Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Dame of Noir

There's a lingo in film noir that's distinctly all its own. But, if someone asked you the definition of femme fatale, the answer is quite simple: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She's a doll, a dame (and I'm not talkin' Judi Dench or that Downton broad–that's the straight skinny!), a regular tomato. She's the sort of babe that will make a man kill for her. At the time of its release, Stanwyck was the highest paid actress in Hollywood and she received her third (out of a career total of four) Best Actress Oscar nomination for the film. Her performance and the film as a whole –one the greatest in the film noir genre – is the subject of this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot courtesy of Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

Double Indemnity was based on a novella of the same name by James M. Cain (no stranger to this line of work as his previous novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, can attest. Apparently Hollywood liked him in the genre so much that they later turned his novel Mildred Pierce into noir as well–despite not being written that way in the book) and adapted for the screen by the director, Billy Wilder, and writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler created the Philip Marlowe detective (played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep) and, along with Cain and Dashiell Hammett, considered the founders of the detective/crime novel. It's thanks to these here wise heads that we got some of the most amazing dialogue to ever come out of an actor's trap. 

Take for instance this exchange at the first meeting between Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray (the guy that invented Flubber! I know! Who knew?) as the insurance salesman, Walter Neff. Neff has come to the Dietrichson house to have Mr. Dietrichson renew his insurance policy, but gets more than he bargained for...

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about 8:30. He'll be in then.
Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My Husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But, I'm sorta getting over the idea, if you know what I mean. 
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Neff: That tears it...

Genius. It just comes so fast and furious. Their responses are right on top of each other, but at the same time you can tell they're still listening to each other. And even though it's full of smart little quips, the intelligence of the two actors and their characters still make the stylized exchange believable. But, it really was of its time and definitely a style. I'm sure Regular Joe's weren't able to come up with stuff this quickly in real life, but that's what elevates it. If only Hollywood screenwriters today would try to write dialogue this sharp. Although, I shudder to think what it would sound like coming out of the mouths of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Alba.

With such brilliant words and performances, the visuals have to fall flat than, right? Whatya talk! Didn't you hear that this here is Hit Me With Your Best Shot. And kablamo-here's mine.

 Phyllis, in an unhappy marriage, has convinced Neff to take out accident insurance on her husband without him knowing it. There's a double indemnity clause which gives the beneficiary twice the amount of insurance money if the death is accidental. Only, the two murder her husband and make it look like an accident so they can collect the money. But, the plot doesn't exactly go as smoothly as intended and is actually driving the two apart and the claim is being rejected. The two haven't seen each other in weeks (and Neff has been seeing her stepdaughter in the meantime), but finally meet at the grocery store where they first finalized the murder plot. Neff wants to give up, but Phyllis–Lady Macbeth in the canned food aisle–taking off her cat-eye sunglasses reveals her stone-cold stare, chillingly tells him how it's going down:

Phyllis: I loved you, Walter, and I hated him. But, I wasn't gonna do anything about it, not til I met
         you. You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead.
Neff: I'm the one who fixed it so we was dead. Is that what you're telling me?
Phyllis: And nobody's pulling out. We went into this together–We're coming out at the end together.
         It's straight down the line for both of us. Remember...

If only the other shoppers knew the messy bit of business going on in Aisle 3. 

The mundane setting is  wonderfully juxtaposed with the far-from-normal discussion they're having. As is Phyllis, herself, with her perfectly styled peroxide hair and designer glasses, amid the everyday food items. They go here to be inconspicuous, but who would ever buy that this woman has ever gone grocery shopping a day in her life? 

What I love about Stanwyck's performance in this shot is all the power she can convey with doing almost nothing. Typically the norm would have been for her to get melodramatic (one need only look to the actress playing her stepdaughter to see an example). But everything about her Phyllis is calculated, with an economy of movement . Every move she makes is for a purpose. She's not even going to blink (I actually don't think she blinks the whole film) because any good femme fatale knows that when you stare a man down, you can get him to do anything...


  1. "If only Hollywood screenwriters today would try to write dialogue this sharp." If only.

    "Lady Macbeth in the canned food aisle ... If only the other shoppers knew the messy bit of business going on in Aisle 3." Love it.

    "But who would ever buy that this woman has ever gone grocery shopping a day in her life? " NEVER thought about that.

    1. ha. she's just so manicured and put-together. she really stands out against the other woman in their house coats!

  2. This is an awesome write up.... whatya talk!

    so true about dialogue but it's not just the noir genre. the rat-a-tat-tat machine gun dialogue in 30s and 40s pictures is really something. i guess we only see it today in the very very best sitcoms but even then it's not usually as tied to character and plot but just quipping.

    1. thanks!
      yeah, that 30s and 40s dialogue comes at a breakneck speed. i'm immediately reminded of HIS GIRL FRIDAY in which cary grant and rosalind russell speak so quickly it gives you whiplash!

  3. Stanwyck's incredible because not only can she deftly handle that fantastic dialog you pointed out, she also can convey everything she needs to *without* the amazing dialog! Great choice!

    1. thank you! yeah, she's certainly one of the greats. i know general consensus is that she was robbed of the oscar this year. but, ingrid bergman is pretty great in GASLIGHT as well. and it's by far her best performance of her 3 wins. it's a tough call. but the fact that stanwyck never won is beyond reproach!

  4. Great choice from so many possibilities. About the part of the stepdaughter, the actress that played her is sweet but unmemorable and yes a bit overly dramatic but at one point Susan Hayward, still working her way up, was considered for it. That would have certainly put a different face on the part, Susan's innate flintiness would have surely made the girl less pallid and I wonder what kind of vibe she and Barbara would have thrown off.

    1. i actually don't mind a little melodramatic acting. i just think it's interesting how in control stanwyck is of her emotions and how she's not afraid to go smaller when the tendency would be to go bigger. that's probably why her work as an actress has endured while so many others feel dated.
      i hadn't heard that bit of casting. but...i'm ashamed to admit that i've never seen anything with susan hayward! i have I'LL CRY TOMORROW and SMASH-UP: THE STORY OF A WOMAN sitting on my DVR and one of these days i'll get around to them!