Noirvember Day 17: Barbara Stanwyck Eyes

We all know about Bette Davis eyes. But what about Barbara Stanwyck eyes?

Stanwyck is one of my favorite performers – along with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, she is among the three actresses I love the most. She’s talented, versatile, and beautiful – and she has an equally impressive collection of films in my two favorite eras: pre-Code and film noir.

She also has exceptionally expressive eyes – the kind of eyes that tell a story without her saying a word. Today’s Noirvember post takes a look at three scenes in three noirs that serve as perfect illustrations of her ability on this score. (And watch your step – spoilers abound ahead . . .)

Double Indemnity (1944)

— No words required.

In this feature (my favorite noir, in case you didn’t know), Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a discontented housewife who teams with bored insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to kill her husband and collect the proceeds from his life insurance policy. On the night of the dirty deed, Phyllis is driving her husband to the train station (he’s travelling out of town to a college reunion), but what he doesn’t know is that Walter is hiding on the car’s back seat floor, waiting for the perfect moment to bump him off. When Phyllis drives down a side street, she honks her horn three times – the signal for Walter to get busy. But we don’t see Walter kill Mr. Dietrichson – what we see is Phyllis’s mask-like face and her eyes, like malevolent marbles glowing from the light of the streetlamps. Her body is actually jerked backwards with the force of whatever Walter is doing to her husband, but we never see a sense of fear or disgust in her eyes – only a sort of icy matter-of-factness and then, once the deed is done, satisfaction.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

— “Oh, Sam – it can be so easy . . .”

Stanwyck plays the title role here, the boss of an industrial empire that she inherited from the aunt she despised – and killed as a teen, with the old woman’s own cane. She’s married to her childhood friend Walter O’Neill (Kirk Douglas in his film debut), who is the town’s (emotionally tortured and frequently inebriated) district attorney and the only other person who knows about Martha’s crime. (Hence the emotional torture and inebriation.) Another childhood chum is Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), who fled the area after the death of Martha’s aunt but returns as an adult after crashing into a pole just outside the town. When Martha and Sam reunite, sparks fly and the next thing you know, Martha’s trying to get her new lover to murder her old husband. The scene takes place in the Ivers home where Walter – who’s literally falling down drunk – tumbles down the staircase leading to the first floor. Martha stops Sam as he heads after Walter, telling him that this is the perfect time to finish Walter off. “Now, Sam – do it now. Set me free,” she purrs. “Oh, Sam – it can be so easy.” As Sam reaches Walter, the camera takes us back to Martha’s face, her eyes shining with near-orgasmic anticipation as she waits for the moment that Sam will take Walter’s life. But her eyes slowly transform from excitement to disappointment and disbelief, and we know in that instant that things haven’t turned out as Martha intended.

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

— Her eyes tell us the moment she’s gone.

Again, Stanwyck portrays the title role, and again she’s involved with the murder of her aunt. Before this happens, though, Thelma becomes romantically involved with assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey), making for an interesting situation when her aunt winds up dead. Cleve not only helps Thelma hide incriminating evidence, but he also serves as the prosecutor on the case – three guesses as to whether he deliberately bungles the job (and, as always, the first two don’t count). Complicating matters is Thelma’s involvement with her ex-lover, who’s a nasty bit of business so toxic that Thelma deliberately causes him to crash the car he’s driving, resulting in his death and leaving her mortally wounded. She speaks with Cleve on her deathbed in the hospital, and we see only her face and dark eyes glittering with tears as she tells him she’s glad it’s over. “All my life, struggling – the good and the bad,” she says. “You don’t suppose they could just let half of me die?” And with that, we actually see the light leave Thelma eyes – they become flat and lifeless and it’s at that moment, before the medical professionals rush in, that we know she has died.

The next time you see these films, be sure to pay extra special attention to the way this gifted actress conveys thoughts and denotes actions without saying a word. It’s a wondrous thing to see. She’s got Barbara Stanwyck eyes.

Join me tomorrow for Day 18 of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 17, 2022.

4 Responses to “Noirvember Day 17: Barbara Stanwyck Eyes”

  1. I just want to buy this post a drink! Barbara Stanwyck eyes. Brilliant!

    Much has been made of Stanwyck’s iconic “get out!” moments, (which are indeed life-giving), but these wordless beats sound just as loudly. Those scenes in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and IVERS remind me a little of what Charles Laughton said about sneaking the subtext of THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET past the Hays Office:

    “They can’t sensor the gleam in my eye.”

    No one could censor Stanwyck; she always made herself heard. Words optional.

    • “Words optional!” I wish I’d thought of that – it’s perfect. It’s funny about Stanwyck’s “get out” moments — this automatically made me think of Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful!

      • Oh my Lana Turner, you’re right!!!

        I wonder if she was a specific point of inspiration? William Holden famously credited her with coaching him through GOLDEN BOY, and Ricardo Montalban cited her as an acting hero, but you can hear the echo of those “get outs” in a lot of performances now that I think about it…

  2. Amen to this! Barbara Stanwyck had incredibly expressive eyes, and, as discussed in previous comments, no one could censor them. She’s a legend for a reason.

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