Noir Nook: Top Five Reasons Why I Love Phyllis Dietrichson
If you know me at all, you’ll know that my favorite noir, hands-down, no question, is Double Indemnity (1944), which tells the story of an insurance salesman who teams with a fatal femme to murder the woman’s husband. From the unique opening credits featuring the shadowy figure walking slowly toward the camera on a pair of crutches to the perfect, noirishly somber final scene, there’s nothing I don’t love about this film. And one of the things I love most is the femme fatale character, Phyllis Dietrichson, flawlessly played by Barbara Stanwyck. Sexy, shrewd, and ruthless, Phyllis is one of noir’s coldest and most unforgettable dames, and I’m devoting this month’s Noir Nook to the top five reasons why I can’t get enough of her!
1) Phyllis’s entrance. We first meet Phyllis when insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) shows up at her house in an attempt to secure an auto insurance renewal. While Walter is at the door gabbing with the maid, Phyllis appears at the top of the stairs, clad only in a towel, having just emerged from a sunbath. After only a few seconds in her presence, Walter’s tongue is practically hanging out of his mouth. He can barely keep an appreciative smile from curving his lips, or stop cracking lame, suggestive jokes. And when Phyllis exits stage left to slip into something a little less comfortable, we learn what a powerful impact Phyllis has made on him: “I was thinking about that dame upstairs and the way she had looked at me. And I wanted to see her again. Close. Without that silly staircase between us.”
2) Phyllis’s powers of persuasion. After their first brief meeting, Phyllis makes an appointment for Walter to return to her home, when her husband and maid are conveniently away. This gives her the opportunity to “throw a little more business [Walter’s] way” by suggesting that her husband, who works in the oil fields, should have accident insurance. She manages to subtly convey that her marriage is not a happy one (“Sometimes we sit here all evening and never say a word to each other.”), but she overplays her hand when she posits taking out the insurance without her husband’s knowledge. Walter’s no fool – “You want to knock him off, don’t you?” he asks – and wastes no time hightailing it out of there, but Phyllis is nothing if not determined. She shows up at Walter’s apartment that evening, wearing a tight sweater and telling him that he left his hat at her home earlier (he didn’t). Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Walter’s offering her a drink and admiring her perfume and agreeing to help her murder her husband.
3) Phyllis’s nerves of steel. Throughout the film, Phyllis demonstrates that, when faced with circumstances that might cause others to collapse in defeat, she is completely unflappable, including her steely reaction as her husband is murdered just inches away from her. My favorite example is the scene where she’s summoned to the office of the president of the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company, where Walter works as a salesman. What she doesn’t know before she enters the office of the “big boss” is that Walter is inside. But once she encounters him, she doesn’t bat an eyelash, coolly acknowledging that she’s met him before, and steadily accepting a glass of water from him. And later, when the company president offers his theory that Mr. Dietrichson committed suicide, Phyllis launches into a righteous rant that leaves the president speechless: “I don’t like your insinuations and I don’t like your methods. In fact, I don’t like you, Mr. Norton!”
4) Phyllis’s wardrobe and accessories. Whether she was clad in tailored slacks and a trench coat or a fancy white pantsuit, Phyllis’s wardrobe was always well-appointed. And it wasn’t just her clothes. In the scene at the insurance company, she’s wearing a smoking-hot black hat with a veil that’s to absolutely die for, and she’s seen several times with a pair of sunglasses that I’d happily purchase tomorrow if I could. Her stylish clothes and trimmings were perfect for a dame of her poisonous persuasion.
5) Phyllis’s last-minute change of heart. Until her final scene, Phyllis was single-minded, cold-blooded, calculating, and resolute: “You planned the whole thing,” she emotionlessly tells Walter in one scene. “I only wanted him dead. . . Nobody’s pulling out. It’s straight down the line for both of us. Remember?” Even near the end, she’s seen calmly setting the stage to kill Walter – dim lights, soft music, gun hidden under the cushion of her chair. And she doesn’t hesitate to shoot Walter the first chance she gets. But when she’s given the opportunity to fire a second, unquestionably fatal round, she’s struck by a sudden attack of conscience, or love, or something. She doesn’t seem to know herself what’s come over her. But I can’t deny that whatever it is, I like it – it makes her, even if just for a few seconds, a little more human.
What do you think of Phyllis Dietrichson? Do you love her as much as I do? Leave a comment and let me know. And stay tuned for future Noir Nook posts for Top Five Reasons!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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