The novel Double Indemnity by James M. Cain not only shows us Walter Huff’s maliciousness and willingness but also his weaknesses and his frailty. These characteristics of his can be seen in his corporal movements and the lack of control he has over them. This flimsiness comes thanks to two powerful women in the novel: Phyllis and Lola. From the very beginning of Huff’s encounters with them, we can see his weakness and frailness surge, grow, and consume him. In very similar ways, both Phyllis and Lola’s power is reflected in those weaknesses, and not so much in their own actions. These two femme fatales control Huff both mentally and physically, and their dominance is reflected in Huff’s lack of it.
In the second chapter of The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, Megan Abbott thoroughly describes Walter Huff’s body movements, reactions, and transformations. This inversion of these powers breaks with the normative gender binaries the world was accustomed to seeing back in the early decades of the XX century and the many years before them. Or, as Abbott expresses it: “The hysteric then can unsettle meaning, essentialist gender structures, and heteronormativity through his/her body and speech” (34). The “unsettling” of these gender structures in literature is very important because, in a world where the male characters dominate and are treated as superior, the status quo breaks and a new way of viewing gender and its structures enters the scene.
The femme fatale in Double Indemnity is a woman who uses anyone in front of her to get what she wants. Phyllis committed murder about a handful of times and tricked many to be partners in crime with her. She was not just a regular “man-eater”, but the representation of death itself. “But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes” (Cain, 233). Not only the death of her past and current victims, but also Huff’s, eventually. We see Phyllis infiltrating into Huff’s body from when “all of a sudden she looked at [Huff], and [he] felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of [his] hair” (Cain, 221) to the moment Huff “[feels] her” (Cain, 327) presence in the ship’s stateroom. These effects that she has on Huff take him from committing a crime he probably wouldn’t have committed in the first place to the ending of his own life. However, even though we see clearly certain femme fatale characteristics in Phyllis, she is “both failing to meet the aesthetic criteria of the femme fatale yet over-representing the femme fatale in parodic lethality” (Abbott, 39). Phyllis’ body, as well as Huff’s, plays a key element in the novel. Her lethality is mirrored in Huff’s body, and her body as well is reflecting the dominance she has over Huff.
Lola plays an important role in Double Indemnity as well as Phyllis. We don’t see the same quantity of negative effects on Huff from Lola like we see from Phyllis; however, Lola’s presence too affects Huff’s body. These effects are more positive than negative, nonetheless, they are very profound. In the novel’s eleventh chapter it reads:
Maybe I haven’t explained it right, yet, how I felt about this girl Lola. It wasn’t anything like what I had felt for Phyllis. That was some kind of unhealthy excitement that came over me just at the sight of her. This wasn’t anything like that. It was just a sweet peace that came over me as soon as I was with her (Cain, 299).
In a way, Lola controlled Huff. He knew Lola still had back and forth feelings for Sachetti (“She felt that it proved Sachetti loved her” (Cain, 317)), yet kept going after her, with his hopes up high, thinking they could still end up together. Huff paralyzed himself, in a way, as he kept idealizing his impossible relationship with Lola, for example, when he spent a while thinking if their age difference was really going to be a problem or not. In the end, Lola did not result to be as malicious and terrible to Huff, but still, she made her effects clear.
The way these women’s dominance is reflected in a man’s body is important because we see hysteria in the male character instead of in the female one. “Scores of feminist readings of hysteria have focused on the hysteric as a woman fighting social constructions of acceptable femininity. This reading has been recently expanded to considerations of male hysteria” (Abbott, 34). Literature and common culture had focused the hysteria on the female body only, and the fact that roles are inverted in Double Indemnity because women here stop being the victims in a patriarchal society.
Abbott, Megan. “”I Can Feel Her”: The White Male as Hysteric in James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler.” Abbott, Megan. The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled fiction and Film Noir . New York: Pallgrave MacMillan, 202. 21-47.
Cain, James M. Double Indemnity. New York: KNOPF, 1943.