A pivotal, quintessential and seminal work of film noir cinema, Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity, with the preeminent femme fatale at the centre of its story, parades a collection of immoral behaviour and provides a realistic and yet bleak opinion on the human condition.
Is the sexy and conniving Phyllis, with her beautiful legs and pretty anklet, simply the object of male desires and nothing else? Is she a cardboard-type character, who flirts, seduces and schemes like the devil, but has no dimension beyond this stereotypical representation of the blonde woman? Is she empowered or disenfranchised by such a representation? Interesting questions raised by this masterpiece of a film.
Through a random event, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman, meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of a client whom he intents to secure the renewal of their cars’ policy. She flirts with him openly and soon after insinuates his participation on a plan to kill her husband and collect the insurance money. Outraged at first, Neff eventually feels compelled to help Mrs Dietrichson on the execution of the plan. Their evident attraction to each only grows as they keep discussing how to go about the murder. What looked and felt like the perfect crime starts to unravel as Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), gets to question the legitimacy of the claim.
It is fairly obvious that Double Indemnity takes a biased approach towards its storytelling. It is told and meant to be seen from the male point of view. One of the sexiest moments in the history of cinema places a young and beautiful woman in a white dress, on a chair, with her legs crossed and the mention of an anklet. It is the seductive nature of the female aimed at the male gaze. Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is overtly provocative and yet ambiguously manipulative. We sense that she is scheming but are not sure of her ulterior motives. It is this ambiguity that simultaneously places her at the centre and the periphery of the narrative.
..Doomed Man: Walter Neff and the Dame Upstairs.
As the story is told by Walter Neff, it is reasonable to assume that the film wants to emphasise the tragic nature of his fate. Neff is the bridge between the murderess, deceitful beneficiary of the policy and the insurance representative. Through Neff’s perspective we see people and places which are denied to the other two main characters, Phyllis and Keyes. He is everywhere in this film: we hear his voice; we feel his pain; we fully identify with him. Whereas Walter Neff dies at the end of the film from a bullet wound, in plain view, through a dramatic representation, Phyllis is left for dead, undeserving of any sympathy. Objectified and only partially developed as a character, now the film is casting her in the role of evil incarnated.
However, this feminist interpretation does not sound either fair or reasonable. First of all, this is Walter Neff’s story. To dispute such fact seems rather hollow-minded. It is unfortunate that so much film critique is wasted on things that are not there. Why not have a go at the fact that Neff as the main character is not morally incorruptible? Or that we don’t get to see him walking to the gas chamber? Or anything one fancies, really. Personally, I am fascinated by tales of flawed, morally dubious people. That’s the contribution of film noir as a genre in a nutshell: to showcase the hubris of the common man. Like traditional heroes, salesmen can also act as they were invincible.
Thus, it seems right that we get to see his death at the end and feel for him. Even though we might feel equivocal about sympathising with someone who murders for money, we can nonetheless understand the tragedy of the story as a cautionary tale. This could happen to me if my lust ever gets the better of me. The film is not inviting us to feel for the wife, who is mistreated and ignored by her husband. Although we get elements of such perspective in the story too. But the important thing here is that this is not Phyllis Dietrichson’s tale, and there is nothing wrong with this. If she is in fact a stereotypical character, like many believe, then so be it. As long as it serves the story, who’s to determine the importance ascribed to characters but the filmmakers themselves?
However, there is a second way of understanding this sordid tale. As the narrator, Neff is less important as a character than he is as the audience’s alter-ego. We feel for him because we actually feel for us. And through him we are cheated and conned along the way. We are him. Therefore, from this perspective, Phyllis Dietrichson plays a pivotal role in the story: without her there’s no story. Cardboard-thin she may be, but Phyllis is actually the main character of Double Indemnity. Although the story remains Neff’s tale, Phyllis is the most important person in it.
Perhaps, the reason the film endures as one of the most wonderful tales that ever came out of Hollywood, is this ability to generate endless ways of interpreting its sexy and beautiful femme fatale – a mirror for both the housewife and the feminist within any woman.