DUELING DIVAS À l’ombre du noir
Concluding a year during which this blog took on a life of its own, I submit what I believe is my last blogathon entry of 2012. This is a very special event hosted by the ultra talented Backlots, the Dueling Divas blogathon.
As my entry, I chose to compare two grand divas of noir, Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). A lofty goal, I realize, as both films and circumstances that surround these two are substantial – intricate plots not for the faint of heart. So, lest you be confused or distracted, only divas venture forth into a world of feminine wiles, deceit and murder.
Although I haven’t read any personally, I’d venture to guess comparisons between Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are plentiful. It’s rather an obvious choice, but fun nonetheless. Both novels were written by James M. Cain and are widely considered masterpieces, definitive works of American crime fiction of the 20th Century, which yielded very successful and highly regarded screen adaptations. The movies that resulted are great film noirs – tales of lust, double crosses, betrayal and murder told with sardonic realism. Two films, I might add, that exemplify the film noir movement that came of age in the 1940s as Americans preferred adult stories and the dark-side of reality. Cain knew these stories well, also penning the popular Mildred Pierce in 1941, but it was The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934 and Double Indemnity, published in 1936, that placed him among the great American writers – permanently. While the film adaptations appealed to World War II audiences, Cain’s novels reflected the darkness and nihilistic nature popular in the 1930s.
While this post intends to take a comparative look at Phyllis and Cora, the dames in the film adaptations, it’s important to at least mention there are many aspects of these films that parallel each other and deserve attention, if not endless fascination. I’ll mention only one in order to get to the matter at hand, the dueling divas – both stories are narrated by the protagonists, the men who can’t escape these dames – Walter Neff in Double Indemnity played by Fred MacMurray and Frank Chambers in Postman played by John Garfield. Both of those great casting choices and performances of characters that are essentially weak, easily corruptible, deeply flawed men, the perfect partners in crime for our scheming divas.
Reportedly conceived by James M. Cain based on real events he had come across in newspapers, Double Indemnity, released in 1944, is about a successful insurance salesman named Walter Neff who gets entangled with the wife of a client, wealthy executive, Mr. Dietrichson. Mere seconds after Neff walks into the Dietrichson house intending to renew the insurance policies on their automobiles, he falls prey to Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and the air reeks of suspicion and lust, which quickly take a turn toward double-cross, betrayal and murder.
Brilliantly directed by the great, Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity was the famed director’s third film and his first masterpiece. Actually, it is one of the best films ever made, the noir of noirs that many tried to emulate – it’s style, its look and its story-telling techniques. Wilder also co-wrote the film’s magnificent screenplay with popular crime fiction writer, Raymond Chandler.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is about young, Frank Chambers who, while on the move because his feet “itch” for constant change, makes a fatal choice one day by stopping at a small, roadside diner called Twin Oaks Tavern. He is broke and gets from place to place by hitchhiking. The Tavern is owned by an older man named Nick Smith who immediately offers Frank a job. Trouble starts just a few moments later when Frank meets Nick’s wife, Cora (Lana Turner).
Postman was directed by Tay Garnett and its screenplay was written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch.
Obvious story parallels aside, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are quite different in many ways, most strikingly in tone and in the effect they each have on viewers, to put it as simply as possible. And the tone in each is set quite early in each film, a tone mirrored by the corresponding divas. Postman starts in a slow, methodical, lazy sort of way through the words of a drifter – a casual encounter between casual people and circumstances until fate intervenes – but it always takes its time. Double Indemnity begins fast and furious as a car races, haphazardly along Los Angeles streets at night and the film, the characters and its story never slow down. Danger looms and lurks in one, it heaves breaths of blood in the other. Now, a warning – what follows is replete with spoilers.
Phyllis and Cora
Newly-hired handyman/attendant, Frank Chambers sits on a bar stool in the Twin Oaks Diner with his new boss. The old man hurries out to mind the station and Frank says, “I’ll look after the burger.” Suddenly Frank looks down as a lipstick rolls into the room toward him. His gaze raises toward the door of the room where the lipstick’s owner stands. It’s Cora Smith, the well-put-together wife, clad in a turban and short ensemble. Frank is clearly intrigued and smitten from the first site of her as his face, and the dramatic music indicates. He steps over, picks up the lipstick and asks her if she dropped it. She replies, “mmm-mmm” and puts out her hand without taking a step. She wants him to approach her but he doesn’t. Instead, he leans on the counter right where he is with lipstick in hand – she has to come to him. She does, somewhat defiantly, allowing him plenty of opportunity to gawk and she approaches and retreats slowly and purposefully. She certainly has that feminine mystique, the alluring mystery that leaves him bewildered. But this introduction is a draw – an equal encounter between the two parties. She is as intrigued as he is. The loser was the burger, now charred on the grill.
Walter Neff, the insurance salesman rings the doorbell at the Dietrichson house in Double Indemnity. He only rings once, in case you were wondering, and asks the maid who answers if Mr. Dietrichson is in. As the maid explains the man of the house is not in his wife makes an appearance. And what an appearance it is.
Clad in a towel because she’s been sunbathing, Phyllis Dietrichson asks “is there anything I can do?” And that’s that. From the top of the stairs, dressed in a manner that might render most women vulnerable to a handsome stranger, Phyllis Dietrichson takes complete control as she looks down from a position of power she never relinquishes. Neff is a goner. He can’t take his eyes off her and she will do with him as she pleases. Yes, we get that from a mere few moments on film. It’s Barbara Stanwyck and in bad wig and all, she’s in complete control. It’s ironic that of the two male protagonists in these films, Neff is the stronger and wiser. Yet, he is no match for Phyllis. He sees her once and almost forgot why he was there. All he can think of was “that dame upstairs and the way she had looked at him.” Now THAT’S a first impression.
Oh the foreplay!
“You won’t find anything cheap around here” – so Cora tells Frank in Postman. I guess she means he’ll have to work for her “attentions” – but not really as the “heat” between them is felt from that first encounter. There’s plenty of double-entendres to go around in Postman between the two main characters and it doesn’t take very long for a full-fledged, steamy affair between the two to come to fruition. Ironically their affair is helped along by her clueless husband who insists they dance together and suggests they frolic in the sand and surf. What was he thinking? The dance alone is steamy enough to fry eggs on the two and Nick is there to see it.
Anyway, Cora’s hold on Frank is physical and immediate but she has to exert some effort to show him who’s boss. In their first encounter after the rolling lipstick incident she actually walks up to him and tells him she’s the boss then tells him to paint some chairs that don’t need painting. A rather meek showing of power. Then, after she reveals her ambitions somewhat apologetically – to make something of herself -he takes a hold of her and kisses her. Hard. And we hear that dramatic music again that accompanies that kiss. The music too is hard. Cora coolly takes out her mirror and lipstick after the kiss as if to show she wasn’t impressed but as we hear through Frank’s narration, she’s disturbed by him alright. And he by her. On and off this continues throughout the film – a shift of power as Cora plays what some may consider “typical” female games and Frank falls for them and her – hook, line and sinker. She uses their love as the pretext for starting the ball rolling on the plan – the murder of her husband but does so in her usual soft manner, mentioning it as an aside, an idea that casually comes to her as a result of something he said. Frank is startled and scared but goes along with it – for her. Preceded by, “If only I’d met you first,” in a soft, breathy voice Cora asks, “Frank do you love me? Do you love me so much that nothing else matters? There’s this one thing we could do that would fix everything for us.” On the foreplay front, because she has his number by way of her sultry looks and breathy requests, Cora has the upper hand.
Now appropriately dressed, Phyllis Dietrichson walks down the stairs in her home toward Walter who cannot wait to see her again “without the silly staircase between them.” She sits, rather demurely, in a large chair where she looks small. He flirts right away, she begins to size him up. Then, after a cool dismissal she acknowledges his flirtations…
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.
Wonderful repartee perfectly delivered. I could listen to exchanges like that for hours.
Walter Neff leaves the Dietrichson house that day a changed man. Phyllis’ wheels were already spinning and her accomplice lay in wait without his knowledge. All she had to do was turn it up another notch and he was hers. Phyllis is adept and practiced at this game. A champion. So a couple of days later they meet again as she plans. She sets the stage by playing the concerned wife. He reads through her but she got her hook in him and closes the deal by delivering her “goods” when she visits him later that night. Phyllis does what she has to do to get her way, as tough as a man in a man’s world. Although, she can flirt with the best of ’em. Smoldering looks, professions of love, lots of build-up and promises. “Straight down the line.” On the foreplay front Phyllis is a master. Even knowing it Walter Neff doesn’t stand a chance. “The machinery had started to move and nothing could stop it.” A plan is in motion to kill a man Walter barely even knows. The perfect murder. And all Phyllis did was insist – ever so casually.
The act – the murder, I mean.
The idea was hers after she read in a magazine that the most serious accidents happen right in people’s homes, mostly right in their own bathtubs. Nick is in the bath, Frank is outside cleaning the car and Cora is in the kitchen. That’s the alibi. Cora is to walk into the bathroom while her husband is bathing and hit him on the head. The dead man would then lie in the bathtub, water still running until it overflows and starts to drip through the kitchen ceiling. Cora would then notice the leak, run up to see what was happening and would find her husband dead – an apparent accident. But the whole thing was ill-conceived and planned, given they live in the establishment, which is situated right on the road. Any number of people could happen by and spoil it. As it turns out, the planned is botched by a cat leaving the murderous Cora startled, nervous and weeping like a girl. Well, not surprising but certainly not the reaction of a hard-boiled, murdering diva. Or so I always think at first until through the tears she slips and says, “next time I’ll let you plan it.” Subtle but it’s there. She really wants that diner to herself.
Despite the couple’s relief that Nick survives the murder attempt they plan a second. Nick tells Cora, in front of Frank, which is baffling, that he plans to sell the Tavern and move back to Canada so he and Cora can help his paralyzed sister. What? Cora the diva as a nursemaid in “some miserable little, dump of a town where she’ll rot away while waiting on Nick and his half-dead sister”? Highly unlikely. Murder attempt number two is soon in the works. And this time Cora uses stronger tools to convince Frank to play along. Through tears of anger, despising her life and its prospects because she deserves much better, “why, if you really loved me, you’d…” She doesn’t need to say it, he agrees immediately. He can’t lose her. And for good measure she suggests she was about to kill herself. A done deal.
This time Cora is to drive while Frank hits Nick over the head, making it look like a drunken car accident when the car goes over a cliff. Except, the car barely makes it a few feet into the cliff at first so Frank has to help it along. Cora quickly turns to get help, in typical damsel-in-distress mode, as she sees the car plunge down the cliff taking Frank along with it. Unfortunately, she runs right into the District Attorney that’s been following them, suspicious of the couple since the first botched murder. From then on it’s suspicion, distrust and blame between the murder-crossed lovers. This is Kismet of the worst kind. On the murder front Cora is more than willing but she either overdoes the damsel bit or her partner is not cut out for these types of schemes. Although she does get away with murder.
Phyllis Dietrichson? She never even dirties her hands. Not only does Phyllis get the man to kill for her but he has to do it by getting the soon-to-be-dead husband to sign a contract without his knowing, has to impersonate him and is close to the greatest catcher of insurance scammers ever born, Barton Keyes (played brilliantly by Edward G. Robinson). Yes, as the wife of the deceased, it’s very likely Phyllis will be an immediate suspect, but it’s Frank who takes all the risks and does all the planning. This is a powerful woman. If one is to believe stories told by her stepdaughter, Lola, she is also a psychopath.
On the day of the murder Phyllis drives the car as planned. Her husband sits beside her and Walter Neff hides in the backseat awaiting her signal, three honks on the horn, at which time he is to break Mr. Dietrichson’s neck. She drives along without a visible sign of nerves. When she reaches the planned “dark street,” she turns into it and honks the horn three times. The camera now stays on her. Only on her. A close-up. She jerks a little bit, probably due to the struggle beside her and as we hear a muffled gurgling sound through the music, which gets ever louder, her face turns to stone then to pure satisfaction. This is my favorite of all the Stanwyck scenes I’ve seen in any film, which is saying a lot given the woman could do it all great. An outstanding bit of acting in the subtlest changes of expressions.
On the murder front Phyllis Dietrichson is made of this. One gets the distinct feeling she’s done this before and would love to do this again. A clue might be the smile on her face as she sees the dead body of her husband in the backseat after the deed is done. This is one cold-blooded diva.
Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no happiness in noir.
In the aftermath of the act it takes almost no time for Frank to turn on Cora. He’s still in love with her but turns her in to the D.A. in a matter of minutes. As the trial begins, her lawyer (played by Hume Cronyn) uses some fancy maneuvering and gets her probation and a suspended sentence. Back at the Tavern the lovers and murderers make an attempt at a happy life together sans poor Nick.
Cora succeeds in making the Twin Oaks a popular (and trendy) spot, mostly because she is now the infamous Mrs. Smith who pleaded guilty to murdering her husband. She is also the talk of the town because she lives with a man she is not married to. So they marry. Cora and Frank also survive a blackmail attempt, serious bouts of jealousy and a decent amount of distrust of each other – he follows her around she watches him like a hawk. Then she spills the beans that she’s expecting a baby so she needs to know for sure whether she can trust him. And this is where Cora just makes no sense and loses major diva points by my estimation. She asks Frank to accompany her to the beach where they’d spent so many lovely moments in the past. To prove whether she can trust him she makes sure they swim way out into the ocean, past the point where she knows she cannot get back without his help. What? With all she’s gone through and the fierce way she’s fought why would she do that? Naturally, Frank helps her back to shore for as doubtful as she may be about Frank’s love for her, we never are. The guy is still tripping every time she’s near him so of course he helps her. Now she’s sure of his love for her, knows she can trust him. “Frank, all the hate and revenge has left me.” And off they go into the sunset to live happily ever after – to kiss. Kisses “that come from life, not death.” Or do they?
Immediately after her husband’s body is dumped on the train tracks, Phyllis turns to Walter and cool as a cucumber and as sultry as ever she kisses him, “I love you, Walter” she says to him before he leaves the car. She’s as sincere as she’ll ever be. She probably does love him passionately at that moment, turned on by what he’s just done for her. But that doesn’t last long. Soon, the cooling-off period to ensure no one is on their trail turns into a tangled web of suspicion and deceit. Although Walter does most of the sweating as Keyes gets closer and closer to the truth.
Against Walter’s advice, as if she’d take anyone’s advice, Phyllis files suit against the insurance company because they refuse to pay the accidental death policy. They suspect Mr. Dietrichson’s death was not an accident. Now she and Walter are on separate sides, never a happy place for partners in murder. Walter knows he’s a suspect, or at least has been mentioned as one, and knows Keyes is on to Phyllis. He needs to make a move so he goes over to see the grand diva.
Preparing to have the upper hand, we next see Phyllis turning off most of the lights in her living room. She then hides a gun in a seat cushion, lights a cigarette and relaxes, awaiting her nemesis.
Interestingly, Phyllis is now sitting in the same chair she sat in demurely at the beginning. There’s nothing demure about her now. It’s a great contrast to this character and story. She owns the chair, the room and the man that approaches. Phyllis is all power and confidence.
After an exchange during which he tells her she’s going down for the murder…
Phyllis: We’re both rotten.
Walter Neff: Only you’re a little more rotten.
She shoots as he turns to close the window. I like to think she shoots him in the back although in truth it’s a bit hard to tell. Why wouldn’t she? He came there to tell her she’s taking the full rap for the entire murder and it’s no colder than finishing off an already ill woman by ensuring she dies of pneumonia by leaving the windows open – how she killed off Dietrichson’s first wife in order to take her place.
As she relaxes a moment, thinking about those future kisses and her newly applied lipstick, Cora looks into the eyes of her lover for a brief moment only to look away and into death. A last horror as the car Frank is driving crashes into a median of some kind. He is able to get out practically unscathed but she…well, her hand falls over across the seat, just her hand and the lipstick comes rolling out of the car toward him. If one thinks about a diva as high-maintenance, I suppose Cora went out in style. However, in truth, it’s a fairly low-key way to go if you’ve strived all your life wanting to BE SOMETHING. There’s no glory in her demise. And if she managed to be successful in her schemes due to her prowess, rather than due to Frank’s weakness for her, then this is an even sadder ending – without triumph of fight.
She shot but Phyllis didn’t kill – this time. Instead she asks Walter to hold her close. “Goodbye, baby” and he shoots two bullets into her at close range. She’d gone toward the man who’d end her life with her own gun, which she relinquished without a fight. If I sound a bit disappointed, I am. She should have gone down true to form. That is, riddling him with bullets or shooting herself so he didn’t get the satisfaction – so no one beat her but herself. But still, she doesn’t go cowardly. Hers is a death worthy of a diva, if I do say so myself. Dramatic and sultry to the end.
Although I can’t boast to be familiar with most of the divas of noir, or the femme fatales as they are usually referred to, I’d venture to say both Cora and Phyllis are among the most alluring, dynamic and self-serving of the lot. And although they have a lot in common, such as their marriages to older men, their differences are a lot more interesting and entertaining.
Cora is a diva in true form. Or rather, in the traditional sense. If tradition boasts murder as part of a diva’s nature. She can’t stand the thought of walking through puddles or hitchhiking, even for love. She uses all feminine means at her disposal to get what she wants and succeeds. Although it’s a little hard to believe that, with her considerable talents, she’d be satisfied in a roadside diner cooking and serving as her ideal life. Cora’s glamorous and a large part of her motivation for murder is boredom with her life, which is why she gradually stumbles upon the idea of getting rid of her husband. On a diva scale of one to ten she gets a seven.
In contrast, Phyllis is as scheming and duplicitous a woman as you can get. The puddles Cora hates wouldn’t dare stay in Phyllis’ way. She is the darkest sort of diva, made for darkness, she thrives in the shadows. Although, it must be noted that we get to know both these women only through the perspectives of the male protagonists, in a duel Phyllis would wipe the floor with Cora’s turban. As cohorts in a murder, Cora’s obvious feminine wiles wouldn’t stand a chance against Phyllis’ deep-seated rottenness. As far as wanting to get her way, Phyllis is as diva as divas come – do it all to the nth degree – kill and move on to the next. This one is worthy of a ten, La plus grande diva de tous.