By the fall of 1943, Barbara Stanwyck had starred in 43 films. She had shown versatility with many styles. However, there remained one type of role, and an integral part of the spectrum of any actress, that she had never done, and the time seemed right for it. It was still early enough in cinema history for audiences to be shaken up by a thoroughly evil woman.
Stanwyck was well aware of the potential in the role of Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Wilder remarked later how Barbara jumped at the chance of playing it. In an interview for Movie Digest in 1972, Barbara, recalled, “when Billy Wilder sent me the script of Double Indemnity, and I read it, I realized that I had never played an out–and–out killer. I had played medium heavies, but never an out–and–out killer. And because it was an unsympathetic character, I was a little frightened of it. I went to his office, and I said to him, I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid, after all these years of playing heroines to play the part of an out–and–out cold– blooded killer… Mr. Wilder looked at me and resolutely declared, “Are you an actress or a mouse?” Well, I hope I’m an actress I lamented. To which he bluntly replied, Then take the part.”, I did, and I have been grateful to him since”.
In casting the characters, Barbara was Wilder’s first choice for her role, but he had great difficulty finding a leading man for the role of the besieged Walter Neff. In those days none of the big names dared play a murderer. When he proposed the story to George Raft, Raft said he would play the role only if the insurance salesman turned out in the end to be an FBI agent, an appalling thought, trying to pin down Miss Stanwyck as the murderer.
Even with Rafts refusal, Wilder was convinced he had the makings of a great film. He approached Fred MacMurray who himself had some misgivings about accepting the part. It took perseverance and a great deal of work to bring together the final combination of Stanwyck, MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson,. Who would under Wilder’s superb direction, become one of the most memorable trios in film history.
The screenplay, fashioned by Wilder and Raymond Chandler was based on the novel by James M. Cain. The film went into production in September of 1943 with a harshly made–up, brassily blonde Stanwyck. The blonde wig was Wilder’s idea, He used it, as he said “to complement her anklet. I wanted to make her look as sleazy as possible”. Cinematographer John Seitz recalled later that when Buddy DeSylva, then production head of Paramount, saw the first shots he remarked, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington”. Wilder said later, “The wig was not much good, I must admit”. I thought it was perfect!
Double Indemnity, traces an almost perfect crime from its inception to the point where it falls apart because of the two characters absolute mistrust of one another. Stanwyck’s calculating Phyllis Dietrichson persuades insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) to fix her husband up with an accident policy then murder him so they can collect $100,000 on its Double Indemnity clause. The fact that the story is told through flashbacks by a confessing Walter (wounded by the unfaithful Phyllis just before he shoots her to death) substitutes for the need to discover whodunit, and in so has the audience pulling for the murderer’s success. Despite assumptions to the contrary, the director had no problems whatsoever with the Hays office.
The direction is impeccable, and the cast carries it off to perfection. Wilder, who had the highest regard for Miss Stanwyck both as an actress and a person, said later, “She was as good an actress as I have ever worked with. Very meticulous about her work. We rehearsed the way I usually do. Hard. There were no retakes.” He also stressed, “everybody helped to make that picture what it was, my collaborator on the screenplay, Mr. Raymond Chandler, the cameraman, Mr. John Seitz, the Art Directors, Mr. Hans Dreier and Mr. Hal Pereira, and, ultimately, Mr. Miklos Rozsa, who composed the haunting score.”
Stanwyck’s performance is astounding, and for many it’s the one they most vividly remember. As Barbara said in the 1972 interview for Movie Digest, about her character in Stella Dallas, roles in which actress’s play evil women sometimes make a deep impression. There is no comparing Stella and Phyllis, except to say that they are opposites. Stella was a very open, and on face, a helpless creature, Phyllis on the other hand is a mysterious, deceiving and insidious one”. Each attracts because of the artistry Miss Stanwyck brings to them.
Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is an undiluted study in greed, cunning and vindictiveness. From her determined heels clicking down the stairs at her first meeting with Walter Neff, to her planned perfectly calculated deadly finale, she is cool and in complete control. No pity. No excuses. No nerves. Phyllis possesses not a worthy bone in her lovely body.
There is a way of putting this across with dignity and class, and Barbara Stanwyck understands how. Her Phyllis is attractive, and with the appeal of the smooth, the powerful, the fatal. She’s the ultimate of certitude, but inside, there’s a steel trap coiled and waiting to spring.
In her initial meeting with Neff she plans her moves for effect. She uses her “honey” of an anklet, her perfume, her sensuality. As she and Walter test each other, it’s clear that this will be a fight to the finish, with all the fascination and cunning such encounters hold. It’s clear though, from the beginning, it’s all Phyllis.
She is still planning when she shows up at Neff’s apartment that evening, with her hands in the pockets of her coat, informing Neff that he had forgotten his hat! There is no hat. There is however, a lovely women in a tight white sweater who brushes against him until he grabs her and signs his death warrant. “I’m crazy about you baby”, he whispers as the scent of her perfumed hair, permeates his now overpowering desire. Phyllis never makes random movements. But when she does move, it counts. From the onset, Neff stands no chance. Stanwyck brings to this role one of her greatest assets, her ability to cut out superfluous movement and direct her energy where she wants it. She also gets plenty of mileage from props, subtle and right on target; a lipstick, a piece of lemon thrown into a glass of iced tea, the lowering of a pair of sunglasses, a massive emerald cut ring on her finger. She punctuates her ideas with just the right movement and at just the right time. None of this is new for Stanwyck. Her coordination and handling of props have always been outstanding. But Double Indemnity illustrates exceptionally well the ability she has at her command, and the precision with which she can employ it. As does The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, watch how she wraps a bandage around Kirk Dougla’s hand as if it were a noose around his neck
Phyllis is so indifferent to the feelings of others that she is able to use them at her leisure. And, since she experiences no involvement, she remains free to operate without a sense of guilt. The killing of her husband finds her ablaze with satisfaction. And Walter who initially tries to pull out of their deadly arrangement is verbally poisoned. And now… Moreover, when he shows up later with murderous intentions of his own toward her, he’s faced with more of the same. What makes her so attractive is the way in which she operates. Walter hits on it when he says, “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.”
Six Academy Award nominations were given to Double Indemnity; Best Picture, Actress, Cinematography (Black and White), Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Sound Recording to Loren Ryder and Best Written Screenplay. “The film was shot in newsreel style”, said cameraman John Seitz. We attempted to keep it extremely realistic. One of Seitz’s touches of realism was the effect of waning sunlight in the cheerless living room of the Dietrichson house, which he achieved through the use of some silver dust mixed with smoke. Enhanced by his low– key lighting, it wraps the characters in an atmosphere that is both realistic and an orchestration for their deeds.
Billy Wilder has not seen the picture in years. “I never look at my old stuff”, he claims, but regards Double Indemnity as one of his favorites, “because it had the fewest takes, and because it was taut and moved in the staccato manner of Cain’s novel.”
When the film was released, the New York Herald Tribune wrote:
Of Barbara Stanwvck’s portrayal, the New York World Telegram had nothing but whoops and bravos for “the vicious conniving spirit she has woven into the girl. The Tribune found her “vibrantly malignant and attractive as the homicidal wife.” And The Brooklyn Eagle said she “has never given as striking a performance. She proceeds to give us a classic lesson in femininity.” It did. And Phyllis Dietrichson opened up a whole new direction for Barbara 5tanwyck. The fact that audiences not only accepted her as a heavy, but liked her, meant that she had added the final dimension to what she could play. Comedy or drama, heroine or villainess she would have her choice from now on.