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Written by Timothy Sexton
The word “icon” gets tossed around a lot and in an increasing number of cases, those uses are utterly contemptuous of the underlying connotation of the definition. When it comes to Double Indemnity, both Barbara Stanwyck and the character she portrays, Phyllis Dietrichson, are unquestionably deserving of the attribution “iconic.” Stanwyck ranks alongside James, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe as one of the towering figures of the Golden Age of Hollywood. So iconic is Stanwyck’s particular performance as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity that it becomes one of those defining roles where imagining anyone else playing the part is almost impossible. Then there is Phyllis herself: the prototype for what would come to be known as one of the quintessential elements of film noir, the femme fatale. Stanwyck’s performance is such that Phyllis became the highest ranking femme fatale on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie villains of the first 100 years of film, edging in just ahead of little Regan McNeil from The Exorcist. Or, in other words, Stanwyck managed to make an otherwise common little 1940s housewife into a character more evil than the Devil himself while still making her one of the most physically enticing characters of the 1940s!
Fred MacMurray enjoyed a long career in Hollywood due in large part to his ability to play both really nice good guys and really despicable bad guys with equal aplomb. With Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, did something the equal of Barbara Stanwyck: he set the template for so many classic film noir protagonists to follow in his wake. Walter Neff is not stupid and he is anything but a moon-faced innocent easily tempted into the trap set for him by the soon-to-be black widow Dietrichson. Walter Neff carries the requisite combination of world-weary acceptance of his place in the world and the indefatigable ambition for something better that describes the film noir equivalent of its femme fatale perfectly. Neff is also a sap when it comes to allure of Phyllis and if any one word best describes the film noir “hero” it is sap. Few would ever succeed in giving their film noir sap the depth that Fred MacMurray manages to give Walter Neff, though many quite obviously tried. In one of the most horrifying of all Academy Award disasters, Fred MacMurray failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor due in large part to a singularly bizarre happenstance in which Barry Fitzgerald was allowed to be nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the very same role in Going My Way. Considering that Fitzgerald actually took home the Best Supporting Actor trophy, his nomination for performance in a leading role can almost categorically be presented as evidence for the failure to MacMurray to snag a nomination for a film that saw his co-star as well as the film's director, screenwriter and the movie itself receive nominations.
Edward G. Robinson
Barton Keyes is Walter Neff’s immediate boss at the insurance company where he works. Since he is played by Edward G. Robinson who made a name for himself in Hollywood through a series of gritty Warner Brothers crime flicks in which he played a variety of larcenous gangsters, those only familiar that aspect of Robinson’s career might expect that Barton Keyes becomes a partner-in-crime to Walter Neff. Like MacMurray, Robinson also excelled at playing both good guys and bad guys and in Double Indemnity, Robinson is called upon to become the moral compass in a world where the magnetic pull of immorality threatens to spin out of control. Barton Keyes is not exactly the kind of character described as a hero, but his basic human decency may well be what drives Neff to the Dictaphone he uses to record his confessional.
A double indemnity is a provision included in a life insurance policy or an accident insurance policy in which the insurer agrees to pay out twice the face value of the insurance contract in the event of accidental death. Phyllis and Walter conspire to take out an insurance policy for Mr. Dietrichson with such a provision and then stage his murder so that it looks like an accident, thus allowing Phyillis to collect twice the value based on the double indemnity. The actor playing the ill-fated husband of Phyllis had actually begun his career in film even before movie theaters were the preferred location for viewing, but then abruptly stopped in 1917 to focus exclusively on his stage career. Powers would not appear on film again until Double Indemnity was released in 1944.
Heather plays Lola, the step-daughter of Phyllis Dietrichson. The climax of Double Indemnity will eventually turn on the revelation to Barton Keyes (and the audience) that Phyllis came into the lives of the Dietrichson clan originally as a nurse hired to care for Lola’s mother. Much of Lola’s suspicions that her father’s death was perhaps something less than a mere accident stems from the fact that her mother also died from under rather murky circumstances…while under the care of Phyllis. In a rather strange sort of near-coincidence, Heather herself was involved in a rather serious transportation-related accident; a car wreck in her case. Shortly after, she retired from the film industry for good.
Lola Dietrichson is truly to be pitied. Her mother may have been murdered by Phyllis and her father was certainly killed by Phyllis and, if things weren’t already bad enough, her boyfriend Nino appears to be cheating on her behind her back with…yep, Phyllis. As often happens in the random and unpredictable world inhabited by those in film noir, however, fate conspires to deliver a tough but fair bit of justice to Lola Dietrichson. Lola’s admission to Walter about her suspicions regarding Nino and Phyllis ultimately directly leads to things being set right. In a rather unexpected coincidence, Byron Barr shares the same birth name with the much more famous actor known as Gig Young.
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