Noir Film Double Indemnity and the Femme Fatale Essay

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Double Indemnity is a 1944 noir film directed by Billy Wilder that cast Fred McMurray as Walter Neff opposite the scheming femme fatale played by Barbara Stanwyck. The film dared to push the boundaries of the production Code designed to maintain the moral standards of the audience: Barbara first appears on screen in a towel, shoulders exposed, as she stares down from her lofty perch at her prey -- McMurray newly arrived to "house of death." Stanwyck's sensuality is used as a plot device to lure McMurray's Neff into her clutches, which involves a preposterous scheme of murder and money. The film explores the manner in which a good man can become embroiled in a bad situation -- that way is mainly exposed as the way of the flesh. Neff's seduction at the hands of Stanwyck sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to his fall (bleeding and waiting for the law to come for him) and Stanwyck's death (at his hands). The web of deceit that she weaves is her own undoing and the film suggests that playing with a man's emotions (and loyalty) is a good way to end up dead.

As Boozer points out, "the sexual seductress of Hollywood cinema has a long and varied international lineage" (20) -- meaning the type played by Stanwyck was not of strictly American genealogy.

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The femme fatale is, in fact, as old as the story of Adam and Eve and has its roots essentially in that same place -- the righteous and good Adam turning away from the law as a result Eve's charms. This same thematic device runs through Double Indemnity as Neff succumbs to Stanwyck's sexual charisma and allows himself to serve as her dupe. When he later takes his revenge by putting two slugs in her belly (a violent euphemistic twist on the sex act that would naturally end in procreation -- his depositing of his seed -- new life -- in her womb), the awful and tragic consequence of acting wrongly is spelled out plainly on the screen -- even if only suggestively (rather than graphically -- as would become typical in later decades when the industry Code would vanish). The physical acts of love that the two might have made together are instead violently disrupted in a painful climax that leaves both victims of one another's evil impulses bleeding --….....

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Works Cited

Boozer, Jack. "The lethal femme fatale in the noir tradition." Journal of Film and Video, vol. 51, no. ae (Fall 1999): 20-35.

Text of the Production Code.

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