The first hard-boiled writer I ever read was James M. Cain. Early on I had watched the film version of Double Indemnity, more than a few times, and a then recently published paperback version drove me to Cain’s short novel and others. What was missing most from the Cain novel was the witty dialogue the characters possessed in the film. That’s due to screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler sprinkling a biting rhythmic quality to it. Maybe it’s not realistic dialogue, but it sharpens the film to the highest levels of wit and testosterone. Either way, actors Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray handle the dialogue with a snarky, edgy style missing in Cain’s novel.
I may be wrong, but as far as I can remember, the Billy Wilder film was my first exposure to Barbara Stanwyck. There was something mystical about her. She was not the ravishing, steamy beauty say of Ava Gardner in The Killers or Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Those two ladies were closer to the idolized fiery femme fatales that we are used to seeing. However, arguing that Stanwyck lacked sex appeal or could attract a steady stream of men would be futile. Barbara Stanwyck possessed high cheekbones, and eyebrows that mischievously arched upward. It was enticing. Then there were those legs or gams as they were called. They were her sexiest attribute. She may not have been the most beautiful of actresses, but she quickly drew you into her feminine sphere. When you see her in that first of many memorable scenes, a towel wrapped around her otherwise naked body or later when she is on the couch lifting her leg giving Walter Neff an enticing view as he takes off her shoe… well, you already know she’s got her pasty wrapped around those gorgeous gams. There was also a toughness about Stanwyck. You knew she wasn’t going to take bull from anyone.
Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is a user. She uses the come on of verbal sexual foreplay and sex itself as a means to an end. I don’t believe Phyllis enjoys the sex act itself; it’s the endgame that genuinely gets her off; the plan to get rid of her husband and the insurance money that’s her genuine desire. Walter, like her husband, doesn’t matter, he is just a pawn in her deadly game. Phyllis is a woman with no redeeming qualities.
For Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity was his third directorial effort, but the first to reveal his dark and pessimistic view of America and its people. We would see Wilder’s bleak take on society in future films like Sunset Blvd, The Lost Weekend, and especially in Ace in the Hole. Wilder’s world is filled with sordid lives of kept men (William Holden), alcoholics (Ray Milland) and bottom feeders (Kirk Douglas). Wilder’s co-writer was non-other than another hard-boiled writer, the great Raymond Chandler.
By setting the story in flashback mode, the filmmakers got the film approved by the overlords of cinema morality, AKA the Production Code. This compromise to the Gods told the audience there’s no use sympathizing with our characters since they are all ending up dead because of their dirty deeds. Surprisingly, James M. Cain liked the flashback idea even admitting he would have set up the structure of his novel that way if he had thought of it himself. Cain based his pulp fiction novella on the real life 1927 murder involving Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray. Like the Cain story, and the Wilder film, Ruth Snyder, the first woman executed in New York, convinces Gray to kill her husband after she took out an insurance policy on him with a double indemnity clause. The law quickly caught the two lovers. The murder became infamous when the New York Daily News published a front-page photo of Snyder strapped in an electric chair as the juice was about to be turned on.
Like oil and water, Wilder and Chandler did not mix. It was a tormenting experience for the hard-boiled author. Chandler said working with Wilder may even have shortened his life. He could not adjust to Wilder’s habits of constantly pacing while ‘writing’ or of his habit of always wearing a hat indoors, plus there was the constant stream of women he was involved with. The author did admit he learned a lot about screenwriting from Billy. Wilder found it just as frustrating working with alcoholic Chandler and his infuriating sour disposition.
From the beginning of the project, Wilder wanted Stanwyck for the role of Phyllis Dietrichson; however, Babs was concerned about playing an out and out despicable person with no redeeming values. She loved the script but was fearful her fans would hate or even desert her. Stanwyck always played tough, strong women whether on the right or wrong side of life.
Wilder wanted her to look like a cheap, low-level dame; thus the cut-rate blonde wig the director insisted she had to wear. One studio exec famously commented, “We hire Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington.” However, in the scenes where Stanwyck wears that tight white sweater, you know she’s a sexual magnet.
Double Indemnity was a huge hit. Stanwyck received a Best Actress nomination. Wilder earned nominations for both Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Chandler). The film also picked up a nod for Best Picture. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is one the screen’s great femme fatales: a user of men, seductive, money hungry, willing to ruin anyone who gets in her way, a hardened, unfeeling, cold-blooded dame. How good is Stanwyck in Double Indemnity? How alluring, sexy, and dangerous? Just watch the bland 1973 made for TV remake with Samantha Eggar in the role and you know how twisted and seductive Barbara Stanwyck could be.
This review is part of the Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Please check more films in the blogathon by clicking here.