Double Indemnity: How the Femme Fatale of Noir Stacks Up to the Gothic Heroine of Yore

By Canese Jarboe

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurry in Double Indemnity

Pulp fiction contains the lurid, the underbelly, and it’s supposed to be cheap. Despite what Raymond Chandler may have thought, James M. Cain’s writing in Double Indemnity often self-consciously broke through this lacquer and pulled from the long literary tradition of Gothic fiction. However, Cain’s careful depiction of Phyllis as a romanticized consort of Death was largely removed by Chandler and distantly depicted in one of the latter scenes of the film.

Despite Chandler illustrating this characteristic later in the film adaptation, Cain introduces Phyllis as morbid and macabre very early on in the novel. Phyllis has a striking and short bit of dialogue that shapes our understanding of her character:

“I know it’s not true. I tell myself it’s not true. But there’s something in me, I don’t know   what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness…” (Cain 23).

Other than these quite poetic passages, Cain’s writing isn’t particularly dark or imagistic—not with the same magnitude as this exchange. This is reminiscent of so much of Gothic literature; the scarlet shroud, the love and the inhabitation of Death. It’s worth noting that Phyllis is not at all a traditional woman of Gothic literature… she is not virtuous or innocent. She’s a femme fatale of noir.

However, there is another side of the feminine in the Gothic tradition. Diane Long Hoeveler pointed out in Gothic Feminism: The Professionalisation of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës (1998) that Gothic literature birthed the modern “victim feminism,” which is to say that the heroines intentionally appeared to be victimized by a “corrupt and oppressive patriarchal society while utilising passive-aggressive and masochistic strategies to triumph over that system. This ideology of ‘female power through pretended and staged weakness’ is what Hoeveler calls ‘gothic feminism.’” That certainly sounds like Phyllis: absolutely dark, masochistic in a corrupt world. Her scarlet shroud is a very old symbol in the Gothic tradition. Her shroud becomes real and not just evocative of a burial shroud. None of this is depicted by Chandler in the film adaptation of Double Indemnity. It seems like a smart genre choice, to depict these instances throughout may push a film into the realm of Poe. Without the subtleties of written text, it may have been overpowered by the Gothic imagery and no longer be considered a mystery—rather, a horror.

Chandler distinctly chose to make Phyllis glamorous. There is no instance of confusion about her appearance, about her being “washed-out” (Cain 9). Gone are the dowdy blue pajamas of the novel and replaced with implied nudity and slinky dresses. The soft lighting makes actress Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde hair positively glow. This is the opposite of dark, easy to mistake for a lover in need. The Phyllis of the film is much more calculating and less fantastical; she is cool and collected. The way that Chandler chose to represent the same type of intimacy with Death that Phyllis has in the novel and remain true to the character he has created was to make her totally unfazed by Death.

Phyllis’ death-scene is bookended by a cold violence. In a dark sitting room, alone, she places a gun beneath her cushion and begins to recline. She is relaxed. In fact, she doesn’t lose her cool even when she realizes Walter has come to kill her. Yes, she does betray him and attempt to seduce him in equal measure, but she doesn’t scream. She doesn’t run. She is intent on both of them dying. She shoots Walter and, it seems, allows him to shoot her. The way her body crumples on-screen is anti-climactic. Walter places her body on the sofa. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler illustrates this as such:

“Neff: I’m sorry, baby. I’m not buying.

Phyllis: I’m not asking you to buy. Just hold me close.

Neff draws her close to him. She reaches up to his face and kisses him on the lips. As she comes out of the kiss there is realization in her eyes that this is the final moment.

Neff: Goodbye, baby.

Out of the shot the gun explodes once, twice. Phyllis quivers in his arms. Her eyes fill   with tears. Her head falls limp against his shoulder. Slowly he lifts her and carries her to the davenport. He lays her down on it carefully, almost tenderly…” (Wilder 113).

We see Phyllis go passively—as if she were seducing Death rather than Walter. This scene in the film is the closest we come to seeing any remnant of the strange intimacy Phyllis’ character maintains with Death. Chandler obviously had a different vision for Phyllis, not as Gothic damsel in distress, but as the evil femme fatale of film noir.

In Cain’s artistic vision, the shroud returns in the end of the novel. Phyllis is, quite literally, wearing the scarlet shroud while they prepare to die together. The end of the novel is much more macabre than the film, the intimation of mutual suicide. A film that would be massively consumed by the public in the golden age of Hollywood wouldn’t jive if it contained something so taboo. However, for two people to essentially murder each other out of passion and betrayal—that’s a darkness our society can grasp. It seems that Raymond Chandler absolutely had to tweak the way Phyllis appeared while simultaneously maintaining the coupling with Death that Cain originally wrote into her character. Shroud or no shroud, the macabre is there.


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