If there's an archetype of the noir femme fatale, 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 for sure not glib and clueless Walter—can control what happens down the line. 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? Wilder takes such cynical delight in these characters that it starts to feel like affection. The gap between tragedy and comedy, between Phyllis Dietrichson and Preston Sturges's Lady Eve, may be no wider than an anklet.
• Written by Wilder, Raymond Chandler, from the novel by James M. Cain. Photographed by John F. Seitz. With Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall. (106 mins, B&W, 35mm, From UCLA Film and Television Archive, permission Universal)
Added by andreibad on July 20, 2007