Femme Fatale: Phyllis Dietrichson

Ok, so Phyllis is not exactly a name that inspires the same femme fatale as the James Bond villain Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye (1995). But don’t be misled. The character, appearing in the 1944 film noir Double Indemnity, is a cold hearted seductress and if you think about the name in the context of the 1940s, it was a name that would have inspired a dangerous modern, possibly violent sexual presence.

Phyllis, with its snake-like hissing sound, was a relatively modern name in. The surname Dietrichson adds a masculine ‘son’ to Dietrich, which would have evoked references to Marlene Dietrich, a German cabaret star turned Hollywood legend. In the 1940s, the German sound name would have motivated uncomfortable feelings of violence and Dietrich was known for her dangerous female characters from the wide selection of 1930s film noir characters such as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930). Is all this accidental you might ask and I would tell you that Phyllis’ name was changed from Nirdlinger in James M Cain’s novel to Dietrichson in the film.

Unfortunately, for us, the name no longer automatically inspires the same level of danger and seduction, unless you have watched Double Indemnity. If you have seen Barbara Stanwyck’s performance as Dietrichson, you will no trouble seeing the fatale in the femme.

Walter Neff is the unwitting patsy and insurance salesman who falls victim to the sensual Dietrichson. When he arrives at her door to discuss the car insurance, he does not count on her arrival. Dietrichson’s descend down the stairs in her towel with her anklet must have caused a surge in anklet sales (and maybe a few other surges). Feeling like he knows what he is doing, Neff gets pulled into Dietrichson’s scheme and seduction, murder and the inevitable tragedy that brings everything to its disastrous conclusion follows. It is a film noir. Not know for happy endings.

An all time classic film and genre making film noir from James M Cain’s novel with a screenplay co-written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. What I hear you say, the legendary director Billy Wilder and the creator of Philip Marlow, Raymond Chander? Surely not?

And you want more? Well, to top off the whole story is the fact that Cain drew his inspiration for the story from a 1927 murder. Ruth Snyder convinced her boyfriend to kill her husband to claim the insurance money.

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