The Femme Fatale
It is arguable that women live in a “man’s world”. Women, it might also be argued, possess certain physical attributes of appeal to men that allow them considerable advantage under some circumstances. Such attributes coupled with certain behavioral subtleties often lay bare men’s weaknesses to a point where they seem compelled to act irrationally to gain favor with the object of their passion. Such is the foundation ofthe femme fatale character of film noir and one of its most enduring characterizations in the film, Double Indemnity. Through the mixed use of mis-en-scene, sensual dialogue and the sort of cinematography meant to excite male passion to a peak, Double Indemnity questions man’s true authority in society.
Phyllis Dietrichson’s look, her speech, her clothing and her placement within the frame of the camera put forward the notion of control through seduction. She is introduced to us, indirectly, by catching the eye of Walter Neff, a smooth-talking, seemingly grounded insurance agent. Billy Wilder describes her, “She is in her early thirties. She holds a large bath-towel around her very appetizing torso, down to about two inches above her knees. She wears no stockings, no nothing. On her feet a pair of high-heeled bedroom slippers with pom-poms. On her left ankle a gold anklet.” (Wilder 12). Neff is consumed by the image at the top of the staircase, the taboo of matrimony fallen by the wayside. She is seen from a low vantage, a particularly alluring near vertical line of sight along her legs with the promise perhaps of more; but, of course, there is, ostensibly, a deeper, somewhat darker implication when one changes the perspective to her rather high vantage. We find her symbolically positioned higher than Neff and, therefore, in a dominant situation. The emotional effect is immediate on him but what is lost is his complete ability to rationalize his circumstances and place them in perspective.
Wilder makes apparent the anklet that graces her left ankle with a tracking close-up of her feet as she walks down the staircase. This becomes even more apparent as a symbol of obsession when the image reappears in Neff’s daydream while at work, “I had a lot of stuff lined up for that Thursday afternoon, including a trip down to Santa Monica to see a couple of live prospects about some group insurance. But I kept thinking about Phyllis Dietrichson and the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg” (Double Indemnity). There is now an indication that Neff is beginning to prioritize elements of his life, subordinating them first and foremost to visions of Dietrichson.
Phyllis, though seemingly seductive, is also portrayed as a chaste middle-aged woman, helpless under her circumstances and requiring the aid of a man. Here is the chivalric mandate in its modern form – a woman in distress and in need of physical intervention. She laments about her husband, “He’s so mean to me...He won’t let me go anywhere. He keeps me shut up. He’s always been mean to me” (Double Indemnity). Likewise, her presentation is reinforced by her dress, which, itself, undergoes a transformation with our realization of her motives. At an early stage of their encounter, she appears dressed in soft colors, “She is wearing a pale blue summer dress” (Wilder 14). As the film progresses and we learn that she wishes her husband murdered, her presentation becomes darker, more foreboding.Neff returns to the Dietrichson home to have Phyllis’ husband sign insurance papers and we see the three of them with Phyllis in the center sporting a black dress. Even more apparent, the rendezvous at the market has Phyllis covered in black costume with dark sunglasses. Such mis-en-scene emphasizes the nature of the femme fatale giving her a transformative power with the ability to play her part in the manner required when required.
The presentation of a femme fatale is perhaps the most apparent aspect of her characterization but her speech and demeanor should also be taken into account. She is acutely aware of her surroundings and the weaknesses of men. The instant when Phyllis realizes that Neff has been overwhelmed, she begins to play her game of ‘hard to get’. The ease with which she is capable of controlling behavior is underlined by the following:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty.He’ll be in then.
Phyllis: My Husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Neff: Sure, only I’m getting over it a little. If you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going officer?
Phyllis: I’d say about ninety.
Earlier in the same conversation, Neff comments about her anklet and we are treated to a long image of Phyllis smiling and covering up her ankle. This, of course, only entices Neff further, making him oblivious to any foul intentions. He has been blinded by her suggestive behavior. “Only what I didn’t know then was that I wasn’t playing her. She was playing me – with a deck of marked cards – and the stakes weren’t any blue and yellow chips. They were dynamite” (Double Indemnity). Neff returns to reality when he realizes the consequences of his actions and the means by which he was manipulated, “Only you’re just a little more rotten. You’re rotten clear through. You got me to take care of your husband, and then got Zachette to take care of Lola, and maybe take care of me too…That’s the way you operate isn’t it, baby?” (Double Indemnity). At this point, it is clear to Phyllis that any further attempts to beguile Neff with her physical appeal and tease would be futile and she now resorts to a gun as a means of protection and further manipulation. Her actions capture the negative stereotype of the femme fatale as an emotionless being, self-centered, self-indulgent and without soul.
The cold-heartedness that Phyllis exudes extends to everyone. She is a distinctive and representative figure of film noir. Neff tells her, “You wish it was an accident, and you had that policy. For fifty thousand dollars. Is that it?” She replies, “Perhaps that too” (Double Indemnity). The femme fatale character and the darkness that surrounds such a character underlies the nature of this genre of film. This darkness contained in her persona acts out in a socially reprehensible manner, devoid of morality.
Women have realized their ability to sway the attitudes of men since distant time. Man’s needfor such attraction underlies his weakness in coping with women in society. Film noir, in a way, has exaggerated this female ability and created the femme fatale character. Her character is stylized through the use of dress and apparel on screen, the manner in which she is projected, her behavior and her dialogue. It is not meant to depict all women but promotes the notion that there are some of this gender who, by their cunning, are the equal of some of the worst of the male sect. Moreover, it demonstrates the frailty of the male character and man’s tendency towards the irrational in the hopes of fulfilling his passions.
– Daniel Elisevich