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Femme Fatales in the Work of Billy Wilder

04/05/2012

The movies Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. are two of the most notable examples of classic Film Noir archetypes.  They have all the major pieces associated with the genre, voice-over narration, sassy dialog, contrasting visuals, and the femme fatales.  The hero is led into a murderous plot, thanks to a manipulative woman.

The principal character in Double Indemnity is Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who lustfully falls for Phyllis Dietrichson, and plots with her to come up with an insurance scheme where they kill her husband and make off with all the life-insurance money.  In Sunset Blvd. the lead is a down-on-his luck screenwriter who ducks into what he thinks is an old abandoned mansion, only to find out that it is still lived in by one of the classic silent film stars.

 

The women are basically simple.  The first is Phyllis Dietrichson, a wife and stepmother.  She has dreamt of her husband’s murder for some time, but it is only when she meets this new man that she thinks her dream can become a reality.  And with the Gloria Swanson character, the woman has a goal (to return to the cinema) that she is unable to achieve until the male protagonist enters her life.

In both these cases, these women are, in a way, classically dependent upon their male partners.  But there is stark contrast here between this sort of dependency and the traditional damsel in distress scenario.  These women are trapped by their own ambitions.  It is the inner foe that enslaves them.

This reversion of dependency has garnered widely different reactions amongst feminist commentators.  Some see this as a growth in female independence and identity.  Others consider the femme fatale archetype to be the epitome of chauvinistic sexism.  But no one can deny that the women in these films are the strongest motivators of plot.  These women are assertive.  They are pushers, movers, and shakers.  They will overcome a man’s will and conform it to their own.

There’s a certain sexual subtext here that one cannot ignore.  In traditional male-based protagonism, the woman’s role is supportive to the male’s more dominant desires.  But in any story with a femme fatale, it is the man who becomes dependent on the woman.  In the case of Double Indemnity, it is lust that keeps him tethered to her.

But in Sunset Boulevard, the appeal is something else.  He does not appear to be attracted to her physically, and in his voice-over he even describes being repulsed by her.  But he stays with her, and is even mothered by her.  She dresses him and feeds him.  She daily proclaims her love for him.  And despite his shame, a part of him sort of likes it.  Joe Gillis, the screenwriter, has always dreamed of Hollywood success.  Now, through his relationship to the femme fatale, he can experience it.

 

The relationships between the men and women in these films is toxic, to say the least.  These films are not nearly so much about murderous plots as they are cautionary tales about poisonous relationships.  They demonstrate the step-by-step process of falling head over heels for a girl, only to realize that she’s gotten you killed.

Are these roles sexist, as some have suggested?  The question really lies in whether or not a negative archetype is the same thing as a prejudicial stereotype.  Femme Fatales are powerful to a fault.  They could represent Wilder’s view of how a relationship might be distorted if a woman is in control.  On the other hand, they could also represent the general negatives of a dangerous attraction.  The roles could easily be reversed to produce a commentary on battered women.

In Sunset Boulevard, the unhealthy relationship with Norma Desmond is contrasted with a growing healthy relationship with a young script reader named Betty.  This is an evolution of the archetype from Double Indemnity, where the hero was exclusive to the woman.  It’s an incredible contrast, comparable to a prostitute falling in love.  He has allowed himself to become Norma’s pet.  She feeds him and tells him where to sleep.  She adores him, but belittles him.

Betty on the other hand looks up to him.  She can’t provide for his material needs, but she loves him.  She represents a choice in Joe’s life: a choice between the body and the soul.  Norma Desmond may have his body, but she’ll never have his soul.  And when he makes this plain by leaving her, she demonstrates her power over him by separating his soul from his body.  We do not really see Betty’s reaction to the murder, but we do know that she is now one of the offended parties.

 

Double Indemnity is similar.  Walter’s body and soul both belong to Phyllis and when he tries to separate from her, he is killed.  Though in Phyllis’ defense, Walter had become a genuine threat to her, whereas Joe Gillis was only a perceived threat to Norma.

As we examine these characters more fully, they produce more depth.  It is for this reason that I am inclined to disregard claims of sexism in Wilder’s noirs.  These characters have more psychological baggage than most other movie villains.  Though I suppose that is in part because being a villain and being an antagonist is not necessarily the same thing.  The women here are not technically antagonists; since they do their best to enable the men they’re with.  But they are most definitely villains.

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One comment

  1. […] return to the cinema) that she is unable to achieve until the male protagonist enters her life.”Femme Fatales in the Work of Billy Wilder. I think Double Indemnity is definitely sexist specifically due to the fact that women were unable […]



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