First off, The Graduate is NOT film noir. Anne Bancroft’s role as the femme fatale Mrs. Robinson is the sole reason that I am writing this article. Yes, Dustin Hoffman did an amazing job, but Anne leaves the lingering impact. A synopsis to explain my feelings:
Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college. He’s moved home for the summer before future endeavors to live with proud (yet overbearing) parents. They bestow a beautiful sports car on him, and celebrate his triumphs with their rather large circle of friends. Yet Ben is unhappy. He’s overwhelmed with the amount of attention and simultaneous pressure placed on his future decisions. His moods are fickle and unpredictable. In the midst of this tumult, Mrs. Robinson appears. She’s the beautiful wife of Ben’s father’s business partner.
The subtlety of her manipulative behavior is masterful. She begins her seduction by simply intruding on Ben while he hides from his own party in his room. She claims she was merely looking for the bathroom. Ben repeatedly explains that he wants to be alone, but she completely ignores his objections and demands that he give her a ride home. Not wanting to mistreat someone so important to his father, Ben reluctantly agrees.
As they arrive at the house, she asks if Ben will please come inside with her because she “doesn’t like coming home to a dark house.” She feigns fear and vulnerability, and once again Ben cedes her desires. As they enter the home and turn the lights on, Mrs. Robinson asks if Ben will wait with her for her husband to come home. Ben clearly wants to leave, but she’s persistent. She says that she is afraid to wait alone in an empty house. He reluctantly agrees again.
“Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?”
She begins to make a drink next, and desires him to have one as well. He refuses initially, but lets her win again. And thus it continues. She makes a demand, he makes an excuse. She overcomes his objection with reasonable justifications, and he does what she wants. She invites him up to her daughter’s old room to look at a portrait, then she asks him to unzip her dress. Then he tries to escape (even making it down the stairs) but she asks him to bring her purse back up to her before he leaves for good. When he goes to leave it on the dresser in the daughter’s room, Mrs. Robinson runs in naked and shuts the door behind her. She then finally reveals that she wants to have sex with him, and that he can have her whenever he desires. They hear her husband’s car door outside and Ben uses this interruption as the final means of retreat.
“Benjamin, I’m not trying to seduce you. I wish you’d–“
“I know that. But please Mrs. Robinson. This is difficult for me.”
“Why is it?”
“Because I am confused about things. I can’t tell what I’m imagining. I can’t tell what’s real. I can’t–“
“Would you like me to seduce you?”
“Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
Ben may have escaped the first encounter with Mrs. Robinson, but the seed was planted in his mind. And it ate at him until he finally called her and arranged their first meeting at a motel.
This first segment of The Graduate was one of the best scripted femme fatale seductions I’ve ever seen. It was textbook film noir, in a non-noir setting. The classic Joseph and Potiphar’s wife brought to the contemporary age. What a memorable lesson: If you give the devil an inch, SHE’LL take a mile.