French film scholar Jean Loup Bourget once dubbed Joan Crawford “the face of melodrama.” It’s the face of her films for Warner Bros., beginning with Mildred Pierce in 1945 and concluding with This Woman Is Dangerous in 1951. Middle-aged by this time, Crawford sported the dark eyebrows, big eyes, strong jawline, and prominent mouth that most viewers associate with her.
I like Crawford’s characters from the post-war era, because they are good examples of what historian Molly Haskell called “the Treacherous Woman,” an archetype prominent during this period. Inspired by the femme fatales of film noir but not cruel or hardened, treacherous females can be found in a variety of genres, including adventure films, urban crime stories, and westerns, but they flourished in 1940s melodramas.
Treacherous women tend to be tough on the outside but remain soft on the inside, giving them that worldly appeal. Most are intensely passionate, which causes them to make mistakes in romance, often with dire consequences. Some are tainted by their experiences in a morally ambiguous world. While they themselves are not evil, they inspire evil in men. Treacherous women tend to come from the wrong side of the tracks, and they know all too well where those tracks lead—to the wrong side of the law.