Barbara Stanwyck: Double Indemnity
Some actors are born to play a certain type. The word type-cast does exist for a reason. Some are gruff and cast as cops, while others are wise and cast as grandfathers. This, however, was not the case for Barbara Stanwyck‘s Phyllis Dietrichson when cast in Double Indemnity.
Although she had played characters with a severe moral deficiency in the past, before Double Indemnity Stanwyck had yet to play an all out, conscious free, cold-blooded killer – let alone one draped in femme fatale’s clothing. Yes, at first glance Barbara Stanwyck seems a bit miscast as the woman whose charm and beauty are to bring a noble man to his untimely doom. Sure, we’ve seen her sleep her way to the top in Baby Face and flirt like her life depended on it in Ball of Fire but never had Stanwyck been deemed the cool seductress or breaker of man. And to her credit, that’s not how she played the role. Her femme fatale is so much more.
The typical femme fatale up to this point had made use of one primary weapon: an ungodly beauty with innate feminine charms. Sure, they were intelligent, plotting creatures, I am in no way saying the femme fatale is only beauty, but it was always their beauty they utilized first. With Stanwyck, beauty but one of the many tools in her arsenal. With Stanwyck, the femme fatale is less seduction and more manipulation. Every conversation is an opportunity to consume information or feed lies with every word calculated to elicit the correct emotional response. She can see the evil in the hearts of men, allowing herself to become a reflection of their own greed and naked ambition. Yes, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) may have already fantasized about committing the perfect crime but without Stanwyck’s cold manipulation, without her false charms, it would have remained just that – harmless fantasy. Although Neff clearly had a dark side, it would never have seen light of day if not for Phyllis Dietrichson.
For me, the most riveting part of Stanwyck’s performance is during the killing of her husband, only known as Mr. Dietrichson. The choice of Billy Wilder to remain close on Stanwyck’s face as opposed to showing the actual murder was genius. Her face is a culmination of everything that has transpired. Her initial surprise, the surprise that this is actually happending, is short lived. What happens next is powerful. All at once we see in her face the naked ambition and greed that drives her. Although her face is restrained, it does not lessen her ugly satisfaction at her husband’s unnatural death, at her undeserved reward.
Phyllis Dietrichson could have easily been your typical seductress, a femme fatale shrouded in beauty and mystery whose only saving grace is her love for her “victim”. Instead, we got something different. We got something colder, more calculating. What we got was a murderer disguised a seductress, a women with love for only herself, her ambition and her greed. What we got was one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best performances of her career.
This post was written in conjunction with the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol. There are so many more wonderful Classic Bloggers participating in this event so please be sure to check out the other entries.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub