When I started this series, there were two films I knew I couldn't avoid and which I was slightly anxious about covering because of their ubiquity and notoriety - the very things that made them unavoidable. They were Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. Both foundational staples of film noir, both with powerful statements to make about women's societal roles, and both with so many years of accumulated baggage it's hard to say anything original about them anymore. But also both such genuinely great, continually rewarding films that it's worth a try to do so.
Double Indemnity began life as a James M. Cain novel, and, in the way I generally rank Cain novels and their movie versions (The Postman Always Rings Twice makes a better novel than movie, and Mildred Pierce is a pretty much a draw), Double Indemnity is a much better film than book. For my money, I have no reservations casting this in large part to the screenwriter Raymond Chandler. But Chandler is probably my favorite writer, so there you are.
In reality, the success of Double Indemnity is most likely the result of one of those brilliant coincidences of circumstance that happens sometimes in movies. A great cast - Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson - a great director, Billy Wilder, and Chandler as screen writer. A time and place of late forties' America, where postwar confusion and depression had set in with a vengeance. This is arguably the apex of film noir, before it would start sliding towards Touch of Evil-level self-awareness.
The story itself is supremely simple. Insurance agent Walter Neff visits the Dietrichson home to renew Mr. Dietrichson's auto insurance. Mr. Dietrichson isn't at home. But Mrs. Dietrichson is. And insurance agents apparently give her ideas. Soon the two are plotting to murder Phyllis Dietrichson's husband and collect the accident insurance payout. It's almost perfect. But thanks to insurance shark Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) and the couple's own fraying nerves and growing distrust, the plot eventually unravels. As those things, especially in noir, tend to do.
Even if my own main focus in discussing film noir wasn't its women, it would be virtually impossible to talk about this film without revolving around its central female figure. Pun intended. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson is the femme fatale to end all femmes fatale. Just on the nicer side of trashy (mostly), manipulatively flirtatious and deadly ambitious. From the moment she walks into the film - straight from a sunbath, only casually wrapped in a towel - she's visibly scheming, and the fact that she's clearly the driving force behind the plot while still managing to arrange it so she does little of the actual work necessary for it makes her all the more fascinating to watch.
If you start digging deeper into her motivations, though, as the film does, her character uncovers more complications and layers, at least contextually speaking. After she's hooked Walter, and they're alone in his apartment, she sets the stage for suggesting her husband's murder by describing how miserable she is trapped with him. Posed the question of why he won't give her a divorce, which Walter answers by assuming Dietrichson doesn't want to spend the money on it, she reveals he hasn't got any money, not anymore. Walter fills in the rest: "But he had when you married him?" She shoots back: "Yes, he had. And I wanted a home. Why not?" She's on the defensive, but she has a point. A typical woman's options for earning money beyond a working living were virtually nonexistent in that era. Marrying a man with money was the only business decision she was allowed to make. Phyllis polishes it up by tacking on a tale about being Dietrichson's first wife's nurse, and feeling sorry for him after her death. Walter, and the audience, doesn't quite buy it. But she isn't exactly expecting us to. And, really, why should she have to?
On top of that, Phyllis lays a sob story about the way her husband treats her - which ranges from micromanaging her purchases to slapping her in drunken rages. This is at least partially supported, as we see later, by Mr. Dietrichson's own behavior. He is rude, dismissive and imperious, not just to Phyllis, but to his own daughter, Lola. He's not particularly pleasant even to Walter. Not that any of that justifies his murder, but, given a man who clearly behaves as if he would hit his wife, the wicked edge of Phyllis's desire to escape is softened slightly.
Even as film noir sketched out changes in postwar men - no longer the straightforward triumphant hero but a shadowed, unsure victim of fate - it also began to hint at changes in the postwar woman. Film noir women are cold, conniving and duplicitous. They are generally on their own, no families, no one to take care of them. If they are tied to anyone, it's to a man, and usually they have made a tough bargain for him. Or, the current man is only there until she finds another rock to which she can leap.
This is all deliciously bad, and all the reasons why the femme fatale has evolved into a fun cartoon. But underneath it, there's a story about the American woman learning to take care of herself in a violent, unfair world. These are not the innocent, happy-go-lucky golddiggers and the hard-working, good-hearted Girl Fridays of the 30's. These women are hardened, uncomfortably wise and necessarily ruthless. And, in a twisted way, there's something even more attractive and admirable to them than their squeaky-clean predecessors.
There isn't a better example of this than Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson. It's why she and her platinum wig have endured all this time. It's not merely because she's the over-the-top pefect femme fatale. It's because underneath that, there's this tough-as-nails survivor who, even those she's rotten to the core, earns grudging respect for surviving in the first place. She's one of the most indelible American anti-heroines. And, like most anti-heroines, they endure because a bit of us - against our better judgment and natures, beyond our experiences seeing them lose again and again - wishes, maybe one time, they could win.
Up next: a film I briefly mentioned in this series a long time ago, but didn't do much more than mention. So I'll revisit Brick.