WEIRDLAND: Binary Genre Models in "Double Indemnity"

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Binary Genre Models in "Double Indemnity"

Barbara Stanwyck, photographed by A.L. Whitey Schafer and Costume by Edith Head. Publicity photo for 'Double Indemnity' (1944) directed by Billy Wilder

DOUBLE INDEMNITY SCRIPT - NEFF: He interrupts the dictation, lays down the horn on the desk. He takes his lighted cigarette from the ash tray, puffs it two or three times, and kills it. He picks up the horn again. NEFF (His voice is now quiet and contained) It began last May. About the end of May, it was. I had to run out to Glendale to deliver a policy on some dairy trucks. On the way back I remembered this auto renewal on Los Feliz. So I decided to run over there. It was one of those Calif. Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This one must have cost somebody about 30,000 bucks -- that is, if he ever finished paying for it. As he goes on speaking, SLOW DISSOLVE TO: DIETRICHSON HOME - LOS FELIZ DISTRICT -

“I Won’t Tell You What I Did Then”: The (Partial) Confession of Walter Huff: Walter Huff, made even more famous by Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff portrayal in the 1944 Billy Wilder film, is often set forth as the prime example of the fall guy seduced and betrayed by the murderous femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in 'Double Indemnity' (1944)

Walter refers to his attraction to Phyllis at one point as “some kind of unhealthy excitement that came over me just at the sight of her”. He contrasts this response with the feelings the innocent Lola inspires in him: “[A] sweet peace... came over me as soon as I was with her”. Phyllis is all agitation for Walter, while Lola is safe, heimlich, the expected family romance. Their different brands of femininity appear to be defined primarily by Walter’s bodily reaction in their presence. His body constitutes their gender; his hysterical response casts Phyllis as a lethal femme fatale.

Phyllis fails to fulfill physical/aesthetic expectations of the glamorous femme fatale. She is not “beautiful,” but merely “pretty.” She dresses simply—but also androgynously. No seamed stockings, tight dresses, or veiled hats. She wears lounging pajamas on first meeting Walter, later a sailor suit, then a sweater and slacks. She is characterized as appearing “sweet” rather than seductive. Walter first describes her as having a “washed out look” and later as having teeth that are “big and white and maybe a little buck” -the linking of Phyllis’s mouth with slang for money (“buck”) is surely telling- Hollowed out and even ironized, the femme fatale consequently is made to appear less and less an independent figure than a constitutive projection performing a crucial function for Walter.

Readers are not given salivating descriptions of Phyllis’s body or face, and consequently do not participate in Walter’s desire so directly, thereby enabling readers to see Walter’s projection more clearly. Her illness is within him — maybe it always was. Walter tells us early on: “I was peeping over the edge, and all the time I was trying to pull away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look”. Instead of bowing out when Walter hears Phyllis say she regrets their kiss and loves her husband, Walter pushes forward, confiding to the reader, “the thing was in me, pushing me still closer to the edge. And then I could feel it again, that she wasn’t saying what she meant”. Again, Walter locates the drive within himself, as something he “feels.”

The reliance on intuition is tested when Walter meets Phyllis for the first time. They have only spoken for a few minutes when Walter begins to suspect that Phyllis may, in hardboiled parlance, have an angle (though he mistakes what the angle is). It is at this moment when, he confides, “all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair.” It fixes Walter, even when Phyllis changes the subject. While he refers to her look’s potency, it is actually his look that seems compulsive and insistent as he “tries to keep [his] eyes off her, and couldn’t.”

Mary Ann Doane writes that the femme fatale is an “articulation of fears surrounding the loss of stability and centrality of the self, the ‘I,’ the ego. Phyllis’s presence surely “unmans” Walter here —but the “unmanning” is multi-leveled. The two take part in a dance in which Walter attempts to control the situation, while Phyllis plots behind the scenes; just when he thinks he has the power, it is revealed to be a sham, not just because Phyllis is more clever or more malevolent, but because her very presence can literally destabilize Walter.

There is another mode of destabilization that is explicitly gendered, and it is negotiated through Phyllis’s appearance. Her pajamas cling to her body as she moves in such a way that he can suddenly discern the appealing curvy shape beneath: “... I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts”. Her sailor suit pulls over her hips, hinting at her figure. Her raincoat and swimming cap promise even more hidden pleasures—but, after Walter “[gets] her peeled off,” he finds she’s wearing “just a dumb Hollywood outfit” of slacks and a sweater, though even there “it looked different on her”.

William Luhr notes about the film version of 'Double Indemnity' (scripted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler), “The image of the crippled man on crutches applies to three men [Huff, Sachetti, Nirdlinger]... The broken leg, the crutches... symbolically point to a phallic injury, an emasculation suffered by men who became involved with this black widow... The film links this image of debilitation, deformity, death to sexual association with Phyllis.” Walter is not merely threatened by the femme fatale, but his masculinity is configured such that he identifies with, desires, and doubles the femme fatale. This complication leads us to ask if, in fact, the femme fatale is nothing more than Walter himself.

Phyllis has shifted from being Walter’s plant to being the Company’s, as their virtual executioner. She operates unknowingly as a stand-in for the Company, which is effectively a stand-in for an all-consuming capitalist economy. Femininity so equated with death in the text, ends up forming a triangulated relationship with the stranglehold of business on Walter’s desire. Both Phyllis and General Fidelity (the Company’s name signifies its insistence on allegiance) provide Walter with opportunities to enact a family romance by betraying the patriarch, be it Mr. Nirdlinger or Company founder Norton (or Keyes).

William Marling suggests that Walter’s mistake was in failing to realize that the “emerging economy needed to limit [his brand of ] aggressive rationality rather than to have insiders use what usually did not happen against it”. But rather, it seems Walter’s error was in underestimating the extent to which he had absorbed, or “caught” the Company. Walter assumed he could beat it from the inside, not understanding that he was not inside the system; the system was inside him. Phyllis, while appearing to be Walter’s disease, is in fact his symptom of the larger Company pathology he has “caught.” The disease is the Company he cannot beat because he has become it. Keyes knows that Walter cannot truly flee, and Phyllis unwittingly functions as the Company’s hit man, the long arm of the Company reaching out to annihilate the stray. But Phyllis does not truly need to assassinate Walter; Walter recognizes what he carries within him and enters into death of his own volition.

Neither Walter nor Phyllis can exit their respective gender systems, but for Phyllis, the death pact is an ecstatic communion with the system through which her femininity is defined and, if we accept her self-identification as Death, the system through which she defines herself. Conversely, for Walter, the suicide pact is a hysterical recognition of his own utter lack of agency. The systems intermesh, interlock, and leave Walter with one position, white male cog whose body and function have been prescribed for him all along. This lack of male agency amid larger social systems will prove a recurrent pattern within hardboiled fiction. While the weakness of the tough guy–as–sap in his interactions with the femme fatale is often broached, 'Double Indemnity' demonstrates the extent to which that femme fatale is merely a symbol of larger and deeply oppressive societal structures that imprison both genders in tyrannically binary models.

-"The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir" by Megan E. Abbott (2002) / 'I Can Feel Her': The White Male as Hysteric in James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler (Chapter 2)

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