THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON: Film Noir and the Villains in DOUBLE INDEMNITY

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!

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9 responses to “THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON: Film Noir and the Villains in DOUBLE INDEMNITY

  1. Hot is the word–scalding, even! They were geniuses in this film. One of the greatest Noir genre films EVER! I hope you don’t mind my digital shoplifting. Or, should I ask your husband/wife first? Thanks for sharing this. I think I may need to call State Farm? Or do I need to be in Good Hands?

  2. I enjoyed your post, Lara — Double Indemnity is my favorite noir and, I think, the one I’ve seen most often. I simply cannot get enough of it. Thanks for including Phyllis — one of my favorite noir characters (of course!) — in this event!

  3. Oh boy! This is one of my fave films and fave Barbara Stanwyck performances. (I could go on about it all day.)

    I loved your review and the points you made about Phyllis Dietrichson’s independence, smarts and her ability to skirt around the production code. So true! Stanwyck seems to relish the role; she makes us believe she IS Phyllis.

    So glad you could join our blogathon! It would not have been complete without your analysis of “Double Indemnity”.

  4. Phyllis’ depraved madness in the novel is only hinted at on the screen, but even at that Ms. Stanwyck’s cold-eyed and cold-hearted focus is blazing hot.

  5. lassothemovies

    I’ll chime in with everyone else in saying that this is one of my favorite films, and one of the best performances in Stanwyck’s career. (And that is saying a lot!) Evil doesn’t even begin to describe her. There is nothing she couldn’t due if she really wanted to, anyway. Thanks for a highly enjoyable read, and for making sure that Phyllis was represented in this blogathon that could have been named after her!

  6. Lara, Lasso, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is my favorite film noir, and if Barbara Stanwyck and aren’t the hottest wicked lovers since the Chicago Fire, I don’t know what is! With Stanwyck and MacMurray also having Team Bartiliucci fave Edward G. Robinson as the illicit lovers’ hawkshaw and voice of reason, there’s more decency and tenderness between Walter and Keyes than there is between Walter and Phyllis, making me feel for them! You’ve done a great job with the film version of (I’ve read the novel and it’s well worth a look, though I confess Billy Wilder’s version is better, if I may be so bold! 🙂 This was a great post for the Great Villain Blogathon, Lara! 😀

  7. Great post, and yes one of my all time favorite film noirs. Can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen it. I enjoy it each time I do. What makes the movie all the more scary is that it is loosely based on a true story. Yes, this fem fatale really existed, and if you can believe it, she makes Phyllis look like an angel! The story happened in NYC back in the 20’s, and in fact, the real fem fatale was NY’s first female to be executed in NY by electric chair. There is a horrible photo the
    Daily News captured of the macabre execution. The details of the story are different, but there was an affair, and the murder was committed for insurance money. I think Phyllis is one of the worse villains on film for sure. Great pick!

  8. excellent choice of course, an essential noir and villianness, in a story that never gets old. This event wouldn’t be the same without Phyllis, nor would Phyllis be the same without the greatness of Stanwyck to bring her to life. Thanks for covering her in this event 🙂

  9. Iconic gets thrown around too much, but this film truly ticks all the boxes and (for once) the style doesn’t overshadow the substance. I was interested to read your thoughts about the role of women in pre-Code films, I can imagine how the role would’ve changed but I still can’t imagine any one but Stanwyck playing the role.

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