From her first appearance in The Maltese Falcon (1941), inhabiting the role of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Mary Astor establishes herself as an iconic emblem of film noir, the “femme fatale.” As if in warning, a secretary heralds her entrance by assuring the detective, Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, “You’ll want to see her anyway. She’s a knockout.”
Introduced first as the innocent and nervous Miss Wonderly, Brigid begs Spade for help finding her missing sister. She is a damsel in distress through and through — with innocent charm, beguiling beauty, and highly fashion-conscious. As classy as she is convincing, she spins a web of lies that becomes increasingly tangled throughout the course of the film.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy is the original femme fatale, a drama queen with ulterior motives. She designs her every move and likely her appearance for theatrical effect. Fulfilling the anti-fantasy of the femme fatale story arc, her true motivations are revealed only after she has Spade under her spell.
Brigid is impeccably dressed, the picture of tidy 1940’s glamour — hair in finger-waves, draped in furs, wrist-length gloves, pencil skirts, and fascinator caps. Long lines and lean silhouettes hug her curves; there is no denying her sex appeal. The first time we see her she is striking in a sharp-lined, high-contrast, two-toned skirt suit with dark gloves. She wears a pillbox hat with netting that falls seductively, like a dark veil, slanted across her face. Like the sirens of myth, her beauty and raw femininity attract her victims. Her attire foreshadows the hidden deceit and danger she will bring.
Throughout this classic black and white film, director John Marcellus Huston uses light and shadow to create a shady, ominous underworld with high-contrast visuals, which Astor illuminates as the belle of the noir ball. Supposedly, Huston instructed Mary Astor to run around set before every scene in order to give her an anxious, breathless appearance. In one scene she is stripped down to her pin-striped robe. Here, she comes across as pure and fragile, disarmingly simple yet utterly chic. She pleads with Spade for his help, gets up, and puts on a dramatic display of choreographed busyness.
Sam sees through her. “Oh, you’re good. You’re very good”, he says smiling in knowing delight at her deliberately constructed lies and theatrics. Spade grins at her devilishly, pointing out what a fantastic liar she is, impressed in a sense and taking joy in revealing her game. In this moment, she seems to crumble and admits that her fragility is an act — which begs the question, at what point does the act stop? Is this seeming vulnerability a manipulation too?
The stunning impact of her streamlined, clean-cut glamour pierces through The Maltese Falcon in all its shadowy drama. The film is crisp and elegant, an aesthetic which is mirrored succinctly in the costuming.
The word femme fatale literally translates to “deadly woman” in French. She is an anti-heroine, a seductive, mysterious beauty who uses her feminine allure to manipulate men into doing her bidding, ensnaring them into compromising or deadly situations.
As a femme fatale, Brigid ultimately fails in the same breath as she succeeds. She becomes caught in her own web — trapped by the very persona she, herself, devised. But it is precisely this reveal (and the subsequent panic that unfolds) that makes Brigid so fascinating. One lie begets another and another and another and so on. Her glamour and sophistication are essential to her mission. And, despite all obstacles, she remains a stylish and enticing vixen to the end.