In Their Own Words
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
Peggy Cummins in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy
Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity
Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place
Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep
Ann Savage as Vera in Edgar H. Ulmer’s Detour
Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers
Susan Harrison as Susan Hunsecker in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success
Cloris Leachman in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing
Coleen Gray as Fay in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing
Caprice Toriel (supporting role) in Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract
Frances Osborne as Miss Wiley (cameo) in Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract