Barbara Stanwyck’s Deadliest Femme Fatale

220px-Double_indemnity_screenshot_3The 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.

161228_double_indemnity_bannerI 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.

Advertisements

Redemption and Remember the Night

TCM will be showing Remember the Night on Saturday December 22nd at 8PM ET. This article was originally posted in 2014.

remember-the-nightBarbara 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

Double Indemnity (1944) Billy Wilder

double_indemnity

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

Redemption and Remember the Night

remember-the-nightBarbara 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

Pushover (1954) Richard Quine

pushover-trailer-title

My first exposure to Fred MacMurray was with his early 1960’s family oriented sit-com, My Three Sons. Fred was a sort of befuddled widower who brought up three boys with the help of a crusty father-in-law (William Frawley) and later on a great uncle (William Demerest). During these same years, MacMurray made a series of family oriented films for Walt Disney; Son of Blubber, The Absented Minded Professor and Bon Voyage among them.  The show, and these films, cemented an early image for me of MacMurray as a rather dull, and bland actor, a nice guy but uninteresting. In my defense, I have to add that at the time I knew very little about MacMurray’s earlier film career.

That would change the first time I watched Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece, Double Indemnity. His Walter Neff was a classic noir sucker for a dame, willing to do dirty deeds for money and even more so for a seductive evil woman. Wilder once again brought out MacMurray’s dark side some years late in The Apartment where he played a sleazy corporate executive who used both women and men, in different ways, for his own salacious, adulterous  desires. These two films exposed me to a new side of Fred MacMurray; He still looked like the nice quiet guy who lives next door but now underneath that good guy exterior laid a dark character with immoral desires. Continue reading

The Apartment (1960) Billy Wilder

The Apartment Title Card

Office politics has changed a lot over the years but sex in the workplace, in one form or another, is alive and well. Billy Wilder’s superb comedy/drama is a time capsule look back at one man’s struggle on how to succeed in business by lending out his apartment to four middle level company executives on various nights for their extramarital liaisons. In exchange, the four executives praise our antihero at work, writing glowing reports on him to senior management, including putting in good words with Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) the top dog at personnel.

C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is the original lonely guy, an actuarial, crunching out numbers for a major insurance company. Baxter works at a drab grey desk in a large corporate office building, populated by faceless individuals all working at hundreds of other drab grey desks.

Baxter’s home life consists of frozen dinners, watching TV and cleaning up the empty liquor bottles left over from the night’s escapades, bottles which he leaves outside his apartment door for garbage pickup, suggesting, to his neighbors, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) and his wife, that Baxter leads a wild life of swinging parties. Continue reading

Too Many Husbands (1940) Wesley Ruggles

Too_Many_Husbands_1940

“She’s been a good little wife.”

“….yes, to the both of us”

Jean Arthur’s talents shine in this light, witty, sophisticated comedy.  In “Too Many Husbands” Jean has, well too many husbands, one too many to be exact. Husband number one, Bill Cardew (Fred MacMurray), is presumed lost at sea. His widow, Vicky (Jean Arthur) marries Bill’s publishing partner, Henry Lowndes (Melvyn Douglas). At the one-year anniversary of Bill’s disappearance, Henry is having Bill’s office cleaned out and his name removed off the firm’s door. Meanwhile, Vicky’s father who is at home answers a phone call, on the other end of the line is Bill announcing that he is alive! Sound familiar? Well, yes since the premise is similar to the Cary Grant, Irene Dunne film, “My Favorite Wife” which was released in May of 1940 two months after “Too Many Husbands” hit the screen. Only in the Garson Kanin directed movie Cary Grant ends up married with two wives.   Too mnay husbands

The grand reunion is needless to say a confusing one especially for our heroine who soon realizes she loves both men. She in fact loves them so much she cannot make up her mind who she wants to stay married too. Both men compete to win Vicky’ heart hoping that she will dump the other, however, it turns out Vicky is enjoying the attention she is receiving and cannot, or will not, make a decision. The two husbands start to rekindle their friendship and conclude they are being played for saps. They decide to teach Vicky a lesson by disappearing. Unfortunately, she calls the police who uncover that our heroine is a bigamist. The case is brought before the court where the presiding, judge rules who Vicky is officially married to. However, it does not end there since the loser refuses to give up his pursuit of his “wife.” Vicky and the two men pretty much ignore the court’s decision and as the films ends, she and her two “husbands” are dancing the night away as a threesome.

Too Many Husbands poster    “Too Many Husbands” is a fun film with three wonderful and charming performances, directed with a light touch by Wesley Ruggles. Jean Arthur, and a witty script, though are the real reasons to watch this film. She is enchanting and simply seems to be having a good time in the role. Melvyn Douglas provides a stylish touch having already whet his feet with sophisticated comedy having just come from filming Lubitsch’s “Ninoctchka.”  Fred MacMurray is the less sophisticated of the two playing Jack Lemmon to Douglas’s Walter Matthau. MacMurray was fortunate enough to have worked with both Arthur and Carole Lombard. The film opened in March 1940 at Radio City Music Hall and surprisingly, at least to me, did not do well at the box office. The script, written by Claude Binyon, was based on a play called “Home and Beauty”, by W. Somerset Maugham. There are also entertaining performances by Henry Davenport as Vicky’s father, Melville Cooper and in small role as a police officer is Edgar Buchanan.

“Too Many Husbands” is a somewhat more suggestive film than “My Favorite Wife” especially the ending where it seems  Vicky will be continuing to have a relationship with both men. There is also an underlying hint of gay references in the dialogue, when the two husbands are forced to share a bedroom. It is surprising how much the filmmakers were able to slip passed the censors. One wonders if they were too busy paying attention to the bigamy plot letting these other subtle insinuations get by?Jean Arthure photo

As previously mentioned, only a couple of months later the better-known “My Favorite Wife” was released. In another touch of irony, both films were remade years later, “Too Many Husbands” was turned into a musical in 1955 called “Three for the Show” with Betty Grable and Jack Lemmon and “My Favorite Wife” in 1963 as “Move Over, Darling.” This last film has a long history of it own, which is well know. Originally, it was to be a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe co-starring Dean Martin called “Something’s Got to Give.”  Monroe was difficult during the shoot and was fired by 20th Century Fox who then signed Lee Remick as her replacement. Dino walked off the film saying, no offence to Remick but he signed to star with Monroe. Fox rehired Monroe but unfortunately her problems ran deep and was soon found dead of an overdose. Production was shut down and the film was never completed. The story was resurrected a couple years later with Doris Day, James Garner and Polly Bergen, and now called “Move Over, Darling.”

“Too Many Husbands” is a pleasant diversion not reaching the level of screwball greats, still it has aged well with Ms. Arthur’s character looking more modern and certainly more liberated than most female characters of the day. The film has recently been released on DVD as part of the “Icons of Screwball Comedy Volume 1.”