Did you wish you had an encyclopedia filled with biographies of all the excellent femme fatales who made their mark during the film noir period? Look no further than Karen Burroughs Hannsberry’s fabulous two-volume series Femme Noir: Bad Girls on Film. This 643 page compendium, split into two volumes, focuses on every woman who worked in film noir, whether they appeared in one film or one-hundred. With interesting backstory provided on each actress, and copious research throughout, Femme Noir is a superlative read for true fans of classic film in general, and film noir in particular.
Hannsberry takes on quite the undertaking in providing forty-nine mini-biographies of the ladies of film noir. I sit in awe of what Hannsberry’s accomplished because none of the biographies feel underwritten or content to regurgitate old material. I was fascinated to discover additional factoids about Veronica Lake, considering how hard information is to find on her. The author certainly understands what makes these ladies so fascinating and she goes in-depth into, not just exploring the roles but their lives, from their personal relationships, to how they got started in the genre. Not every actress described led a Hollywood life, either before or after. Stars like Virginia Huston vanished into the ether after their time was done, while others like Ava Gardner (who is pictured on the cover) went on to have A-list careers. For a few, like Gene Tierney, film noir was a stepping stone to an accomplished and diverse career in other genres.
Included with each mini-biography is a synopsis and brief analysis of the characters and films each actress was in. It does become a problem if you’re reading this book in order, all at once. While Hannsberry does vary the wording and description of films, if two actresses were in the same film, reading the same plot summary can become tiresome. Towards the end of the book, if you find yourself seeing the same titles, you can easily gloss over the plot descriptions. It’s here that Femme Noir works best as an encyclopedia where you can read only the actress you want to. I believe that does a disservice to the book, though, because there’s such a broad spectrum of actresses represented; not just classic beauties like Tierney, but strong B-movie Queens like Marie Windsor, Audrey Totter, and unconventional beauties like Signe Hasso. Each actress is written about with respect, and always with an eye towards showing her contribution to the film noir movement. Since each bio runs about six or so pages, there’s no room for fat, so gone is the filler and salacious details. Remember, this is not a full biography of several actresses. If you want an in-depth look at a particular star, consider buying a biography specifically about them.
The bios also include two beautiful photos per piece, and is just wonderfully presented as a whole. For those who don’t know, Karen Hannsberry is the editor of the fantastic newsletter The Dark Pages which is a film noir resource for all fans of the genre. She isn’t an author writing on a whim, but possessing in-depth knowledge and a genuine interest in the topic. I’m planning on using this as a future resource for any and all film noir needs, and I recommend you do, as well.
Interested in purchasing today’s book, you can do so here:
http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4682-7 or by calling (800) 253-2187
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.