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Femme Fatale or Sexual Object?
—An examination of female roles in early espionage films

In shaping the concept on a particular object, society’s conventions usually influences perception and how these perceptions are woven into a total picture and possibly how meaning is encoded by a particular culture are shaped by how these conventions are formed.  In such a view, we can view an art work or artifact or any cultural product as therefore colored by perceptions which to a great degree shaped by conventions.

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Social power is one such subject matter which has since people philosophize or try to discover the laws of nature, social power or being able to shape the very relationships of people caught up in a particular situation. But what is social power? Its all about structures said Marx and Webber – classes and social stratifications shaping the roles allocating these roles to individuals born into a particular society or culture. This may be true but still, it may be more important to look inward and direct the energy of thinking to the person behind the image in for example films, a techno-artefact combining visuals and audio. The technological breakthrough in film making reflects not only the development of movies but the techno-system of the culture which produced and conceived films.

Invariably, the biases and the no-nos in society would be transcribed either explicitly in dialogues or implied by actions or behavior of the characters on screen. Looking at films is whole experience and by conventions has a start and an ending, has a plot, theme, atmosphere, dialogues conveys the message to the audience. Here we are confronted by just how we are going to go about giving meaning attribution to capture how such messages are embedded but at what level it is received – the cultural makeup of individual. And here we see that an individual does not really just digest information, it has to go through the process of cognition, a rearrangement but on an individual’s term, through which he/she forms a view.

By giving focus to the audience,  the individual we might be able to understand more deeply the film on the level of how the audience receive, recognize and use such mass of streaming audio-visual information delivered through a big screen or big format or through DVDs and VCDs and the Internet. We are not simply viewing a film, we are viewing its context as well. Here, breaking the film into its elements is helpful in determining how social conventions through embedded messages.

The most important elements use as way of creating meaning or message in a film are the one, the use of camera – through the eyes of the cinematographer. The use camera is how the film makers portray the characters. This includes the camera angles, lens, length of the takes, make ups and different editing style.

Two, use of space.  Analyzing the mise-en-scene is always one of the most important approaches to discover the implication or the purpose of the film makers. Here, how the film objects are cramped or given importance in the screen is almost subliminal in putting one and one together to form a composite whole. Similar to what Foucault terms as “reconstructions.”

The dialogues perhaps, showed more clearly in words what the film is all about and why the characterization and why that twists and turns towards the ending. Inevitably, social relations defined by conventions could be deduced from the dialogues literature do tend to mirror the social psyche. And social relationships are more often than not a tale of power.

The plot is important also important factor but could be taken as secondary in the evaluation of power relationships. The story line does not really matter, it is the assignation of roles which defines the plot.

The two films being evaluated in this paper represents particular genre, that is espionage. Espionage gained popularity maybe because the world has been embroiled in wars for so long that a collection of tales of spying or the dark world of the “agents” and “double agents” came into being in the popular culture across generations.

The way of looking at cultural works in terms of genre maybe superficial but nonetheless important not in gaining meaning or anything but in classifying the elements, treatments and etc. hence guides to possible trends in depicting certain realities. As Chandler contended: “It is seldom hard to find texts which are exceptions to any given definition of a particular genre. There are no ‘rigid rules of inclusion and exclusion’ (Gledhill 1985, 60). ‘Genres… are not discrete systems, consisting of a fixed number of listable items’ (ibid., 64) (Chandler, 2006).  www.aber.ac.uk_media_Documents_Intgenre_intgenre.pdf)

“Notorious” Just what is notoriety? Is it gender based?

“Notorious”, a film in 1946 directed by Alfred Hitchcock and was written by Ben Hecht. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a daughter of a German-American was imprisoned for the accusation of being a traitor to Germany during the Second World War. This changed her into an alcoholic who flirts with different men. That was her life, basically senseless until an agent, Devlin (Cary Grant), asked her for an assistance to spy on some German acquaintances of his father residing in Rio de Janeiro where she agreed.

The plot is simple, appealing to nationalism and all that though the focus is not the why’s of the war (it was assumed a just cause). Hence, our heroine, as the orders were given, she infiltrated the house of the Nazi leader, Alexander Sebastians (Claude Rains) where she made love with him. Devlin had given her order to marry Sebastian despite their love for each other. Due to the leakage of information from Sebastian had shared with Alicia, he (Sebastian) and his mother planned to silence her by putting poison on her coffee to prevent her exposure to the other Nazi which eventually led to end of her life. Her involvement with war and all its dark elements ultimately led to Alicia getting killed.

Ingrid Bergman, the lead actress, suits the common notion of a female fatale for this role. Lovely, beautiful, and sexy, she is the type of which no one will take suspicions about being a spy for someone.

Alicia Huberman, as a woman, was courageous and lovely in her appearance. A woman like Alicia who can be branded as a femme fatale or “deadly woman” is beautiful, charming and sexually attractive to men. Usually, when the target individual is a male, a female spy is usually employed. As seen in this film, one way of which a woman of this kind gets her desired information by all means or so called “spy” over someone or a group is to have sexual relationship with the target individual or person. This is a method of spying because woman, in general, lacks physical strength to overcome men by their will. It is also a common notion that in doing this method leaves men in the state of helplessness relying on the fulfillment of sexual needs in which a female spy takes an advantage over. It is sometimes inevitable for someone to think or to be cautious over something in front of a basic need. This makes the target individual, as of this case is a male, to take for granted any consequences of his actions to be taken unless his needs must be met. Only after fulfilling such needs like sexual deeds can make him think over the possible consequences of his previous actions. This is the common notion for a female fatale.

 The portrayal of women as a “femme fatale” as indicated in this film really endows them as sex objects for the audiences for the satisfaction of their needs. This makes a film more appealing to them.

Also, in this espionage film, the social ruling can be seen between man and women. These films are only meant to appeal male audiences especially and for women, just to accept it with no further questioning on the matter.

The level of staging, lighting, cutting and framing on the first scene of Alicia’s apartment creates a sensation of oneness of two lovers. Although the first scenes was actually took only three shots. The first two shots were only taken from the apartment to the balcony. The third shot, taken for more than two minutes, gave the scene of the two lovers, Alicia and Devlin, in passionate talking and kissing. The third shot took the camera at the twosome right in close, focusing on their heads for the whole time. The camera in this shot allows one to be the third party viewing the scene.

      In another scene, approximately an hour in the plot, the camera created dissymmetry between the two characters. The image of Alicia drinking behind the curtains suggested an idea that a misunderstanding was going on between the two. The technique of two shots to volley of single shots was employed so as to infer distances.

However, it can be readily be deduced from the film that the female character, Alicia has really nothing to do with the word “female fatale”. Her situation can be seen as an “imprisonment” on the hands of a man like Devlin which made her suffer her life more.

      She threw herself to her man, Devlin. It can be seen that she had a bit of belief for masochist or the patriarchal ruling in the society.

      In this film, the camera encourages viewers as to view the movie in the standpoint of a man and for the woman, the object of sexual desire, as an exhibitionist. The man’s view of point is about controlling and possessing while for the women, it is about knowing and accepting. It can be regarded that a female’s viewpoint on a camera is passive as that of the man’s viewpoint which is referred to as active as the film infers. The film requires a woman for a man to exercise his patriarchal power.

The role that Alicia played along the story is not the same as that of Mata Hari but as a woman being used by a man. The harsh treatment she received from Devlin indicated these actions as infer by their dialogue in one of their scenes when Devlin bullied her to steal a key from her husband, Alex Sebastian, “Did you get it off his chain?”, after which then he pushed her to do the task. The duplicity of her character was not easily seen by Alex who loved her more than Devlin.

The espionage of the two, Alicia and Devlin, was actually a sacrifice for Alicia hoping that this would clear her past for Devlin. The subject character, Alicia as can be seen from the movie is the masochistically type that will suffer for the object which is Devlin.

It was only Devlin who made Alicia pay a penance as Mata Hari in the story. The job that Alicia had done for the agency as a spy on the Nazis was her only way to uplift her spirit by hoping that it would readily clear her from the gloomy past of her father’s accusation of treason as well as to present herself to Devlin whom she love him much.

North by Northwest: Which direction?

Film Noir which literally means dark cinema is a short-lived type of movie that shows off vast amount of masculinity. It is a type of film that can only be classified by the mood, style and tone it contains. It refers to a significant period in the history of films. It is in the fashion of old American films that first started in the 1940’s that was very prominent in the after-war era  until the “Golden Age” period around 1960. It is a film art that can be defined as expressionism, usually contains dark art. Because film noir was born after World War II, it is usually in the tones of anxiety, pessimism and distrust though one emotion that really stands out is fear. (Horsley, 2002 )

It is often about detectives, crimes and fear, deceit and betrayal. . Women are often portrayed to be alluring and beautiful, always an object of contempt. Men are often portrayed as powerful and easily tempted. It tackles the idea of lust and murder. The audience is always kept guessing as the movie progresses. Who is betraying whom and trying to figure out what will happen next. In Film Noir movies, the word innocent does not exist. Murder is just a game and it was the perfect   reenactment for the people of its time.  (Mills, 1999)

Everything in the films are symbolic; shadows, smoke and basically just everything. In the Noir films, it is highly noticeable that they are all smoking. This is because smoking was actually a status symbol at the time and booze represents irresponsible actions. Windows are also very much a part of Noir films because they are said to be a symbol of looking into something and taking an outside view of ourselves.

In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock made a film about a cat-and-mouse chase involving a sleek businessman in a case of mistaken identity. North by Northwest is a film depicting Cary Grant, as Roger Thornhill, the businessman mistaken as the Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) agent George Kaplan. Grant gets kidnapped and his captors, Vandamm (played by James Mason), and his associate, Leonard. (Martin Landau). Mason, playing the foreign spy Vandamm, does not believe Grant’s pleas that he was a businessman mistaken for George Kaplan and he does not have an inkling on what is definitely going on. Vandamm then plans for the death of Thornhill but the plan fails as Thornhill manages to escape. Vandamm manages, however, to pin the death of a United Nations diplomat to Thornhill, and what ensues is the chase of one man against foreign spies, and from the elements of the law. The CIA, however, caught wind of the incident involving the death of the diplomat and the involvement of Thornhill who, they have found out, used the name of George Kaplan to identify himself in the United Nations Headquarters. It appeared in the following sequences that the CIA know of the existence of the name George Kaplan. It was then revealed that there was no person of the name George Kaplan. The “dummy agent” was used by the CIA to mislead the foreign spies and trick them that a certain CIA agent named “George Kaplan” was hot on their trail and that their espionage was of no use for the great agent. The director then announces his decision not to be involve in the chase for Thornhill, as this may lead to Vandamm’s conclusion that Thornhill was indeed a businessman and that he was chasing the wrong guy. Vandamm might also conclude that there really was no person of the name George Kaplan, with this, Vandamm would escape and the CIA’s hard work for chasing Vandamm would be laid to waste. The CIA then decides that they leave Thornhill to use his own resources to save himself as the Agency would not give any help for him. At one point od the sequence, the director of the agency refers to Thornhill as “a stroke of luck upon their fortunes.”

On the other hand, as the police search for Thornhill in the Grand Central Station in New York Thornhill learns that “George Kaplan” has checked out of the hotel and is on the move towards a hotel in Chicago. Thornhill decides to head for Chicago to find out the identity of the mysterious spy and clear his own identity. He bluffs his way past the ticket booth and here he meets the proverbial femme fatale, Eve Kendall (played by Eva Marie Saint). Eve helps Thornhill escape authorithies by misleading them on their chase. After dodging ticket takers, Thornfill found himself seated across the very lady that helped him evade the police: Eve Kendall. What ensues is a sequence full of seduction and attraction, as both Thornhill and Eve find themselves attracted to each other. The following sequences suggest of an illicit affair brewing between the two. Eve then hides Thornhill in her room as the police. Afterwards, a night of seduction is accomplished. Eve’s true motive is revealed as he communicates with Vandamm, revealing her to be a henchman of the foreign spy. Evae receives instructions in the train station as he left Thornhill as he is being questioned by the police. Under the alibi of attempting to contact Kaplan and arrange a meeting for the two men, Eve receives instructions on placing the attempt of Thornhill’s life possible through Leonard. Eve and Thornhill part ways as Thornhill was given the false instructions of the meeting.

The attempt to kill Thornthill fails as he narrowly avoids death by machine-gun fire and pesticide spray from a crop-dusting plain in an open field where he was supposed to meet the agent Kaplan. He manages to make the crop-dusting plane crash to an oil tanker that eventually explodes. The highly-exciting sequence then startles on-lookers and truck drivers that it gave Thornhill the opportunity to jump into one of the trucks and drive back to Chicago.

In Kaplan’s supposed hotel, Thornhill learns of Eve’s treachery through the information on the front desk. He then finds Eva in a gown and follows her to her room for a confrontation. Eva manages to get Thornhill out of her way as she meets Vandamm. Thornhill finds out Eva’s destination through her notepad and tracks her down. He finds Eva in an auction together with Vandamm and his henchman, Leonard. Vandamm and Leonard leaves together with Eva as they block the possible exists of the auction with his henchmen. Thornhill escapes them by attracting crowd attention and getting arrested by the police.

In the police car, Thornhill tells the officers of his identity; that he is Roger O. Thornhill, the alleged murderer of the UN diplomat, and since he is a “madman on the loose”, they should take him to the police headquarters. However, in a sudden turn of events, thornhill finds himself face to face with the Professor, a government agent that informed Thornhill that he has “jeopardized their plans.” He then arranges for Thornhill to fly aboard a plane to South Dakota, where Vandamm is headed to smuggle government microfilms out of the country (and also the place where George Kaplan is supposed to be staying). The Professor also reveals that Eve Kendall is an agent working for the CIA, and that Thornhill’s recent actions have put her in danger. With Eva’s life in danger and a handful of government secrets threatening to be exposed, Thornhill accepts the job.

Thornhill then arranges a meeting between him and Vandamm, who was accompanied by Eve. The meeting goes out of order with Eve firing blanks (without Vandamm knowing it) at Thornhill. Thornhill acts like he was mortally wounded and it appears that he was loaded into a vehicle. Eve and Thornhill meet each other after a while and made-up with each other. The Professor’s plans were then revealed that after locking Thornghill in the hospital, Eve would fly out of the country with Vandamm. Roger confronts the Professor for this but the Professor does not do anything about it. Thornhill manages to escape the hospital and heads out to stop Eve from flying out of the country with Vandamm. Vandamm, however, discovers Eve’s true identity with the help of his henchman, Leonard, and plots to kill her by throwing her out of the plane. Thornhill rescues Eve escapes to the woods, not knowing that it would lead to the cliff of Mount Rushmore. The two barely escaped. The Professor arrives for the capture of Vandamm after his henchman, Leonard gets shot by a policeman. The movie ends with the marriage of Thornhill and Eve, having their honeymoon on a train compartment headed back to New York.

This movie was one of the many movies indicating a lady in her most explosive charms, with intellect and seductive bodies to boot, depicts a woman who uses her beauty and charms to get what she wanted; and in the end, achieve the goals that were devised for her. Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Smith, displays this with brilliance as she depicted her character as the very beautiful spy that worked for the CIA, and was undercover as the mistress of the foreign spy Vandamm. Her stealth allowed her to avoid the detection of Vandamm as an agent and let her into his secrets, feeding the government with the information they needed. This also showed, however, that Eve made use of her body, to achieve her means. She served as a mistress for Vandamm, where the spy had sexual favors, and in exchange, Eve obtained the information that he needed.

The femme fatale persona was also depicted in the scene of the CIA meeting where there appears only one agent in the female gender. This female also appeared to be the one opposed to the decision of the director to leave Thornhill alone, indicating the proverbial emotional weakness of women. This scene also indicated that the women also cannot really assume position of high powers, since the director was a man, and they can only be puppets or tools of the men in power, as she was an agent. On the other hand, Eve’s character was near the position of power since she “abused her body” to achieve the position of power. This also goes to show that although the women are viewed to have power over seduction of men, men viewed them as tools and sexual objects and only use them to achieve ultimately, what the men want. In the realm of film espionage, it has taught spies of male gender that females cannot be trusted since they use the power of seduction to get what they want from men, taking advantage of the call of the flesh and giving in of men to temptation to obtain the necessary information.

The film also talked of the kinds of women that would not be femme fatales. These women are the ones that work loyally to their bosses, mainly men and tend to themevery part of the way. Much like the secretary of Roger Thornhill named Maggie (played by Doreen Land), who, at the beginning of the movie, takes notes from his boss, including the personal notes and sending of a box of candies to his boss’s ex-wife. This shows that a woman of honest stature cannot be seen as a femme fatale. This can also be compared to Mrs. Findlay, the lone CIA agent in the meeting. Although she is in a position of power as that of a CIA agent, she was helpless in her objections that they should help the businessman. These two are parallel characteristics of women that cannot be femme fatales, as to be compared to that of Eve Kendall, who goes her own way just to achieve her objectives. This sole trait can constitute the definition of a femme fatale: a lady using her beauty and charms, and any means possible top achieve the goals that she has set.

Conclusion

Are these beautiful and dangerous women really represented the very idea of femme fatale or patriotism in those early espionage films? I doubt it. In fact, they are rather like sex models who are used to appeal male audiences.

The use of film as medium conveys several layers of meaning as a genre or as formula which has proven attractive to audience, primarily male audience. The films Notorious and North by Northwest could be considered as artifacts which are embedded by meanings or messages.

That the patriarchal view dominated these early films tells us a lot about patriarchy. One way to describe this is it probably a stage of development as what Virginia Woolf  said on why she was a pacifist, she said she did not want to participate in an activity like war which is extension of machismo. And espionage movies are all about power, hero and villains and their women.

Thus, in early espionage films and even in the early history of films, women have been presented to the public as manipulative, deprived sexually or like a “sex kitten”. The society in general during the early years has been unfair to women in such a way that more often than not, they were considered inferior.

In such films such as Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1959), there was according to Stupor  “a lack of sisterhood and films with women interacting with other women in a positive light. In the 1950s, especially, we witnessed an era of “reaffirming male dominance and female subservience; movies showed women as breasts and buttocks, again idealizing women who were ‘pretty, amusing, and childish” (Stupor 2006). An attribute which did not changed but added the dangerous scheming element in noir.

Moreover, in these early films, it has been set that a “femme-fatale’s sexuality is linked with her treachery – noir made sex dangerous. Noir also made danger sexy, as in Gun Crazy, where criminal behavior is a turn-on for a pair of outlaw lover.” (Fireman 2003)

The idea of a femme fatale in the early years is that “she uses her sexuality to manipulate men for her own ends, playing into the myth of woman as a threat to male control of the world and destroyer of male aspiration”. (Fireman 2003) As was the trend, one of the factors why in most of the films, a woman is used to allure the audience is the fact that in the heyday of film-making, most of the producers would think of a good way to attract audiences and viewers, thus the femme fatale.  “Just as noir’s visual style was used to express the anxieties and cynicism of its characters, noir as a movement externalized the mentality of an entire society.” (Fireman, 2003)

As was shown in most Noir type of film, it was as was said in a journal by Richard Armstrong, Lady in the Dark, that the “more thrillingly still is the promise that, when these women smile, they take their men to this place beyond law and order. Kitty’s transparent raincoat, Phyllis’ gold anklet, these are fetishes from another place. Where the Sidewalk Ends, Somewhere in the Night, Abandoned, In a Lonely Place… it is no accident that film noir titles frequently return to this theme of being elsewhere.” (Armstrong 2006)

Most importantly, since women have been considered as avaricious and their opinions were not given much importance way back in the early years of espionage films, they were presented as creatures who just acts on their instincts, and that is to get whatever their heart’s desire by seducing the men blatantly that would aid them in their quest for success and by using an irresistible weapon, their sexuality. Men, on the other hand, even before, were oftentimes depicted as a powerful, opinionated wealthy person. By this kind of representation, it immediately creates an idea that a man is more superior than most and their only weakness, an irresistible seductress that would fulfill their heart’s desire.

The point is, is there a change in depiction of social powers in the media nomenclature? Or what was embedded in the early films became standard formula, a sort of stereotyping catering to audience’s sensibility.  There is an obvious cyclic or reinforcing cycle involved here.  Such films perpetuate social convention or such genre. Although the film makers depict them with more power and secret qualities, their images still cannot escape those stereotypes formed in the patriarchal society and the power relations between men and women still persist.

Work Cited

Heather Fireman, 2003. The Dark Past Keeps Returning: Gender Themes in Neo-Noir. ;http://www.mit.edu/~womens-studies/writingPrize/hf03.html;

Stupor, 2006. Women in Films. ;http://www.geocities.com/albanystudent/wif.html;

Richard Armstrong, Lady in the Dark. November 2006. ;http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue1/armstrongwilder.html;

Abele, Elizabeth. “The Feminine Gaze in Notorious and Paradise Case”.  2006. November 20 2006. ;http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue09/features/femininegaze/text1.htm;.

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