Her shoes should have warned him. The shoes that Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson wears in the 1944 Double Indemnity—pumps with an unsightly ruffle of tulle on the toe, bedroom slippers with a puff of marabou—tell you everything you ever need to know about her, everything that her patsy-in-waiting, Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, misses.
As femme fatales go, Stanwyck’s Phyllis isn’t a ravishment, like Ava Gardner in The Killers, and she doesn’t have the immaculate, serene composure that Jane Greer possesses in Out of the Past, the quality that makes Greer seem so totally evil she’s pure.
If you were going to compare Phyllis to any other character it might be Stella Dallas, whom Stanwyck played in the 1937 film of the same name. Phyllis is the nightmare version of Stella, Stella as she might be after realizing that kindheartedness and self-sacrifice weren’t going to get her anywhere, Stella with nothing left but the desire for a better life, and no way to achieve that except to be hard and grasping and mean. Phyllis even has a stepdaughter about the same age as the beloved daughter that Stella sacrifices everything for. But as the two sit playing Chinese checkers, each bored and despising the other, all it takes is one glance from Phyllis to tell you that she’d like nothing more than to choke the life out of the girl—if only she could be sure it wouldn’t chip her nails.
Phyllis’ attempts at middle-class respectability aren’t the flossy disasters that Stella’s are. But at the same time, she’s garish and tawdry, too contemptuous of that respectability to make more than a half-hearted stab at it. And when you see her cranky, boozing lump of a husband, you know why, and why she wants him dead.
As Phyllis, who hates her older husband and convinces Neff, an insurance agent with the policy that could make them both rich, to help her do away with him, Stanwyck gives the most modulated of all femme fatale performances. We’ve become used to thinking of femme fatales as smoldering sexpots, driven as much by lust as greed. But despite the lacquered platinum pageboy that Stanwyck wears, the anklet that adorns her killer gams (a come-on for the jewels waiting above), Phyllis is almost asexual. She uses sex to get what she wants, but she’s not turned on by it. She’s too intent on her endgame to give herself over to the abandon that sexual pleasure depends on. Besides, she doesn’t have any earthly use for other people.
Phyllis doesn’t stir the desire in us that she stirs in her fall guy. And possibly that’s because Stanwyck is too complex an actress to simply exude desirability. Whether she’s playing characters who give themselves over to sexuality, or characters who hold themselves back, Stanwyck enacts all the conflicting feelings that sexual desire stirs up. It’s as if she instinctively annotates each emotion as it passes through her. And so, in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (probably his best picture), the helpless abandon that Stanwyck’s young missionary discovers in the pleasure dome of a Chinese warlord is as fully explored in all its contradictions as the regret that comes over the con woman she plays in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (the greatest of all American romantic comedies), when her sexual game-playing leaves her feeling as if she’d cheated herself.
As Stanwyck plays Phyllis, you can detect a sneer somewhere deep (and sometimes not so deep) beneath the surface of each expression of tenderness, each breathy come-hither snaking into Neff’s ear. She’s the deadliest of put-on artists, taking subterranean pleasure in hooking this poor fish.
Billy Wilder’s film of James M. Cain’s slim, nasty novel doesn’t have the obsessive quality you find in some of the greatest film noirs, like Out of the Past. It’s also blessedly lacking the cheapness that has sometimes been taken for a badge of noir integrity; ditto the macho phoniness trying to pass for a rat’s eye view of the world, the grimy truth that most people aren’t tough enough to face. Wilder has more in common with the brittle, black-comic approach that Stephen Frears took in The Grifters: He sees the artificiality of these characters, their tough-guy lingo, their easy cynicism, and the higher cynic in him is amused by them. But not condescendingly.
Wilder may not have been willing to concede that noir possessed a view big enough to contain more than a narrow slice of life, but he could certainly see it as an antidote to the forced cheer around him in 40’s Hollywood, the strained optimism that the studios felt was their contribution to the war effort. Double Indemnity has none of the treacly quality of too much 40’s entertainment, or the top-heaviness of “prestige” filmmaking. When people were being constantly reminded of what they owed their neighbors, their community, their nation, Double Indemnity must have seemed like a relief. It must have been wonderfully cheering to see a movie about people out for themselves and the hell with everyone else. Even Fred MacMurray’s nice-guy ordinariness carries a jolt here—he was never more likable than he is as Neff, the wise guy who wises up to the fact that he is, in fact, a schnook. Double Indemnity is just about perfectly paced, and its nastiness is genuinely sophisticated stuff, not the sentimentality passing for cynicism in much noir and hardboiled fiction.
We get a taste of that tradition in the screenplay by Raymond Chandler, with input from Wilder. They came up with a nifty device: Neff makes his confession into a Dictaphone which, in the form of Chandler’s stylized hardboiled prose, serves as the movie’s narration. The snap of Wilder’s direction clears out the moralizing that Chandler was sometimes prone to, and instead, the narration is a distillation of what gives you pleasure when you read him.
It may be that Hollywood let Wilder, Chandler and the cast get away with it because, in contrast to the illicit, homicidal lust that Neff feels for Phyllis, there exists a genuine love story: the love between Neff and Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes, the insurance-claims investigator who can smell a fraud a mile away. As he watches Keyes piece the scheme together, Neff is torn between fear of being caught and sheer respect and admiration and amazement at the persistence of this dogged, gutsy little man. As Robinson plays him, it’s easy to fall in love with Keyes. This is among the most perfectly judged of all Hollywood supporting performances—seasoned without becoming “colorful,” endearing without becoming dear. Keyes’ life is nonstop worry and heartburn (he talks about having a “hunk of concrete” in his chest) and pursuit of the scrap of information that will prove his nagging suspicions. No wonder he’s the one Neff comes clean to. Wilder must have grinned at what he’d accomplished—a picture where the only generous act wins a one-way ticket to the gas chamber.