June 25, 2015

Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity

as PHYLLIS DIETRICHSON
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The quintessential femme-fatale. There's not much else to say. Barbara Stanwyck's work in Double Indemnity makes for one of the finest femme-fatales the film-noir genre ever saw. And why is that exactly? What makes Stanwyck so great in this film? My belief is that Stanwyck never set out determined to craft an iconic character; and instead, it's an instance where all the recipes came together to formulate into something accidentally great.


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I liken this performance to that of a cat. Donning a rather ridiculous looking wig, her unique facial features makes her look (at first glance) cute. Then she speaks, the way she speaks to Fred MacMurray in those early scenes, and her voice just purrs; she oozes confidence as she does sexuality, powering her way through scene-after-scene in a calculated and fabricated manner. And as with felines, she has a dark side--playful to a fault, she's quick to turn the tables and inflict harm. She even sits like a damn cat, such as in her final scene, slouched over, eyeing down Walter Neff like prey. I think the beauty of this performance is Stanwyck's ability to convey so much even as she (and Phyllis) do so little. The hate her eyes as she complains about her husband, the cold she imbues in the grocery store, the murder she ponders in her final showdown. Some actresses don't convey enough with their work, some convey too much; this is a case where an actress conveys just enough. Stanwyck's strength of distilling total sexuality in the way she talks and stares and presents herself, the innate poise she brings that's critical to making Phyllis work (the very confidence that's present in all her greatest roles), and her steadfast coolness--the way in which she literally seems like she gives-no-fucks--all work together into the context of Phyllis to make a fascinating vixen. It's a fine performance, and one for the ages.

5 comments:

  1. Amazing performance, one of my favourites. I haven't seen another femme fatale that could top this one.

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    1. I haven't watched nearly enough film noir to say, but she's excellent for sure!

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  2. This was a heartbreaker, and proof that there aren't nearly the instances of tie wins there should be. No one wants to diminish Bergman, but this was surely Stanwyck's most deserving shot of four, and a denial that will always sting. I feel the same way about '58; there's no taking it away from Hayward, but Russell's Mame Dennis is one of the most iconic female characters in American film.

    I absolutely back your call of five here.

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    1. I haven't seen Auntie Mame, and haven't really been exciting by the thought of watching it but good to know you're very fond of it!

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    2. I'd be careful about Russell in Auntie Mame. The performance is unsubtle at best and, because Russell had performed this on Broadway for hundreds of times, she seems to both be playing to the balcony and striving for stagy effects. It's as if her performance was "frozen" at the time of opening night and simply stayed there. My guess is you won't like it.

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