Although fairly indecisive, if forced to choose my all-time favourite movie it’s likely that Double Indemnity would be a strong contender. Billy Wilder’s noir introduced me to the classic film genre and it’s still a thrill to watch – every time I do, I discover something new. Although I’ve written about it in the past I wanted to cover it again for the Favourite Movie Blogathon, but in the spirit of this blog’s original focus, solely considering the costume.
“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”
There are a lot of things to love about Double Indemnity, but Edith Head’s costumes don’t always top the list. That’s not because they’re second-rate – Head wasn’t capable of anything sub-par – but because they’re too good. Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck) seemingly has an entire wardrobe fully of character-defining outfits, outfits that convey the image of the woman that she wants to be – not the one that the audience suspects she is all along. Designing costumes for a character that’s playing a character is complex, but it’s a role Head took on with aplomb.
It probably helped that Head and Stanwyck were good friends. Their working relationship began when the designer successfully turned the ‘plain Jane’ actress into a sex symbol for The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941). Head employed a few costume tricks to improve Stanwyck’s naturally trim figure (namely widening the waistbands at the front and narrowing them at the back) and the public saw the actress in a whole new light. The Lady Eve bought the designer the acclaim that had eluded her since she took over from Paramount’s legendary head designer Travis Banton in 1938. In Edith Head’s Hollywood, Stanwyck recalls that: ‘From then on I had Edith Head’s name written into every contract, no matter what studio I was working for’. But it wasn’t just industry acclaim: the public approved of the Spanish motifs Head used, and a wave of Latin American fashions swept across Europe.
Aside from knowing how to dress Stanwyck, Head’s Indemnity costumes work because they say so much about the character. Apparently, the flamboyant and brassy blonde wig was Wilder’s idea. He wanted to make Dietrichson look as sleazy as possible. But Head understood that full-on sleaze wouldn’t get Dietrichson what she wanted – the route out of an unhappy marriage came by ensnaring new prey. Men can’t be seduced or infatuated by looks alone – the femme fatale needs to come with elements of mystery and intrigue too. Head balanced the blondeness, exaggerated make-up and heavy jewellery with classic, ladylike garments that attempt to conceal Dietrichson’s deceit. This contrast is at the heart of the character – she’s a woman who never quite says what she means or means what she says. Everything is an act – but look carefully enough and you can see the discrepancies.
Money is Dietrichson’s main motivator, but she needs to look the part to be the part. The only thing she does enjoy about marriage is spending her husband’s money. Essentially she traps him in a web that he has paid for… although it doesn’t result in the happy ending she desired. Whilst her clothes are seductive, they do not obviously denote a ‘badness’. Phyllis needs to get away with it – low-cut dresses, excessive furs, evening gowns all attract too much attention. Her fatality isn’t only skin deep – it goes straight to the core, and to get away with it, she needs to detract attention. It would’ve been easy for Wilder, Head and Stanwyck to create an off-the-shelf femme fatale, but Double Indemnity is a smarter film than that. Part of the attraction is that it always keeps the watcher guessing; it’s possible to read into the characters and storyline in multiple ways. But lets take a look at how costume plays a role in developing – and maintaining – intrigue…
Look one: the come-hither bath-towel First impressions are everything – this is a lady of leisure who can sunbathe during the day. Sexually aware and alluring, she’s happy to reveal (parts of) her body to strangers. Some might think she’s always on the lookout for prey. By placing her at the top of the stairs, Wilder introduces a physical distance between Dietrichson and the audience, and one that’s never really surmounted, as it’s impossible to know her true intentions.
Look two: this old thing? An anklet, and Stanwyck’s shapely legs, are the focus as she descends the staircase. The simple trinket is loaded with meaning, and speaks volumes about Dietrichson’s exoticism and cavalier sensuality. Neff can’t get it out of his head. But the alluring anklet (and the heavy cuff and oversize cocktail ring) are at odds with the ruffle-front shirtdress Dietrichson has changed into. Feminine, fragile and romantic… surely no one devious could wear something so innocent? The audience begins to suspect otherwise. In film noir, white is never all it seems – see Lana Turner’s all-white ensembles in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Also note the way she examines her nails – she asks her probing questions too casually for them to be meaningless.
Look three: deceptively feminine florals When Neff returns to the house, Dietrichson is clad in a floral print day dress. It’s a bit more lavish than you might expect for an afternoon indoors, but Phyllis is no housewife – she’s a woman with a plan, as her talk of murder reveals. Again, the contrast between appearance and agenda, and the importance of creating an image that’s at odds with the real intentions.
Look four: sweater girl A classic belted coat over a simple sweater and pencil skirt. This is ‘respectable’ and ‘innocent’ Phyllis, the needy woman who can’t escape her husband without a man’s help. Neff doesn’t realise that he should approach with caution – Dietrichson might be wearing classic separates, but they’ve been chosen carefully. Form-fitting and subtly sexy, sweater girls (as popularised by Lara Turner in They Won’t Forget, 1937) usually have one thing on their mind, and it’s not small talk. The sexiness doesn’t come from the garment, rather what it promises.
Look five: LBD Dietrichson accessorises her ladylike v-neck LBD with an obvious brooch. As her husband signs the insurance policy under her watchful and concerned eye, it glitters in the evening light. Remember: Phyllis likes jewels but she likes the money you can buy them with more, and she’ll stop and nothing to get it.
Look six: supermarket sweep Dowdy, masculine, smart. Not the aesthetic qualities usually associated with a female villainess – which is probably why this tweed waistcoat and white shirt combo work so well. It’s so out of character – an everyday look for an everyday (murder planning) encounter. Ironically, the more Dietrichson tries to fit in, the more she stands out. It’s not just the blonde hair and the perfectly rolled fringes – there’s something about the pristine lipstick that screams ‘disguise!’.
Look seven: ‘ring-ring’, ‘ring-ring’ A quick scene in a phone booth. Note the central positioning of the ring – another opportunity for Head and Wilder to remind the audience exactly why Phyllis is going through with this. Hint: it’s not because she’s genuinely unhappy. Look eight: weeping widow On the surface, Dietrichson is the perfect widow. She looks the part (pillar box hat with face-covering veil, a sober grey skirt suit, black gloves and clutch bag), says the right lines and cries on cue – the crocodile tears are convincing because she knows they have to be, there’s now too much at stake. But she’s too good. She can’t quite fool Neff’s colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), he continues to question the case and the pay-out (Also, note the anklet, visible in the seated still).
Look nine: suited and booted Another smart suit (similar to the widow scene), another example of Phyllis not playing to expected femme fatale type. But in spite of all her attempts to be – or look – masculine, she’s not in control. Keyes is on the verge of discovering the insurance scam, and the world is rocking beneath her feet. It’s this reliance on traditional attire that conveys Dietrichson’s desire to treat the entire scheme as a business venture with clear goals and outcomes for both players. The heavy wool twill used here (and in the supermarket tweed) conveys an androgyny that’s at odds with the conventional representation of femininity and the expected image of a ‘bad’ girl.
Look ten: shady lady Another ‘incognito’ supermarket meet-up. This time Phyllis comes in a white silk blouse that’s decidedly more feminine than the last – this one has delicate pin-tucks running across the front – and loose fit, tailored trousers with a high, belted waist. A great masculine/feminine combination that represents the contrasts within her character. She’s also wearing sunglasses – unable to fully read her expression it’s impossible to discern her true meaning and motive. She’s concerned that the plan will fail, but is the concern motivated by love or self-advancement? It’s these ambiguities that make Phyllis a more complex character to read. This look is distinctively less showy than many of the previous costumes – perhaps this is her at her most vulnerable.
Look eleven: rotten to the heart Probably the most glamorous look Phyllis wears during the entire film. An all-white silk jumpsuit that flatters her figure and recalls the ruffle front dress from look two (incidentally, the action takes place in the same room). One difference? This time, it’s fatal. The understated and elegant jumpsuit emphasises Phyllis languid style, but it’s a studied cool, the costume is a prop to attain something she doesn’t feel. The trousers are subtly masculine but the overall look is feminine – she’s no match for Neff. For the first time perhaps, her garments seem to match her sentiments (maybe she does care for him after all?) but his dismissal of her puts doubt into the audience’s mind. Just who is Phyllis Dietrichson? Even her costumes don’t tell the full story.
This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.