Barbara Stanwyck wore many cinematic hats.
This talented thespian first made a name for herself in a series of pre-Code gems, including Night Nurse (1931), Ten Cents a Dance (1931), Forbidden (1932), and the granddaddy of them all, Baby Face (1933). She was also a presence in such dramatic fare as Stella Dallas (1937) and Golden Boy (1939); romantic comedies including Breakfast for Two (1937), The Lady Eve (1941), and Christmas in Connecticut (1945); westerns like The Furies (1950), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), and The Violent Men (1954); and hybrids like Meet John Doe and Remember the Night (1940) that mixed together comedy and romance, and tossed in a generous dollop of drama for good measure.
But, wait – there’s more! You didn’t think I’d forgotten about film noir, did you? (Well, DID YOU??)
Not a chance. For it was in film noir, in my humble opinion, that Stanwyck – metaphorically speaking – wore the biggest, baddest brim of them all, starring in no fewer than seven features from the era. Her characters in these films ran the dramatic gamut, from full-out femme fatale to helpless, frustrated victim, with lots of fascinating and unforgettable personas in between.
Let’s take a look back in time, at the deadly dames and shadowy sisters that Stanwyck brought to life in the 1940s and 1950s, shall we?
Phyllis certainly knew how to turn on the charm.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Stanwyck’s initial foray into the realm of noir was in the person of Miss Phyllis Dietrichson, in what I can say without reservation is my favorite noir, Double Indemnity. Initially, Stanwyck was reluctant to accept the part of Dietrichson, whom the actress labeled “an out-and-out, cold-blooded killer.” But director Billy Wilder talked her into it (thank goodness!) and she went on to offer up one of noir’s deadliest femmes.
The plot: Double Indemnity centers on a painstakingly constructed and impeccably executed plot by Phyllis and her insurance salesman lover, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to kill Phyllis’ husband and collect the proceeds from his life insurance policy. Like the best laid plans of mice and men, though, the scheme doesn’t turn out quite like this duo intended.
Favorite Stanwyck quote: “I never loved you, Walter – not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart – I used you, just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me.”
- For her portrayal of the murderous Phyllis, Stanwyck earned her third Academy Award nomination. She lost to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.
- Critics unanimously hailed Stanwyck’s performance; Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune called her “vibrantly malignant and attractive,” and the reviewer for the Citizen News stated that Stanwyck “will chill your blood. Hers is a difficult assignment enacted with rare skill.”
Martha Ivers was nobody to play with.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
After portraying Phyllis Dietrichson, Stanwyck obviously no longer harbored any qualms about playing “out-and-out” killers, because her next noir femme was certainly no Mary Poppins. This first-rate feature starred Stanwyck in the title role, with ample support from co-stars Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas (in his film debut!), and Lizabeth Scott (who is featured, incidentally in a special tribute issue of The Dark Pages newsletter – shameless plug!).
The plot: The murky circumstances surrounding the death of her wealthy aunt come back to haunt Martha Ivers, who is married to one witness to the 20-year-old crime – who is now the alcoholic district attorney – and is reunited by fate with the other – an itinerant gambler. Throw a world-weary drifter into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a movie!
Favorite Stanwyck quote: “Now, Sam – do it now. Set me free, set us both free. . . . Oh, Sam, it can be so easy.”
Like most critics, the reviewer from the Hollywood Reporter raved about Stanwyck’s performance, announcing: “No one but Barbara Stanwyck could have gotten all she does from the part of Martha Ivers. Elusive fascination was required and what Miss Stanwyck does with her assignment is not to be readily defined. Whatever it is is unforgettable.”
Leona’s phone was her lifeline. Sorry.
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Based on a radio play, Sorry, Wrong Number is one of first noirs I remember seeing – long before I knew what noir was. All I knew was that it scared the poop out of me. And also that I watched it every single time it came on TV. (Apparently, I wasn’t the only one frightened by this flick – Stanwyck herself said that the terror she depicted in the bedroom scenes is what caused her hair to turn prematurely gray.)
The plot: Leona Stephenson, a possessive, imperious heiress confined to her bed because of a heart condition, overhears a telephone conversation between two men discussing a woman’s murder – and gets more than she bargained for when she tries to find out more about the plot.
Favorite Stanwyck quote: “When I want something, I fight for it. And I usually manage to get it.”
- As usual, Stanwyck was lauded by critics. The reviewer for Time stated that she “makes the most of the pampered, petulant, terrified leading character,” and Cue’s critic claimed that she’d given the performance of her career.
- Stanwyck earned her fourth Academy Award nomination for her performance, and before the ceremony, she told the press: “[It’s] not that I wouldn’t like to have an Oscar, but I’ve lost three times before and it’s hard to get your expectations up and not win. It’s bad luck to discuss it.” Apparently, it didn’t matter if she discussed it or not – she lost again, this time to Jane Wyman, who portrayed a deaf mute in Johnny Belinda. Afterward, Stanwyck commented: “If I get nominated next year, they’ll have to give me the door prize, won’t they? At least the bride should throw me the bouquet.” (Incidentally – and shockingly – Stanwyck never did win a competitive Oscar. The Academy did award her an honorary Oscar in 1982, though, to honor her outstanding body of work.) (It beats a blank, as my mom would say.)
Thelma knew her way around a front seat.
The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)
In addition to the uncommon (and often misspelled) spelling of the title character’s last name, this film contains a number of surprises that serve to keep viewers on their proverbial toes. Stanwyck once again plays a killer, but she’s not quite the fatal femme that we’ve come to expect.
The plot: When the wealthy aunt of Thelma Jordon is robbed and murdered, all signs point to Thelma’s guilt – and it just so happens that she’s embroiled in a hot and heavy affair with none other than the district attorney who is assigned to prosecute her.
Favorite Stanwyck quote: “I’d like to say I didn’t intend to kill her. But when you have a gun, you always intend if you have to.”
- Score another hit for Stanwyck! Kay proctor of the A. Examiner stated that Stanwyck “comes through with a hard-hitting, clean-cut performance, beautifully paced to the dimensions and requirements of the equivocal role.”
- One of Stanwyck’s co-stars, Lyle Bettger, had nothing but praise for the actress: “Throughout the 10 weeks of shooting, my admiration and respect for Barbara Stanwyck grew each day. She is a lady with guts, consideration, kindnesss and great good humor and integrity – a real pro. There are not many like her left.”
For Mae Doyle, the grass was greener on the bitter side.
Clash by Night (1952)
Some question whether Clash by Night is film noir – I say it is. It fairly reeks with cynicism, bitterness, betrayal, frustration, and rage. It’s directed by Fritz Lang, whose previous noir output includes such classics as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. It’s has an oppressive mood and an overarching sensation of doom. It’s dark, okay? And that’s all I have to say about that.
The plot: Mae Doyle returns to her hometown after a lengthy absence, looking for peace and fulfillment. She winds up married to a good-guy fisherman, but she’s more attracted to his bitter best friend. Conflict ensues.
Favorite Stanwyck quote: “Home is where you come when you run out of places.”
- The reviewer for Variety raved about Stanwyck’s portrayal of Mae Doyle, writing that she “plays the returning itinerant with her customary defiance and sullenness. It is one of her better performances.”
- Fritz Lang said of Stanwyck: “She’s fantastic, unbelievable, and I liked her tremendously.”
Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed.
Witness to Murder (1954)
Although this film was touted in ads as “topping the thrills of Double Indemnity and Sorry, Wrong Number, it wasn’t exactly a threat to the legacy of those two features, if you know what I mean. Still, it does have its moments (really, it does!), and best of all, it features some standout cinematography by John Alton. Plus, it co-stars George Sanders. So whaddya want?
The plot: While looking out of her window during a sleepless night, Cheryl Draper sees a murder being committed in an apartment across the street – but can’t get anyone to believe her. (Shades of Rear Window, huh? They were both released the same year! Sadly, Witness to Murder pales in comparison.)
Favorite Stanwyck quote: “Who do you think you are? No matter what she was, you had no right to kill her.”
Critics weren’t wowed by the film itself, but they still appreciated Stanwyck; in a typical review, the critic for the New York Times wrote that she “makes convincing the role of a sensitive woman being driven to distraction.”
Crime of Passion (1957)
Stanwyck’s final film noir saw her teamed with two other noir icons – Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr, who appeared in a whopping 16 noirs combined. It was a fitting farewell to the actress’s film noir career.
The plot: An ambitious advice columnist, Kathy Ferguson chucks her career in favor of love and marries a police officer, only to find that she’s bored out of her skull. Rather than spend her time darning socks and tossing gender-segregated dinner parties, she sets her sights on doing whatever she can (and I do mean WHATEVER) in order to advance her husband’s career.
Favorite Stanwyck quote: “For marriage I read life sentence, for home life I read T.V. nights, beer in the fridge, second mortgage – not for me. For me, life has to be something more than that.”
Critics weren’t bowled over by this film or Stanwyck (gasp!), although the reviewer for the New York Times did call the actress a “sterling trouper who can do about anything, and has.” He just didn’t care for her character’s “transition from the nice, sassy gal in the press room to a maniacal stalker.” (Ah, well – they can’t all be Double Indemnity.)
If you haven’t joined Barbara Stanwyck’s walk on the dark side, don’t you think it’s time you did? You can’t go wrong with this talented performer, and her noir features rank among her best and most memorable.
Well, what are you waiting for? You only owe it to yourself.
This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently; Ruth over at Silver Screenings; and Aurora, of Once Upon a Screen.
The blogathon is divided into three eras – the silent era, the golden age (that’s the one I’m in!), and the modern era. Click the picture at the right to check out the many great posts from the golden age, and visit Fritzi and Ruth’s blogs to read the fascinating looks at the other eras!