Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall,
If there’s an archetype of the noir femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is it: she wears her platinum wig like a steel helmet and her anklet like the tag on a half-wild animal. When insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) arrives at her Los Feliz bungalow, Phyllis greets him in a towel, not fully covered but fully in control. As their relationship of lopsided lust and mutual opportunism proceeds, though, it becomes clear that nobody—not cunning Phyllis, and certainly not glib and clueless Walter—can control what happens. The movie has been accused of misogyny—perhaps rightly—but loathsome as Phyllis is, her willing victim, Walter, earns equal contempt, and who wouldn’t want to off the awful Mr. Dietrichson? Billy Wilder took such cynical delight in these characters that it almost feels like affection. The gap between tragedy and comedy, between Phyllis Dietrichson and Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, may be no wider than an anklet.