Femme Fatales: Double Indemnity & Body Heat

Sex, power and murder in an intoxicating double bill of dangerous & deadly dames!

Double Indemnity and Body Heat make a dangerous double feature, screening together July 15th & 16th at the New Bev.

One of the greatest things film noir ever did was establish the femme fatale. An alluring and intoxicating character, she is the figure in the film that wields the most power, the best and the worst thing to happen to the protagonist. The men who get involved with these perilous and persuasive women are self-aware enough to know that the deeper the intimacy, the more danger will follow and the greater likelihood of Imminent Doom. By that point though, they just don’t give a toss. The promise of Something More exuded by the femme fatale’s almost preternatural sex appeal leads to a drug-like high causing these men to do almost anything asked. Actually, they probably will do anything asked. Depends on the film and the femme fatale!

If you are familiar with the film noir genre, the “Femme Fatale + male protagonist = complete devastation” formula isn’t much of a spoiler. Thereby, it also isn’t much of a reveal to say that this hot and steamy Femme Fatale Power Structure also serves as the yummy center of the films showing at the New Beverly on July 15th and 16th, Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981).

Double Indemnity was made during the height of the Production Code Era and there were plenty of things that the Production Code Administration (PCA) found questionable about the work. James M. Cain’s original novel, while not officially published until 1943, was submitted to PCA head honcho Joseph I. Breen in 1935 to get the okay on a film adaptation. Breen went ballistic, however, writing that “the leading characters are murderers who cheat the law and die at their own hands; the story deals improperly with an illicit and adulterous sex relationship.” None of that was untrue. What were they gonna do? Lie? Breen’s final word? No way, Jose.

Cain, of course, was the writer that even renowned crime fiction author Raymond Chandler considered filthy. In a letter to his publisher, Chandler complained, “[Cain] is every kind of writer I detest…a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way.”

Paramount resubmitted Double Indemnity in script form in 1943, receiving a modicum of approval from Breen. To get that prized “yes,” restrictions were set – the most entertaining regarded the towel length and physical revelation of Ms. Stanwyck in her opening scene. Breen wrote, “the bath towel must properly cover Phyllis, and should certainly go below her knees. There must be no unacceptable exposure.” No problem, right? Right. They complied. However, upon the introduction of Phyllis Dietrichson (played indelibly by Barbara Stanwyck), we view her standing at the top of the stairs, towel barely wrapped around her voluptuous form. The bathing cloth appears to be seconds from falling off, her skin is glowing in the well-curated light and it is quite clear that underneath that terrycloth she is as naked as the day she was born.  It would’ve been impossible for Insurance Agent Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray, doing a remarkable career turn from comedy to crime-drama in this role) not to fall into her spider web.

Cinematographer John Seitz, best known for his work on several Preston Sturges films as well as a variety of films noir, shot Double Indemnity and his work truly transforms the picture, lifting it into a visual smorgasbord of erotic tension with a few shots here, a few lighting shifts there. A Hollywood professional since the silent era, Doane Harrison served as editor. Fun Fact: Harrison, who worked with Wilder for most of his career, had previously teamed up with New Beverly Cinema’s featured artist of the month, Andrew Stone, on Stolen Heaven (1938)!

While Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity will set your hair on end, make your skin sweat, and leave you writhing in your seat for the “je ne sais quoi” of the unattainable, Kathleen Turner’s role (and feature film debut!!) as Matty Walker will only increase your condition to a fever pitch. In fact, you may need to seek medical attention post-double feature. Wear a tank top. There might be fanning of the face. Perhaps heavy breathing. Basically, there’s a really good reason it’s called Body Heat.

No, the film isn’t pornographic, but good neo-noir has the ability to take what noir structures built and push the volume to eleven. And this is good neo-noir. With a cast that includes a young Mickey Rourke, Ted Danson and William Hurt, Body Heat should not be missed on the big screen. Much like other films in this genre, the cinematography is incredibly striking and a hearty part of the narrative, almost a character unto itself. This should come as no surprise considering Richard H. Kline photographed the film. Kline also shot Hang ‘Em High (Ted Post, 1968), The Don is Dead (Richard Fleischer, 1973), The Fury (Brian DePalma, 1978), and a plethora of other films. Fun fact: Kline also shot Face of a Fugitive (Paul Wendkos, 1959), starring Fred MacMurray, directly connecting Double Indemnity to Body Heat!

The narrative parallels that of Double Indemnity while staying far enough away to avoid legal trouble.  While Wilder’s film is centered on Los Angeles, an insurance scam, adultery and murder, Kasdan’s is based on some super hot Floridian weather, the economically advantaged, adultery and…. well, murder. There are definite similarities. The most significant being comparable femme fatales.

If there were to be a Ladies of Noir cocktail hour, Matty Walker and Phyllis Dietrichson would get on famously… just as long as they weren’t going after the same male trajectory. And boy, would I like to be a fly on that wall just to hear them compare notes! Both women are strong and magnetic characters, able to play the men in their lives for whatever they want and/or need. These women are remarkably smart. It’s not simply survival that they are after, nor are they searching to “be like men.” They are sexual and revel in that sexuality.  Without giving too much away, these women were cut from the same cloth and watching these films back to back will platform those remarkable attributes.

It is significant to note that while things may not always go as the femme fatale plans, women like Matty and Phyllis work hard to move ahead in their worlds. We do not get a view into what their pasts may have been, nor can we necessarily believe them when they choose to “open up.” They are not reliable narrators. Beyond their exquisite character arcs and open celebration of female sexuality and eroticism, the importance of Phyllis and Matty is their determination to better themselves for themselves. Sure, they seem selfish. Sure, they don’t mind stepping on others. But in a male-dominated landscape, it seems only natural to have the femme fatale. Someone’s gotta look out for the ladies. Might as well be the ladies, eh?

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