With her iconic smoky voice and signature sultry “look”, Lauren Bacall is often remembered as Old Hollywood’s ultimate femme fatale. From the moment she first entered the big screen, and delivered the line ‘anybody got a match?’ (To Have and Have Not, 1944) Bacall established herself as the anti-ingenue; strong, intelligent and opposite to the naïve woman typically celebrated in 1940s film. Mysterious, seductive female characters have been repeatedly demonised throughout the history of storytelling. Threatening the traditional perception of the ideal, passive woman, with their awareness of their own sexuality, femme fatales are usually represented as dangerous. Often in Old Hollywood, the femme fatale, and female sexuality itself, existed to be punished. This, however, was not the case for Lauren Bacall. Turning the era’s censorship laws on their head, Bacall presented female audiences with someone they could identify with: a knows-what-she-wants girl who could express her sexuality without being labelled a villain.
In trying to write a female character who would fit the traditional framework of 20th century film, filmmakers ironically created a character woman, who many gravitated towards due to her subversive edge. As the Hays Code prevented the explicit depiction of sex or violent crime, Bacall’s characters were never ultimately antagonistic. Instead, she ends up in a happy relationship by the end. Her first film role was Slim in To Have and Have Not, best known for the electric chemistry between Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. The pair had a famous offscreen affair and later married. Slim’s line “you know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?” would forever define Bacall’s career. Everything from Bacall’s glamorous clothes, to her low voice, and the mystery surrounding her character’s motives, establish Slim as an archetypal femme fatale. However, her character’s moral innocence quickly becomes apparent, meaning she can be paired with Bogart’s character by the end.
This subversion of the corrupt femme fatale contrasts Pre-Code femme fatales, such as Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930), a character eventually revealed to be a deceitful seductress. Parallels between Bacall’s Slim and Dietrich’s Lola Lola include the actresses’ distinctive low voices, flirtatious dialogue, and scenes wherein both characters sing love songs with their male love interest in the audience. Yet, despite these similarities, the endings are polar opposites; Slim and Steve are happily in love, while Lola ruins her husband’s life. Lola is condemned for being sexually manipulative, whereas To Have and Have Not, wanting to remain somewhat conservative, doesn’t delve into this topic. Instead, it represents Slim as honest, despite her introduction as potentially untrustworthy. This dynamic allows Bacall to play a more realistic, hard-hitting character, albeit in a more traditional narrative.
Vivian in The Big Sleep (1946) remains the Bacall role most frequently identified as a femme fatale. Bogart and Bacall’s characters initially don’t like each other and there are hints that Vivian is involved in a murder. This potential immorality is paired with Bogart and Bacall’s famous innuendo-filled dialogue, featuring euphemistic ‘racehorse’ metaphors. In response to Philip’s (Bogart’s) question about what makes her ‘run’, Vivian cheekily responds ‘a lot depends on who’s in the saddle.’ Vivian automatically registers as a femme fatale, both sexual and dangerous. Yet again, the Hays Code ironically gives this character a subversive edge, as she is revealed to be morally good by the end. ‘In the original novel, Lauren Bacall’s character was an accessory to murder, but the filmmakers wanted to make her a good guy for the film, so that she could get together with Bogart’s character… thereby capitalising on the public’s obsession with their real-life marriage. But since the Hays Code forbade good guys from committing crimes, the filmmakers… changed the identity of the killer, so that Bacall’s character was no longer an accessory to murder.’ (Cold Crash Pictures) She doesn’t ruin Philip’s life, or become stereotypically violent or obsessive, giving Bacall the opportunity to create a far stronger character.
Slim and Vivian feel wildly different to more recent femme fatales. Lauren Bacall’s early career seems to exist in an entirely different world to that of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992) or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987). With the Hays Code gone, and attitudes towards sex completely changed, femme fatales could be explicitly sexually manipulative, without filmmakers worrying about offending viewers. This, despite the comparatively progressive ideology of the late-20th century, resulted in narratives more overtly misogynistic. When looked at critically, Alex (Fatal Attraction) is a mentally unwell woman, condemned and “othered” because she challenges the family structure. Glenn Close told the NY Times that ‘she’s considered evil more than a person who needs help, which astounds me.’ Slim and Vivian, like Alex, are single women who live outside of convention, and yet it’s these characters from the 1940s who find happiness — who the narrative allows to be happy. Despite being from an infinitely more misogynistic era, Lauren Bacall’s early roles feel more human, and far more liberating to watch, than later versions of the trope.
Bacall shaped the femme fatale archetype without fully conforming to it, and, while limited by the mass film industry in many ways, took some of the earliest steps towards normalising female characters who don’t want to perform purity for social acceptance. In her 1978 autobiography By Myself, she wrote: “I’m not ashamed of what I am—of how I pass through this life. What I am has given me the strength to do it.” Like the women she played, Bacall celebrated strength and living without shame — the normalisation of true character. There have been fewer incarnations of the femme fatale in recent years, perhaps due to audiences rightfully criticising the demonisation of female sexuality. But if any actress played a femme fatale that feminist audiences can root for and laugh with, it was Lauren.
– Sylvie Lewis
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