This is a famous scene from Billy Wilder’s film-noir classic Double Indemnity. The film was released in 1944, WWII was raging on but the film does not directly address it. This particular film noir was a bit early to examine the political struggle of capitalism against communism and focuses much more on the themes of gender norms and sexuality. the way that Wilder addresses the effects of the war is through the use of Phyllis Dietrichson as the femme-fatal. During the war many women had to step up out of the home and take the jobs of men that were out fighting. At the war’s end it was patriotic for women to return jobs to the men then home from war. the role shift was temporary but there was much anxiety in the minds of men that women were becoming more independent and ready to start taking on male roles in society, threatening their jobs and way of life. it is this fear that is addressed in film noir through the femme fatal. within the genre woman attempt to break out of their gender role in society and ambition drives them to use sexuality and manipulation to get whatever they want, always leading to their demise and often the demise of the emasculated man they deceived (as is the case in Double Indemnity).
the film was made during the classical Hollywood period but like many other film-noirs it is not a product of the studio system. The noir genre was one of the first to begin shooting on location for production. this film is shot throughout Los Angeles.
In this clip much of what makes film-noir a unique genre is personified. We see the German Expressionist influence with the low key and high contrast lighting and use of shadows. we see Neff’s silhouette as he enters the home and the shadows of the blinds accross him as he enters the living room.
This is the first time we see Phyllis on screen and it is telling of her character from the beginning. though it may be common now and even in earlier films, during the 1940’s hollywood films were highly censored. Any reference to sex had to be discreet and allude censors. that is where film noir thrived, in having such strong sexual themes while hiding them beneath the surface. In Barbra Stanwyck’s first appearance she is not only wrapped in a towel but we are looking up at her from the bottom of the stairs and she is greeting a stranger. this is highly suggestive for the time period and no classy woman would ever do such a thing.
The end of this scene is filled with sexual innuendos within the dialogue. Walter comments on her anklet and then begins to hit on her, knowing she is a married woman. The jargon about the speed limit is all code to get by the censors. Brilliant. Neff disregards the fact that Phyllis is married makes him less of a man. back in the day the ideal man was one that got married, settled down had a few kids and a steady job to support the family. having sexual relationships out of wedlock was a big no no. Walter Neff is the opposite of the ideal man in the 40’s, his dialogue and interest shown in this scene towards Phyllis is just the beginning sign of his demise.
the noir elements of this scene were pushing the limit in it’s time though now they seem quite tame. I still think it’s awesome.