Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a film that can be analyzed from a feminist perspective. The struggles against a male-dominated world throughout the film
, by use of all means possible, as objectified by Phyllis, provides an intriguing scenario. Wilder, in his film, does not show murder as the greatest crime against humanity but the assumption that a woman can use her body and image to achieve her desires by manipulating men.
In this film, there is little doubt that Phyllis Dietrichso, the discontented wife of a prosperous older man, has been sexually objectified through the film’s imagery and also by her relationship to other characters. She is not only beautiful but also alluring. Furthermore, she is barely older than Lola, who is her husband’s daughter from an earlier marriage. However, she clearly shows no affection for her spouse. This situation worsens to a point where she plots her husband’s demise in the hope that she will get paid by the insurance company. On the other hand, it is quite evident that her husband married her purely because of her good looks. He accords her little respect and places his daughter’s requests well above hers. This is well evidenced by his decision to insure his life under his daughter’s name. In case of his demise, Lola will receive the insurance lump sum while his wife would be left destitute.
Obviously, Phyllis’ husband does not care about her life after his death. He does not treat her humanely at all. He views her as a trophy wife, an expensive piece of art to show off to friends and family, who does not have a life of her own. In the event that Dietrichson passes on, she ceases to exist since he is no longer enjoying her. On the other hand, Lola is treated as family, and her life after his death is well taken care of. He feels that she should inherit all his property.
Despite the fact that Dietrichson is in a physical sense absent from the film, the overall feeling he casts on his wife is obvious from Phyllis’ words and a critical analysis of her actions and position in the family. Dietrichson’s physical attraction to Phyllis’ good looks seems to lead him into a position where he holds her above all wrong-doing. He refutes the obvious evidence that points to the fact that Phyllis murdered his first wife. This fetish drives him to a point of viewing her as having no blemish and is faultless. Phyllis is much more beautiful and desirable than his constantly sick, older wife and serves as a perfect replacement. However, she is not elevated to a divine position. He views her as an expensive asset which he must always dominate so as to keep possession of.
Surprisingly, he is not the only male who views her as such. When describing his first encounter with Phyllis, the narrator, Walter Neff, states Phyllis’ role in how she should be perceived by both the audience and all male characters in the film. In the film, Walter’s eyes, as shown by the camera, are instantly drawn to her shapely figure, tight-fitting attire and her attractive anklet. His lustful gaze rests more on the anklet which emphasizes her role as an ‘icon of attraction’ in the film. Her body is taken out in sections for the men and audience to savor at; just like a bar of chocolate. Obviously, Walter is not drawn to her as a person, compassion towards her situation or out of pure attraction but rather out of physical attraction and lust.
However, is this depiction of her biased? Does she behave humanely or like an object? In all contacts with Walter, she is calm, decisive and collected. The film clearly shows that she is not only greedy but frustrated. Her conscience not withstanding, she goes around issues beneficial to her without any scruples. At her last moments, she admits that she is in love with Walter but evidently, it was a final attempt to save her situation rather a show of humanity. Having already shot Walter, she finds herself in a position where Walter is the one with the gun. In declaring her love for him, she was hoping that he could lower the gun and she would have a chance to kill him.
Phyllis can be hardly viewed as the oppressed victim. In this film, she is not depicted as being forced to do things against her will. She accepts that the world is male-dominated but she has her own means of conquering it. She uses her sexuality to objectify herself and drive men’s fetishes so that she can make them susceptible. She dresses in a manner that shows off her attractive figure, makes her hair in a fashionable manner and uses jewelry to accentuate her curvy legs. These are sufficient to make all men acquaintances lustful. She is aware of the fact that rich and powerful men can help her achieve her desires. Thus, she objectifies herself into a figure of fantasy and uses her charms so that she can ensnare a wealthy husband and bury all her guilt feelings. She does not stop at this but goes on to use these manipulative skills to get rid of her husband and amass a huge fortune.
Phyllis’ manner of conduct is in stark contrast to that of Lola. She is cold and aware of the power she holds against men. The film does not objectify her as enslaved or a victim of oppression in a male-dominated world. She is not envious of men or the power they wield for she has much more powerful tools at her disposal. On the other hand, Lola is the damsel in distress. Not only is she weak but also terrified. She is not self-consumed by righteous resentment and noble distress, which would otherwise have depicted her as evil. Rather, she is shown as helpless and innocent. Therefore, she deserves happiness for her virtues guarantee that she is not embroiled in the activities occurring between her father and Phyllis.
In this film, a woman can only survive if she is harmless, unintimidating, and defenseless. As Phyllis manipulates Walter into murdering her husband, he realizes that he is not freeing her from oppression so as to spend their lives together but he is just a cog in a gear that is controlled by Phyllis. His passionate feelings towards her gradually change into fear and at the end he realizes that he has to murder Phyllis too so as to buy his own freedom. Eventually, the audience identifies itself with Walter’s situation as the deluded victim. Although he commits murder just as Phyllis, their ends are in stark contrast. Phyllis is shot in the dark and dies alone. Walter, on the other hand, gets a chance to explain his situation to the audience, who sympathize with him, creating quite a sentimental scene. The film, in the end, does not depict this as the defeat of evil but as a tragic fall. Murder is not the gravest crime that Phyllis commits but it is the assumption that she could use her manipulative ways to defeat men.