Analysis of Billy Wilder’s ‘double Indemnity’

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Billy Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’ is often recognized to be one of the classics, boldly portraying themes of film noir along with slight undertones of the genre of tragedy. But aside from the rather well documented features of ‘fatalism' and ‘pessimism’ that are brought through in the film, there also exist several nuances in the plot which elevates the conveyed meaning. One such theme which is seen through the characters, the plot and the entire setting: is that of gender; which can be seen as guiding the innate motives of their actions. This research essay sets a platform of understanding how ‘double indemnity’ represents the theme of gender, and the significance of its employment.

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The femme fatale can be seen as one of the approaches to understanding gender differences in terms of self-recognition: where the woman is characterized to be ignorant of her own “fallibility”, while the male is seen in a constant struggle to avoid the knowledge of his flaws.

Double Indemnity, through the continuous constraints set by the film noir is seen to be criticizing gender differences, by setting up a stage where the characters are constantly seen to be in breach of gender ideals and conventionally determined narrow boundaries which seem to dictate expected behavior. The film portrays a divergence from the “gender binaries”: of what constitutes masculinity and femininity, and questions the discrepancy in the ‘expected and the actual behavior’ as seen through the characters of the femme fatale Phyllis, who stands out in contrast to her step-daughter Lola; and between Walter Neff, one of the two protagonists, who is seen in a different light than his colleague, Keyes. The combination of characters, based on their gender is seen to be the portrayal of the formation of an “existential partnership”, based on the primitive concepts of gendered social spaces. Lola Dietrichson, the nineteen year old step daughter, is seen as the “perfect” example of femininity: “wearing a filmy party dress and a yearning look in her pretty eyes”, who is initially coupled with a Nino Zucetti, who she describes to be “hot-headed” and in possession of a raw youthful aggression. Against such a background, ‘the femme fatale emerges as a “victim of the misogynistic, violent men around her”, and the female is simply presented to be a “virtual prisoner of her heterosexual relations”.

The femme fatale in this situation-Phyllis Dietrichson- can be seen as an “antithesis of maternal”, evoking the understanding that she fails to fit into the standard template of what it is to be considered to be a woman; in ways, she stands out as “unabashedly bold” and “sexually Inhibited”, unlike the stereotypical grounded house wife, who’s sole purpose is child-rearing and looking after the home. It is as if cultural experiences have rendered a “limited image of the role of a woman in society”. Although when we are first introduced to Phyllis, she is scarcely clothed, donning an air of control-the way she reclines on the arm chair suggesting unshakable self-confidence, and a dominating figure in fact- we are also made privy to another side of her, where she is to be subjugated to a merely superficial part of the Dietrichson family, when she says that she neither had a peaceful relation with her step-daughter Lola, nor did her husband disclose important details about the financial matters of the house, like the insurance. She is trapped in an unsuccessful marriage, and longs to break free; Therefore seizing control of her life by having her husband murdered, and her benefiting from the insurance money -which stands to double in value based on the double indemnity clause- doesn’t seem like a farfetched opportunity after all: an event which makes her spiral into the depths of psychopathic behavior.

The characters are shown to be in control of their situation, using typically masculine or feminine characteristics; where Walter is drawn to Phyllis sexually, she uses Walter’s job as an insurance monger, and his “masculinity” to further her own means. Phyllis, through her behavior- being bold and independent, with no inhibitions in furthering her own cause- is starkly different, standing in opposition to conventional femininity, while Walter is seen to be the quintessential male, fulfilling his “narcissistic sexual fantasies’ through. In these terms, Phyllis comes across as having a revolutionary self, in an attempt to break out of the rusted chains of expectations, automatically levied on each individual, along with a classification and categorization based on their gender. Phyllis, the femme fatale is a character which brings about certain “discursive unease”, and aggression in nature, for she never displays what she really is, and in such a case, “sexuality becomes the site of questions, of what can and cannot be known”. Therefore, the implications of sexualizing her, along with scopophilia, gives a new meaning to the representation of sexual differences, leading to gendered experiences harboring saliently on the pre-dispositions of men and women.

The representation of gender in the film can be delved deeper into, by looking into the psychoanalysis of the characters and the appropriation of the setting; during the Second World War, with men away at war, women had managed to secure more prominent positions in the economic realm which was matched by a wide-scale and rapid redefinition of their place within culture. But during the post war period, they were removed from their jobs, though there was a transgression in the belief that women could find a place in society outside the traditional home context.

The hostility towards women is directed and testifies to a very acute manner of problems within men- for they feared the unconscious threat to their “masculinity”, with a belief that fascinating women tend to represent conflicting ideas within male identity. “she is not the subject of feminism, but a symptom of male fears of feminism”; while ‘Double Indemnity’, evidently doles out commentary on the matters of femininity through its characters, it also evokes a gentler understanding of masculinity, which just might have a “dark side”. Showing the cultural structure which allows for and perpetuate stories of men using women to fulfill their narcissistic sexual fantasies. The image of Phyllis as a seductress is further emboldened through the ‘male gaze’ infused into the plot, with subtle connotations: of how Walter viewed her, objectifying her body, especially when alluding to the fetishistic undertones which are brought to light when he fixes his gaze on her anklet, as she slowly walks down the stairs. The male presence is highlighted with Walter’s ‘voice over’, therefore elucidating the impression that he is in control of the happenings, and of influencing the audiences impressions or opinions which are bound to formulate following the sequence of incidents displayed, rendering his own transition from a heroic figure, to one of having meek judgments, reeking with the stench of criminality. The voice over significantly accentuates Walter’s character, as the film begins with the assumption of a “heterosexual male pursuit”, but goes on to transforms into a journey of how he lost all he desired: the “money” and the “woman”; Walter’s opening remarks established these desires, “I killed him for money- and for a woman- and I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman”, lamenting over his loss, while ‘coldly speaking into the dictaphone’. His “fetishistic experiment” had failed.

The film boldly uses various techniques of film form as a tool to unravel the mysteries of the two sexes, and to enable the “breakdown on familial, socio-economic and cultural roles as normatively accepted”; It does this through “body language and character positioning”, which imminently sets the stage for the ‘power dynamics’ to come into play, evidently, when in the initial scenes, during Walter Neff’ and Phyllis Dietrichson’ introductory meet, Phyllis is seen at the top of the stairwell, looking onto the figure of Walter. But this dynamic soon changes when Phyllis comes down the stairs, to engage in Walter’s flattery, which she does not out rightly disapprove of- a characteristic perceived by society to be a “fatal flaw”. Additionally, the film uses “environmental constraints, emphasized through staging, high-contrast lighting, and low-angle cinematography; along with instinctual urges, emphasized through dialogue”, to get across the true meaning of the nuances in the scene. The characters are often seen to be “negotiating their desires for money and sex in the contexts of harsh environments”, but alas, “These negotiations often conclude with the characters succumbing to their greed and sinking into depravity or death”; alas, even in her death, Phyllis is controlled by Walter, who shoots her, rather than letting the law take its natural course, which would have ended with the duo on electric chairs, once again evoking the male sensibilities in the concept of power dynamics.

The film witnesses the “scripting of woman by the film's protagonist, her transformation into a destabilizing menace, and the expunging of the threat” through her certain end; through her death, the film is seen to be commentating on the fact that society punishes women for being different, for not keeping in line with the norm: for possessing qualities like Phyllis’ character, remarking their certain doom - while the male is celebrated, or at least given a chance to redeem himself from his shortcomings. The film works towards levying “benevolent violence” on the ‘femme fatal’, in an attempt to get to the core of its mysteries, the representation of the feminine figures in these films, being remarkable for the time when they were made.

“Her role as ‘femme fatale’ has tied her closely to undercurrents of sexual, social, and ideological unrest”, the film represents a shift from “domestic passivity” to untraditional romance, which indirectly criticizes “cultural repression and desire, victimization and reification”, tracing the breaking of a cultural mold per say. In certain ways, Phyllis and Walter’s murderous act, does avail of an indemnity, as the audience is subjected to witnessing the loss of social regulations, but are compensated by the death of Phyllis and capture of Walter, which acts to re-establish and uphold the normative culture.

Double Indemnity works wonders in making us realize that in this universe of complexities, there is nothing more important than our identities. In this anthropocentric world, where it all boils down to the significance of the human being, it is as If the inspection of characters is compromising the very essential part of being human: how one views themselves in relation to their surroundings. By labeling and consequently being dismissive of characteristics, we are limiting the massive possibilities of human potential: questioning the very essence of being. Although passively, the plot constantly reminds us of discrepancies between the two genders, and represents gender as the reason for behavior; while it also presents us with well-rounded characters, and overall remains a significant theme in the narration of the noir.

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