The Lady is a Tramp…: Clues and Innuendos in DOUBLE INDEMNITY
10 April 2011
Throughout her career, Barbara Stanwyck played memorable women; all strong, many humorous, a few unfavorable, but only one completely wicked and lecherous…Phyllis Dietrichson. In 1944, Billy Wilder released his noir sensation, Double Indemnity, and, through Phyllis, introduced the world to a whole new breed of villain.
However, the audience does not know until the film’s conclusion how despicable Phyllis is. Until the end, the audience cannot know definitively if Phyllis is a battered wife or a methodical murderess. Yet, Wilder, through a series of unspoken clues, leads the audience to see how deceptive and two-faced Phyllis is. Also, Wilder uses innuendos, subtly leading the audience into seeing Phyllis as depraved and morally corrupt woman.
Some of Wilder’s clues are obvious, such as the Phyllis’ gaudy costume jewelry and (of course) her hair. The striking blonde hairdo is tacky and flamboyant. Through this over-the-top look, Wilder is able to pass a message to the audience about Phyllis. She claims she is a depressed, abused housewife, yet, this cheap showgirl hairdo reflects the opposite. In using this hairstyle, the audience witnesses an inconsistency in what Phyllis is saying about herself versus how she appears in front of us. These mixed signals reveal how two-faced Phyllis is, heightening the audience’s suspicion.
Some of Wilder’s clues are much more subtle, specifically during the scene Phyllis visits Walter’s (Fred MacMurray) apartment for the first time, right after he accuses her of wanting to kill her husband. First, Phyllis’ white shirt is nearly sheer, making is easy to see her bra underneath. Perhaps in today’s standards this shirt would not mean as much, but for 1944 this outfit is indecent. Once again, the clue is Phyllis plays two sides; the shirt is white, representing innocence and purity, yet it is also sheer, representing lust and sexuality.
Also during this scene, lighting provides a clue about Phyllis’ deception. Once seated on the couch, Phyllis tells Walter her story: why she married her husband, how terrible her marriage is, and how upset she is with her life. During her story, light hits Phyllis’ face from a lamp on an end table; because of the angle, the light only shines on half of her face. The other half, the side closest to Walter, is dark. Like the hair and white shirt, this lighting identifies Phyllis’ duality. Walter, on her unlit side, is in the dark, literally and figuratively. Walter believes everything Phyllis says because Walter cannot see her in the light, for who she actually is. Phyllis is mixing truth with lies (light with dark) to convince Walter of her precarious situation and swaying him into killing her husband for her. This subtle lighting clue Wilder cleverly inserts into this pivotal, relatively early scene in the film leads the audience to recognize the overt deceit, and therefore untrustworthiness, of Phyllis.
Lastly, in this scene Wilder includes a bold innuendo, suggesting Phyllis’ depravity in seducing Walter to get what she wants. At the end of Phyllis and Walter’s talk on the couch, Walter wraps his arms around Phyllis to comfort her. The camera quickly zooms out and cuts to a new scene. Since this story is all a flashback (as Walter is confessing to his part in Mr. Dietrichson’s murder), the scene cuts to Walter recording his testimony. He speaks for a moment and then the camera returns to Walter and Phyllis on the couch. When the camera left the two, they were embracing, but now Walter is lying on the couch smoking a cigarette and Phyllis sits at the other end reapplying her lipstick. Also, the light the once shinned in Phyllis is now off, changing the mood of the room. Glancing at the scene, it seems obvious the two just had a sexual encounter, an adulterous encounter Wilder could not be overt about in 1944. Wilder’s strong insinuation that Phyllis seduced Walter in hopes of getting him to murder her husband identifies for the audience how morally corrupt she is.
Wilder’s subtle and blatant suggestions litter the film; through them the audience sees the deception and trickery in Phyllis long before the film’s revealing conclusion.
It is no surprise Billy Wilder so cleverly, complexly, and inconspicuously reveals what a femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson is. Wilder is an experienced director, and Double Indemnity is one of his greatest accomplishments; yet, his overall treatment of women, in this film and his entire filmography, is unsettling. Billy Wilder is eerily masterful at painting all women in a subversive light, case in point, Phyllis Dietrichson.