A Femme Fatale or a Victim: Evelyn and Judy in the Movies Chinatown and Vertigo

Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski and Vertigo directed by Alfred Hitchcock have a lot of things in common even though these are two films shot during different time frames. The two main characters in the movies, Jake and Scotty, have fallen in a trap set up by the powerful men in the towns. Although the characteristics of Evelyn and Judy are quite different, they are both victims of their twisted fate even though the can be called femme fatale. In this essay, I am going to examine how the two female figures being considered as femme fatale gradually corrupted their souls by either men around them or the larger backdrops as well as how this corruption eventually brings them to a tragedy ending.

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Jake and Scotty are the women called femme fatale and there are numerous examples in the movies which confirm this fact. Evelyn is an archetype femme fatale who got Jake wrapped around her fingers in most of the time. Madeline, in contrast, is just an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events. Both characters, Jake and Scotty, have fallen in love with the women who initially functioned as a part of the lure of a trap. In Chinatown this woman is Noah Cross’s daughter, Evelyn Cross Mulwray and in Vertigo this woman is Gavin Elster’s wife, Judy, who is earlier introduced as Madeline. In a way, the two female characters can be viewed as women of mystery. Mrs. Mulwray is considered as a mystery woman because she had this unmoral and twisted relationship with her father. For Judy, mystery is expressed in her being an ordinary person who disguised as someone else.

Being familiarized with the stereotype actions of a femme fatale, it leads us to believe that Evelyn must be up to no good. Simultaneously, Evelyn, being a femme fatale, acts completely carefully in every way while secretly taking care of business behind the scenes. In one sense Evelyn Mulwray is a prototypical black spider woman, the fatal figure of film noir who drains man’s strength. For example, in order to avoid Jake go further at detecting Mulwray’s case(especially the real identity of his “lover”), she uses sex to draw Jake to her side and only shares him information that she wants him to know. However, everything comes to a U-turn after Jake and Evelyn’s sex scene. Under her guise of femme fatale, Evelyn Cross Mulwray is actually a victim.

In the beginning of this film, Evelyn slips easily into the role of femme fatale because she always acts like she is hiding something from Jake; and Jake, who makes many misidentifications throughout the movie, is also unable to see Evelyn as the victim that she truly is. At this point, Jake still believes that Evelyn is the murderer. We could easily identify this from Jake’s lines, “But in case you’re interested your husband was murdered…It looks like half the city is trying to cover it all up, which is fine with me. But, Mrs. Mulwray … I still think you’re hiding something.” (Chinatown) Within this moment, the audience is still blinded and unable to sort out what Evelyn is really up to. Thus, the audience is only able to use the previous knowledge presented in the film, as well as familiarity of film noir stereotypes, to formulate an understanding of Evelyn’s actions.

The audience, through Jake’s point of view, is presented with two of Evelyn’s actions. First Evelyn is presented as overwhelmed and lost her control of emotions. The audience and Jake could hear her screaming, but are unable to understand the cause of it. Besides, Evelyn’s following acts is full of ambiguity. For instance, there is a scene where Evelyn gives Katherine some sort of medicine. At this point in the story, we can only think of Katherine’s role as a lover of Mr. Mulwray. As for Jake, as he is tracing Evelyn to the safe house where she hides Katherine. The truth has been brought into daylight: Evelyn was not only uninvolved in her husband’s murder, but was raped by her own father and gave birth to a daughter as a result of the incest. Now, the image of Evelyn as a victim is finally reveled. If Jake is a traditional type of a hero character, he would be able to save Evelyn’s life. However, one could never really blame Jake who failed to do that; he is only another helpless person who is unable to look away at what is already corrupted. Therefore, what really drove Evelyn to her death is Polanski’s ideology of no matter how good a character is or how noble his or her intentions are, it is impossible for them to overcome or even escape the corruption in capitalist society.

Judy Barton, who introduced herself as a simple girl from Salina, Kansas, has been placed in a position that should never exist. Although she was directly involved in a murder, she is actually the victim of both the man who used her and the other man who loved her. The first man, Gavin Elster, lets Judy dress like a woman of high station and pretending as she is Mrs. Elster, which certainly gives her a whole new life experience; but, deep in Judy’s mind she knew that she was complicity to a murder. Gavin Elster’s criminal plan needs Judy play as the role of some sort of “disposables”. If everything ends in Madeline’s “death”, then it would be a happy ending for Judy-she will get paid and get out of this quagmire of crime as soon as possible. However, if Gavin’s plan only twisted the starting point of Judy’s fate, Scotty’s terrible crush on Judy would be responsible for adding fuel to her confusion of her identity as well as accelerating the process to her death. While Judy was waiting to get the all-clear from the fake Madeline suicide event, Scotty was running into her life all again.

This time, Scotty was forcing Judy follow his directions in order to remaking her into the woman that he had lost by modifying and transforming her appearance, clothing, and hairstyle, with her reluctant approval. Inevitably, while Scotty perusing the ghost of the enigmatic beauty, Judy finds out that she was already in love with him and she has no choice but to sacrifice for his demands. We could identify this internal transformation by Judy’s lines: “If, if I let you (Scotty) change it, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?” (Vertigo) From this point, Judy is no longer an outsider in this relationship between Madeline and Scotty; she now stands up as herself to be in love with Scotty. Ironically, Scotty did not see the whole thing in Judy’s way; his eyes were fixed on the fictional Madeline figure. Scotty was so desperate that he put his entire minds on recreating the past. To Scotty, Judy is a character remote from the erotic fantasy of Madeleine, and he has never been really able to “see” her as Judy. Hence, Judy will never really get his love as long as she is Judy not Madeline. At this point, Judy was no longer the master of her fate; she became as the puppet in Scotty’s reproduction. Therefore, Judy’s death become more like an unavoidable destiny than a pure accident in the end, because she gradually let Scotty’s crazy, irrational actions corroding her.


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