Attraction scene: Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity'



Unbridled lust and the siren at the top of the stairs: Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity' (1944).

In Hollywood film noir, attraction invariably has deadly consequences.

As John Milton might have put it, it is about the desire to eat the "fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste" brings "death into the world, and all our woe". In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman who has pushed himself through the door of a house up in the hills of LA in a bid to sell an auto-renewal policy. Mr Dietrichson hasn't been returning his calls and so he decides to make a personal visit. Dietrichson is not at home but his wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), is. Neff first sees her at the top of the stairs. "Is there anything I can do," she purrs as she stands there dressed only in a bath towel with a pair of sunglasses dangling from her right hand.

The moment of the first meeting is furtive and voyeuristic but also has a comic element. Neff has come to talk about insurance and here he is, confronted with a siren who looks like Hollywood's answer to Eve. We are complicit in his guilt and titillation as he stares with such unbridled lust at her. The dialogue zings with double-entendres. "The insurance runs out on the 15th. I'd hate to think of your having a smashed fender or something while you're not... fully covered." "Perhaps I know what you mean, Mr Neff. I've just been taking a sun bed." "No pigeons around, I hope."

The salesman's attraction for Phyllis is overwhelming. In one of the most fetishistic shots in all Wilder's work, we gaze with Neff as he eyes Phyllis's long, long legs descending the staircase. Now dressed all in white, she sits coquettishly, making sure that Neff has full view of her anklet. She is the black widow, slowly drawing him into a scheme to kill her husband.

"It was a hot afternoon and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all the way along that street," he tells us in a voice-over as he describes the drive back to the office. "How could I know that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"

In that instant when he sees Phyllis on the stairs, Neff sets out on the road to ruin. It is as the genre dictates a deadly attraction and Stanwyck is the quintessential femme fatale. The attraction comes laced with disgust. In film noir, an element of misogyny and sexual anxiety is always there. The woman is always to blame. It is her fault that she has lured in the man to perform some heinous deed or other. Later in Double Indemnity, Phyllis tells Neff she is "rotten to the heart", while she casually flicks cigarette ash into the carpet, just to make sure we are under no illusion she is some squeaky clean all-American girl.

The warning signs are there. It's Neff who blunders into her life rather than vice versa, but from that first moment of attraction, he can't pull himself away from her.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

    £22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Foreign Exchange Dealer - OTE £40,000+

    £16000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Foreign Exchange Dealer is re...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Engineer

    £19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity now exists for a...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones