Barbara Stanwyck was not only one of classic Hollywood’s most prolific actresses, but also one of its most versatile. Throughout the 1940s and 50s she starred in a number of noir pictures and, despite the heavy conventions of the genre, turned in remarkably different performances in each. In this post I’ll be looking at three of her noir films from the 1940s, and how they demonstrate her unique and chameleon-like talent for the genre.
This post is part of the Noirathon
By the time film noir really got going in the early 1940s, Barbara Stanwyck had been in Hollywood for more than a decade. Her bread and butter (girls from the wrong side of the tracks, femme fatales, women with an axe to grind), combined with her ability to fix her on-screen interests with a glare that was at once withering and enticing, made her an ideal choice for the genre.
Her first noir, Double Indemnity (1944), became not only one of the most popular films of her career, but also one of the most iconic of the genre itself. The image of Phyllis Dietrichson in the grocery store, wearing sunglasses and an almost preposterously coiffed fringe as she orchestrates her husband’s murder, is one of the most enduring of all classic Hollywood cinema. Stanwyck was initially hesitant about taking on the role of Phyllis, as she describes in a recounting of a conversation between herself and Billy Wilder after he approached her for the role:
“I said, “I love the script, and I love you, but I’m a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out cold-blooded killer.” And Mr. Wilder – and rightly so – looked at me and said, “Are you a mouse or an actress?” And I said, “I hope I’m an actress.” And he said, “Then do the part.”
It’s true that Phyllis is ruthless, and Stanwyck brings a subtly threatening quality to her that is brittle without ever being cold. She throws everything she has at the performance, and the result is a character who is at once distant and familiar, seeming to always be in control of the situation even as it spirals increasingly out of control.
Stanwyck needn’t have worried about the formidable Phyllis – who, after a press screening of Double Indemnity, she said she would be “afraid to go home with” – wrecking her career. Critics and audiences loved the film, and Louella Parsons proclaimed it to be “the finest picture of its kind ever made”.
Her next noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), required a rather different approach. In contrast to the calculating, cold-blooded Phyllis, Martha Ivers is driven to murder after a lifetime of cruelty and control from her domineering aunt, whom she accidentally kills by pushing her down the stairs during a power outage. She is forced to marry Walter (played by Kirk Douglas), a man she does not love, as he was the only witness and she is determined to keep her secret (and her fortune), even though it means she cannot be with her childhood sweetheart Sam (played by Van Heflin).
There is a distinct nervous energy to Stanwyck’s portrayal of Martha, and her desperation is palpable as the carefully kept secrets of her murky past unravel. When she meets her tragic end at the film’s close, there is a sense of relief from Martha that it is finally all over, and she no longer needs to carry the burden of what she has done, or the life it led her to.
Relief in the face of death is certainly not something felt by Leona in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), who is markedly different from Stanwyck’s previous two noir characters. Bedridden from an unknown illness and left alone in her apartment for the weekend by her husband, Leona grows increasingly paranoid and fearful after she overhears plans on the telephone to murder a woman that night. Leona is beautiful and glamorous, but unlike Phyllis and Martha she has no sense of independence, and relies entirely on her husband and household staff.
All three women meet their demise at the end of each film, but only Leona is blameless in the circumstances of her death. She is killed for her substantial life insurance policy, in order to repay a debt her husband owes. She spends most of the movie’s runtime in a state of near-hysterical terror, and is completely isolated in her apartment, her only link to the outside world being the telephone next to her bed. Leona does not feel as though she has the ability to take charge of her situation, which is a stark contrast to Phyllis and Martha, who go to extraordinary lengths to try and control their circumstances.
Although in many ways they are very different, the three women do share some things in common. They are each desperate to free themselves from the prisons in which they exist; Phyllis feels trapped in her marriage, Martha by her terrible secret, and Leona by the illness that leaves her bedridden. Individually they are all complex characters capable of eliciting both sympathy and contempt, and are in many ways victims of their very different circumstances. Stanwyck approaches each role very differently, creating three iconic performances that endure as classics of the film noir genre.