The trivia regarding Barbara Stanwyck’s participation in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is certainly one of the most interesting and well-known in Hollywood-history. After the actress expressed her doubts about the role since it was so different from the characters she usually played, Billy Wilder simply asked her ‘Well, are you a mouse or an actress?’ Definitely a wonderful question that should have been asked much more often in the old days of Hollywood when so many actors and actresses were afraid to play roles outside of their carefully constructed screen image. And so, Barbara Stanwyck said yes to what would become the signature performance of her career in Hollywood’s most famous film-noir.
Barbara Stanwyck is an actress who doesn’t have the same lasting effect as other actresses from her era, like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman. But the reason is not that she didn’t offer the same amount of talent – because, oh, she did! – but because there was never something truly ‘Barbara-Stanwyck’-like about her. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn had such strong personalities which they brought to every role they played – no matter how deeply they sunk into their parts, their performances are always a ‘Bette-Davis-performance’ or a ‘Katharine-Hepburn-performance’. This does not mean that they couldn’t disappear into their parts – because, oh, they did – but it means that they always left their mark on the characters they played. Barbara Stanwyck was different simply because she lacked that strong, unmistakable screen presence – don’t get me wrong, she possessed a lot of strength on the screen but she never felt truly unique or one-of-a-kind. Because of this, she was able to disappear into her parts like very few actresses from her time did – she could be a supportive mother, a sassy moll, a terrified murder victim or a cold, manipulative femme fatale. Of course, the success of all these performances varied – some are strong, some are weak – but Barbara Stanwyck always became one with the character she was playing. There is a reason why so many people can easily imitate Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman – but how would you imitate Barbara Stanwyck? And so Barbara Stanwyck might have been nervous about playing a role like Phyllis Dietrichson, a cold woman convincing an insurance salesman to help her kill her husband, but it was no surprise that she was fully up to the task adjusting her own acting style to the character she was playing and the movie she was appearing in. Well, but how did she use this ability in regards to actually crafting and playing this character?
Double Indemnity is a movie that not necessarily makes it easy for the actors appearing in it. The script follows a very clever idea but it suffers from the fact that the dialogue is sometimes almost unbearably exaggerated in the way it constantly presents clever one-liners, double entendres, tough talk and much, much more. On top of that, the characters in Double Indemnity rather resemble a cardboard, missing true life and recognizable humanity. So, the screenplay of Double Indemnity could easy have ruined the entire experience – if there hadn’t been an outstanding director and actors who were able to give the characters the life and depth they missed on the page. Billy Wilder created the perfect atmosphere to make the story of Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff believable – that undeniable ‘film noir’-atmosphere, an aura that isn’t real but a stylized creation. And if a director is able to achieve the tasks the screenplay has given him, then it results in a perfect symbiosis – and then also the screenplay, that exaggerated, undeveloped screenplay, turns into something wonderful. The trick is that only if the atmosphere of a film noir has been successfully created the screenplay can unfold its magic – if the director is not up to the task, everything will only seem like a cheap melodrama from the 40s instead of a timeless classic. Well, as mentioned before, Billy Wilder was certainly up to the task of creating this unique world of Double Indemnity – so what about the actors? Were they able to take their thin characters and play them in a way that turned them into human beings that are both real but simultaneously just as surreal as their environment? Thankfully yes. Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson both perfectly understood their material, the screenplay’s guidelines and Billy Wilder’s vision and that way delivered very strong performances that wonderfully contributed to the success of the movie. And, of course, Barbara Stanwyck did so, too.
In her work, Barbara Stanwyck perfectly combined the realism of her own acting with a very stylized approach – everything about her, from the way she uses her eyes right down to the movement of her body, works together to create a woman that can be seen as both: realistic and surreal, able to stand as a rational creation while appearing to be something right out of a dark fairy tale. With her performance, she was able to combine the need for realism to carry the plot with the need for stylized substance to carry the style of the movie. Phyllis Dietrichson is a character that can exist in the world of Double Indemnity just as well as in a more realistic, authentic context. But even beyond that, she inserted various different interpretations into Phyllis Dietrichson and was able to project them all the same time. She never tried to turn this woman into something extraordinary, a cold-blooded symbol of evil, but instead always keeps her extremely ordinary, even appalling as the story moves along. She is not an elegant and mysterious Lady McBeth but rather a spoiled and lazy woman who wants her own comfort above everything else. And it’s thrilling to see how Barbara Stanwyck gives reason after reason why this woman should neither be trusted nor be admired while also turning her into an endlessly fascinating creation. The fact that Barbara Stanwyck could make this woman completely common and unique at the same time is surely a grand achievement that helped to turn Double Indemnity into such a classic. Because Barbara Stanwyck does not only present these two point-of-views on her character at the same time, but she also develops them both as the movie moves forward. Phyllis Dietrichson may appear extremely fascinating at first but the more one watches her, the more she turns into a repellent creation – but mysteriously Barbara Stanwyck herself remains strangely unaffected by that. Phyllis Dietrichson may appear common and loathly but Barbara Stanwyck always remains completely watchable and captivating as she has complete control over Phyllis, her transformation into her and her distance from her. This is also shown by Barbara Stanwyck’s ability to make Phyllis so incredibly…ungifted. When she fist tries to seduce Walter or especially during her scene at the insurance agency after the death of her husband, it becomes clear that Phyllis is not a woman who can hide her true feelings completely. Her complaints about the treatment she receives at the agency are done by Barbara Stanwyck with a brilliant double-meaning as she acts in a way that always makes it clear that Phyllis is hiding something but this is only clear because the audience knows the truth. At the same time, she tries her best to be as convincing as possible at this moment but it's understandable if the character of Edward G. Robinson senses that something is not right. Barbara Stanwyck manages to always make Phyllis an amateur, maybe a very gifted one but still an amateur, an impatient woman trying her best to get her wishes fulfilled but often too simple and obvious, unable to deliver all the necessary techniques for the aims she wants to achieve. She doesn’t make her intentions a secret when she meets Walter as Barbara Stanwyck shows that Phyllis is naïve enough to believe that she could either fool Walter or win him over in a few seconds. Everything about her Phyllis seems like a cover – but there isn’t much underneath it. Barbara Stanwyck is not afraid to show how empty Phyllis Dietrichson really is. Phyllis isn’t a woman that is trying to hide the deeper truth inside her because there is not much depth or truth inside of her. Barbara Stanwyck lets Phyllis become much more authentic whenever she is acting according to her own instincts, free from danger, judgment or even view – her facial work during the scene in which she is hiding behind a door is an outstanding sight that perfectly mirrors the tension of the scene while somehow also showing how much Phyllis is enjoying this moment, the thrill of the danger and the intimacy of the crime that bound her together with Walter.
As already mentioned, the screenplay offers the biggest obstacle for Barbara Stanwyck – not only is the character of Phyllis strangely underdeveloped and presented as a woman that only exists to hate her husband but Double Indemnity also puts her into various situations that could easily destroy almost any performance. A lot of times movies want to make the audience believe that two people could fall in love at first sight – by now, this cliché has been presented so many times in so many different movies that it somehow became believable. But Double Indemnity asks of Barbara Stanwyck not only to make Fred MacMacMurray’s Walter fall in love with her but becomes obsessed with her and accept her proposal to kill her husband – all pretty much during the first scenes of the movie. No actress should be able to make such a plot believable – but if the story lacks credibility here, Barbara Stanwyck does not. She does not try to make the premise of the plot believable at this point but instead focuses on the interconnection between herself and Fred MacMurray. And again, both actors are able to completely merge in the atmosphere of their movie and that way create a credibility in their story that a lot of actors would have failed to do. Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis is not sexy in the traditional meaning of the word – the horrible wig, the strangely cut cloths, her hardened face that never appears truly soft all create a woman that is almost rid of any true admirable features but Barbara Stanwyck managed to find a level of mature eroticism in Phyllis that allowed her to make everything about her plausible. She doesn't need to be sexy because she is actually much mure. She and Fred MacMurray basically turned the first half of Double Indemnity in one long sexual act – from their foreplay to their first intimacies to the growing heat and tension of the plot. And if their plan develops like an sexual intercourse, then Barbara Stanwyck’s face during the scene in the car tells very clearly when Phyllis reaches her climax. That little smile, that satisfied look in her eyes, that complete pleasure, projected with so much subtlety, is an unforgettable moment. During the whole movie, Barbara Stanwyck knows how to use her face most effectively to display desire, sneer, hate and lust. With this, she always underlines the tension of Double Indemnity perfectly.
It’s easy to see why this performance became a role model for all femme fatales to follow while never having been copied – Barbara Stanwyck added the needed mysteriousness and eroticism to the role but she was not afraid to show a more vulgar and common side in her character which helped her to achieve a much more realistic and three-dimensional performance. She lies to the audience about Phyllis while telling them the truth at the same time. A very engaging, dangerous and spellbinding performance that receives