Case Study 1: Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Farewell, My Lovely (1975) directed by Dick Richards is a film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 crime novel by the same name. Raymond Chandler wrote many crime novels that were adapted into film noir and neo-noir films, including The Big Sleep (1946.) This film, as with many other Chandler stories, features Private Investigator Philip Marlowe. Part of the neo-noir genre of the 1960s-1970s, this film is an homage to the traditional film noir of the 1940s.

The femme fatale of this story is Helen Grayle, the wife of a wealthy judge. Grayle, played by white actress Charlotte Rampling, is not the main character of this film but seems to be the key driving force for most of the crime committed in the film. In my dataset I identified how she committed fraud as she lied about her identity. She used to be a prostitute called Velma but became Helen in an attempt to marry rich. She conspires with one of her lovers, Laird Brunette, to have all the people who know her true identity murdered. We learn at the end of the film that, when she was Velma, she helped her boyfriend Moose commit robbery. Finally, as well as the other murders she is responsible for, at the end of the film we see her kill her old boyfriend Moose and attempt to kill Philip Marlowe. In order to keep her identity hidden, she lies to those around her, especially Marlowe, when she seduces him to get him to help find her friend’s murderer – even though she orchestrated the murder herself. She commits murder at the end of the film with a gun. I identified that she was motivated to commit all of this crime for money, as she had committed theft in the past and hid her identity in order to marry rich. I also observed that she committed her crimes because of her romantic/sexual relationship with her lover Brunette, with whom she planned to run away with at the end.

Grayle’s criminal behavior centers around the fact that she has a double identity. She was a prostitute but hid this by presenting herself as a well-to-do high-class woman married to an important man. Interestingly, sexual promiscuity – a trait one is more likely to attribute to a prostitute – is still a central feature of her high-class life as Helen Grayle. When we first meet Grayle she is atop the staircase of her large house. She wears a red dress, greets Philip Marlowe and then seductively walks down the stairs. As well as drawing the viewer to the sexuality of this character, this meeting is also an homage to the introduction of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944).  Phyliss Dietrichson is an original and classic femme fatale from one of the most famous film noir films. By associating Grayle with Dietrichson during this seductive scene, it is clear that the director Dick Richards is presenting Grayle as the femme fatale of the film. After this scene, Grayle leads Marlowe to meet her husband. Marlowe narrates this scene as the camera follows the back of Grayle’s body. He says, “her hair was the color of gold and old paintings. She had a full set of curves that nobody had been able to improve on. She gave me a look which I could feel in my hip pocket.” From the moment we meet Grayle it is clear that this woman is defined by her sexuality and seductive presence.

Grayle seduces private investigator Philip Marlowe, despite being in cahoots with her lover Brunette to commit crime. They organize the murder of anyone who knows the truth of her prostitute past. She kisses Marlowe just moments after meeting him, even as her husband watches. Her promiscuity seems to know no bounds, and she is unphased by her husband knowing about her adultery. Marlowe and Grayle continue this affair later in the film and we eventually also learn about her romantic relationship with her co-conspirator Laird Brunette. Ultimately, Grayle is defined by her sexuality, either through her past as a prostitute and her current life as a wife with several lovers, and as a criminal because, by the end of the film, it is revealed that she was the mastermind behind the majority of the crime committed throughout the film. 

Even though it is revealed at the end that Grayle was the mastermind of the film, she is not the main character. Furthermore, we do not meet her character until 41 minutes into the film and, overall, Grayle gets approximately 11 minutes of screen time. I would argue that this is indicative of the marginal role criminal women are given in society. This film was released in 1975, which was four years after Nixon’s announcement of the war on drugs in 1971. We know from the scholarly work explored earlier in this project that the war on drugs was a catalyst for the increased involvement of women in the US criminal justice system. Hence it is reasonable to argue that by 1975, the US started to see more criminal women enter their prisons and jails. Nevertheless, while Helen Grayle is hardly featured on screen, the blame for the crimes committed in the film is heaped on her.

From the scholarly work I have compiled about female criminality and the demographics of women in the criminal justice system, it is clear that a high percentage of crimes committed by women are non-violent drug and property offenses. This not the case with Grayle as she is shown as a violent woman who kills to protect herself. Further, many incarcerated women come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, often committing crime as a form of survival or out of necessity. Grayle’s wealth – or rather, her husband’s wealth – showcased when we first meet her, indicates that she comes from a wealthy socio-economic background. This is shown through the large house in which she lives, the expensive interior décor of her house, the fancy party she attends and her husband’s high-ranking job.  However, by the end of the film we learn that this has not always been her life. Grayle was initially a prostitute, implying that she came from a low socio-economic background, as sex work is often undertaken as a necessity for individuals with limited resources and options. Further, it is revealed towards the end of the film that Grayle adopted the identity of ‘Helen’ rather than Velma, so that it would be acceptable for her to marry an important public figure (a judge). Marlowe reveals that the judge would not have married her if he knew the truth about her prostitution. The clash between these socio-economic backgrounds is Grayle’s driving force for organizing the murder of those who knew the truth about her original identity.

It was my initial reaction to say that the presentation of female criminality through Grayle’s character was at odds with the realities of patterns of female criminality. She is a wealthy white woman who killed people to protect her status, which is unlike the women who enter the system for non-violent drug or property crimes through specific gendered pathways and who were made vulnerable by many contributing factors, such as abuse. Perhaps if this film explored Grayle’s life as a prostitute and how she committed crime in order to survive, then this presentation would seem more accurate on the surface level as we could label Grayle as a ‘street woman’ according to Kathleen Daly’s gendered pathways approach. However, we do not know much about Grayle’s family or childhood background. We do not know if she suffered abuse as a child and was forced into prostitution because she fled her home, thus making her experiences more like those of other so-called ‘street women.’ As a result, on the surface, this film does not accurately portray female criminality through the femme fatale.

However, I am inclined to argue that it is accurate in some respect. Grayle’s character is not straightforward. She is presented to us in the film as high-class and as using her sexuality to control the men around her, especially Marlowe, so that she can keep her wealth and high status. However, we also know that she previously used her sexuality in a way that placed her in a more vulnerable position. One could argue that she commits the criminal and villainous acts in order to protect herself from ‘falling from grace’ and becoming a vulnerable prostitute again.

This interpretation of Grayle’s character identifies how she simultaneously does and does not conform to Messerschmidt’s situated action theory. Yes, Grayle does enact gender through her crimes as her sexual and romantic relationships with the men in the film are central to how and why she commits the crime. However, a deeper reading of her character identifies how she conforms more to Miller’s understanding of crime and gender. Grayle is vulnerable because of her gender and sexuality, and she commits crime to protect the perilous social position she is in as a result of her gender and sexuality. If Grayle lived in a world where she could legitimately earn her own money, protect and fend for herself, and not be judged or made vulnerable because of her involvement in prostitution, perhaps she would not have done what she did. Applying Messerschmidt’s theory to Grayle simplifies her character too much and does not let the viewer understand how her social position, in many ways, justifies and explains her motivation to commit crime. Nevertheless, on the surface Grayle is ultimately presented as the evil force of this film and, as in the tradition film noir, must die in order to restore balance to the world of the film.


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