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Lady in the Dark

By Richard Armstrong

Richard Armstrong is an Associate Tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute. His book, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist, appeared from McFarland in 2000. He is currently writing Understanding Realism for the Bfi's Understanding the Moving Image series and Chocolate Biscuits and Italian Neo-Realism, a blend of reception aesthetics and personal memoir. He is a regular contributor to the websites Audience, Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and Talking Pictures, and contributes book reviews to the Times Higher Educational Supplement.


"You must never think anything like that about me, Walter."
- Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity

"A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a sudden downpour. Lamps form haloes in the murk. In a walk-up room, filled with the intermittent flashing of a neon sign from across the street, a man is waiting to murder or be murdered."

Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg's evocation of the milieu of classical film noir (Hollywood in the Forties, London, Zwemmer, 1968) features a male figure mired in an apocalyptic scenario. That he is poised between guilt and death is hugely significant for the chronicle of American sexuality which film noir has charted. Notice how relentlessly circumscribed is this mise-en-scene. It is dark. The room pulses to garish neon. The protagonist's fate hangs in the balance. It is raining. There is a sense in film noir in which the very genre is closing down around the characters. These films become accounts of the characters' struggles to exceed the traps that frame them. That Higham and Greenberg's stranded figure is a man has inescapable consequences for the genre's archetypal femme fatale.

The most notorious of film noir's archetypes is the femme fatale. Kitty in Scarlet Street (1945) insinuates herself into the affections of a mild-mannered cashier and Sunday painter Chris Cross. After he establishes her in an expensive apartment, she begins taking credit for his paintings when he is discovered. While feigning affection, Kitty connives with her boyfriend Johnny, a small-time thief, to get rich at Chris' expense. Kathie in Out of the Past (1947) shoots her racketeer boyfriend Whit Sterling and steals $40,000 from him. Hired to find her, private detective Jeff Bailey falls in love with her, believing her innocent. When the couple are found by Jeff's partner, Kathie kills him. Returning to Whit, she eventually kills him too.

In each scenario these characters appear to love, then betray and leave the men who love them. All are highly sexual figures whose sensuality has far-reaching and tragic consequences for their men. All are self-interested and disregard both the law and the men with whom they are involved. All transgress the legal, sexual and emotional parameters within which women in patriarchal cultures are required to fulfill preordained roles as wives and mothers. Responding to their own needs and desires alone, these characters' motives cannot be explained in terms of established social codes, making them mysterious signifiers of a sexual excess to which their men are irresistibly drawn, even whilst their own agendas are destroying them. More than anything else, for the male protagonist in film noir the femme fatale represents absence; of obligation, explanation, motivation, of dependence, obedience, and love. Yet, seen in a fresher light, such absence could be read as the symptom of an identity obscured by male perspectives and the patriarchal culture men serve. It is because we see the femme fatale through masculine accounts in film noir that she seems mysterious, her behavior excessive because always excess to her social and cultural remit, as well as damaging to already conflicted men.

The reformation of individual femmes fatales indicates how far the archetype is a male construction, a projection of the sensibilities of fraught protagonists. By contrast with the comparatively uncomplicated moral climate of the gangster films which fed into it, the culture of paranoia engendered by the stylistics of film noir sees men undergoing grave ethical and epistemological crises in a world turned upside down. Such characters as Kitty, Kathie and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944) are read by their men as visions of womanhood lying just out of reach. More tantalizingly, these are women who wrest the functions of decision-maker and actor away from men whose ability to decide and act has become impaired. The implications of this reversal are profound.

Chris Cross, Jeff Bailey and Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity all become split between allegiance to the traditional roles of men in patriarchy, and corrupted, deflected and dependent alter egos in thrall to the wiles and whims of the women with whom they are infatuated. Respected cashier and talented artist, Chris Cross loves Kitty in vain, steals from his employer, squanders his reputation, and finally murders her. Established with Ann and his own business, Jeff Bailey never recovers from his first sight of Kathie. A high-achieving insurance salesman, Walter meets Phyllis and succumbs to a desire to kill, then defraud his employer.

If the femme fatale is an enigma it is because she consists only as a vision in the eyes of the men who love her and as a name in the accounts they offer of her. Broken by war or torn by conflicting allegiances, these characters envision a woman who in fact is more than she appears to be. But their vision of the femme fatale is merely a symptom. What is truly at stake for the male in film noir is the nature of his own malaise, and the real nature of the sensibility he is up against.

Seen in one light, the femme fatale is subject to the framing narratives of men, a position that dooms any attempt to rehabilitate her. The first time Chris sees Kitty she is wearing a transparent raincoat and appears the victim of a vicious assault. The little cashier hastens to protect her. "Then I saw her. Coming out of the sun", Jeff's voice-over intones as Kathie materializes out of the glare of an Acapulco afternoon, his very voice seeming to make her appear. These women exist in these accounts merely as spectacle. Seen in another light, if they appear as the spectacular products of male imaginings, the product is only part of the woman's sense of what she is or should be. The raincoat, Kathie's materialization; these are spectacular symptoms of a conflicted male psyche. They are also symptoms of an agenda that is coherent only to the individual behind the archetype. Both are simultaneously less and more. For male protagonists mired in the codes of patriarchy, the femme fatale is 'difficult' - to reach, to understand, to love - because she roves beyond the parameters of patriarchy, her true motives making her more dangerous as her desires become more concrete. But more thrillingly still is the promise that, when these women smile, they take their men to this place beyond law and order. Kitty's transparent raincoat, Phyllis' gold anklet, these are fetishes from another place. Where the Sidewalk Ends, Somewhere in the Night, Abandoned, In a Lonely Place… it is no accident that film noir titles frequently return to this theme of being elsewhere. Phyllis and Walter evoke the image of taking a trolley car ride together when they embarked on their affair. That they discover a cemetery at the end of the line is perhaps the measure of their tragedy. The male may be fraught for being shot or beaten too often, but these are simply the external signs of internal turmoil. What he really wants is to be in another place. What she really wants is agency.

Frank Krutnik in his excellent In a Lonely Street: Film noir, genre, masculinity (London, Routledge, 1991) explains this place in psychoanalytical terms. Whilst the male child is contracted as future decision-maker and producer to a post-Oedipal state, the contract between noir male and femme fatale signals a retreat to a pre-Oedipal state in which the child was both part of his mother and desired by her. By becoming part of his 'mother' by falling for the femme fatale, the noir male becomes part of her world, in thrall to her fetishes and her agenda. Mapping the Freudian model onto film noir finds the helpless male temporarily soothed by her nurturing but caught in the crossfire of her disruption of patriarchy. Notice how Kitty lures Chris into believing that she is helpless, effectively representing that space in the film so as to appear threatened by the attacking Johnny in order to make space for Chris in her agenda. "I'm not asking you to buy. Just hold me close", Phyllis beseeches Walter, inviting him to reject a strictly patriarchal emotional economy in order to become part of her space.

Seen by this light, 'phallic women' such as Kitty, Kathie and Phyllis take away control of the film's narrative from the male and to a place, metaphorically and literally, to which he must go in search of assimilation and acceptance. As Janey Place has pointed out, these women even "control camera movement…pulling focus to them…seeming to direct the camera" (Women in Film Noir, London, Bfi, 1994). The very scenarios are driven by these women. Scarlet Street is about Kitty's hold over Chris. Out of the Past is about Kathie's hold over Jeff. Double Indemnity is about Phyllis' hold over Walter. At his most pathetic, the noir male is touched by her favor but abandoned by her ambition. Dramatized in these films is the flight of the male back to a place, defined in Freud's post-Oedipal reconfiguration of desire, in which the signifiers of feminine lack - vagina, womb, breast - become redefined as signifiers of plenitude, recalling the noir male's play with the femme fatale's possessions. The noir female may lack a penis, but for the noir male she (temporarily) possesses all the power associated with its ownership in patriarchy. For many a noir male, the flight to a liminal space plotted in the films' trajectories, that lawless threshold on the margins of patriarchy, leads not to eventual assimilation but to self-destruction.

The social implications of the crisis of masculinity that films noirs chart are well rehearsed. Yet the reading of these exciting and poignant thrillers as 'war movies' which chronicle historical transition has undeniable resonance for the sexual struggles which they describe. Acculturated over campaign after campaign to the company of men, and often physically and psychologically damaged as the air taxis dropped them back Stateside, demobilized servicemen in the postwar period faced something of a revolution. With money in her purse and a mind to enjoy herself, the American woman was learning how to work hard and play hard. The mapping of active femmes fatales onto a socio-historical landscape in which women seemed to be challenging men to a stake in producer-driven patriarchy is hard to resist. 'Damaged' men crop up throughout classical film noir. Chris Cross is a refugee from a harrowing marriage. 'The Swede' retires from the ring following a brutal encounter in The Killers (1946). Buzz, a war veteran with shrapnel in his brain and a fear of "monkey music", returns home dangerous to himself and to others in The Blue Dahlia (1946). Walter weaves dangerously away from his final encounter with Phyllis, a bullet in his shoulder. Appearing as America fought the final desperate battles of a long war and began the arduous conversion back into a peacetime economy, film noir is radical for dramatizing American womanhood's negotiation of briefly-held positions, even if the war eventually seems unwinnable.

Double Indemnity sees the male attempt to wrest control of the narrative ground in one of its purest manifestations. No more poignant an examination of love as a form of domestic warfare exists than in Walter's encounters with Phyllis in her lounge. The film brought ethical and actual carnage onto American screens as an aggressive couple engaged in a sexual analogy of real conflict. It is not tenderness but rage when Walter seizes and kisses Phyllis, taking and gripping her by the shoulders. When he takes her in his arms and shoots her in the stomach the act resonates as a parody of sexual intercourse, and echoes a strategic feint on the battlefield. Arguably a gruesome line of inquiry, nevertheless it is worth noting how often femmes fatales are shot in the stomach (read: womb) in film noir. Aside from Phyllis, there are Velma (Murder, My Sweet, 1944), Debby Marsh (The Big Heat, 1953), Sherry Peatty (The Killing, 1956) amongst others. Seeing these moments of disposal as unimportant compared with the over-determined odysseys which they end seems a miscalculation since they symbolize penetration by men too impotent to satisfy these women normally. Such closures, therefore, seem thoroughly in keeping with the masculine crisis that the films diagnose. Walter's impotence resides in the destruction of the woman he loves even as they approach sexual and emotional fulfillment. If this final confrontation begins with his "Save it. I'm telling this", it ends with him telling his boss, Claims Manager Barton Keyes, that, "I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman." Proffered a final cigarette by his 'officer' and best buddy, Walter is an embattled and defeated foot soldier in the war between men and women.

If Phyllis is the 'enemy', history's stake in the evolution of film noir has been unconsciously acknowledged over and over again. It has proven all too easy for successive generations of critics to sell her damnation, their responses constituting a veritable lexicon of vitriol. In 1944 she was "a destructively lurid female", according to Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. She was "the stone-hearted whore goddess" for John Henley in 1978. She was the "black widow" for Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward in 1988 (An Encyclopedic Reference Guide to Film Noir, London, Bloomsbury). Jerry Renshaw has her conning Walter Neff (Scarlet Street, May, 2000). Phyllis is constantly characterized in apparently rational secular studies by male writers as "evil", notwithstanding the fuzzy ring notions of Good and Evil tend to generate in faithless postmodernity. That still of Phyllis concealing a gun on the cover of Richard Schickel's study of the film (London, Bfi, 1992) set the tone for a highly conventional reading.

According to Jon Tuska (In Manors and Alleys: A Casebook on the American Detective Film, Westport, Greenwood, 1988) in Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler's screenplay, no "extenuating circumstances (are) provided for the wayward wife…Phyllis wants to murder her husband and she wants Neff to help her do it." But any attempt to castigate this or that femme fatale must contend with the patriarchal agendas and viewpoints that frame these women. Walter frames Phyllis in his voice-over, mapping her into his own archetypal narrative about women who murder their husbands for money. Moreover, he does so while in a fraught condition. He has been obsessed with a scheme to defraud the insurance company for some time. He has committed murder to achieve it. In doing so, he has become alienated and confused. He has committed another murder. He has been seriously wounded. He has driven recklessly to his rendezvous with Keyes in a desperate state on a hot July evening. As he commits his confession to Keyes' Dictaphone, he bleeds to death. The script is peppered with recollections - "I couldn't hear my own footsteps…a little queer in the belly" - suggesting a man in extremis. Neff's mentor Keyes is established from the outset as a misogynist who once had his own fiancee investigated. That Keyes represents an establishment which underwrites a money economy and is itself underwritten by the forces of patriarchal law and order renders Walter's scheme and Phyllis' position all the more untenable. By implication, the couple hit at the very well springs of the American status quo by embarking on their scheme. Losing control of events when Phyllis apparently takes up with Nino Zachette to plot Walter's disposal, Walter also loses control of his scheme by adopting Keyes' theory about Phyllis' guilt. Having related her death to Keyes, Walter loses control of his narrative in which Phyllis has been defined, when Keyes returns to the office. Like the figure marching painfully towards you on crutches during the opening credits, Walter has been crippled for attempting to exist within patriarchy and violating its boundaries. His attempt to cheat the system is not simply transgressive for challenging the patriarchal economy, the post-Oedipal Law of the Father as represented here by Mr Dietrichson and Barton Keyes, but fatal because based upon the shifting sands of his own decentred self. The extent to which Phyllis is an agent with her own desires and agendas marks the boundary beyond which neither Walter nor Keyes can adequately see.

One of the most pessimistic of films noirs, Double Indemnity is a film driven in myriad directions by subjective agendas. Everyone is on the make; from Walter to Phyllis' stepdaughter Lola, from Sam Gorlopis, the dishonest claimant, to Jackson, trying to claim a masseuse on expenses. The film makes it difficult to identify with any of the characters, rendering the issue of Phyllis' guilt murkier still. (In this respect, those readings that vilify Phyllis increasingly resemble hysterical attempts to reassert the patriarchal agendas which films noirs actively set out to upset). Double Indemnity could be read as a foreshadowing of the postmodern text in which, lacking an authoritative 'grand narrative' about the nature of truth and human motivation and chronicling patriarchy under threat, Truth has devolved to a mass of conflicting viewpoints. In this light, not merely is masculinity in crisis but the very objectivity which underwrites the male subject's place in the world has been called into question. Produced by a nation in total war, Double Indemnity's failure to yield up one sympathetic character and an optimistic closure makes it less a vehicle for expending excess patriotic zeal and more a meditation on the violence upon which all war is predicated. I think it is not too hasty to contend that the film is one of the most subversive of its, or any, era.

In keeping with the fragmented viewpoints that Double Indemnity deploys, this noir male's perspective upon this noir female comes to us via fractured impressions of her. Phyllis' gold anklet (significantly bearing her name, as if her identity were otherwise too obscure), her silky blonde hair, her fawning appeal to Walter's professionalism, fix her less as individual and more as product of subjective desire. Freud believed that the fetish replaces the person desired, stipulating an abnormal sexual pathology as a precondition. Notice the debilitated Walter's emotional taciturnity towards Phyllis, while his fetishization of her effects suggests patriarchy's wider project of defining and thereby reducing womanhood. The fragmented noir male projects his fragmentation onto the femme fatale, creating a woman of moments and parts. Such subjective framing finds narrational echoes in Walter's (and later, Keyes') according Phyllis her motives: "You want to knock him off, don't you…I always tend to suspect the beneficiary." According to this male perspective, Phyllis herself has become redundant.

Yet some scenes reveal that space does exist for Phyllis' own narrative. When she visits Walter at his apartment, she is wearing slacks, having discovered his address by looking it up in the phone book. For a character who must co-opt Walter's expertise, Phyllis seems remarkably self-sufficient. Even her dress in 1944 would have suggested a woman of independent sensibility. But Phyllis exceeds Walter's perceptions of her. They then maneuver in a complex mating ritual in which she entices him, he plays it cool, she narrates her story, and he chases her. Speaking of Mr Dietrichson, she confesses: "He wouldn't give me a divorce. He keeps me on a leash so tight I can't breathe." The implication that a female character in 1944 might possess initiative enough to ask her husband for a divorce also suggests a woman who cannot be contained by a patriarchal narrative. As she speaks, Phyllis stands alone at the window. Walter comes over and, as she turns to cross the room, he takes her by the arm. The prospect of taking up a new life on a new leash is difficult to ignore. Notice how Walter grips her like a vice in this scene, hurting her. In the kitchen, Editor Doane Harrison cuts to catch Phyllis' reactions to Walter's anecdotes about unhappy wives who murder their husbands for the insurance money. She sympathetically maps their experience onto her own. When she then sits on the davenport in a pool of lamplight, she is less specularized for Walter's and our gaze as she is stranded in a lonely place against a blank wall. As she narrates the story of a wretched marriage to a drunken penny-pinching alcoholic whose daughter hates her, Walter sits agog. Positioned to the side of Walter, John Seitz' camera appears to observe Phyllis from some neutral space. The scene's emphasis is not shaped by a shot-reverse-shot format or by point-of-view shots as it is when Walter first saw Phyllis wrapped in a towel on her balcony or ogled her anklet as she descended the stairs. Briefly but significantly, the film's trajectory has become hers. Walter then moves onto the davenport: -

Walter: "So you lie awake in the dark and listen to him snore and get ideas."

Phyllis: "Walter, I didn't want to kill him. I never did. Not even when he gets drunk and slaps my face."

Walter: "Only sometimes you wish he was dead."

Phyllis: "Perhaps I do."

Walter: "And you wish it was an accident, and you had that policy. For fifty thousand dollars. Is that it?"

The sense in which he is tailoring her experience to the dimensions of his scheme -

Walter: "Because it all tied up with something I had been thinking
about for years, since long before I ever ran into Phyllis
Dietrichson…And you figure all you need is a plant
out front…And suddenly the doorbell rings and the
whole setup is right there in the room with you" -

is hard to resist. As the scene ends, there is an almost imperceptible cut from Walter taking Phyllis by the arm to their embrace. The perception that this appropriation is the final act in the subsumption of her narration, her story, her space, into his seems to seal her fate as surely as their first meeting sealed his. As the camera backs away from the couple, her head appears hidden by his while his poetic narration describes her: "crying softly, like the rain on the window", her experience expressed in his rhetoric. Where does this scene leave John Russell Taylor's assessment in which "a nice ordinary insurance salesman who, through his obsession with a calculating no-good woman, gets involved in fraud and murder"? (Strangers in Paradise: The Hollywood Emigres 1933-1950, London , Faber and Faber, 1983).

In pursuit of a woman's traditional roles, Phyllis has married a man twice her age - "I wanted a home. Why not?" But if she married someone with the temperament of a ringside failure, she has an affair with someone who will eventually kill her. Phyllis is a tragic figure. Rather than successfully acting to avert her destiny, she must react to a hellish past and present. Having swapped uncertainty for a comfortable home and a two-car garage, she becomes an accessory in the imagination of a character himself tragically bent on overreaching. Even her attempts to love Walter, more demonstrative than his emotionally stunted responses, seem forlorn. As Seitz' camera reveals in the cavernous Dietrichson lounge, Walter's dimly-lit den, the clinical interiors of 'Jerry's Market' where they meet clandestinely, even that space in which Phyllis hides behind Walter's door, there is a place in which these two can be a couple. But, unlike the socialized sunny spaces of many another Hollywood affair, Walter and Phyllis' space is beyond society, beyond sanction. As in many another film noir, it is a country of pure desire desperately seeking active shape.

At the end of the film the camera moves into this private space in a reversal of that shot which closed the lovers' rendezvous in Walter's apartment. It is an ambiguous confrontation the dynamics of which critics have fought over for years. Sadly, Phyllis may only have discovered how buried her existence has been when she gives up her gun, archetypal appendage of the ''phallic woman' in film noir. If she is insincere, as (male) critic after critic has argued, it is because she has been alienated by the patriarchal prohibition against the female agenda from that part of her sensibility which Walter recognized because it is part of his sensibility: "We're both rotten, Walter." Men can scheme, but as soon as Phyllis schemes to keep Lola quiet she must be eliminated. Despite their delinquency, or because of it, these two deserve each other, foreshadowing such fated noir couples as Keechie and Bowie in They Live by Night (1948) and Annie and Bart in Gun Crazy (1950). Playing their meetings out in dank rooms, as opposed to the romantic settings - a Mexican restaurant, the Hollywood Bowl - of Walter 's conventional courtship of Lola, pushed the evocation of love in Hollywood cinema into a mise-en-scene of the mind. Double Indemnity dramatizes the relationship between fractured noir male and transgressive noir female as a liaison founded upon the cusp of activity and impotence. Yet in failing to fire that final shot, claiming to have discovered feelings she never thought she could have, Phyllis claims the right to be more than Walter's voice-over, Lola's account, or Keyes' assumptions describe. The debatability of this reversal rests precisely upon its rogue appeal.

Patriarchal ideology is historical, and if the archetype 'femme fatale', the genre and critical taste have struggled to contain Phyllis Dietrichson, she won't be had. And to the extent that she resists definition, she forces the reassessment of Double Indemnity and ensures the continuing fascination of film noir.



Double Indemnity