Matty Walker: what makes her a new femme fatale in the 1980s?
Obviously it is the fact that she gets away with her crime on a level that we have not seen in the American Studio Film before. What could possibly be the reason? First, the change in the Production Code in the 1960s, from studio self-censorship to the ratings we know today (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, etc.) allowed the writer to create a story where the femme fatale does not have to be punished in order to fulfill a moral code. In addition, women’s position in society had evolved since the era of classic noir. More women were in the work force and the second wave of feminism was in full force (and some might say, initially beginning its decline with the stirrings of third wave feminism at its heels). It is at this point, where women are viable consumers even more than they may have been in the past, that film studios and producers are beginning to target women as a validated audience member. What I mean by this is that women’s position in the narrative will begin to change. Up until this point, most of the female desires that are reflected onscreen will result in death, ruin, or shame for female characters.
Matty Walker’s character does not fit into the old confines of what constitutes female desire. She is no longer the weaker sex; the male, Ned Racine (William Hurt), replaces her. His lack of ambition is the first indicator he is fallible. We learn he’s a two-bit lawyer who doesn’t have half the command of the law that Matty has – and she’s a legal secretary. We also see he has no scruples, the judge berates the class of client Ned represents in court. Ned’s desires drive him and don’t always allow him to see clearly, which is pointed out by two of his best friends, both on the correct side of the law.
It is Matty who takes control of the narrative of the film when she walks past Ned at the outdoor concert. This planned ‘meet’ seems like a lucky coincidence to Ned Racine. He has no idea he was the bait in an elaborate plan hatched by Matty. Unlike his male counterparts in classic noir, Ned can never quite get the upper hand with Matty. Even when she is exposed at the end of the film, Ned is still stuck in prison. And, although we see Matty sipping cocktails on the beach with her new “love interest” it is hard to wonder if she hasn’t created a different sort of prison for herself – but she doesn’t seem to worry about that much as she takes a cool sip from her cocktail and gets on with her life.
Matty controls everything about her existence. The “pre-narrative” or backstory of the film explains through bits of dialogue that Matty was a legal secretary and that she’s married a wealthy man who doesn’t show that much interest in her. She is a possession, just as she desires to have “freedom” to acquire possessions on her terms, not her husband’s. She controls whom she seduces because sex is about power, although we get the distinct impression she also desires Ned at some level. The problem for Ned, in this narrative, is that for Matty, desire can be compartmentalized and she refuses to allow emotion to overpower her intellect, as Ned has.
Matty Walker is one of the first femmes fatales to accomplish this – conquering the male sphere – especially the Law (which tends to be aligned with patriarchy) and manipulating it for her own benefit. This isn’t to say that Matty is a morally good character; she’s left a string of dead bodies in her wake, including her former best friend whose identity she assumed – another level of deception so nobody could actually ‘know’ her. Which leaves me wondering, can Matty even have known herself? Or, was that what she was searching for?