Deb McBride

Neptune & the Emergence of Film Noir: Double Indemnity

Neptune is the planet traditionally associated with film, the movies and the glamour of Hollywood. But everyone’s life has been under the influence of Neptune at one time or another, and it undoubtedly has affected both personal and professional relationships. Neptune can heal, inspire or create, but it can also blind, beguile and cause addiction. In matters of the heart Neptune can make it or break it, but it always takes us on a journey and drops us off somewhere we’ve never seen before. When the journey is over, we scratch our heads and wonder how we got there.

While under the spell, Neptune renders it nearly impossible to gain distance and realize what is happening. It may be love or it may only be seduction. The spell is so infatuating that one’s spirit is willing to follow the scent of Neptune right into hell. So sweet, so intoxicating, how could one know that murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle?

That’s the question asked by Walter Neff, the anti-hero of Double Indemnity. Neff’s experience in the film was a Neptunian one on many levels, and it is not surprising when one considers the astrological dynamics involved in the making of this film. The day the film was released and had its public birth Neptune was in the relationship sign of Libra. Since Neptune is an outer planet, its journey though a sign lasts for many years and has an extensive influence on the collective unconscious. On the one hand, Neptune in Libra was highly romantic and this was quite evident in many of the films of the 1940’s, especially those dealing with romance during World War II. On the other hand, in certain films of the 1940’s Neptune in Libra indicated a relationship where all was not as it seemed and a man was gravely duped by a woman.

The horoscope for the release date of Double Indemnity shows Neptune in Libra in close conjunction with Venus and Mars. Venus conjunct Neptune in this case indicates the deceptive, doubling dealing woman, and in Libra, an illusory relationship. The addition of Mars designates the themes of violence, danger and ulterior motive. This conjures up a morally complex situation in a shadowy relationship where the leading male is not certain whether he is being cherished or hoodwinked. And so it went: Double Indemnity was the story of jaded insurance salesman Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, who worked for the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Co. in Los Angeles. The film began with Neff walking into his office after hours, injured from what appeared to be a gunshot wound. He told a story into a dictation machine that began with his confession of a murder and continued as a narration for the entire film. Walter Neff worked for and with Barton Keyes, portrayed by Edward G. Robinson. Keyes was a dogged insurance investigator with a knack for sniffing out fraudulent cases and solving them. On one of Walter Neff’s daily sales calls, he met Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck. Neff was immediately attracted to Phyllis, and she used her feminine wiles to seduce him into helping her dispose of her husband. The two plotted to murder him in her automobile and made it look as though he had accidentally fallen from a train so they could benefit from the double indemnity clause in Mr. Dietrichson’s accident insurance policy. It was the perfect crime until Barton Keyes and Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola Dietrichson (played by little-known actress Jean Heather) suspected Phyllis of the murder. Keyes’ instincts and persistent examination of the case led the murderers to panic and eventually destroy one another.

A cluster of planets is in Virgo, including Jupiter, the Sun and Mercury. Virgo is a sign that pays great attention to detail, is diligent and loves vocabulary and words. Neff and Phyllis engage in several scenes of fast-talking, sharp-witted banter that can also be seen as sexual foreplay. Every step of her husband’s murder was planned thoroughly ‘straight down the line’ as Phyllis and Neff said to one another several times. The Sun and Jupiter together indicate an inherent faith in a favorable outcome, but the lower expression of this aspect can manifest in the form of gambling or taking high risks because one feels that one cannot lose. This brought in the element of arrogance as the characters felt they could beat the system. They were overconfident and self-satisfied with their plans and were counting on the insurance money. Given the challenging aspect the Sun and Jupiter make to Uranus in Gemini, eventually their perfectly organized scheme would become undone as the forgotten details tripped them up and called attention to their crime. The nature of Uranus in Gemini can be abrupt turnarounds in situations where details and communications are paramount.

Saturn was in Cancer during the release of the film and shows the leading characters as unfeeling, hardhearted and unsympathetic. An innately cold planet such as Saturn does not have its best expression in a warm, watery, sensitive sign such as Cancer. As it is in challenging connection to the Neptune-Venus –Mars conjunction in Libra, Saturn acknowledges that Phyllis and Neff are not realistically together with feelings of deep and profound love.

As the story unfolded we saw the struggle between obsessive, enthralling, mysterious passion vs. genuine emotion and friendship. There were unspeakably magnetic feelings going on for Phyllis and Neff as they acted out the lower instincts of Venus and Neptune by indulging the self-destructive relationship. The power of seduction and danger intrigued both of them. They would not have committed this crime without each other, as it was the thrill of acting together that drove them. Neither of them really wanted to know the truth of their association, as Neptune sways one to see and believe only that which one wants to see and believe. They preferred to continue living out the illusion that Neptune had brought them.

It is the nature of Neptune to lack boundaries, which allows for great creativity and inspired artistry. But when entangled with Venus and applied to relationships, Neptune may also operate inappropriately thereby bringing about triangular affairs, as there is no moral structure to Neptune’s energies. In the manner of Venus and Neptune, Phyllis and Walter Neff’s relationship was always triangular, which not only enhanced the thrill, but also provided the necessary hook on which the devious couple could hang all their problems. They failed to realize that when the third party was removed, the relationship didn’t have legs. At the outset, it was Phyllis’ doomed husband who was their hook. Since he never caught them in the act, their sense of danger remained. Once they got rid of him, they needed a replacement and they found it in Barton Keyes. Only this time the danger was genuine, as the dogged Keyes was a sharp inspector bound to discover the answer to the crime’s riddle. Furthermore, Neff had a greater investment in his relationship with Keyes than Phyllis did with her husband.

Keyes and Neff performed the Venus-Mars-Neptune relationship where they had unconditional love for one another up to and including the moment when Neff died and Keyes lit his bloodstained cigarette. The addition of the Mars principle shows this level of love happening between two men in their friendship. This revealed the authentic relationship in the movie. They also acted out the Sun-Jupiter in Virgo by the apparent loyalty that was the basis of their bond.

This chart not only explains the film, but also the emergence of a new type of movie experience known as “film noir” or “dark film.” Despite our victories in the war abroad, the pessimism that surrounded our involvement and the condition of the world was present in certain films. When motion pictures from the United States were imported to Europe during the war, the French, seeing this darkness, coined a name for this mood of film. Double Indemnity was one of the first instances of the then new style of film noir and to this day is considered to be the standard.

Film noir described the mood or feel of the film, which was commonly oppressive. It was mostly shot in grays and black and white and was almost always a crime film. Also, wartime budgets caused many movie sets to be stark and this contributed to the shadowy elements on screen. These films reflected society’s evils and generally involved a confusing morality issue. Any description of the mood of film noir is what we associate with Neptune such as disillusionment, disenchantment, ambiguity, moral corruption, guilt and paranoia. The lighting and skewed camera angles, the use of silhouettes, circling cigarette smoke and disorienting visual schemes are all very Neptunian. These factors generated a feeling of uncertainty, an early instinct in the films that something was about to go wrong. Film noir seemed to have its own pathology, that being the fatal sexual magnetism between its characters. The protagonists are generally driven to the point of no return by weaknesses or a tragic flaw that caused them to repeat mistakes.

Pluto in Leo was the creative flourishing of the movie industry. As Pluto is an outer planet and spends many years in a particular sign, it has great influence over collective movements. Leo is a sign that desires to be a source of energy for others. Leo wants to radiate like the Sun, and therefore has a strong need for personal recognition and strives for great self-expression. Pluto in Leo was a generation that had a great collective need to put people on the big screen to express their lightness and darkness, fears and anxieties and joys and redemptions. It was a new way for the masses to experience the projection of their unconscious feelings. Pluto in Leo would also be appropriate to something new called a ‘dark film.’ Murder is always a Plutonian subject as Pluto deals with what is hidden or mysterious. While Pluto was moving through the sign of Leo, actors were more willing and able to conjure up a darker and more honest element for their portrayals. This deep creativity birthed a wide range of cinema experiences.

Double Indemnity began as a detective novel by James M. Cain, based on a true murder story that happened in Brooklyn in the 1920’s. Mr. Cain had three planets in Cancer, the Sun, Mercury and Venus. Using his Cancerian talents, which include sensitivity to one’s environment, he could emotionally process this information by creative story telling. The Pluto Neptune conjunction in Gemini under which he was born also shows the genre of writing (Gemini) as a dark one.

Among other novels, his most famous include The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce, both of which were turned into Hollywood films and were considered to be part of the film noir genre. The Venus in his chart was retrograde in Cancer, indicating a skewed perception of love, women and relationships. The appearance of Venus retrograde in a natal chart generally does not allow a person enough detachment to skillfully comprehend and handle the love principle in his or her life. Cain did not know great fortune with women as he was married four times, the last time being in 1947. And it is no surprise that his most successful novels were about a man undone by a woman.

Cain stated that he made no conscious effort to be tough or grim and that his stories were about the average man and his circumstances, although many of his novels were on the subject of murder. He had Uranus in Scorpio, which inspires an intense desire to understand and discover life in all of its lightness and darkness. From this sprung his ability to write detective novels, since there was always a character that was going to get to the bottom of the puzzle and figure out how the crime was committed. There was usually one person in the story who had a relentless need to get an answer, mirroring Cain’s need to unravel a mystery.

The film Double Indemnity was born of the collaboration between Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who took Cain’s book and turned it into a screenplay. It’s interesting to note that both Chandler and Cain were born in the late 1800’s when Pluto and Neptune were conjunct in the literary and sometimes gossiping sign of Gemini and these men together were called the poets of the tabloid murder.
Screenwriter Raymond Chandler was a Leo with the planets Venus and Saturn conjunct in Leo as well. Leo has an innate understanding of performance and stage work and is likely to get directly involved with film and screenplays. A Venus – Saturn conjunction can be considered to be harsh, cold or insensitive; “hard-boiled” is a phrase most commonly used to describe Chandler’s stories and characters. Chandler had made a name for himself as the writer of detective novels featuring the famous character Private Investigator Philip Marlowe. Marlowe made it to the silver screen and was portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the film The Big Sleep, based on Chandler’s novel of the same name. Most of his crime novels were set in Los Angeles and were derived from pulp stories he was writing for magazines. The settings and characters were shadowy and the stories were dark, which was suitable as Chandler’s edge came from his Mars in Scorpio. Mars is a sharp and fiery energy. Scorpio has an innate desire to dig deep into darkness in order to facilitate a transformation. Together they are intense and tenacious. Chandler’s work on Double Indemnity altered Cain’s novel as the characters became more provocative and insensitive. In his screenplay, Phyllis was far more unloving and calculating than Cain’s depiction of her.

As Pluto transited the sign of Leo it moved through Chandler’s planets and gave him a fresh artistic edge, and therefore made him a famous name in writing and in Hollywood. As Pluto will darken anything that it touches, his creative ideas became more extreme. In the case of this film, Chandler rewrote the ending of the novel by having the lead characters violently undo one another. When Neff arrived to settle the score with her and she had the gun tucked in the chair ready to shoot him, the background music playing was the song “Tangerine” – a song that describes a woman whose heart only belongs to her.

Billy Wilder secured the rights to James M. Cain’s novel. This was Wilder’s first big Hollywood success in directing, after working on other Hollywood projects as a writer. Wilder had a stellium of five planets in Cancer: Sun, Moon, Mars, Neptune and Mercury. This is a clear indication of someone who is multi-talented in the arts. Water signs such as Cancer are naturally artistic because they find it easier to act on their emotional instincts and put primitive internal feelings into creative activities than to express them through words. During his very long career, he grew from writer to director and eventually to producer. All of the great sensitivity and passion he experienced was channeled through his Uranus in the opposite earth sign of Capricorn, grounding it so that it could be expressed as creative genius. Since Uranus sits alone in his horoscope, it is a strong placement and therefore it figured greatly in his life. Wilder was quite confident with his artistry and in the case of Double Indemnity, he turned the portrait upside down in true Uranian fashion to create a meaningful film. He told the story in hindsight – he begins with a confession – so we opened knowing who committed the crime and what the murderer believed his motives were.

The stellium in Cancer in Wilder’s chart also serves to draw the audience into the emotional experience of the tale being told. As a result, the viewer experiences the sick, queasy feeling at every moment that the murderers may be exposed. We root for them to succeed and, in essence, experience their emotional roller coaster. The glamour, their romance and the excitement pull us into the tide of Neptune and take us on some escapist ride, as a masterful film should.

Wilder used the genius of Uranus and surprised you as the movie turned a corner. It happened when Lola Dietrichson was going to turn Phyllis in to the police for her father’s murder and Neff spent time with Lola to keep an eye on her and cool her fever. He subsequently found out about Phyllis’ role in Lola’s mother’s death, and her relationship with Nino Zachetti coming to the house every night. Neff realized that she had set him up and was setting up Nino as well. For the moment, Neptune’s haze was lifted and he was able to clearly see Phyllis for the iniquitous woman she really was.

In the early 1940’s, Fred MacMurray (who played Walter Neff) was the highest paid and most greatly sought actor in Hollywood. In the manner of his Virgo Sun, his specialty was portraying nice guys who get the girl in romantic comedies. These roles were not a stretch for him; he felt comfortable with these characters. Typical of Virgo, MacMurray appeared on screen as a charming, completely natural, easygoing guy – one of the boys. Billy Wilder convinced him to play Walter Neff, a role no actor wanted, as the role was too unsympathetic and taking it on would be a career risk. MacMurray felt the part of Neff required something his previous roles did not – acting. He brought the Virgo personality to Neff by making him a regular guy on a regular day at work and exhibited all the good qualities about Virgo: reliable, loyal, hardworking and deserving of promotion until something unforeseen happens. This also emphasized James M. Cain’s belief that he was writing about an ordinary person and his situation.

MacMurray’s Venus-Neptune conjunction in Cancer echoed the release chart of the film, underscoring the fact that his character was easily misled by the thrill and promise of a woman’s love. This was the leading male type in film noir: a jaded, down on his luck, bored with everyday life kind of guy, who happens upon a woman who takes advantage of his vulnerability. Its opposition to Uranus in Capricorn truly gave him the versatility to change the types of characters he played, from a romantic lead to a morally conflicted soul on a downward spiral. Later in his career he would repeat edgy roles highlighting his many acting talents.

Edward G. Robinson was known for playing gangsters (remember Key Largo?) and in fact he was the actor in Hollywood history who set the type for gangsters early on in talking films. He has Mars and Uranus conjunct in Scorpio, making his characters sharp, skilled, tough, smart and resilient. This time he took the role of an insurance investigator who solved the mystery of the crime. Just as James M. Cain used his Uranus in Scorpio to create the detectives who needed to get to the bottom of the riddle, Edward G. Robinson brought that same energy to his role as Keyes. Robinson had great understanding of the characters he played, yet his Sagittarius Sun made it all appear effortless. Sagittarius has a constant outpouring of fiery energy as it seeks the maximum self-expression. Anyone born under this sign, such as Edward G. Robinson, feels his or her expressiveness is part of a larger social context and raises consciousness.

Once again the viewer sees evidence of Billy Wilder’s strong expression of Uranus in his casting of the two leading men. Uranus’ creativity lies in viewing the plan backwards or upside-down. Wilder cast MacMurray as the murderer and cast Robinson as the man on the side of justice, a role reversal for both of them, and developed their camaraderie as the most anchored relationship in the film. While there was a fatal mistrust between Neff and Phyllis that leads to the destruction of both of them and the seemingly perfect crime, Keyes and Neff’s bond was still a strong one, despite the latter’s weakness. The film would be a lot harder to digest if it were not for the genuine friendship between Barton Keyes and Walter Neff. Keyes was a good man, and he didn’t judge Neff; he was above and beyond whatever lies Neff had told; he was looking out for Neff all along, like a father figure. And in that sense, Keyes has deepened their attachment even when Neff felt he did not deserve Keyes’ affection.

Film noir introduced audiences to the female character type known as the femme fatale. Double Indemnity is the first instance in which this type of woman appears: callous, manipulative, double-crossing and desperate. She could only be trouble for the leading man. In the case of Phyllis Dietrichson, she described herself as “rotten to the core.” Barbara Stanwyck’s characters are usually tough women – cardsharps, chorus girls, gangster molls, even Annie Oakley was a tough cookie. When asked by Billy Wilder to play the role of a murderess, she loved the thought of it, but was hesitant just as Fred MacMurray had been. She, too, was fearful that a role this extreme would harm her image and career. At that moment she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. To be the leading lady and play an out-and-out killer was a huge risk, as it hadn’t been done before. Upon approaching Wilder with her concerns, he asked her if she was an actress or a mouse. He changed her mind; she took the part and was always grateful to him.

Stanwyck’s Mars-Uranus conjunction in Capricorn opposite her Venus-Neptune conjunction in Cancer is a powerful combination that she drew from in a masterful way, especially in this film. She took the amalgamation of these four planets and turned out a treacherous character in Phyllis. Mars-Uranus can have a hot temper, be impulsive, cunning, disloyal and violent. This aspect, when not used creatively as in acting, could become explosive and is often indicative of a murderous rage. Due to Neptune’s ability to operate behind the scenes, Venus and Neptune together can play out as a deceptive female. A Mars-Uranus conjunction involved with Venus and Neptune has all the makings of a premeditated murder. When placed in Capricorn, Uranus and Mars generate intelligent and well contemplated plans. For the actress, her planets in Capricorn produced in her a desire for perfection and sheer professionalism. The combination of Mars and Uranus usually designates a person with a vast knowledge of a highly mechanical skill. This placement in her chart is an indicator of her strong technical ability and brilliant use of props that she had always exhibited in her film work. Her gestures, posture and movements all enhanced her character, as she knew how to control and direct (Capricorn) her energy (Mars-Uranus). As for the Venus-Neptune conjunction, this functions as an exceedingly believable actress. The artistic qualities associated with Venus placed in an emotional sign such as Cancer combined with Neptune’s traits of imagination, illusion, and shape-changing point to someone who can creatively mold a character just by envisioning and owning that character’s qualities. Her audience was transported into the story, experiencing that world as if they, too, were a part of it. Clearly, she knew this dame very well. Early in her life, Stanwyck had met people from all walks of life. Orphaned at a young age, she took care of herself by working as a chorus girl and was exposed to a seedier crowd than an average teenager might have been. The combination of these four planets would represent an actress who was smart (Uranus), sharp (Mars) and highly respected (Capricorn), but also a sensitive (Cancer), visionary (Neptune) artist (Venus).

Barbara Stanwyck had four planets in Cancer and they were all the right ones for this movie: Venus, Neptune, Jupiter and the Sun. Considering the Cancer stellium in the natal charts of both Billy Wilder and James Cain, she was exactly what they needed for the role of Phyllis. Furthermore, her Venus-Neptune conjunction in Cancer was in keeping with Fred MacMurray’s same aspect and that of the release date of the film. Her Sun-Jupiter conjunction also resonated with the same aspect in the release chart. As Phyllis, she portrayed the more negative expressions of these aspects. She trumped up the beguiling, seductive elements of Venus-Neptune. The viewer is never certain of her true feelings, especially at the very end of the film when she told Neff that she just couldn’t fire the last shot at him. She may have been sincere in these final moments, but Neff didn’t buy it. Her Sun-Jupiter conjunction came into play as a greedy, selfish, overconfident liar. Although Ms. Stanwyck was a shy Cancerian, this role stretched her abilities and sealed her reputation as one of the finest actresses in Hollywood history.

She was getting transiting Pluto to her Mercury at the time, signifying a new, darker way of expressing herself verbally. Her banter with Fred in the early scenes of this film is one of the true classic moments in film history. She was quick-witted, fast thinking and sharp tongued. Saturn was transiting her planets in Cancer, adding a hard edge to what was probably a natural shyness and softness. Typical of a Saturn transit, this was hard work for the actress as she confronted her fear of invoking an unfeeling character.

Since the cast, director and novelist were all directly experiencing the arrival of Saturn in Cancer, a turning point occurred for each of them. Cain and Wilder became well known and highly respected. Stanwyck and MacMurray labored intensely, took career risks and each turned out the performance of a lifetime in portraying cold-blooded murderers. Cancer types are masters of psychological projection. When they are not ready to accept their own flaws, impulses and issues, they can impose it upon others and watch them act it out. This comes more naturally to members of this sign than to other signs because of Cancer’s willingness to withdraw and become immovable. In the case of Double Indemnity, the abundance of Cancer in everyone’s charts was used to project a dark tale coming from a dark corner of the life of each main contributor to the film. The theme of projection was especially apparent in the case of Barbara Stanwyck’s character.

Phyllis’ relationship with Neff instantly began when she appeared wearing only a towel at the top of the staircase in her home. This was a new film occurrence: women didn’t appear half naked at the front door in the 1940’s. Naturally he would have thought that she’s one of “those” women: fast and looking for a good time. He couldn’t get his mind off that “honey of an anklet” she was wearing. Neff thought she was a bored wife who wanted an affair, until she mentioned her husband and started to ask him about accident insurance. When he correctly assumed that she wanted to kill her husband, she told him that he was rotten and he left. But it was too late, he had already been taken by the scent of honeysuckle and he had to see her again. Phyllis was obviously the mastermind of the entire plot. Murder was never an idea until Neff appeared at her house, talking about insurance. The wheels of her mind started spinning and she cooked up a scheme to bump off her husband, and get twice the insurance payoff from the double indemnity clause in the policy. She saw Neff’s weak, spineless nature and she decided to smoke him like he was just another cigarette. She was able to project all her devious wishes upon him so that he not only committed the crime for her, but protected her as well.

As illustrated by Ms. Stanwyck’s chart, a treacherous woman is at the core of the entire film. Without Phyllis’ street-smart seduction and use of her feminine wiles, none of these events would have happened. Although this underhanded femme fatale style is now taken for granted as a Hollywood staple, Barbara Stanwyck invented it for the screen. Her portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson was an evolution for actresses in Hollywood and women in general.

Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but did not win any. It remains one of the timeless classics of American film.


Copyright 2014. Deb McBride. All rights reserved.

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