Craving Classic Hollywood: Double Indemnity

Right around New Year’s, I decided to reconnect with my interest in film. With an ambiguous future writing project in mind, I set out to explore the world of Classic Hollywood. A Netflix DVD subscription was renewed (two at a time because I’m not messing around), and I was on my way.

But ambiguous future project aside, I would be remiss if I didn’t chronicle my adventures on the blog. I owe a huge debt to Anne Helen Petersen and her Scandals of Classic Hollywood posts on The Hairpin, as well as Carol Donelan’s Intro to Cinema and Media Studies class. They gave me a framework for understanding these movies and enjoying them on a whole new level. Most of the films I’m watching were recommended by one of these two sources.

Double Indemnity 2

I knew that I had to watch Double Indemnity (1944) after reading Anne Helen Petersen’s post about Barbara Stanwyck. Until now most of my Barbara Stanwyck exposure came from her playing the mom on The Big Valley (think Bonanza but with a matriarch), but as usual Petersen’s enthusiasm peaked my interest. Stanwyck as the femme fatale of a film noir sounded too good to miss. Double Indemnity is about insurance fraud . . . and murder! Stanwyck plays dissatisfied wife Phyllis Dietrichson, and Fred MacMurray is Walter Neff, the charming insurance man caught in her web.

The film was directed by Billy Wilder, also the man behind Sunset Boulevard (1950). I couldn’t help comparing the two films as I watched Double Indemnity. Both are narrated by the male lead from after the action is over, and you know from the start that things don’t turn out well for them. (William Holden is floating face-down in a swimming pool, and Fred MacMurray doesn’t look much better.) I assume this structure began as a way to satisfy the Hays Code, which required immoral characters to receive a comeuppance at some point in the film. If it’s clear from the beginning that the protagonist will come to a sticky end, it seemingly frees him up for all manner of questionable behavior.

Double Indemnity 1

And then of course there’s the femme fatale, getting the male lead into all kinds of trouble. Barbara Stanwyck fits wonderfully into this role with her throaty voice making her sound like Classic Hollywood’s answer to Scarlett Johansson. Stanwyck’s blonde wig is the butt of many jokes, but as a modern viewer I just saw it as some kooky 1940s hair. When she first appears at the top of the stairs in a towel, you can see why Fred MacMurray gets sucked in. But speaking of MacMurray, I was surprised by how aggressively flirtatious his character is with Phyllis. Aren’t femme fatales supposed to lore in their men?

But that’s the genius! Just like Walter, you don’t realize how conniving Phyllis is until it’s too late. (Maybe this is a typical femme fatale maneuver, but I’m novice enough to consider it a revelation.) As Phyllis and Walter put their plan in motion, her face is all thinly veiled triumph and red lips. The plot gets even crazier from there, but I won’t completely spoil it. It makes me wish more than ever that I had taken that film noir class during my last term at Carleton.

I’m discovering that to-watch lists are a lot like to-read lists. Once I get started, the list just keeps getting longer. For instance, Double Indemnity made me want to watch more Billy Wilder films and more Barbara Stanwyck. I guess that means more Craving Classic Hollywood posts in the future.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Craving Classic Hollywood: Double Indemnity

  1. Mom

    I’m glad this film is also on my to-watch list! And of course I loved that you referenced The Big Valley. See, my influence isn’t all bad…
    Love, Mom

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