The femme fatale is arguably the most famous and instantly recognisable aspect of Film Noir. The term translates to “fatal woman,” an apt description, and the character type appears again and again throughout the genre. Cold and calculating, she is drawn to a life of crime and fiercely rejects stereotypical gender roles. Other female characters in Classical Hollywood might show some independence, but none have been so fueled by self-interest as the femme fatale.
One of the most famous femme fatales in Hollywood history is Phyllis Dietrichson of Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity. Portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck, the character possesses all of the ultimate femme fatale qualities. She is narcissistic, calculating and can trick a man into thinking that she is completely harmless. The femme fatale may be associated with all sorts of negative traits, but the character type marks a distinct change in the representation of women in Classical Hollywood cinema. Never before had female movie characters had such freedom and agency to take control of their lives. This newfound liberation means that the femme fatale could be interpreted as feminist, however the character type isn’t that simple to categorise. The representation of women in Film Noir is murky territory — in some ways progressive, in other ways deeply misogynistic — certainly when assessing Phyllis in Double Indemnity.
When Mrs. Dietrichson first appears in Double Indemnity, protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) visits her house to arrange the renewal of her husband’s motor insurance. She appears at the top of a staircase, wrapped in a towel and seemingly flustered at her state of undress. It is clear from Walter’s reaction and narration that he is immediately captivated by Phyllis’ good looks. This introduction is a double-edged sword when it comes to the feminist interpretation of Double Indemnity. Phyllis is immediately valued by Walter due to her sex appeal, and she’s objectified by the camera fragmenting her body as she gracefully descends the stairs. These introductory moments are focused almost entirely on portraying her physical beauty, and are designed to make the viewer empathise with Walter through his perspective.
Despite Phyllis being objectified, it becomes clear that she is the one who holds the most power in this scene. By simply greeting Walter in a towel, Phyllis is able to masterfully wrap Walter around her little finger, as he himself admits in his narration. Just that simple act is enough for him to become hopelessly devoted to her, even though he suspects that he is being manipulated. Phyllis may still be on the receiving end of the Male Gaze, a concept defined by feminist academic Laura Mulvey, but she is not a passive sexual object. The Male Gaze, as defined by Mulvey, argues that women in film are treated as sexual objects for men to view, and that most films are shot from the perspective of men. Usually women are powerless against their gaze, but the femme fatale turns this concept on its head. Phyllis is aware of her desirability and uses it to gain the trust and aid of Walter, therefore turning the desires of men to her advantage and gaining the upper hand in the power dynamic between them. Through these subtle manipulations, she is able to gain more control and break free from a demanding husband.
Women in Film Noir generally have more agency than in previous Hollywood films, as the height of the genre took place during World War II. So, it is no coincidence that women in Film Noir will resort to anything to escape their marriages and marital homes, as female characters of the genre reflect the changing role of women in society. In a time when women of the real world left home to become part of the workforce, the femme fatales of the film world similarly became less enamored with being stuck in the role of a housewife. In this way, the femme fatale is representative of female liberation, and Phyllis Dietrichson is no exception. Despite her murderous ways, she seems to be speaking the truth when she says that her husband is mean. On the rare occassions that Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) appears, he seems to be an abrupt, no-nonsense fellow who regards his wife with disdain. While Phyllis clearly lives a pampered lifestyle, she is also obviously unhappy and desires her freedom above all else. Given the lack of freedom that women still had at this time in history, it is little wonder that she resorts to violence to push back against the patriarchy.
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Double Indemnity, however, does not want Phyllis to be a sympathetic figure. She is portrayed as objectively evil — ruthless and remorseless. While this might be understandable given the circumstances (she did, after all, plot to murder her husband), there is something unsettling about the way Film Noir introduces a completely new character type, women who are willing to fight fiercely for their freedom, only to be demonized and punished. Phyllis’ irredeemable nature is likely owed to the fact that viewers see her through the eyes of the protagonist, Walter. Through his narration, the audience receives a look into his mind, and can observe how MacMurray’s character is immediately caught in Phyllis’ web and helpless to resist her. Despite the fact that Walter is responsible for planning the murder of Mr. Dietrichson, he is the subject of the viewer’s pity. He is clearly not equipped to deal with such a calculating woman and is easily consumed with desire for Phyllis, who can be perceived as a cunning woman who turned an ordinary, hard-working man to a life of crime.
Academics have theorised that the femme fatale reflects not only women’s changing role in society, but also the male anxiety that this change provoked. Suddenly, women did work that was previously reserved for men and had the opportunity to set aside the housebound role of wife and mother. While Phyllis Dietrichson does not work, she is clearly not cut out to be a housewife. This is best illustrated through the fact that she has no children of her own and despises her husband’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather). Phyllis is the furthest thing from a motherly figure, and therefore embodies the type of woman that men feared — one who has abandoned her stereotypical role and has no desire to be a wife or mother. This explains why she is treated as an unsympathetic, cold-blooded killer; audiences see her from the perspective of the man who fell afoul of her, and it’s her fierce independence and lack of conformity that makes her so dangerous.
Film Noir is not very lenient when it comes to the punishment of the femme fatale, and Phyllis is clearly punished for her nonconformity with death at the hands of the man she wronged. Double Indemnity aligns with Walter when this happens, as it puts an end to his involvement in Phyllis’ wrongdoing. It marks the moment when he can finally be free of her manipulation, which prompts his confession of guilt. Even after Phyllis is dead, Double Indemnity is damning of her and sympathetic towards Walter, despite their shared guilt. As Edward G. Robinson’s insurance investigator Barton Keyes says, when two people commit a murder, they have to go to the end of the line together. Phyllis and Walter certainly do, but Wilder portrays one as infinitely more guilty than the other.
The femme fatale marks a pivotal change in the representation of women in Hollywood, introducing a new type of female character who goes against stereotypical gender roles, but such figures are also portrayed as remorseless, dangerous criminals. Just like Phyllis Dietrichson, they will use any means necessary to ensure their freedom and escape the role of the housewife. While this might be a comparatively progressive concept for a female character, it is also deeply problematic. Shown from the perspective of the male protagonist, the femme fatale is demonised and punished for her conformity. However, the archetype remains one of the most famous and interesting aspects of Film Noir.
Lauren Miles (@Lauren_M1les) is a freelance film critic with a love of all things gothic, fantasy and film noir. She has been writing about film since the age of 15 and recently completed university studies in both film and journalism. You can find her writing at Digital Spy, Film Stories and more outlets.