Double Indemnity and The Politics of Gender

Double IndemnityIn 1943, the story of Double Indemnity had earned the label of “unfilmmable” in Hollywood due to its controversial and ‘immoral’ subject matter (Biltereyst 148). But despite objections and impositions from the Production Code Administration, through compromise and strategy, Billy Wilder managed to create and release the film in 1944. Somehow, what remains is still very much a sexually explicit tale of adulterers who conspire to commit murder. In the end, both Phyllis and Neff are killed for their crimes – she at the hand of him, and him at the hand of the law (although the scene was removed the audience still imagines that it is inevitable). But if we consider the importance of gender, sexuality and the family in postwar America, it is obvious that their romance was doomed to fail anyway, as it was so ‘improper’.

As World War II was coming to a close America was prosperous and optimistic. Couples were reunited and troops returned ready to marry, set up households, and buy consumer goods (Bordwell and Thompson 325). Moreover, the U.S. was becoming “increasingly conservative, particularly with regard to women” (Jans B. Wager 73). With the wartimes witnessing a 50% increase of females in the labor force (74), women quickly became a threat to the patriarchal system that demanded men be the breadwinners and women the caretakers. As a result, 1940s “antifeminists” made motherhood a matter of national policy, appealing to traditionalism (74). Meanwhile in Hollywood the threat manifested itself into what Wager describes as the postwar phenomenon of film noir (73). Within these narratives, of which Double Indemnity fits in neatly, “women were subject to malignant backlash” (75). The femme fatale, that is the female protagonist of the film noir whom inevitably causes the downfall of the male protagonist (Steve Neale 187), is always punished. Of course, what she is punished for is not so much her dangerous and deceitful tricks – this is the surface infraction – but rather her agency in her sexuality, her insistence on independence and her lack of attention to her wifely/motherly (gender) duties. As a result she is a threat to patriarchy and the ideal family it is sustained by.

Traditional feminine characteristics, as identified by Phillipa Gates, are weakness, submissiveness, vulnerability, emotional expression and passivity (36). Interestingly, while Phyllis arguably possesses none of these qualities, she does perform them for Neff in order to gain his trust and love. She assumes then that his attraction to her will necessarily be based on a traditional patriarchal system. After all, the image of women as compliant is a conception “of ‘otherness’ constructed to deflect dominant masculinity’s problems onto those who seem to be a threat to that masculinity” (Gates 30). Clearly, patriarchy is so connected to the ‘family’ that it almost cannot exist without the binary of man/woman as husband/wife and father/mother. Traditional masculinity in turn exists only within the framework of the family. Thus, Phyllis allows Neff to assume the role of ‘man’, even though he lacks patriarchal authority as a result of his single status, by contrasting her ‘weakness’ with his ‘dominance’. This can be seen in the way Neff takes control of the murder plan. In fact, when he first meets her, he notes that he cannot stop thinking about “the way she looked at me”. Immediately he is drawn to the fact that she is drawn to him – she is therefore in control right from the beginning. With a fairly small amount of effort, Phyllis, who had singlehandedly developed the idea and had even to an extent already planned the murder, convinces Neff that it is to his own benefit and lets him make all of the rules: “it’ll be the train, just like you want it”.

Double IndemnityAllowing him an opportunity to perform gender ‘correctly’ can be seen as a way to ‘stroke his ego’ so to speak. That is, he is attracted to the romantic idea that committing this crime will provide them with money and presumably the ability to make honourable their affair. Ultimately, even though they will have killed someone, they will comply with the dominant ideology that upholds middle-upper class heterosexual marriage, and this will provide a ‘happy ending’. Moreover, he would finally attain patriarch status. Unfortunately for Neff, the ‘Hollywood happy ending’ is one that “insists evil be destroyed and good rewarded” (Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy 5), and murder and adultery fall into the category of evil according to the Production Code.

Wilder, by his own account, had to be careful with sex in Double Indemnity to get around the restrictive Production Code (Biltereyst 149), but there remains a lot to be said about sexuality in this film. The containment of female agency that Wager describes as a major aspect of film noir (119) can be seen not only as a response to the female labor force of the era, but to the seduction of the femme fatale in particular. Wager also suggests that the femme fatale may influence female spectators to express their own sexualities by modelling themselves after her as “an image of male desire” and a rebellion against traditional femininity (120). Furthermore, Julie Grossman discusses the femme fatale as a category that feeds cultural gender fantasies (21). In this case, as with Wager’s theory, there is the implication that women want to be sexual; women want to be in control, and they indulge in these fantasies through film noir. Of course, this is somewhat problematic considering this character is eventually punished for these very reasons.

Phyllis exhibits little shame in her sexuality. She does not hesitate, for instance, to greet Neff at the door in her towel the first time they meet. At this point she does not know who she is greeting but it is worth noting that this is also how the audience is introduced to her. The first impression of her is therefore that she is open, unburdened by gender expectations and independent. From this she is immediately identified as a sexual being, which is supported by the fact that the scene was re-shot when the PCA deemed the original version too explicit as the towel did not fully cover Phyllis’ knees (Biltereyst 149).

Double IndemnityTortured by temptation, Neff quickly becomes intimately involved with Phyllis the night she shows up at his home unannounced. There is a constant suggestion that Phyllis’s seduction is the reason for Neff’s immoral behaviour; the implication is that she is to blame for everything that follows. This is also the night that the critique of the institution of marriage, and by extension the family, becomes present. Earlier that day, Neff had told Phyllis: “I think your swell, as long as I’m not your husband”, and this line becomes the first indicator that the film may not wholly believe in the ‘ideal’ family and that romantic and sexual unions can exist outside of it; perhaps more purely. Then while with Neff in his darkened apartment, Phyllis ‘confesses’ how unhappy she is in her home. She accuses her husband of being neglectful, abusive and a drunk. She expresses disdain towards her step-daughter, suggesting she lacks maternal instincts, and claims she only married out of pity and the need for security. Once all this is said, she cries in his arms which turns out to be a strategic move in which she victimises herself, therefore feminizing herself, in order to inspire Neff’s protective masculinity to engage. From this moment on, Neff takes on the role of the hero by conveying control, rationality and intelligence. What is so important about this in terms of sexuality, is that it is also the point from which their relationship is suggested to have turned sexual. It is in this “key scene in Walter’s apartment, we see him smoking a ‘postcoitus’ cigar… while Phyllis uses a lipstick and paints her lips red” (Biltereyst 150). So, with the appropriation of ‘proper’ gender portrayals Phyllis and Neff can consummate their relationship despite being unmarried (to each other).

As illustrated within this narrative, gender and sexuality are intrinsically linked. For even the prospect of the ‘ideal’ family to exist, which for Neff at least, it does, gender must be performed ‘correctly’ as it is the first step in building a romantic (and sexual) relationship. Before the ‘apartment scene’, Phyllis and Neff were engaged in gender-bending, or role reversal. She is the aggressor while he is the flattered. She might “whack [him over the] knuckles” for expressing his sexual attraction and he might “bust out crying” as a result.

Even though the film ends with both characters paying for their crimes, what remains is a sense that Phyllis’ power came from her ability to reject the dominant ideology that dictated marriage as necessary. The theme and portrayals of gender and sexuality within the film suggest a recognition of marriage as simply a way to maintain the status quo of femininity being equated with motherhood and masculinity being equated with patriarchy, all the while managing sexuality as only a means of procreation. The repression of sexualities is upheld within the framework of ‘the family’ along with the oppression of difference. This is obvious in their deaths; they were too much of a threat to the status quo and had to be ‘villainized’ and then stopped.

Double IndemnityWorks Cited

Biltereyst, Daniel. “Censorship, Negotiation and Transgressive Cinema: Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot and other Controversial Movies in the United States and Europe”. Billy Wilder, Movie Maker: Critical Essays on the Films. Karen McNally ed. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. 145-159. Print.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Gates, Phillipa. Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film. New York: State University of New York Press, 2006. Print.

Grossman, Julie. Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

Neale, Steve. “‘I Can’t Tell Anymore Whether You’re Lying’: Double Indemnity, Human Desire and the Narratology of Femmes Fatales”. The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts. eds. Helen Hanson and Catherine O’Rawe. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print

Roffman, Peter and Jim Purdy. The Hollywood social problem film : madness, despair, and politics from the Depression to the fifties. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1981. Print

Wager, Jans B. Dangerous dames : women and representation in the Weimar street film and film noir. Athens : Ohio University Press, 1991. Print

About the Author

My passion for film has manifested itself into years of study in both film production and film studies. I am currently completing a Master’s Degree at Carleton University for which my focus has been Slasher cinema. My research interests include Horror, Gender, and Adaptation. My typical approach to film study is to think critically about the cultural contexts of any given film in order to make sense of the formal elements, story and connotations. I am also a freelance writer and, not surprisingly, I run two film related blogs: Sinema Addiction and Pick Canadian Pictures.

3 thoughts on “Double Indemnity and The Politics of Gender

  1. Love this film so when showing at local Arts Cinema just had to see it on the big screen and that was when, for the first time, I noticed Walter straightening the rug with his foot, in his apartment, clearly indicating something had occurred. Magic.

  2. Strong piece, Shyla. I have always been interested in the transition from the Screwball Comedy of the pre-war era to Film Noir post-war. I think the two genres have a lot in common. But the predatory female character in the Screwball generally works in the service of traditional values of marriage and family. As you have pointed out, the femme fatale typically has the opposite agenda. Compare one of the scenes you have cited here, when Phyllis wins Walter over by hinting about her husband’s cruelty, to a very superficially similar moment in The Palm Beach Story when Gerry (Claudette Colbert) tries to manipulate Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee) by hinting at her husband’s cruelty. The two scenes, from movies just a few years apart, have completely different effects. It signals, as well as anything I can think of, the transition from the Screwball to the Noir that seemed to take place during the war.

  3. A detailed and academic review of this classic film Shyla. I would not attempt to deal with any points individually, as you make your argument with skill and conviction.
    Let’s not forget though, under all the analysis is a great film. Wonderful cast, delicious black and white photography, and a crackling script. One of my favourites.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

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