As a film noir blogger, there could be no question about my contributing to the “Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Stanwyck is a highlight of the original Hollywood noir cycle, starring in numerous pictures, from thrillers to melodramas. She worked with great noir directors Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, and Fritz Lang, as well as Lewis Milestone, Anatole Litvak, and John Sturges.
In remembrance of Stanwyck, his post pays tribute to her talent and flexibility as an actress by exploring the depth and variety of roles she played in noir film, both familiar types and more complex, less easily categorizable figures.
[Please know that only the limitations of the focus of this blog keep me from waxing poetic (or just letting out my fangirl enthusiasm) over Stanwyck’s other work, especially her romantic comedies, such as Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve (both 1941).]
Stanwyck is best known as the quintessential femme fatale in her first noir picture, Double Indemnity (1944). As Phyllis Dietrichson, Stanwyck is utterly heartless, seductive and icy at the same time. She lures men to their doom and never looks back. While some of us could do without the bad blonde wig, Phyllis is an irresistible character, from her fast talk to the silver anklet that signals her open sexuality.
Stanwyck played several other black widow types in the following years, with various degrees of excuse for her murderous and manipulative behavior. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), she dominates the man who is the only witness to her murder of an oppressive aunt even as she desires her bad-boy childhood sweetheart who returns a different man. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), she is a selfish, wealthy hypochondriac who receives a deserved comeuppance when she overhears a murder plot on her telephone. In The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), she lures a married assistant district attorney into her arms and then into defending her against the crime of murder. In Clash by Night (1952), she is a restless woman who marries and a nice guy she doesn’t love, then seeks passion in the arms of another. Finally, in Crime of Passion (1957), she plays a woman who gives up her career to marry a homicide detective, but is quickly frustrated by his lack of ambition and the banality of life in the suburbs. Soon, her efforts to advance her husband’s career result in murder.
Several of these roles are more multifaceted than a label can describe, particularly when we have to wait until late in the film to see the true nature of the character. Thelma Jordon, for example, seems to be a frightened woman in need of help for much of The File on Thelma Jordon, and only through flashback do we see the terrorized Leona of Sorry, Wrong Number as more than a victim.
(With Kathy in Crime of Passion the character may seem unsympathetic, but I’ve found a feminist interpretation to account for her aggression. The expectation that a wife will give up her career for her husband is unreasonable, the film argues, resulting in misery or worse. The drive to murder in noir can be read as akin to the anxiety attacks and drug use of housewives suffering from what Betty Friedan called the “feminine mystique” (a.k.a.housewife’s syndrome) in her 1963 book that jump-started second-wave liberal feminism. In fact, Friedan was conducting the research for this book the same year Crime of Passion was released.)
Whether or not we find sympathy with her femmes fatales, Stanwyck also plays a few noir “good woman” roles, which involve suffering and sacrifice like the heroines of melodrama — e.g. Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937) — though often with less character development and more violence. In this mold, Stanwyck plays the victim of a mentally ill artist in The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and the selfless wife of Jeopardy (1953), in which she must rescue her husband from where he has been trapped under a crumbling jetty by convincing a psychopathic murderer running from the police to assist. (As noir critics have often claimed, the “good woman” role is less rewarding for the actress and the audience than that of the more powerful femme fatale, and is perhaps why these two films are not favorites for Stanwyck fans.)
Perhaps the most complex noir role Stanwyck played is that of Helen Ferguson in No Man of Her Own (1951). I would identify the role as the “ill-fated everywoman,” a counterpart to the “ill-fated everyman,” who can’t seem to extricate himself from unexpected disaster, seen in such films as Detour (1945) and The Woman in the Window (1944). I can think of few other examples of a woman being given such a role, and Stanwyck had the chops to carry it off, despite the implausibility of the plot.
Pregnant and broke after having been dumped by her criminal boyfriend Steve, a train crash enables Helen Ferguson to take on the identity of another pregnant woman, Patrice Harkness, daughter-in-law of a wealthy family, who was killed along with her husband. At first Helen resists, tries to tell the truth, but soon she is wrapped in the warm embrace of a loving family that longs to accept her and help her raise her child as a privileged Harkness. Then attraction comes in the form of younger Harkness brother Bill; and again Helen resists, but there’s no use: it’s love. This is noir, however, so Steve soon reenters the picture to blackmail Helen, threatening to ruin her newfound happiness and a bright future for her son.
I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen No Man of Her Own and wish to. Suffice it to say, Helen never gives up and, through her, Stanwyck has the opportunity to enact a challenge to the virgin/whore (or “good woman”/femme fatale) dichotomy that dominated film noir roles for women.
If I had to choose my favorite Stanwyck noir, I’d pick The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, for the tangled plot and Martha’s disturbing personal history and strong, dangerous character. I don’t find her chemistry with Van Heflin scorching, but then, I don’t see it with Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity either. (I’d actually argue she sparks best with Gary Cooper as Sugarpuss O’Shea opposite his nerdy Professor Potts in Ball of Fire!) What I do see, however, is that Stanwyck is a commanding presence in every film she’s in, especially her noir.