While she is by no means its protagonist
, the film Double Indemnity
clearly revolves around Phyllis Dietrichson
. In the film’s first scene, Walter Neff
declares into a Dictaphone
that he did "it" for money and for a woman, and yet didn't get the money or the woman, setting up a situation in which the viewer knows to expect trouble from the female lead character
. And yet when she first appears, framed in a halo
of light, accompanied by near angelic music, and filmed in a low-angle shot
from Walter's astonished point of view
, it is as if she is put forward as an archetype
of innocent female desirability. And therein lies a focal contradiction that will be emphasized throughout the film's second scene- Phyllis is dangerous, and yet she is perfect. This is partly due to seemingly disjointed switches in visual as well as more general point of view from that of Walter, who is immediately captivated by Phyllis, to that of the more objective narrator, who is leaving us clues to the rest of the film's development.
After all, this is an old-school film-noir
, not a romance. Sinister motives and deceitful appearances are practically a prerequisite. So while Walter only sees Phyllis as desirable, the audience members are led to a general feeling that there is something not quite right about her, at least by then contemporary standards. Where a woman might typically be retiring, docile, and stiff, Phyllis first comes out at first wearing nothing but a towel! And while, cinematically, the washed out lighting and lack of contrast between her white skin and white towel assure that she is hardly exposed, she is clearly responsible, likely consciously, for seducing
Walter- or whichever strange man she expected to find at the door as a random substitute for her distant older husband. A minute later she is putting on makeup, even buttoning her blouse (!) in front of this random man. And when she sits down, she slouches disdainfully, as if to say she is above the present company. Clearly, she is hardly the angel on a pedestal
that Walter perceives in the first shot of her. Rather, she is calculatingly seductive and synthetically "vulnerable".
casualness with which Phyllis seems to regard her body
could hardly have been a good sign to the film's intended audience. Neither could be her trophy bride
status, as evidenced by her husband's adult daughter, ostentatious house, and constant absence at the oil fields in Long Beach
. These factors, as well as the doubtless presence of servants to perform any household tasks, effectively reduce Phyllis’s only purpose as a wife to sex
and decoration. With a woman as proactive as she, this is hardly a situation in equilibrium. Indeed, she is certainly plotting some mischief, suspiciously asking Walter if he sells accident insurance
But Walter doesn’t notice Phyllis’s haughtiness or indecency or scheming; he is fixated on her body. As a reflection of this- following the classic shot of her from the bottom of the staircase- the camera
spends the scene lingering in suggestive close-up on her legs and feet (perhaps the only parts of her body that could be given so much attention on screen). Her costume
wardrobe even has her wearing pompoms on the toes of her shoes, and an anklet engraved with her name. Walter is even distracted from his insurance pitch to ask her what is engraved on it. And incongruously, while Phyllis is sitting, slouched and fidgety on the corner of an armchair, her legs are folded in perfect female form.
In ending the scene, the traffic-cop metaphor banter
between Phyllis and Walter serves to underscore the contradiction
s that Phyllis cultivates in her own identity. While on the surface she is sharply rebuffing Walter’s advances- which he pitches in true jaunty salesman style- she clearly enjoys the attention. And her final threat- to slap him across the knuckles- could not be more sexualized. Walter’s determined fixation
is appropriately reinforced, he leaves asking if the next evening she’ll be in the same chair, with the same perfume, and the same anklet. The scene has successfully generated foreshadowing
as well as the mystery inherent in Phyllis’s contradictions.