Saturday, March 26, 2011

Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

Barbara Stanwyck received her third unsuccessful nomination for playing Phyllis Diethrichson, a manipulative femme fatale in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Poor, poor Barbara. I'm really sorry that despite being a great star and an icon, she never won a comptetitive Oscar. She got closest to winning the award with this role of hers. I think she would have won it, hadn't Ingrid lost the previous year to Jennifer Jones (if Ingrid had been nominated for Casablanca as she should have been). Barbara had to make do with an Honorary Oscar and a couple of Emmys instead. Still, she's one of the greatest that has ever been.

Double Indemnity is just a terrific movie like almost everything that Billy Wilder did. That guy was such a genious. He always used to say that the most important thing of a good movie is a great screenplay. And he was so right. Although I prefer Wilder's comedies, his 40s works are also really terrific. Fred MacMurray gives an excellent performance in the lead and I really think that he should have been nominated for Best Actor. Edward G. Robinson is also terrific in his supporting role and he's a real scene stealer in this one (too).

Barbara Stanwyck is really becoming one of my absolute favorite actresses. She had such a unique presence, a brilliant voice and a shining talent. Although she's nowadays mostly remembered by the general public for playing matriarchs in 80s soaps, her movies are also quite legendary. And probably the two most famous roles she ever played were in The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity. These were the landmarks in her rich career and one just cannot say anything bad about these ones. It always feels awkward to criticise iconic performances as you feel really bad about why you dislike something that some go crazy for.

However, such a thing doesn't come to my mind when I think about Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson as not only is her performance, in my humble opinion, fantastic but it's also one of the best works of this excellent lady. If you ask me, Barbara Stanwyck is a bit unlikely femme fatale. She's not as distant (or as mindblowingly beautiful) as Lauren Bacall or Gene Tierney. Barbara is much more easy-going and yet she has the very mysterious and very seductive nature that the above mentioned ladies have/had. Phyllis is a very manipulative but irresistable woman who can control and manipulate men extremely easily and even the audience. When we first see her as Phyllis she wears only a towel and she's presumably naked under it. This makes her so desirable in the very first scene of hers that it really manipulates the audience. Phyllis is an immoral, greedy woman who's as she puts "rotten to the heart". She basically wants to kill her husband to get insurance money and she manipulates a man who eventually makes a plan and commits the murder.

This is one of those performances when the performer benefits from the excellently written character who has great lines and scenes. That's what won Supporting Actor Oscars to three men who played villains in the very recent years. However, Barbara is so different as her performance doesn't rely only on delivering the great lines well (or simply the character) but she also adds real depth to this woman. Or to put it more accurately, she adds no depth to this character but intead she shows us that this woman has no depth, only emptiness and greed. Stanwyck plays so many tricks with the audience, which really could have been too forced and they could have made the performance too perplexing but she knew exactly when to stop. This is clearly visible in the very(intentionally) melodramatic scenes where Phyllis is complaining about her distant, aggressive husband. Her stories are really unlikely and they probably lack any real basis but we can't help believing them.

Stanwyck has some really intense and unforgettable scenes where she really shows all her talent. I think the most brilliant scene of her performance (and the movie) is where she's hiding behind the door when Fred MacMurray is talking to the suspicious Edward G. Robinson. Stanwyck brilliantly matched scared with cool-headed. She's both firm and desperate. It's a terrificly acted (and directed moment), full of suspense and it really blew me away. Her very last scene with her teary-eyed confession (probably also a lie) is also just unbelievably great. SPOILER! First, she cold-bloodedly shoots her lover and then she drops the gun and falls in love (!) with her. She is seemingly terrfied and she somehow knows that she's going to die but she hysterically hugs the man she loves. SPOILER OFF! It's an unlikely, yet terrific moment that really blows you away.

From her entry through her scenes at the shop with her sunglasses on until the unlikely, teary ending, Barbara Stanwyck's performance as the manipulative, irresistable Phyllis Dietrichson is just pitch-perfect. I'm not saying anything for sure but from what I've seen this is absolutely the best work of this silver screen goddess who always blows me away with her wonderful presence and radiant talent. Breathtaking achievement that naturally gets

What do you think?


Louis Morgan said...

Certainly an iconic, and very effective performance, she could still be second though.

Anonymous said...

Well she's number one so far, great review, can't wait to see the two you have left!

joe burns said...

Great review! This makes me nervous about Bergman's chances though. I hope she can still win, though I haven't seen Barbara.

dinasztie said...

Joe: Thanks. Well, I said that it would be a tough battle between them. But I still have to watch Ingrid again and after that it might be a very easy win for either of them. However, I think the more suspense the better. 1957 wasn't that great because after I saw Anna, I was dead certain she would win. :D

Fritz said...

An expected grade for an iconic performance. She is really wonderful even though I am a little less enthusiastic about the whole movie than you.