A Classic Film Noir Foreshadows Possible Failure for the Underwoods

Posted by Glynis Neely

I am an avid reader and TV addict who loves horror and feminism. I’ve always had trouble keeping my opinions to myself, so enjoy!

For the past five seasons on House of Cards, Claire and Francis – the unstoppable pair that is Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey – have been a tight-knit team vying for power who have gone to great lengths to keep that power, no matter who or what stands in their way. During the newest season, released May 30th on , Francis and Claire are in the middle of an election as candidates for President and Vice President, respectively. During the third episode, Chapter 55, the pair is in The White House’s movie theater watching and reciting the 1944 film noir classic, Double Indemnity, their election night ritual. This habitual ritual seems to humanize the couple for a moment during the madness of the election, but if you’re paying close attention to the film itself, it suggests everything that could possibly go wrong for this power-hungry duo.

Double Indemnity was originally a novel written by James M. Cain in 1943 and adapted into a film by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler at the height of the Hays Code in Hollywood. It tells the story of bored, unhappy housewife Phyllis Dietrichson, played by the alluring Barbara Stanwyck, who convinces insurance salesman Walter Neff, played against type by Fred MacMurray heretofore known as a leading man in romantic comedies, that her husband doesn’t treat her right and they should murder him. At first, he is hesitant to get involved, but he cannot stop thinking about her, so he suggests that they open up an accident insurance policy on her husband, murder him and make it look like an accident, collecting the $100,000 payout for a double indemnity clause.

Double Indemnity dir. Billy Wilder
Double Indemnity dir. Billy Wilder

During their first meeting, Phyllis uses the guise of a loaded metaphorical conversation to bring up the suggestion of murder, and Neff just hangs along for the ride. MacMurray and Stanwyck sell the hell out of this conversation, and it’s a testament to their chemistry and talent that the dialogue works so well. It also showcases the lengths the screenwriters had to go to keep the dialogue in accordance with the code; it could not be too explicit or crude. The script’s sly and original dialogue, refreshing story framing device, and innovative cinematography set the bar for films noirs produced in the years to follow. This scene is still one of the most clever and renowned exchanges of dialogue in all of cinema history.

It also holds a great deal of weight when placed within the context of the newest season of House of Cards. The election does not seem to be going in their favor, so Claire and Francis coordinate a series of terror attacks to distract the American public and derail the election results so they can stay in power, albeit temporarily until they find a long term fix. It too needs to look like an accident, because if the people find out what they did, they are cooked. They both stubbornly hang on tightly to the idea that they will overcome whatever obstacles get in their way. They have already made their share of ethically questionable choices; they are finally in the White House and they will not go without a fight. There is always the possibility that they would turn on each other, but it’s more likely that the country would turn on them first.

The scene also happens to be an excellent comparison of the current dynamic between Francis and Claire. When Francis eagerly urges Claire to reenact it with him, citing their tradition, she acquiesces but seems distracted. As they stand directly in front of the screen and reenact the film in almost perfect unison, it’s revealed that this is also the film that was playing in the background of Francis’s dorm room when they first kissed years ago. As a reflection of their relationship, it feels completely lived-in and familiar, and yet something feels inherently off, like Neff’s feeling as he leaves the Dietrichson home after that first meeting:

“It was a hot afternoon and I could smell honeysuckle all down the street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Phyllis and Neff may be talking about murder, but Francis and Claire are ultimately deceiving the American people and they need to keep it together if they want it to go smoothly. They are master chameleons that can adapt into any situation life throws at them; yet even at the center of the chaotic election they now find themselves, they are not quite as in sync as normal. When Claire suggests that they prepare for the worst, Francis snaps at her to not bring up losing in his presence. She immediately reassures him they are going to win, but the tension between the two is palpable, especially with Stanwyck and MacMurray smoldering on the screen behind them. They need to stick together now more than ever, but the introduction of this scene suggests that maybe their partnership is starting to crumble – and who’s to say who, if anyone, will make it out on top.

If I had to put my bet on anyone, it would be the first lady and potential vice president. Claire is House of Cards’ embodiment of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson. She may support Francis, but she is also a fiercely independent person and a master of deception who wants power just as much as he does, though she hides it far better. Phyllis plays coy with Neff right up to the point he says the truth aloud, and then she immediately drops all pretense. While Neff is the one to ultimately murder her husband, Phyllis asserts her dominance in subtle ways, like the aforementioned innuendo scene or the incredible shot of her tight-lipped smirk as the camera focuses on her while Neff strangles her husband next to her in the car, though pointedly off-screen. That look is not far off from what we’ve seen from Claire on more than one occasion. She knows that she gets more flies with honey, but deep down she fundamentally has no morals, just like Francis.

Netflix

Francis is a sociopath with only his own best interests at heart and who doesn’t ever seem to lose his nerve, but his power is not impenetrable. Neff initially tells Phyllis their plan is perfect, but it’s clear even from that first meeting that he has his doubts. After they commit the murder and he begins walking home, he suddenly realizes that somehow everything is going to go wrong; “It was the walk of a dead man.” It’s at this moment in the film that Francis finds out that the turnout in his loyal areas is down 30 percent. However, he is so resolute in what he needs to do to win that he won’t even admit the possibility of defeat, even as it hangs in the air. Neff on the other hand knew that he and Phyllis, and possibly even the grift, would not last. As he says later, “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”

Claire’s budding relationship with Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) also seems just as ultimately inconsequential as Neff was for Phyllis. Tom is the opposite of Francis; he more closely resembles Neff – a generally nice guy who could be easily swayed one way or the other and who clearly has his sights set on Claire. They share a moment on the stairway when Tom casually suggests that Francis is getting old, insinuating that she could go on and run the country without him, and Claire seems to tense up at the suggestion as she comes to her husband’s defense. However, there seems to be a crack in her veneer, like maybe she hadn’t noticed until that moment that Francis might be getting weaker, especially considering the cold he seems to be fighting throughout the episode. It’s not hard to see why someone like Tom would follow Claire off a cliff. And yet, despite Tom’s perfect fit as Claire’s patsy so she can take the White House for herself, so far he hasn’t done much to indicate he would be willing to take on that role.

Netflix

However, Tom is not the only one to mention directly to Claire that she has a better chance of coming out on top; the American people unsurprisingly trust her more than Francis, and he knows it. His envy at her increasingly rising popularity could become a problem for the couple, and Tom’s constant presence isn’t helping. Francis and Claire often seem to have the perfect partnership, but not everything lasts forever. They have already gotten away with a lot: Francis has killed two people (so far) and Claire has done her fair share of back door machinations, but the election tampering is their biggest con. And no matter what, just like Neff and Phyllis, their fate is completely intertwined, no way for escape. Barton Keyes, Neff’s boss and mentor played by Edward G. Robinson, explains that whoever committed the crime are with each other on this train “right to the end of the line, and the last stop is the cemetery.”

Yet no murder or con is ever perfect, and no cover up is either; anything could still go wrong. It’s always possible that someone down the road will discover their secrets, just like Keyes discovers the truth about his longtime friend. Journalist Tom Hammerschmidt has been on the sidelines of the Underwood’s story for years, but his most recent expose on them could open some doors that lead to him discovering the truth. However, the Underwoods are determined to see it through to the end. During another not-so-subtle moment, while MacMurray stands his ground with Phyllis on the screen behind them, Frank tells Claire: “This is our house. We are not leaving.” Of course, at this point they don’t have much of a choice: they are stuck together “straight down the line.”

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