The One Thing Billy Wilder Regrets the Most About Double Indemnity

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Barbara Stanwyck was already a big name by the time “Double Indemnity” was released. She had been a leading woman in Hollywood for more than a decade and earned two Oscar nominations for ‘Stella Dallas’ and ‘Ball of Fire’. She was an incredibly recognizable figure, and one thing people knew about Stanwyck was that she was brunette. For the role of Phyllis Dietrichson, Wilder envisioned the character as a blonde. Now, Stanwyck had dyed her hair blonde for her role in “Stella Dallas,” but for this film, the decision was made that she would wear a wig. And the wig is absolutely terrible. It doesn’t sit on her head at all, looks incredibly heavy, and features those absolutely ridiculous curls. In the book “Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with the filmmakers of the Classic Noir period‘, Wilder talks about his regret at choosing to put that wig on Stanwyck’s head:

“But after the picture was half done, after shooting for four weeks with Stanwyck, now I know I made a mistake. I can’t say, ‘Listen, tomorrow you won’t be wearing the blonde wig.’ I’m stuck… I can’t redo four weeks of stuff. I’m totally stuck. I signed up; the mistake was caught too late. Luckily it didn’t hurt the image. But it was too thick, we weren’t very good at making wigs.”

Yes, the wig is no good, but Billy Wilder is right with the second part of that remark. It doesn’t matter if the quality of the wig is bad or not. Wilder goes on to say:

“But when people say, ‘My God, that wig. She looked fake,” I reply, “Did you notice? It was my intention. I wanted the fakeness of the girl, the bad taste, the fake wig. That’s how I get out of it.”

While this may be a joking answer, it actually speaks to how Phyllis is portrayed in “Double Indemnity”. She’s a schemer, trying to wrap people around her finger to do whatever she wants. She’ll take any character she sees fit if it gives her what she wants. The blonde makes her cold but seductive. The wig gives her that unnatural look that’s alluring, which she needs to get Fred MacMurray’s insurance salesman, Walter Neff (two Fs, as in Philadelphia), to commit murder in her name.

Of course, if Barbara Stanwyck had dyed her hair blonde for real for “Double Indemnity,” maybe that appeal would be amplified even more, making the movie even more effective than it already is. Frankly, Stanwyck with his normal brown hair is quite enchanting. I mean, in “Ball of Fire,” she makes a house full of teachers go crazy from extreme excitement. Nevertheless, the wig is what we got, and we can all agree that it’s not a very good hairstyle.

Ultimately, “Double Indemnity” is an A+ masterpiece that has inspired filmmakers for decades and decades. Neo-noir, erotic thrillers, or any detective story featuring a central relationship follow in the footsteps of “Double Indemnity.” Any femme fatale in a story will inevitably be compared to Stanwyck’s Phyllis. The film is the gold standard of the genre and she of the archetype. If the movie can handle all of this with a terrible wig, there’s really no point in complaining about it.

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