Attraction scene: Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity'
Saturday 13 September 2008
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.
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