Nothing is accidental in a good noir film. Everything has meaning, layers, and substance. In Double Indemnity (1944), when Walter (Fred MacMurray) comes to the home of Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) for their final confrontation, the scene is bathed in darkness. Classic film noir prison bar shadows cover the wall of Phyllis' fancy living room. Walter’s shadow enters the room first, followed by the man, approaching the femme fatale as she reclines on the davenport, a pistol stealthily tucked away beneath the cushion. Music wafts in from a radio “up the street,” a faint but audible pop song of the era that accompanies the film-defining scene.
Phyllis lays down the hurt: "I never loved you, Walter. Not you, or anybody else...I used you, just as you said."
At the end of the conversation, Walter responds, “I don’t like that music anymore.”
Though it likely went unnoticed by most moviegoers, the tune drifting in from down the street is “Tangerine,” a popular song released in 1941, written by Victor Schertzinger with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Paramount Pictures, the studio behind Double Indemnity, had used the composition in The Fleet's In (1942) only to reprise it here, as it was common practice for studios of the era to recycle their catalogs. (The film contains an anachronism related to the use of this music, as the picture is set in 1938, three years before the song was written).
The lyrics to the tune go like this:
Tangerine, she is all they claim
With her eyes of night and lips as bright as flame
Tangerine, when she dances by
Senoritas stare and caballeros sigh
And I've seen toasts to Tangerine
Raised in every bar across the Argentine
Yes, she has them all on the run
But her heart belongs to just one
Her heart belongs to Tangerine
Tangerine, she is all they say
With mascaraed eye and chapeaux by Dache
Tangerine, with her lips of flame
If the color keeps, Louis Philippe's to blame
And I've seen clothes on Tangerine
Where the label says 'From Macy's Mezzanine'
Yes, she's got the guys in a whirl
But she's only fooling one girl
She's only fooling Tangerine
The lyrics tell of a woman who is desired by everyone, yet only cares for herself. She’s beautiful and elegant and the envy of everyone’s eye, but she’s too in love with herself to give anyone else regard. When paired with the conversation between Walter and Phyllis, it’s clearly relevant. Walter’s growing suspicions that he’s little more than a patsy in Phyllis’ plan come to a head at this moment when she comes clean about her miserable nature.
It also raises a question: When Phyllis says she never loved Walter “until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot,” is she to be believed? Does she finally feel something in that moment, or, as the song says, is she still only fooling herself? There’s no real way to know as she’s dead moments later, but Stawyck’s excellent performance in that scene reveals brief confusion, and a fleeting moment that perhaps, just for a second, there may have been more to her than a cold-hearted killer.