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The Dark Side of Stanwyck

(Or, Two Marthas and a Phyllis)

By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry

Barbara Stanwyck is, arguably, one of cinema’s most versatile actresses. She displayed her saucy side in pre-Codes like Baby Face (1933) and Ladies They Talk About (1933), and her ability to tug heartstrings and jerk tears in Stella Dallas (1937). She showed that she could hold her own in such westerns as Union Pacific (1939) and Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), and she kept us in stitches in Ball of Fire (1941) and The Lady Eve (1941). 

But it’s the dark side of Stanwyck that continually piques my interest and keeps me coming back for more – those films where she’s relentlessly malevolent, magnificently immoral, and brazenly diabolical. Here are three of my very favorites . . .

Double indemnity (1944)

No discussion of Stanwyck’s cinematic dark side would be complete without her depiction of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. This film tells a simple, straightforward tale of an unhappy Los Angeles housewife who teams with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to murder her husband and collect a cool payout through a double indemnity life insurance policy. Trouble is, like many a best-laid noir plan, this one is carried off without a hitch, but falls apart in the aftermath. 

The initial meeting between Phyllis – who lives with her husband and her stepdaughter, Lola (Jean Heather) – and Walter occurs by chance when Walter tries to get a renewal on the Dietrichson auto insurance policy. Two things happen during that encounter that spark the relationship to come: Walter is physically attracted to Phyllis (who he first sees clad only in a towel and a “honey of an anklet” with which he is endlessly fascinated), and Phyllis sees in Walter a possible means to an end. If Walter hadn’t shown up on her doorstep that day, we’ve no way of knowing if Phyllis ever would have tried to get rid of her husband – but we do learn later that Phyllis had been the nurse for Mr. Dietrichson’s first wife, who died under circumstances that Lola found to be suspicious.

It's at their second meeting that we – and Walter – get the first inkling of what’s going on in Phyllis’s mind. She’s invited Walter to return to her home on a day when her husband is again absent, and her maid conveniently has the day off. Under the guise of “throwing a little more business” in Walter’s direction, and with a tone and facial expression fairly dripping with concern, Phyllis inquires about the possibility of getting a life insurance policy on her husband – without “bothering” him about it. She also manages to toss in a hint that she doesn’t exactly have the ideal marriage. To his credit, though, Walter sees right through Phyllis’s queries (“I knew I had a hold of a red-hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off”) and exits faster than you can say “Jack Robinson.”

Unfortunately for Walter, he holds on to that poker a little too long. And when Phyllis shows up at his apartment that night (again offering a false pretense – this time saying that he’d left his hat at her home, as her hands are in her pockets), Walter’s goose is all but cooked. Phyllis demonstrates an undeniable skill in this scene – if she weren’t planning on going into the murdering business, she could certainly consider a career on the stage. She approaches Walter with a “poor me – I’m so misunderstood” façade: “I must have said something that gave you a terribly wrong impression,” she says, with eyes so earnest you’d cheerfully buy a car from her at list price. She shares a few more tidbits about her lousy marriage, sheds an invisible tear or two, and that’s all it takes. Walter is all in.

Phyllis wisely leaves all the intricate murder planning to Walter, never expressing a single qualm about the deadly deed ahead of them. She’s never nervous, never afraid. Even in the scene where Walter kills her husband in the car seat beside her, Phyllis doesn’t bat an eyelash – her eyes are as cold and lifeless as frozen marbles, and once it’s over, the slightest visage of satisfaction settles on her face. The only emotion she displays is annoyance when Walter continuously reviews the next phases of the scheme. (“I remember everything,” she snaps.).

We get to know Phyllis even better in the aftermath of the killing. She’s cooler than the other side of the pillow in the scene where she’s called into Walter’s office and not only forced to face her co-conspirator, but also the president of the company (Richard Gaines) and Walter’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose inner “little man” is notorious for helping him to ferret out the truth when it comes to phony claims. And when Walter expresses misgivings about pursuing the insurance money, Phyllis lays down the law like she’s the sheriff of all she surveys, “You planned the whole thing – I only wanted him dead,” she says flatly. “And nobody’s pulling out. We went into this together and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us. Remember?” During this pronouncement, she removes her sunglasses; the look in her eyes is almost as startling and disconcerting to us as it appears to be to Walter. But what Phyllis doesn’t know is that, ultimately, in Walter, she has found a formidable opponent, and she’s not quite as in control as she’d imagined.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

This feature focuses on three childhood friends, now grown – Martha (Stanwyck), who runs the Pennsylvania factory town that is named for her family; her weak-willed, alcoholic husband, Walter (Kirk Douglas), who is running for re-election for district attorney; and Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), an itinerant gambler who left the town almost two decades before and reunites with his old pals after his car serendipitously (or not) crashes into a pole near the sign welcoming visitors to Iverstown. 

Neither Martha nor Walter is overjoyed to see Sam; they believe that he knows of Martha’s culpability in the beating to death of Martha’s despised aunt (Judith Anderson) she lived with as a teen – and about the drifter who was executed years later when Martha and a reluctant Walter accused the man of the crime.

We get a few clues about the adult Martha even before we see her. When Sam takes his car to a local garage for repairs, he briefly hears her on the radio, speaking in her husband’s stead at a citizen’s forum for his re-election campaign. Sam is informed by the garage owner that Walter is not only a “sure-bet” to win re-election, but that he will likely go on to serve as governor and even run for president. “Gonna be whatever his wife wants him to be,” he says.

When we actually see Martha a short time later, she fulfills the promise offered by this fleeting introduction – it’s a stormy night and she’s arriving home following the radio broadcast; an employee opens her car door, allowing her to walk the few steps to the inside of the house without a drop of rain soiling her mink. She sweeps past her butler without so much as a glance in his direction, merely asking, without slowing her purposeful gait, if her husband is at home. And as she heads up the stairs, we feel a tinge of sympathy for what Walter has in store when she reaches him.

Martha is a fascinating, multi-faceted character. She uses her money to enhance her community – we learn that she was 21 when she took over her family business, when it had 3,000 workers. She expanded the company so that it eventually employed 30,000, stretching to the river at the edge of town, and she’s now viewed as “the best-loved civic figure of Iverstown.” But as a 13-year-old, she beat her aunt to death with her own cane and didn’t hesitate when it came to blaming the crime on an innocent man. (“The man they executed was a criminal – if he hadn’t hanged for that, he would have hanged for something else,” Martha tells her morally tortured husband.)  

She’s like a Svengali, calculating and clever, and on more than one occasion making her voice go soft and speaking close to a man’s ear – first Walter and then Sam – in an effort to convince or cajole. In her one scene with Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), the young lady who falls for Sam after their chance meeting on the street, she’s catty and rude, but in a refined, upper-crusty way. She comes the closest to exhibiting vulnerability when she bares her soul to Sam: “It would have been so different if you hadn’t run away. It would have been you instead of Walter.” But her softness doesn’t last, as both her husband and Sam learn.

The Violent Men (1955)

This western is set three years after the end of the Civil War, and stars Glenn Ford as John Parrish, a former captain in the Union Army cavalry who, after having recovered from wounds he received in the war, plans to marry his girl (May Wynn) and move East. To the dismay of his neighbors, he is considering selling his cattle ranch to Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson), a disreputable land grabber who owns the Anchor Ranch along with most of the property in the valley and aims to possess it all by forcing out the remaining ranchers and farmers. The other landowners want Parrish to take a stand with them; Parrish merely wants to be left alone.

Stanwyck again plays a woman named Martha – this time, she’s the wife of Wilkison, who was paralyzed in a range war 12 years earlier; the other members of the household are their daughter, Judith (Dianne Foster), and Wilkison’s younger brother, Cole (Brian Keith), who has recently returned to the family home from Texas to help his brother run the ranch. When Cole’s strong-arm tactics lead to the murder of one of Parrish’s workers, Parrish is no longer able to sit on the sidelines of the fight and is thrust into the forefront.

At first glance, the Martha of this film appears to be cordial and amiable. She is super-solicitous toward her husband – filling his pipe, helping him into his chair, holding his crutches, putting his feet on his favorite ottoman. You couldn’t ask for a more attentive, loving wife. But it’s not long before we see the she-wolf beneath the starched crinolines. It’s Martha who’d talked her husband into allowing Cole to return to Anchor – turns out that Martha and Cole had been romantically involved years earlier, before her marriage (“Only you took Lew because he had a ranch,” Cole says), and they’ve picked up where they left off.

But Cole didn’t come back alone – his Mexican lover, Elena (Lita Milan), has followed him from Texas, and Martha’s none too pleased. We learn this in an early scene when she confronts Cole, asking where he’d been the night before. “Look at me when I talk to you!” she commands. “You were with that Mexican girl again last night. Don’t lie to me, I know what she looks like, and the cheap perfume she uses. I’ve smelled it on you often enough, after you’ve come home.” Her voice is hard and jealous and petty, but in the blink of an eye, she softens her tone, assuring him that he’ll be in charge of Anchor someday. And when Martha pulls Cole toward her for a passionate kiss, it’s a bit like a predator swooping in on its unsuspecting, gullible prey. 

After Cole’s efforts to run Parrish out of the valley repeatedly prove to be deadly disasters, Lew begins to retreat from his plan to secure Parrish’s land, conceding that the former cavalry officer had proven to be more daunting than he’d anticipated. And this is where we truly see the stuff that Martha is made of. She’s a master manipulator, such a pro that she could teach a class. When she sees the total control of the valley slipping through her fingers, she transforms into an Old West Lady Macbeth. 

First, she plays on her husband’s sympathies, ratcheting up the guilt factor. “All I wanted was your happiness, and Judith’s,” she says. “But I’ve reached the end of my endurance. You do whatever you think is best from now on.” And after she gets him primed, she moves in for the kill, pumping him up, knowing just the right words to say and just the right way to say them, to get him fired up again. “You didn’t build Anchor by depending on others – you fought and struggled,” she tells Lew. “It’s weight, strength, and endurance that count. And purpose. To know what you want and never let anyone or anything to stop you!” And then she shrewdly adds, “I didn’t think you’d allow Parrish to stop you.”

And don’t be fooled – Martha has lots more in store. She goes on to display venal motivations and criminal actions that border on psychopathic, willing to go to any lengths to achieve the power that she craves. She’s completely lacking in conscience, able to either convince herself that her behavior is justified or – more likely – never even giving it a second thought. Either way, her nefarious endeavors make the film’s end that much more satisfying.


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