II The Femme Fatale in The Big Sleep
III Carmen and her Ancestors
IV The Femme Fatale in the City
According to Janey Place, “the dark lady, the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in western culture.” She appears in many different forms and many different situations.
In the following, I will have a look at the origins of the femme fatale as she is depicted in The Big Sleep. In the first part of the essay I will concentrate on the main female characters and try to find out who appears as a femme fatale. In the second part I will work out that in forming the character of his femme fatale Raymond Chandler borrowed from a common narrative motif, especially from antique Greek and biblical sources. I will have a look at certain antique stories which I cannot retell here, such as the Greek Medea tale, Homer’s Odyssey, the story of Medusa and the biblical Adam and Eve and Joseph stories.
In the third part of this essay I will have a look at how the femme fatale is set into the city of film noir and how the city again is similar to mythology.
II The Femme Fatale in The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep is Raymond Chandler’s first novel and the film The Big Sleep by Howard Hawks is put in the first period of film noir, “the wartime period, 1941-’46 approximately”. Both the novel and the film stand at the beginning of a development and so they may not have all the characteristic elements of later ones. Especially the motif of the femme fatale is in the film not so strong as in Double Indemnity, for example.
In the following, I would like to focus on the novel mainly, I will only have a look at a few special scenes from the film. In the novel we meet two women we consider to be femme fatales, judging by their outward appearance and their behaviour. This two women are the Sternwood sister, Vivian and Carmen.
Vivian has some certain characteristics of a femme fatale. First of all, she is very beautiful, or, like Chandler puts it, she is “worth a stare”. She is aware of her sexuality and knows how to draw men’s attention to her. The first thing Marlowe notices about her are her legs: “[…] I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond.” This is a hint that Vivian is a femme fatale, for “the femme fatale is characterised by her long, lovely legs”. In many film noirs she is introduced by a shot of her bare legs.
Vivian tries to disturb Marlowe’s investigation, she has no interest in Marlowe finding out what happened to her husband Rusty Regan. She even uses her sexuality to seduce Marlowe, which is a typical move for the beautiful, dangerous femme fatale to make, but he can withstand.
From her appearance and her behaviour Vivian seems to be a femme fatale, but in the end of the novel we learn that she is not, because she lacks one important feature of the femme fatale: She does not do it for herself, but to protect her father from the knowledge that he raised a murderer and Carmen from being imprisoned. In contrast, the femme fatale is egoistic, she wants freedom, wealth and independence and she stops at nothing to achieve this goal.
Carmen is depicted as a femme fatale. She is an ambiguous character: On the one hand she is an innocent child and on the other hand a cold blooded murderer. She has two faces, both represented by a specific behaviour and a specific sound. One face is the face of a child. The characteristic behaviour of this one is the sucking of the thumb, which evokes the association of a baby. Chandler even supports this association by using it as a simile: “She bit it [her thumb] and sucked it slowly, turning it around in her mouth like a baby with a comforter.” The sound that is connected to Carmen’s childish face is the soft, constant giggling. But this face doesn’t seem to be real. Her actions are repeated several times in the novel and always stay the same: it is always the same giggling, always the same sucking on the same thumb. The repetition makes them look like rehearsed actions, it turns the childish face into a mask and Carmen into an actor playing a role.
Carmen’s other face is the face of the “scraped bone look”. The characteristic sound here is the hissing. The use of snake metaphoric implicates the snake as biblical symbol of lie and builds a connection to the original sin and Eve, a kind of prototype for the femme fatale. But it has also another effect: it gives Carmen the characteristics of an animal, which are even reported literally in the scene where Carmen tries to kill Marlowe: “The hissing sound grew louder and her face had the scraped bone look. Aged, deteriorated, become animal, and not a nice animal.”
 Janey Place. „Women in Film Noir“. Women in Film Noir. ed. by Elizabeth Ann Kaplan. Revised and expanded ed. first published 1998. London: British Film Institute, 22000: p. 47.
 Paul Schrader. „Notes on Film Noir“. Film Comment 8,1 (1972): p.11
 Raymond Chandler. The Big Sleep. Stuttgart: Phillipp Reclam jun., 1994: p. 26.
 Ibid. p. 26.
 Place, Women, p.54
 See Winfried Fluck. “‘Powerful, but extremely depressing books’: Raymond Chandlers Romane.” American Studies 23 (1978), pp. 281f.
 See Place, Women, pp. 56f.
 Chandler, Big Sleep, p.8
 Ibid. p. 312.
 Ibid. p.312.