Dir: Billy Wilder
Gen: Looking at Women
Double Indemnity (1944) was a pivotal moment for film noir, sparking a trend for “true crime” films and setting in stone the key tropes of the genre, which at the time of its release had no name.
Wilder’s film is narrated by insurance man Walter Neff, with whom the audience are psychologically and morally aligned. There is a clear distinction between the untrustworthy and volatile housewife Phyllis Dietrichson and the rational insurance man who is lead astray by her seductive charm and false plea for help. Walter plays the saviour, the confessor and the morally upright protagonist whilst Phyllis plays the unreadable, deceptive and avaricious femme fatale.
Indeed, by aligning Walter with the “true facts” of the crime, the spectator is able to invest in his clarity and logic: yes, he is driven by carnal desire, but he is also able to free a married woman from a husband who “doesn’t seem to want to listen to anything except maybe a baseball game”. Even the “venetian blind” lighting, which is used to create a series of slatted bars across Phyllis and Walter’s faces when they are at the Dietrichson’s, infers that her home tends towards a prison. However, as Phyllis’ intentions become clearer the bars appear to forebode a more sinister future; Walter is sexually seduced, losing sight of the initial sense of unease that he felt towards Phyllis.
As the film progresses, Walter's proudly proclaimed “good eyesight” becomes clouded by the passion that Phyllis inspires in him. His clearness of vision is aligned with a moral exemption from the darker, shadowy world of crime to which the isolated femme fatale belongs. Walter comes from the bright Californian light of the outside and therefore appears to be a readable and open character, whilst Phyllis is frequently confined to the shadowy interior of her home and the darkness of the night, leading to what film theorist Steve Neale calls a “lack of corroboration”, as “we have no way of knowing the [interior] truth” of her character (Neale 2010, p.190).
Rather, the viewer comes to know Phyllis through her outer appearance. Wilder’s vision was to “make [Phyllis] look as sleazy as possible”, with a suggestive anklet and a peroxide blonde, “phonie wig” (Philips 2000, p.125-126). Phyllis’ anklet is first seen in a close-up tracking shot of her legs, behind what Walter calls “a silly staircase” that spatially separates the private worlds of man and woman. It is clear from Walter’s comment, as well as his fetishistic gaze that is mimicked by the camera, that this spatial and thus moral boundary (interiors were frequently used as metaphors for unspoken sexual tension/desire under the Hays code) will be broken as they become physically closer.
At first Phyllis appears as if from heaven, descending from above and dressed head to toe in white. She enters Walter’s space like an angel or an apparition. However, at ground level-a terrestrial and “real” space-the camera rises to reveal her frilly collar and clunky costume jewellery. Phyllis’ appearance is cheap: she is void of the delicacy and refinement that her entry momentarily promised.
This “sleazy” side to Phyllis is epitomised by her blonde coiffe, which is now a staple trope of the femme fatale (think Kim Basinger in L.A Confidential or Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl). It suggests that Phyllis is, on the one hand, fake and deceptive, and on the other, “common”, a scarlet woman. Her made up look suggests that she is mutable, slippery and, most importantly, concealing the truth, which is further exemplified when the viewer learns that Phyllis is an imposter in her social class, having married up from her working class role as a nurse.
However, these attributes are not unique to Phyllis. The very same wig was worn by Marlene Dietrich in Manpower (Walsh, 1941) and therefore speaks more of a Hollywood shift towards cliched personas, such as the femme fatale, than of the complexity of Phyllis’ character. She is simply one in a series of women to come who used her sexuality to ensnare and thus ruin the prospects of an unsuspecting man.
Wilder establishes a dichotomy between the heroic man and the impenetrable woman, in which the former represents truth and reveals the innately human characteristics of desire and empathy, whilst the latter represents deceit and an abnormal, dare we say monstrous, coldness towards human emotions.
Where to watch
Lally, K. (1996) Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Neale S. (2010) “‘I Can’t Tell Anymore Whether You’re Lying’: Double Indemnity, Human Desire and the Narratology of Femmes Fatales”. In: Hanson H. O’Rawe C., eds., The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Phillips, Gene D. (2000). Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathryn is a fourth year student of a joint degree in History of Art and Art Practice at The University of Edinburgh. Her interest in feminist cinema comes from her belief in political, cultural and social equity, a set of values that she says have often felt uncomfortable alongside popular feminist movements such as "fourth wave" or Taylor Swift "girl gang" feminisms. Kathryn has found that by understanding the roots of female "types", consolidated through literature, cinema and art, she has been able to understand how they are constructed and how her own sense of femininity and womanhood differ.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.