Film noir can be an unforgiving genre, populated with female characters who are either one-dimensional femme fatales or mere appendices in the cat-and-mouse private-detective chases.

But then there’s another breed of film noir women: Beautiful and brainy, challenging, outspoken and cunning, they go far beyond the routine and limited choices offered to women in Hollywood.

Many of these roles are a combination of great acting and writing. Some of them come from adaptations of work written by women (as is the case with In a Lonely Place, adapted from the eponymous noir novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, which we highly recommend).

We have picked but an initial list of our favorite film noir heroines. Some of these are supporting roles, or even cameos, but we assumed that no role is too small, as long as it is distinguished:

Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat

Grahame in noir The Big Heat

Grahame in The Big Heat

Peggy Cummins in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy

Cummins in noir Gun Crazy

Cummins in Gun Crazy

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity

Cummins in noir Gun Crazy

Cummins in Gun Crazy

Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place

Grahame in noir In a Lonely Place

Grahame in In a Lonely Place

 

Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep

Bacall in noir The Big Sleep

Bacall in The Big Sleep

 

Ann Savage as Vera in Edgar H. Ulmer’s Detour

Savage in noir Detour

Savage in Detour

Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers

Gardner in noir The Killers

Gardner in The Killers

 

Susan Harrison as Susan Hunsecker in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success

Harrison in noir Sweet Smell of Success

Harrison in Sweet Smell of Success

 

Cloris Leachman in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Leachmann in noir Kiss Me Deadly

Leachmann in Kiss Me Deadly

 

Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing

Windsor in noir The Killing

Windsor in The Killing

Coleen Gray as Fay in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing

Gray in noir The Killing

Gray in The Killing

Caprice Toriel (supporting role) in Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract

Toriel in Murder by Contract

Toriel in noir Murder by Contract

Frances Osborne as Miss Wiley (cameo) in Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract

Osborne in Murder by Contract

Osborne in noir Murder by Contract

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