The classic film noir picture Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson, was released by Paramount in the autumn of 1944.The film, based on a short story from James M. Cain’s 1936 crime novel Three of a Kind. Wilder wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, a well known thirties crime author. Costumes for Double Indemnity were designed by Edith Head, and makeup by Wally Westmore.
Double Indemnity is a dark tale of lust, murder and betrayal set in Los Angeles, 1938. Walter Neff (MacMurray) is an insurance salesman who falls under the spell of seductive femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) while working on her husband’s automobile policy. She convinces Neff to help her take out a secret insurance policy on her husband’s life, and murder him to collect the settlement, but all does not go as planned. In 1945 Harper’s Bazaar described the film as being "…full of tawdry people reaching greedily for cheap objectives in dingy surroundings…"
The tone and mood of Double Indemnity are established by "… a series of visual contrasts between night and day, shadow and light." This use of dramatic lighting is reflected in Edith Head’s costumes as all her designs for Stanwyck are executed in black and white fabrics. The character of Phyllis Dietrichson is manipulating; in some scenes she is a victim of her husband’s neglect, while in others she ruthlessly plots his murder. Head’s chooses white ensembles for Phyllis when she plays the tragic wife, and black garments when she is cold and calculating.
Barbara Stanwyck wore a blonde wig to play Phyllis in Double Indemnity. Billy Wilder later said he wanted her to be "…harshly made up, brassily blonde..." for the film. A blonde femme fatale is unexpected; many film noir movies of the forties had dark and smoldering spider women, like Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946). In one scene, Phyllis describes herself as being "…rotten to the core…", yet with her blonde mane she appears glowing and innocent. She is double-faced, and the whiteness of her presence on screen contrasts with the blackness of her heart.
The 1940s was a time of great anxiety in the United States; the threat of fascism spreading through Europe, the terrifying reality of the nuclear bomb, and the fear of communism in the postwar years. The grim and sinister atmosphere portrayed in Double Indemnity , and many other film noir movies of the decade, reflected the uncertainty of Americans during this turbulent decade. On could go as far as to say that the growing independence of women in the 1940s (ie., working for the war effort, maganging households while men were away) helped contribute to the femme fatale figure of film noir. These dangerous spider women could represent the uneasiness of men who were faced with strong willed women functioning outside their traditional, safer role as domestic homemaker.