap of fascism through the lovers’ conflicting desires and the ways in which they are “swept away by a passion with murder at its heart, imprisoned in a house conquered through violence and obsessed with finding a way out to other stories, other realities” (174).
Ossessione was made during a period of social and political change, which may account for its varied stylistic interpretations. It is often described as the first Italian neorealist film, but it borrows from American film noir as well. Minghelli argues that the social-realist emphasis on the road, landscape shots, and themes of homelessness align it with neorealism and create a topographical map for changing social anxieties (181). The low-key lighting and exaggerated camera angles mirror American film noir of the 1940s, though in a way that lines up with Italian art traditions of the Baroque (Wood 158). The two leading actors, Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotto, were both popular actors from telefoni bianchi films of the fascist rule. By using known stars, Visconti highlights the film as a reflection of society under fascism and demands a socio-political understanding of the violence the lovers employ to justify the pursuit of their ambitions.
Three years after Ossessione was released, Hollywood released The Postman Always Rings Twice which also follows two lovers, Frank and Cora, as they plot and execute the murder of Cora’s husband, Nick. Like Gino, Frank’s main goal is to establish a home with Cora, in whatever shape that takes. Unlike Giovanna who wants to flee the oppression of a domestic and loveless existence, Cora’s driven to create a successful business out of their family operated restaurant, Twin Oaks. Love seems to be a secondary desire and she’s only pushed to following through with her husband’s murder when he threatens her future as an entrepreneur. The Postman Always Rings Twice fits into American film noir with its high contrast lighting, inclusion of a voice-over, and presence of a femme fatale. The passion and violence of Ossessione are softened in light of Hollywood’s Hays Code, but Postman similarly reflects tumultuous cultural shifts. As Grossman details, “Film noir’s sociocultural setting is one characterized by extreme gender anxiety, as men coming home from the war wondered what their wives had been doing when they were away and as women were driven back into the domestic sphere to resume functions as wives and mothers after a period of independence and new experiences as part of the work force during the war” (98). After WWII, both men and women experienced a displacement of sorts as the lines between male and female roles, and domestic and industrial responsibilities were muddied. These changing roles are mirrored in Frank’s longing for a home and a domestic wife and in Cora’s longing for a successful business and a passionate marriage.
Although Giovanna and Cora serve different cultural purposes and have different personalities and desires, they are both recognized as femmes fatales. The basic structures of the plots are the same in both films and most of the main beats of the story are the same. Both women engage in a passionate romance with a stranger and then come to understand that they can only be truly happy if their husbands are removed from the picture. Both women suggest that their enraptured lovers kill their husbands and both find that their husbands’ absences brings only further discontent. Ultimately, both women die tragically just after deciding once again to pursue happiness. At the center of both depictions of femme fatale lies a ruinous ambition. Giovanna wants a passionate marriage in a higher social class. She does not want to cook for strangers or be bound by domestic chores. Gino represents passion but he can only offer a step down the social and economic ladder, which Giovanna is not willing to take. Cora wants to have it all: a passionate marriage and a successful restaurant. Although Frank and Cora half-heartedly attempt Nick’s murder to enable their love, they only really attempt and succeed in killing him after he tells Cora they will be moving to northern Canada where she will be a nurse to his paralyzed sister. For both women, their husbands represent imprisonments of domestic burdens and their lovers serve as escape plans.
Both Ossessione and Postman reflect various cultural identity shifts, but in choosing to represent them through femmes fatales, they effectively bring gender to the forefront of these social depictions. In “‘Well, Aren’t We Ambitious’, or ‘You’ve Made up Your Mind I’m Guilty’: Reading Women as Wicked in American Film Noir,” Julie Grossman argues that generalizations about femmes fatales miss the complexities for which these characters allow. A narrow understanding of these women as “bad” ignores the narrative contexts which often lend understanding to the reasons behind their actions (201). Before murder even enters the equation, Giovanna explains to Gino how she was forced into marriage with Bragana. She was living on the streets, accepting propositions from men, and Bragana’s proposal took her away from that immediate danger. In Postman, Cora explains to Frank that she married Nick because she was sick of the constant attention from immature men. She told Nick she didn’t love him, but he married her anyway, saying love would come with time. After their failed first attempt to kill Nick, Cora is re-devoted to her husband until he announces her new role as nurse to his sister, which pushes her to finalize the murder. As Grossman summarizes, the femme fatale character depicts women “as varied and complex, and as responsive to social changes that empowered and victimized them” (205).
Unlike early cinema vamps who are pretty two-dimensional in their depictions of seductive prowess, femmes fatales offer more complex interactions with their social environments. The tendency to understand femmes fatales as purely evil temptresses in popular and scholarly writing comes from a misreading of the characters’ agency and empowerment (Grossman 201). Grossman argues that part of this misreading comes from the label itself, which invites simplifications of these characters’ more complicated ambitions and actions. The men that enter the lives of femmes fatales similarly misread their desires, projecting their own insecurities on them and further complicating the women’s decisions. In both Ossessione and Postman, the male characters ignore the female characters expressions of desire and ambition in favor of pursuing them romantically. In both Giovanna and Cora’s backstories, their husbands showed up when they were at a low point, and led them into a dispassionate marriage. When Giovanna explains this to Gino, expressing her desire to live a bourgeois life that is not contingent on her working in a kitchen, he spends her entire monologue playing with a sea shell, holding it up to his own ear and then holding it up to hers.1 In response to her confession he holds up the shell to her ear and replies, “What do you say we go away? You and me together.”2 When Giovanna asks him where they will go, he simply responds, “Who cares where? Wherever we want.” It is clear that Gino has not listened to Giovanna’s expression of desires; he is only capable of projecting his own desire for a home, of belonging to someone, onto Giovanna. Frank similarly ignores Cora’s ambitions in Postman, forcing his own desires for a traditional domestic romance onto her. She repeatedly turns down his aggressive advances in a seeming genuine display of propriety. When she first reveals her ambitions to “make something” of the Twin Oaks luncheon, Frank interrupts her saying, “well, aren’t we ambitious,” and then tells her, “you want to make a lot of money so you can buy lots of pretty clothes.” He then grabs her and kisses her, much to her discomfort.3 Not only does he refuse to acknowledge her desires, but he belittles his narrow understanding of her ambition. By ignoring the perspectives of the femmes fatales, their lovers fall victim, not to the feminine wiles of the women, nor necessarily to the dangers of shifting social norms, but to the consequences of disregarding the female point of view in light of changing cultural environments (211).
The role of gender in Ossessione is somewhat more complicated than that in Postman because of Visconti’s stylistic and narrative treatment of Gino. Giovanna acts as the femme fatale in the traditional sense, but Gino occasionally vies for the position as fatal character. Visconti’s focus is on Gino: we follow him along his various travels which results in an understanding of his perspective more than that of Giovanna. Visconti explores Gino’s relationships with other men and woman in tangential storylines that are not included in Cain’s original novel (Minghelli 178). Beyond story elements, Visconti also tends to treat Gino with the cinematic elements that are usually reserved for female stars. Catherine O’Rawe explores this idea in, “Gender, Genre and Stardom: Fatality in Italian Neorealist Cinema,” and comments on Gino’s centrality in framing and camera movement (130).
It is clear from his first few scenes that Gino is the visual focus in the film. When he walks into Giovanna’s kitchen, she does a double take and the camera moves in to a tighter close up of his face, bathed in a glow similar to the soft light that constantly falls on Cora in Postman.4 This concept is particularly clear when comparing two early scenes from Ossessione and Postman in which all three members of the love triangles are present. In Ossessione, Bragana walks into the kitchen to discover Gino eating at Giovanna’s table. After a short establishing shot of Bragana entering the room, the camera switches to an angle that places Gino illuminated in the center. Bragana and Giovanna stand on either side of the frame, their backs to the camera, looking at Gino who sits at the table, perfectly centered in the frame.5 Gino then gets up from the table to leave and the camera pans right to follow him out. The camera pauses as he does in the doorway, where he smiles and exits the scene. He is clearly the focus of the scene.
A similar scene in Postman highlights Cora in an interaction between Frank, Nick, and herself. Although she is not featured in the dead-center of the frame, she is visibly closer to the camera than the two men and dressed in an all-white outfit that draws the eye. Nick and Frank discuss business, but it is Cora’s face that demands attention and it is her reaction that the camera plays to.7 After Nick leaves the room and Frank follows shortly behind him, the camera lingers on Cora, the focus of both the scene and the film.8
Where Cora demands the attention throughout the film, Giovanna and Gino battle for the screen’s attention. O’Rawe describes this as the film’s ambivalence as to whether Gino or Giovanna is Ossessione’s fatal character and she argues that this treatment fits into the national context of the film as a reflection of Italian identity crises (132). Gino and Giovanna represent conflicting depictions in the struggle between the fascist contradiction of violent justifications and bourgeois content. The only thing that defines Giovanna as the femme fatale is her ambitious desire in the face of Gino’s meandering search for belonging.
In exploring femmes fatales in Italy and America it is not clear that their depictions directly influenced each other beyond a superficial imitation of a character trope. It is clear, however, that the concept of the female character as a social and cultural reflection transcends both national constraints and simplified definitions. Both Italy and America used the idea of complex femmes fatales to cinematically enact shifts in gender and national identity crises through their depictions of Cain’s novel. The films are similar in content but very different in their depictions of fatal women because they reflected different socio-political national atmospheres. Like earlier depictions of the vamp and the diva, the femme fatale serves as an opportunity for exploring social anxieties and likewise similarly to earlier depictions, the femme fatale does not seem to serve as a warning of independent women, but as a platform to explore female agency and ambition. Grossman conveys this interpretation clearly, arguing that depictions of varied and dynamic women on-screen can empower women and “provide multiple and progressive opportunities for women to re-imagine themselves” (126). Grossman’s point still rings true today in the call for more distinctive and complex portrayals of women across film communities.
Grossman, Julie. “Introduction: ‘No One Mourns the Wicked.’” Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir - Ready for Her Close-Up. London, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2009, pp. 1-18. https://doi-org.ez-proxy.brooklyn.cuny.edu/10.1057/9780230274983_1.
Grossman, Julie.“Looking Back — Victorinoir: Modern Women and the Fatal(e) Progeny of Victorian Representation.” London, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2009, pp. 93-131.
Grossman, Julie. “Looking Forward: Deconstructing The ‘Femme Fatale.’” Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir - Ready for Her Close-Up. London, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2009, pp. 132-152. https://doi-org.ez-proxy.brooklyn.cuny.edu/ 10.1057/9780230274983_6.
Grossman, Julie. “‘Well, Aren’t We Ambitious’, or ‘You’ve Made up Your Mind I’m Guilty’: Reading Women as Wicked in American Film Noir.” The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, edited by Helen Hanson, Catherine O’Rawe, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010, pp. 199-213. https://doi-org.ez-proxy.brooklyn.cuny.edu/ 10.1057/9780230282018_15.
Internet Movie Database, The. IMDb.com, Inc, 2017. Web. Dec 2017. http://www.imdb.com.
Minghelli, Giuliana. “Haunted Frames: History and Landscape in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione.” Italica, vol. 85, no. 2/3, 2008, pp. 173–196. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40505801.
Postman Always Rings Twice, The. Directed by Tay Garnett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1946.
O’Rawe, Catherine. “Gender, Genre and Stardom: Fatality in Italian Neorealist Cinema.” The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, edited by Helen Hanson, Catherine O’Rawe, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010, pp. 127-142. https://doi-org.ez- proxy.brooklyn.cuny.edu/10.1057/9780230282018_10.
Ossessione. Directed by Luchino Visconti, Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane, 1943. Amazon Video, https://www.amazon.com/Ossessione-Luchino-Visconti/dp/B01IO63MII/ ref=nav_custrec_signin?ie=UTF8&qid=1513215283&sr=8-1&keywords=ossessione&.
Wood, Mary. “‘Chiaroscuro’: The Half-Glimpsed ‘Femme Fatale’ of Italian ‘Film Noir.’” The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, edited by Helen Hanson, Catherine O’Rawe, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010, pp. 157-169.