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Reflections on Double Indemnity

In last week’s class discussion, Professor Arrigo explained many aspects about the origins of film noir and about the times in which film noir was developed as a form of cinematography. One aspect of film noir, which was of great interest to me, was the use of lighting as a way of influencing the audience’s mood toward a particular character. We discussed the use of darkened shadows as a method of exuding demoralized, villainous, violent and taboo images about upper-class, white-privileged members of society. However, we discussed in particular, the notion of the femme fatale as being a blonde-haired, angelic-faced, seemingly innocent woman, who was truly a malicious sexual deviant with killer instincts. The femme fatale in Double Indemnity was Phyllis; she seemed innocent and well intentioned, but was in fact a disturbed individual with a serious dark side.

In the beginning of the film, when Walter arrived to Phyllis’s home to meet with her husband about discussing car insurance, Phyllis was seen standing at the top of the stairs with nothing but a towel draped around her. She had an aura of light illuminating from her face, as though she was an angel; however, this was before we knew anything about her character. She innocently explained to Walter that she wanted to get “accident insurance? for her husband, without his knowledge, because she was worried about something happening to him at work. Walter saw through her seeming concern for what it truly was – her wanting to kill her husband to gain insurance money. When feelings between Phyllis and Walter were reciprocated, they shared a kiss for the first time in his apartment. There were dark, contrasting shadows that fell over them as they kissed, giving the audience a sense of the taboo, adulterous act they were participating in. Phyllis took advantage of Walter’s love for her and played the victim as she explained that her husband abused her and did not love her. Walter, believing that he would gain money and Phyllis’s love, falls in her trap and decides to help her kill her husband and make it look like an accidental death. The moment that Walter killed Phyllis’s husband, her face was emotionless, with dark shadows cast over her. After the entire charade of faking her husband’s death from a moving train is over, Phyllis shed no tears, showed no emotions, just as though she was a stone-cold killer. In fact, I think I saw a smirk on her face throughout the entire incident.

Phyllis killed Lola’s father in cold blood, just as she had killed her mother, and the use of lighting and shadows throughout her evil acts made this very clear. Walter had unfortunately fallen for her act and believed that she indeed loved him, however in the end, he realized who she truly was and killed her. Phyllis’s damsel in distress act didn’t fool me for one minute; she was cold and calculating from the very beginning!

- Hasti Fashandi