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Phyllis Dietrichson (Phyllis Nirdlinger, in book) is a fictional character in the two film adaptations of James M. Cain's novella Double Indemnity. In the 1944 production, she was played by Barbara Stanwyck; in the 1973 made-for-TV remake, by Samantha Eggar.
In both the novella and films, she manipulates her husband's insurance agent, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray in the 1944 production) to help her murder her husband. They first trick her husband into signing a life insurance policy without his knowledge. The policy has a double indemnity clause whereby the company agrees to pay the stated multiple (i.e., double) of the face amount in the contract in cases of death caused by accidental means. They then murder her husband and try to make it seem like an accident on a train in an attempt to invoke the policy’s double indemnity clause. However, Phyllis runs into several problems in trying to collect the money. The company had refused to pay the clause and she realizes too late that her husband had left the inheritance to her step-daughter, Lola, who suspects Phyllis murdered her both her father and her mother. She must also contend with Neff's inquisitive boss, Barton Keyes, who also suspects she was involved in the murder of her husband and had an accomplice in Nino, due to them secretly seeing each other. She tries to kill Neff to clean up any loose ends, but she is shot and killed herself in the ensuing struggle.
The Dietrichson character was so iniquitous that Stanwyck, director Billy Wilder's first choice for the role in the 1944 version, was reluctant to take it. Wilder was persistent, however, and Stanwyck eventually relented; she said thereafter it was one of the best roles she had ever played.
Novel vs film
in James M. Cain's original novella, the character is named Phyllis Nirdlinger (Wilder changed the name for the film adaptation, as he thought it sounded too comical). In the novella, Phyllis is a former nurse who was suspected of killing several children in her care; the case was dropped for lack of evidence. Also, in the novel's climax, she escapes with Neff (here called Huff) and goes away with him on an ocean liner; there, she kills him, too. It is implied at the end of the novel that she will be arrested.
- The character was based upon real-life murderer Ruth Snyder. The photo of Snyder's execution in the Sing Sing electric chair, run on the cover of the January 13, 1928 New York Daily News with the one-word headline DEAD!, has been called the most famous newsphoto of the 1920s.
- The character was ranked as the #8 film villain of the first 100 years of American cinema by the American Film Institute in the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains.
- Phillips, Gene D. (2010). Some Like it Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 54–63. ISBN 978-0-8131-2570-1.
- "Shadows of Suspense". Double Indemnity Universal Legacy Series DVD (Universal). 2006.
- Gallo, Bill (2005). "When 'Dem Bums' Were Kings," New York Daily News, October 4, 2005.
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