Saturday, June 8, 2013
YEAR 1930: BRIGID O'SHAUGHNESSY
This is the first entry I've included purely for historical reasons, as I don't think the character rates very high as a "femme formidable."
The reader learns very little about this early "femme fatale" in Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel THE MALTESE FALCON. It's suggested that "Brigid" is no more her real name than the first alias she gives detective Sam Spade when she seeks to involve him in her scheme to sell the priceless Maltese Falcon to the venal Caspar Gutman.
As described on the page by Hammett, Brigid doesn't seem like the brightest bulb in the socket. Spade constantly rags on her for being incompetent at her scams and for foolishly plying her "defenseless female" wiles on him. Implicitly her beauty does seduce Spade to some extent, though he fights it all the way, and the story ends with his refusal to cover for her one deadly crime: that of shooting Spade's detective-agency partner. But Hammett makes even her act of murder sound like that of an incompetent.
It's purely thanks to Brigid's subsequent cinematic incarnations in 1931, 1936 and 1941 that she earns a place of distinction here. And at that, it's really the 1941 film that cemented Brigid's reputation as a quintessential "femme fatale." To be sure, Brigid doesn't do anything more than she does in the novel, or in the 1931 version. (The 1936 version did not use Brigid's name and rewrote her character substantially.) But Mary Astor's performance does give Brigid a subtler dimension than she has in the book; she seems a little more than just a blunderer trying to get by on her looks.
Prior to FALCON, Hammett portrayed a much more energetic female character, Dinah Brand, in his novel RED HARVEST, first serialized in a 1927 issue of BLACK MASK. However, though she was mentally tougher than many of the novel's male characters, Brand does not meet my criteria for a "femme formidable."