My article on Barbara Stanwyck and Double Indemnity is one of many excellent noir topics in the year-end issue of The Dark Pages.
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.
TCM will be showing Remember the Night on Saturday December 22nd at 8PM ET. This article was originally posted in 2014.
Barbara Stanwyck was always at her best when her character came from the wrong side of the tracks. She seemed to have a natural affinity for those whose lives have mostly been filled with hard times, scrapping by the best way they can. Maybe, it had to do with her sad Brooklyn upbringing, her mother dying when she was four, pushed from a streetcar by a drunk, and her father leaving only weeks later, never heard from again. That kind of pain has to leave an indelible mark on one for life. Yet, beneath the tough exterior would hide a gentle desirous heart longing for acceptance and love that would eventually reveal itself. This double side of Stanwyck’s persona is clearly on display in many of her films including this 1940 holiday comedy/drama.
Fred MacMurray is prosecuting Assistant District Attorney, John Sargent. He arranges through a legal technicality, to have Lee Leander’s (Barbara Stanwyck) trial for shoplifting postponed until after the holidays. This gesture results in Lee, unable to post bail, having to spend the long holiday week in a jail cell. Sargent, in a twinge of guilt, or holiday spirit, arranges through a shady bondsman to have Lee’s five thousand dollars bail paid. When the bondsman delivers Lee to the ADA’s apartment, she is cynical enough, and has no doubt, her payback to him will be in sexual favors. To her surprise, Sargent expects nothing in return. He really just did not want her to spend Christmas in jail. The look of surprise in Lee’s eyes and face is priceless when this realization hits her. Continue reading
A dark Los Angeles night. A reckless speeding car is seen racing through the streets running a red light. When it comes to a screeching stop, a hunched over man gets out and enters the Pacific All Risk Insurance Co. Building. After looking at row after row of desk after repetitive desk, he goes into his private office. The man is hurt badly. Hunched over, perspiration running down his face, he begins to tell his tale into a dictaphone. His name is Walter Neff, and he is about to make a confession. Continue reading
My love for movies began after my parents and I, moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I was just a few days shy of my eleventh birthday and was, and still am, an only child. I was on the shy side in those days making it hard at times to make new friends. There were plenty of kids around my age in the apartment building we moved to; still, it was not an entirely smooth transition. Movies became my outlet. Nearby was the Loew’s Oriental, a large majestic theater within walking distance. My other movie outlet was TV. New York City television during those early years, long before home video, was a treasure trove, a repertory theater filled with old films…only with commercials. There was The Early Show, The Late Show, The Big Preview, The 4 O’clock Movie, The 4:30 Movie, The Late Movie, Five Star Movie, Chiller Theater, and the best of all, Million Dollar Movie.
Sam Fuller’s background as a newspaper reporter is always evident in his films visual style. They always jump off the screen like the morning headlines. Fuller’s 1957 western begins exactly in that same fashion sucking you in right from its opening shot. A buckboard with three men, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers, suddenly hear the sound of a thundering herd of horses. Before they know it they are surrounded by the film title’s forty guns, led by Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond, all dressed in blackm riding a white stallion. One of Fuller’s visually unique shots puts the camera’s POV under the buckboard as the horses thundering hooves pound on by. Continue reading
While Billy Wilder is best known as a film director, he always considered himself a writer first and director second. He worked best with a partner, and though he had many over the years, there were two, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, who were his most important associates. Though he was born in Europe, Wilder quickly picked up and mastered the American vernacular. While Wilder always had a co-writer, there is no way to misinterpret a Wilder screenplay. His footprints are clearly all over them. Continue reading
Based on Lucille Fletcher’s highly popular radio play, “Sorry, Wrong Number” was brought to the screen in 1948 by producer Hal B. Wallis and Paramount. The film was directed by Anatole Litvak and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The original radio show featured Agnes Moorehead and was primarily a tense one woman dialogue for the complete twenty-two minute show. The program was so popular, Moorehead reprised her role several times over the years, but when Wallis and Paramount purchased the property, they decided Moorehead was not a big enough star for the lead role in the film. So here came Stanwyck who had just signed a contract with Wallis making this her first film under the new agreement.
To expand the original short radio script into a feature film, Lucille Fletcher “opened” up her original story which she accomplished by adding a series of flashbacks and even some flashbacks within flashbacks, expanding the role of the husband, played by Lancaster. Fletcher would also turn the screenplay into a novel the same year the movie was released.
Stanwyck is Leona Stevenson, the bed ridden wealthy invalid, neurotic to the core, with more pills on her end table than Pfizer Inc. produces in a month of Sundays. She is confined to her lavish bedroom apartment, overlooking the New York City skyline. One evening Leona, attempting to call her boy toy husband Henry, accidently due to crossed telephone lines, overhears two men discussing a murder plot. She calls the police, then her father and finally her doctor, but no one believes her. Continue reading
Steely eyed and sexy, that’s Barbara Stanwyck at her best. No one conveyed the tough dame, determined yet alluring look that can arouse a man’s loins any better. With a screenplay by Robert Rossen (Force of Evil) based on a story by John Patrick, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” is a hybrid twisting mix of film noir and 1940’s women’s melodrama with Stanwyck’s dangerous female right in the middle.
It’s the late 1920’s when Martha Ivers, a young orphaned teen, living with her rich aunt (Judith Anderson) strikes the older woman with a cane causing her to fall down a flight and stairs and die. Witnessed by her friend, Walter O’Neil, the boy backs up her story to his father, a hungry and ambitious lawyer, that the older woman did in fact “fall” with no help from Martha. The father suspects that’s not what really happened but realizes Martha, as her aunt’s only living relative stands to inherit a fortune and will make for a perfect wife for his awkward son. Continue reading
“Illicit” was only Barbara Stanwyck’s fifth film and she was already a star. Having just appeared in Frank Capra’s “Ladies of Leisure” as a prostitute, or as they would call it, a ‘party girl’ for Columbia, Babs, who had arranged for non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warner Brothers, starred in her next film for Brothers Warner as a free thinking woman, a post feminist long before the term was even conceived.
Stanwyck is Anne Vincent and her lover, James Rennie, is wealthy Richard “Dick” Ives II. They have been happily living out of wedlock, going away together for weekends, enjoying life, but she refuses to marry Dick who wants to marry her. Anne explains her theories on marriage, how married couples become complacent, have kids and begin to take each other for granted leaving the fun and romance behind. Anne wants none of that. Eventually though pressure from friends and family force the couple to marry. Once married, egos get hurt, misunderstandings come out of the closet as well as former lovers. From Anne’s past comes Price Baines, played smoothly by Ricardo Cortez, who keeps popping up to complicate the situation. Late in the film Dick is about to run off with a former girlfriend (Natalie Moorhead) when the couple come to the realization they only want each other. Continue reading