Grimm, Joseph Campbell’s A Hero’s Journey and Machiavelli’s The Prince
In 1949, mythologist and writer, Joseph Campbell, known for his work in comparative mythology and religion, took the archetypal hero’s journey found throughout world mythologies and fairytales/stories and called it the Monomyth. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell lays out the monomyth from the Adventure of the Hero through a number of stages upon which the hero will embark while on his journey. The four stages are: The Departure, Initiation, The Return and Keys. In each stage there are anywhere from five to six levels the hero must complete in order to reach the next stage and finally his boon.
These stories became triumphal or tragic episodic adventures often with a hero, heroine and villain. Man’s fascination for these stories became popular over time because it allowed him to revel in the struggles and ultimate great achievements of the hero. In Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre, Author Jack Zipes agrees with the fascination because “…their hybrid formation was intimately tied to the manner in which human beings sought to articulate their thoughts and feelings about everyday life, crucial information about conflicts, and possible solutions to these conflicts. In this regard, fairy tales have always been part of culture or a civilizing process.” (130). With the Monomyth, Campbell clearly defines an important aspect of storytelling that attracts Everyman—that of the hero’s journey and eventual triumph against all odds.
An excellent example of this is evident in NBC’s Grimm, a police procedural fantasy television drama series that takes place in a world in which characters; from the Grimm Fairy Tales (originally called the Children’s and Household Tales (German: Kinder- und Hausmärchen), consisting of 209 fairy tales (published in 1812) by the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm), come to life and live underneath a human façade in Portland, Oregon.
The originality of Grimm lays not only the modernization of the Brothers’ Grimm stories, but how the show uses the monomyth concept as well as the approach to cunningness and duplicity ideas from Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, a 16th-century political treatise to bring stories of despair, fear, and struggles into the light of hope and triumphant. While these two concepts are often used in films; we do see it early on in such literary pieces as the Wizard of Oz and the Count of Monte Cristo. Way before Campbell’s Monomyth.
The hero is homicide investigator Nick Burkhardt (David Guintoli) of the Portland Police Department. He is accompanied by secondary characters who also experience their own calls to adventure—an added bonus that creates multi-layered, often complicated characters whose journeys add dimension often lacking in other shows. Characters each faced with their own struggles, such as Captain Sean Renard (Sasha Roiz), a royal bastard in exile, who strives to regain his birthright. In addition there is Martin Meisner (Damien Puckler), a mercenary out for revenge, hiding a pained heart of gold, who often joins causes in order to quench his thirst for both vengeance and justice. Grimm’s multiple overlapping story lines and multidimensional characters create more scope for the writers to create interesting stories that keep the viewers interested, guessing and coming back for more in the hopes of joining the hero and his journey.
The pilot episode, begins with Campbell’s stage one of “The departure” and level one “the call to adventure” where the hero receives his calling, as Nick does when he begins to see people woge (the German word for surge or wave) as a wave overcomes the faces of these creatures prior to changing into their true form. The creatures can see the dark void in his eyes causing them to woge often in fear. Grimms are known for their swift kills regardless of whether the creatures are deadly or harmless, and they are charged with keeping balance between humanity and the mythological creatures called Wesens: the German word for being or creature. Throughout the series, Nick battles an assortment of dangerous creatures, with help from his reformed Wesen friend Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), a blutbad (the big bad wolf) and his partner Detective Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby).
Confused that his world has been turned upside down, Nick asks Monroe (his supernatural aid) how he can get rid of the Grimm inside of him. In stage one and level two, Nick rejects the calling. “You can’t” Monroe replies, thus Nick has no choice but to accept his calling.
According to Campbell, “Once the call is acknowledged, the hero embarks on his journey through a list of tasks and/or trials. On some occasions he will have to face these trials alone, but not always. He will be provided with assistant from a supernatural creature. It is at the most intense point of his journey, that the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with the aid of this supernatural creature.” In level three of stage one, Nick’s supernatural aid comes in the form of Monroe. Unlike his ancestors Monroe does not kill humans or animals. He is the comic relief and his dialogues are often witty, if not brilliant. But aside from those aspects, Monroe is the reformed big bad wolf that provides Nick with the supernatural aid he needs as he embarks into the unnatural world of the Wesen community.
After accepting his calling, Nick begins the crossing of the first threshold: As a cop who believes in the justice system, he will bring a different role to his calling as a grimm, different from his predecessors. Even, his mother is shocked upon learning that a Blutbad and Fuchsbau (a fox-like creature) are his friends. Nick’s form of the “swift kill”, unlike previous ancestors who killed these creatures whether harmless or dangerous, is bringing in the perpetrators to justice—alive if necessary. His ideals make him a hero even among the Wesen community—those who are law abiding Wesens, who just want to co-exist with their human counterparts in peace. These Wesens come to learn and trust Nick. There is hope that a refreshing change is coming in their favor and perhaps they no longer need to fear a grimm. After all these people are very much like their human counterparts in that they live in a society where they too struggle to make ends meet. These are blue and white collar workers striving for a better life and place to live: like Bud the plumber. When you look at society today, who is fighting for those that have been wronged? Of course we have the law, but that has been known to fail us. With the show Grimm if the law fails its citizens there is always the grimm to take care of the situation.
As mentioned earlier, Grimm is full of heroes, both male and female, both human and Wesen who embark on their own journeys, as they assist the hero. There is even the usual boon (an object or something that brings great benefits) in fairy tales, as is the case with the seven royal families who vie for power. In their strife for this power, there are seven missing keys that will unlock a great power, and whoever finds these keys will acquire the boon. By the middle of season 5, Nick has obtained five of the seven keys. In this quest, he and his friends become targets of the royal families, as they try to either have him or his friends killed.
If the hero survives and accomplishes all of the stages of the monomyth he will receive the boon that will help him continue on his journey often this is the discovery of important self-knowledge. Once the task is fulfilled the hero must then decide if he should return to his world. If successful in returning, the gift can be used to make the world a better place. This quest is something that viewers can relate to as they also face struggles, with the hope that their struggles will make them better people and equip them to do more good in the world. With this new perspective Grimm fulfills Everyman’s dream of being a hero.
The world of Grimm is multi-layered. In addition to the Wesens, there are other creatures in this magical world… The creatures from Grimm range from Blutbads, Hexenbiests (a witch-like mummy creature with great powers) to the harmless Beavers. However, the Hexenbiest, is one of the worst kind of creatures of the show. According to the Grimm Wikia, Hexenbiests “…are able to casually overpower a grown man and rip him apart, but they can only access these powers in their Hexenbiest form and not their human one. They are not as strong as Grimms, as on three separate occasions, Grimms were able to gain the upper hand in a fight with Hexenbiests. However, Hexenbiests are physically powerful enough to give Grimms a degree of trouble.”
Episode after episode, viewers sit in anticipation as they ride along with the Grimm, the Prince, the Mercenary and other players; including the young woman grimm, Theresa Trubel (Jacqueline Toboni), who represents the Amazonian archetype—a warrior woman. Trubel was alone and had grown fearful upon learning that she was seeing things that she could not explain. Humans would change in front of her and then they would want to kill her. She met Nick and her world changed from being all alone and knowing nothing to having a family in Nick, Juliette, Monroe and Rosalie, and even Adalind and in the process learned all about being a Grimm. Sub-plots are thrown in, and intricately woven into creating a multi-colorful world that makes viewers wish they could enter into the fantasy world of Grimm and experience its wonders.
The Prince (Sasha Roiz): known as Captain Sean Renard and Nick’s boss; is the illegitimate son of a European King. Banished from his country, he works and lives in Portland, Oregon. The captain’s home is perched on a cliff-side with a view of Portland. Like a balcony from a castle he often stands at night surveying his city (his kingdom). Renard is one of the most complex and multifaceted characters in the show. In the pilot episode, he tries to have Nick’s aunt killed. But in a later episode he is shown to be very protective of Nick and the men under his leadership. Renard is very secretive and is a member of the resistance—a group of freedom fighters who do not want the royal families to rule the world once again.
Being half-human and half- Hexenbiest Renard is a Zauberbiest—a warlock with great strength. Renard has sided with the resistance against the families. He is ruthless but has a soft side he seldom shows. However, when his city or men are threatened, his ruthlessness comes through, as evident in Game Ogre, when Hank’s life is threatened and in Kiss the Muse, when the Musai (an elf-like creatures that causes the artist to create his best, but not without a high price to pay) refuses to release Nick from her grasp. Once Nick is saved by Juliette, Renard tells the Musai that he is releasing her and that she has to leave Portland. He tells her that she is to never come back, because there is a side of him that does not wear a badge and he has no guarantee what this side of him would do to her. He changes into the Zauberbiest to prove his point. Renard’s character exhibits a great example of Machiavellianism, which states that a prince should know how to be deceitful when it suits his purpose. However, when the prince needs to be deceitful, he must not appear that way. Machiavelli described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. He even seemed to endorse it in some situations. The book concludes that some “virtues” will lead to a prince’s destruction, whereas some “vices” will allow him to survive.
While Renard is educated and speaks several languages, Machiavelli believes the Prince is best suited to war… “or the preparation thereof, not books. Through war a hereditary prince maintains his power or a private citizen rises to power. Machiavelli advises that a prince must frequently hunt in order to keep his body fit and learn the landscape surrounding his kingdom. Through this, he can best learn how to protect his territory and advance upon others. For intellectual strength, he is advised to study great military men so he may imitate their successes and avoid their mistakes. A prince who is diligent in times of peace will be ready in times of adversity. Machiavelli writes, “thus, when fortune turns against him he will be prepared to resist it.”
That is not to say that Renard is not capable in the art of war or fight. He has proven he can hold his own even when he needed someone else to do his bidding—as when he orders Meisner to kill his half-brother. There is a famous line, that perhaps best describes Machiavellianism, in season 1, episode 18 called “Cat and Mouse” written by Jose Molina, where the Captain’s home is broken into by a Verrat agent, Edgar Waltz (Sebastian Roche), the law enforcement organization of the royal families. The Captain refuses to cooperate to help him find one of the leaders of the resistance. At the end of the scene Waltz leaves the captain with a Latin saying. Before the scene fades out, the captain reiterates what was said to him in English: If you seek peace prepare for war.
For Renard having a Grimm under his leadership means power—an advantage when speaking with those in the resistance, as in the “Twelve Days of Krampus.” In the current season Renard is given an opportunity to become Mayor of Portland no matter the cost, including the murder of his friend. He wants this badly, because of the denial of his birthright, Renard will do whatever he can to attain this powerful position; including aligning himself with the people that killed his friend, threatened the mother of his child and Nick’s life.
Though Machiavelli suggests that the Prince has no need for mercenaries, Renard, for the first five seasons has one in Martin Meisner, (Damien Puckler). Another hero on his own journey, Meisner is not your typical mercenary. He is a resistance fighter—who has an investment in everything he does, including revenge. What do we know of Meisner? Not much, but that his father and fiancée were killed by the royals. It is yet to be revealed that other than vengeance for the murders of his loved ones, why he is so loyal to Renard even though by the fifth season he switches alliances from the resistance to becoming a member of Hadrian’s Wall—a small group of Wesens and humans fighting an uprising of an army of Wesens, called Black Claw, bent on taking over the world.
The worth of the relationships between these characters are so integral that on several occasions characters that were only to appear in one episode are now considered secondary and have become regulars like “Meisner”— (The street-wise Hercules – from Bonnie Tyler’s “I need a Hero”) and Bree Turner’s “Rosalie” (a Fuchsbau maiden). In an interview with AfterBuzz, Puckler reveals that Meisner was only to have appeared in the episode “PTZD”. While Meisner has proven to be the man to get the job done, there is a part of him that viewers can relate to…He is complex and multifaceted as the Prince. Meisner is fearless and while his demeanor is one of steel and impregnable, he is vulnerable as a man with his own tragedies and hidden agenda. Not to mention that Puckler’s characterization of Meisner has won accolades among viewers to where the actor has a large following of fans. Sadly by the end of season five, Meisner is killed by the Prince in a mercy killing as one of the leaders of Black Claw, Conrad Bonaparte (Shaun Toub) a very powerful Zauberbiest begins to kill him in a very torturous manner. For a brief moment Renard shows compassion and this does not go well with Bonaparte. The death of Meisner is shocking and unexpected, though he lived by the sword, fans were not expecting him to die by it. Though the Prince and Meisner have their own journeys, viewers can only guess where this will bring them as the Prince strives for power and Meisner for justice. On the death of Meisner and the Hero’s Journey, Puckler states: “I… have always lived by ‘Life is all about giving your damnedest and your hardest and then, whatever the outcome…good or bad, you simply have to let it go.’ I believe that Meisner would have agreed to that 100%.” Meisner was the hero that fought for the underdog-he fought for us. In the world today we could use a few Meisners.
While only the men of Grimm are mentioned, the women characters of the show also play an important role in the Monomyth as well as the archetypal types as the maiden, the witch and the Wesen maiden. While the women of the show may appear to play second fiddle with their male counterparts, this is not true. They too must face their own trials and tribulations. In the case of Juliette Silverton (Bitsie Tulloch), even though her first name is synonymous with tragedy, we are given the beautiful young maiden in love with the hero. She is caring and is an animal healer by profession. Images of Cinderella or Snow White come to mind as they befriend the forest animals or house mice in their lonely quest to finding happiness with their Prince. By the end of season four Juliette sacrifices herself to save her Prince.
Grimm creates an enchanting fantasy world that draws viewers in, it achieves more than the typical fantasy drama through its adaptation of the Brothers’ Grimm fairy-tales. It is refreshing in seeing these old stories in a more modern take, where viewers can experience Campbell’s Monomyth and Machiavellianism concepts performed throughout the different episodes. These characters are multi-faceted and lovable, even when they are evil because of the talents of the actors. What is most important to state is that the characters are real to the viewers because of the many problems and issues of politics, society, and justice that is brought to the forefront. According to Zipes, “The oral and literary fairy tales enunciated, articulated, and communicated feelings in efficient metaphorical terms that enabled listeners and readers to envision possible solutions to their problems so that they could survive and adapt to their environments…We respond to these classical tales almost as if we were born with them…” (xii).
Grimm is a fantastic show with great writing, acting, and story arcs. There is great chemistry among the actors that comes through in the characters they portray. But truthfully, it is better said by Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey: “Stories built on the mode of the Hero’s Journey have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they well up from a universal source in the shared unconscious and reflect universal concerns.” (5) In other words most of these stories have the unique ability to make the reader or viewer relate to the issues at hand and because of this, it appeals to a broad audience. In the end viewers will relate to the injustices and struggles these heroes face and through their eyes they come to hope for a better world. For Nick that would be a place where justice will conquer all evils. For Renard a throne where he can rule from and Meisner a world that’s peaceful and safe for all.
Puckler, Damien, Actor. Personal Interview. 21 May 2016.
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. California: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998. Print
Jack Zipes. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print
Fatally Female: Man’s End
Film noir, best known for stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasized moral ambiguity and sexual motivation, reached its peak in the early 1940s and lasted through the late 1950s. Even though the main literacy focus for these movies was the American detective and crime novel, penned by writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Daphne Du Maurier, true stories of crimes added relish to the distinct film noir style, as did American westerns.
As a genre, film noir, has its own elements that separates it from other genres, such as science fiction or romance. Elements of this genre consist of the noir voice over action; this device can occur earlier in the film as someone introduces the plot or later as voiceover accompanied by flashbacks. Film noir operates in a bleak environment tinged with mistrust and cynicism, while featuring an anti-hero, who suffers from moral ambiguity; the femme fatale who motivates the anti-hero; and finally the crime, usually murder. As these films are adapted from the literary world into film, some will argue that through the process of adaptation, the fidelity of the literary piece is lost forever. However, while it is clear that the elements of film noir, whether visual or audio, helps the audience to forgive the lack of fidelity, it is the femme fatale that takes us to the point where we forget about the loss of fidelity, as evident in such films as The Maltese Falcon, Laura, and Rebecca.
As for the loss of fidelity, Robert Stam says: “When we say an adaptation has been ‘unfaithful’ to the original, the term gives expression to the disappointment we feel when a film adaptation fails to capture what we see as the fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of its literary source” (54). Hence the truth according to Stam, who argues for fidelity, is that The Maltese Falcon, Rebecca, and Laura do suffer from lack of it, but to the imagination of the audience any disappointment to be had can and has been avoided because of the elements of film noir, especially the role involving the femme fatale. Stam’s thoughts are further concrete, as he restates that: “A film adaptation seen as a “copy,” by analogy, would not necessarily be inferior to the novel as the “original” (58).
To the audience the elements of film noir brought to life through the translation process, carries them to the point where they do not question the lack of fidelity, or rather they merely choose to ignore it. Because of the tension of the bleak environment, with its gray and black shadows, we are held glued to our seats as thoughts of “at any moment something is going to happen” becomes the focal point. Even when the murder is committed, while quick, we are still held because the focus then becomes whether the anti-hero will succeed or succumb to the evils of the world.
Of course, his greatest obstacle is the femme fatale. The appearance of the femme fatale, the very beautiful and sexy woman hypnotizes us to the point that our gaze is directed at her and remains with her throughout the entire movie. Laura Mulvey states: “Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotiv of erotic spectacle…she holds the look, plays to, and signifies male desire” (487). The femme fatale’s sexuality and beauty not only captivates her male counterparts, but she also manages to capture the attention of every man or woman in the audience watching and anticipating her every move.
For the femme fatale, the audience is privy to her story of either being trapped in an unwanted situation, as in an unwanted marriage or an abusive relationship to an unsavory character. However, in a more fundamental manner, she is wicked to the bone, regardless of her desolate state, according to Scott Snyder: “These femme fatales represented a concerted attempt by American filmmakers to depict women in a genuine, if somewhat harsh, way. They could be just as “’sexually voracious and as potentially murderous as any man, and just as susceptible to corruption and greed’” (157).
This is the case for the femme fatale, in the film adaptation of, The Maltese Falcon. She is conniving liar and murderess. But before we explore her motivation, it is important to mention some of the elements of film noir that the movie embodies. The opening scene of the film is that of an urban shot of San Francisco. The audience is then brought into the offices of two private detectives; hence, the introduction of our anti-hero, Sam Spade, sitting behind a desk. There also is a play of light versus dark when the windows shadow the name of the detective agency later in the scene. While these elements of film noir bring a visual tension to the audience it is the arrival of the femme fatale that catches their attention all the way to the end.
When Spade’s secretary enters his office she announces the arrival of a new client. The secretary tells Spade that he would want to see the girl because of her looks; it is here that the femme fatale (Brigid O’Shaunessy) is introduced. Snyder’s view on the femme fatale’s role in film noir goes beyond just being the catalyst to the development of the story: “These women are defined in terms of their relation to men. Feminist authors have viewed them as energized, intelligent, powerful and able to elicit strength from their sexuality, cinema portrayals usually reserved for men” (157). In other words, Snyder believes that these women are important not just because they are placed in the role of the catalyst, for the sake of the development of the story, but because of their relationships with the male character that allows the story to have a more realistic and in depth perspective on human nature; specifically where relationships are concerned and by giving the audience a glimpse of sexually appealing women who possess their own qualities.
Ms. O’Shaunessy is confident of her looks and uses it to begin her web of lies, while portraying herself as the hapless female in need of a strong arm and a weak male willing to provide it: “Film noir is one of the few exceptions to the usual domination of American cinema. It is not the eventual destruction of these women that we remember as much as their potency, drive, and compelling ability to manipulate men through the power of their sexuality” (Snyder158). On his view of the femme fatale’s dangerous liaison with the anti-hero through her use of her sexuality, William Marling states: “The protagonist’s involvement with her may range from mild flirtation to passionate sex, but in the denouement he must reject or leave her, for the revealed plot shows her to be one of the causes of the crime” (2). It is at this point that Sam must reject her; he must do away with the femme fatale, not for the safety of others, but for the safety of his own brotherhood. Though a man with very little scruples, for he is having an affair with his partner’s wife, Sam does possesses an ounce of wrong from right. The killing of his partner was wrong and to Sam this was not something he was willing to let go unpunished.
Unlike the entrance of the femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon, there is no entrance, at least in a physical sense, for the femme fatale in the film Rebecca. She is already dead and though she may be dead, throughout the film her sexuality and notoriously fatale personae is very much alive. The film starts with a voiceover narration from the second Mrs. De Winter as she begins to tell the story through flashback. In fact, the entire movie is told through flashback, as in the book. This flashback narration is another key element of film noir. As in The Maltese Falcon, Rebecca’s adaptation from literary work to film is also a success. In Rebecca, the effect of the femme fatale’s presence is felt throughout much of the film. Her deceit and manipulation of the men in the story continues to haunt not only the anti-hero, Maxim De Winter, but the other men who knew her, some more intimately than others. We, the readers/audience are constantly reminded of the femme fatale’s beauty and sex appeal through the characters of the book or in the film as they describe the late Mrs. De Winter: “she was a very lovely creature” (123). All men and women loved Rebecca—women because they wanted to be like her and men because they wanted to possess her. When the new Mrs. De Winter asks the estate manager if Rebecca was beautiful he replies: “she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life” (134).
As the story moves forward, Rebecca’s true character is revealed, showing again the femme fatale in true form. It is through Maxim de Winter that we, the readers/audience, get a clear glimpse of the flaws in Rebecca’s so-called beauty: “I hated her, I tell you, our marriage was a farce from the very first. She was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through. We never loved each other…Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal” (271). Rebecca deceived many and ruined their lives, and Max De Winter was no exception. As a result, he becomes cynical, gloomy and untrusting and so when he marries for the second time it is uncharacteristic of a man who was jaded against love and matrimony. When he does marry, he subconsciously marries someone totally opposite the late Mrs. De Winter. Just as you get the feeling that Maxim will have his happily ever after, the femme fatale resurfaces when her body is washed ashore the night of the ball, bringing to light a dark secret. A secret Maxim had hoped to never reveal though it was destroying him and now threatens his chance at happiness with the new Mrs. De Winter.
Deborah Walker agrees with Marling’s statement, especially since the femme fatale uses her sexuality to manipulate others: “In noir, as a distillation of the dangers of the male-female dynamic, a major source of narrative tension arises from the male protagonist’s uncertainty surrounding the fatale’s honesty, more specifically, her emotional/or sexual loyalties” (10). Rebecca used Maxim De Winter to gain status and money; however she was unhappy in her marriage and used other men to meet her needs by exploiting her sexuality—men were sexual objects for her and provided an escape from her unwanted marriage.
While Rebecca has often been categorized as film noir, we cannot ignore that it is also a story of romance and mystery and the elements that define it as such are true to John G. Cawelti’s theory of a romance or mystery: “Romances often contain elements of adventure, but the dangers function as a means of challenging and then cementing the love relationship” (41). Based on Cawelti’s definition of romance, Rebecca fits in nicely, in that there is a secret about a murder that is being kept and that this secret is keeping lovers apart. These lovers must unearth this secret and solve the mystery before they can make their own way back to each other with a newfound strength in their love. Another important key element of Cawelti’s romance theory is the poor girl falling in love with the rich man: “A favorite formulaic plot is that of the poor girl who falls in love with some rich or aristocratic man, which might be called the Cinderella formula” (Cawelti42). Maxim De Winter was the older, suave, charismatic, aristocratic anti-hero, and our heroine was a paid companion and plain Jane, in the vein of another classical romance writer, Charlotte Bronte, bringing to light that film noir has elements of classical and gothic romance.
In its capacity as a film of mystery, Rebecca provides us with a protagonist with secrets (Cawelti42). Cawelti’s thought on the mystery theory: “The fundamental principle of the mystery story is the investigation and discovery of hidden secrets, the discovery usually leading to some benefit for the character(s) with whom the reader identifies with. The discovery of secrets with bad consequences for the protagonist…” (Cawelti42). This is true with Maxim De Winter, who hides the secret that he killed his wife and then took her body and boat out to sea to sink it, making it look like a suicide. This secret threatens not only his marriage, for he fears the new Mrs. De Winter will want nothing to do with him once the secret is revealed, but also their very lives, for he could likely to prison for the murder of his first wife.
In Laura, the femme fatale is presumed dead; murdered, actually. However, unlike Rebecca’s femme fatale, she appears several scenes later. The audience is privy to this femme fatale from the flashbacks told by Lydecker and through a portrait of her in her living room. Unlike the previous two femme fatales, Laura is less wicked, deceitful, and definitely not a murderer; however, she does use her sexuality and beauty to get ahead in life and the advertising industry; she also seems to have a life in which she finds contentment through a successful career that provides her with the luxurious life she craves. In the flashback scenes told by Waldo Lydecker, Laura approaches him while he is having lunch to ask him to sponsor an ad, allowing her to get ahead in the advertising industry. It is here that the camera totally focuses on her, giving us, the audience, a dreamy in-love look at her. A young Gene Tierney was at her most beautiful. Like the camera’s focus on O’Shaunessy when she appears in Spade’s office, the camera focuses on Laura, for emphasis. Walker states: “The make-up and tight-fitting or suggestively flowing costumes that are the sartorial hallmark of the fatale, the sensual lighting and framing of her face and body, are unambiguously designed to accentuate and display these features” (Walker16). In Laura, your first glimpse of the femme fatale is a painted portrait of her dressed in a beautiful gown.
The camera then turns back to Lydecker, who continues to be upset that his lunch is being interrupted. He is an older man who is set in his ways and unhappy at the interruption. He turns her offer down, but not before he is smitten by her beauty. This is obvious when he appears later at her advertising agency, searching for her to apologize and sign the advertisement. In “No Place for a Woman: The Femme Fatale,” John Blaser states: “Her sexual emancipation commands the gaze of the hero, the audience, and the camera in a way that cannot be erased by her final punishment” (6). Lydecker forms an attachment to her, eventually becoming jealous at the thought of her being with anyone else. Hence, the obsession leads him to commit murder. In the darkness of his obsession, Lydecker is driven to kill Laura. However, he mistakenly murders a model that was staying temporarily at Laura’s apartment.
When Detective Lt. Mark McPherson comes to investigate Laura’s murder, the audience finds him gazing at a portrait of Laura. His gaze indicates that he, like Lydecker, has fallen in love with her, therefore causing his interest, as the investigator of the case, to grow more personal. He not only wants to find her killer, but also to discover more about who this woman was: “Even after her death, the strong female character has the power to intrude visually on the narrative, often continuing to “live” through her portrait” (Blaser7). Blaser writes that this theme of obsession is developed further, since her portrait commands all the shots throughout her apartment (Blaser7). Luckily for Detective McPherson, Laura, while a determined beauty, does have a heart and is not desperate, other than discovering who is trying to kill her. She finds herself surrounded by a bunch of would-be assassins who she considers her friends. An interesting observation in this film is that while McPherson is in love with her, we are left in the dark about Laura’s feelings for him. This is the only movie out of the three where we are left wondering if they do get together or not. This suspense adds to the tension of the film.
It is safe to categorize; Laura, along with Rebecca, as a romance and mystery film: “The fundamental principle of the mystery story is the investigation and discovery of hidden secrets, the discovery usually leading to some benefit for the character(s) with whom the reader identifies” (Cawelti42). In other words, films should not be taken for granted in the simplicity of being thrown into genres, as in the film noir. Films have sub-themes in them, as in the mystery or romance story. Classic examples are The Maltese Falcon, Laura and Rebecca. While these films are categorized in the film noir genre, they are stories about love and mystery. We have thus far discussed the femme fatales of three films and their ability, as catalysts, to move the story forward using their sexuality to achieve their goals and almost single-handedly cause the downfall of the anti-heroes. And like the men in these films, the audience, too, has been reeled in by the femme fatales, through their beauty and sexuality, into a world of deceit and murder.
In a discussion on the characteristics of the femme fatale, Laura Mulvey points out not only the male character’s obsession with her, but the audience’s infatuation, as well:
Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen. For instance, the device of the showgirl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis. A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude. For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no-man’s-land outside its own time and space. (488)
In other words, the femme fatale’s power is no longer applicable only to the male characters of the story, but also to the readers/audience who are held powerless by her. No doubt that a portion of our attraction to these women involves not only their sexuality or beauty, but also the power they possess. Luckily in Laura, we have a physical portrait as a frame of reference: “Traditionally the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium…” (Mulvey488). Even the absence of the femme fatale in Rebecca did not prevent the audience from envisioning the embodiment of the femme fatale and still be captivated by her beauty all based on the opinion of the other characters in the film.
Having discussed how these three femme fatales are described as sexually potent, it should be noted that this power comes at the cost of another’s happiness or life, as when Ms. O’Shaunessy’s web of lies begin to reveal themselves to Spade after his partner’s murder; Rebecca’s true character is brought to light after the discovery of her body by a drifter; and Laura’s innocence is clouded by the idea that she used her sexuality to boost her career.
Incapable of loving, though she claims to love, the femme fatale rebels against conventional norms; she: “refuses to play the role of the devoted wife and loving mother that mainstreams society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence” (Blaser1). The femme fatale prefers to exploit her position as a sexual object, therefore becoming an object of desire.
Whether she is bad or good, the film noir genre would definitely be weakened should the femme fatale be absent from the story. She is a key element in that genre. Without her, the story would be merely a tale about a detective agency, a spurned ex-husband, or a lonely outcast. The femme fatale would not be the femme fatale if she did not use her sexuality to get what she wants or desire. This use of sexual power is what defines her.
The Maltese Falcon, Laura, and Rebecca are not the only film noir movies in existence. While they fit in the same genres and have femme fatales in common, they differ in that in Rebecca, De Winter loses his mansion, and he and his wife are forever on the run from a ghost. For Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, there is a dark form of justice. He gains his morality, while around him everything else is lost. And for Laura, the element of uncertainty is a classic British literary technique; they don’t need happy endings like Americans do. In other words what sets this genre apart in American filmmaking is the lack of a specifically happy ending.
Blaser, John. No Place for a Woman: The Femme Fatale. April 1999. Berkeley University. 23 Oct. 2007 <http:www.lib.berkeley/MRC/noir/np05ff.html>.
Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. NY: Avon Books. 1971.
Laura. Vera Caspary. Dir. Otto Preminger. Perf. Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb. 1944. DVD. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 2006.
Marling, William. Hard-Boiled Fiction. June 2007. Case Western Reserve University. 7 Dec. 2007 <http://www.case.edu/artsci/engl/marling/hardboiled>.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Framework, 1981. London: MacMillam, 1989. 483-494.
Snyder, Scott. Personality Disorder and the Film Noir Femme Fatale. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 8:3 (2001) 155-168.
Stam, Robert. Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett. Dir. John Huston. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, and Mary Astor, 1941. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2000.
Walker, Deborah. Re-reading the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: an evolutionary perspective. Univ. of Auckland. 15 Oct. 2007, 1-25.