When I heard that my fellow bloggers over at Shadows and Satin, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy were getting ready to host The Great Villain Blogathon a few days ago, I knew that an opportunity to celebrate my favorite movie villains with other film fans was just too good to pass up. I signed up immediately, and the minute I saw the banner…I knew my topic.
Many of my readers know that I have a great fondness for all things Barbara Stanwyck. And as my recent article about Baby Face and pre-Code Hollywood has proven to be a rather popular one, I have decided to write today about another significant era of Hollywood and two prominent villains to come out of it–Phyllis Dietrichson, the alluring wife of an ill-fated husband, and her partner-in-crime, Walter Neff, villains of that noir-est of all film noirs, Double Indemnity (1944). The film was deftly directed by Billy Wilder, and co-written by Wilder and author Raymond Chandler.
Born out of the German Expressionist movement and honed in the years leading up to U.S. involvement in World War II, film noir is a rich and complex genre. Primarily taking the form of crime drama and most often told with narrative voice-over, it breaks many of the social norms that were in place under the Code, and often takes a view of women little seen since before the Code was in place. In movies under the Code, women were seen as sweethearts, submissive, and existing only for the pleasure of man. In noir films, the woman is often the villain of the story, and through her sex, wiles, and manipulation, she brings about the man’s downfall. It is out of the noir genre that we get the term femme fatale–“deadly woman.”
Never was a femme fatale more deadly, in every sense of the word, than in Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and released at the height of World War II in 1944. In this story of a woman who partners with an insurance salesman to kill her husband and collect on his insurance money, Barbara Stanwyck is at her best and most evil. Her performance earned her a third Academy Award nomination, and remains one of the most outstanding performances in her career.
In keeping with the genre standard of telling a story with narrative voice-over, Double Indemnity begins with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaking into a Dictaphone, confessing to the crime of killing Phyllis Dietrichson’s husband. We see the story unfold through flashback, expounded upon by Neff’s voice-over. Taken by Phyllis’ charm and raw sex appeal and upset at Phyllis’ claims that her husband treated her badly, Neff allowed himself to be talked into hatching an elaborate scheme to murder Mr. Dietrichson, making it look like an accident to take advantage of a loophole in insurance laws allowing for the “double indemnity” clause to be invoked in the case of an accident resulting in death. Though Neff was initially reluctant to go through with the scheme, his lust and desire for Phyllis Dietrichson, and his sympathy for her as a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, caused him to take leave of his senses. Phyllis, for her part, played hard to get. This scene’s magnificent dialogue, written by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, demonstrates perfectly the initial relationship between Neff and Phyllis.
As the story progressed, Neff’s lust for Phyllis increased as the consequences of their crime built. The sexual tension in the film is so thick it is almost palpable, and it is clear that the two are in love not only with each other, but with the thrill of their lawlessness. Though it seems at first that their plan is foolproof, the authorities catch on to them and knowing what will happen to Phyllis when they are caught, Neff kills Phyllis, in essence giving credence to the saying that man kills the thing he loves most. Neff then turns himself in, and the film ends.
Though film noir always skirted at the very edge of what was acceptable under the Code, it still had to abide by the rules set forth by the Hays Office. Owing to the section of the Code that stated that an audience member “must feel that evil is wrong and good is right,” those characters that committed evil crimes must be punished accordingly–and for all the wrong that Phyllis Dietrichson committed, there is no alternative ending for Phyllis in a film made under the Production Code.
This is the great dichotomy in the genre, and what separates the femme fatales of classic film noir from the women of pre-Code Hollywood. In Hollywood before the Code, women were celebrated for their power over men. They were the protagonists, and were praised for ridding themselves of the controlling men in their lives. They were liberated women, while for all their power over men, the women in film noir could never be seen as upstanding or correct in their actions. It is interesting to imagine Double Indemnity as a pre-Code, and to think how Phyllis would have been portrayed if the movie had been made ten years earlier.
Thank you to Shadows and Satin, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy for hosting this great blogathon!