“Double indemnity” was the title of a popular James M. Cain novella (an eight-part serial in the old Liberty magazine). “Double indemnity” means twice freed from damage, hence an insurance policy that pays double. That’s the prize our anti-hero and anti-heroine seek. In the film Double Indemnity, the anti-hero is Walter Neff. He’s played by Fred MacMurray, a light comedy actor cast against type, proving that nice guys can commit murder. He begins as a fast-talking insurance salesman. Barbara Stanwyck, in one of her best roles, plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a wife who has a husband she’d rather not have. Together they hatch an ingenious scheme by which Mr. Dietrichson (Hollywood vet Tom Powers) will die on a train and the policy they have foisted on him will pay $100,000 (that would be $1.3 million in 2014). They do kill Dietrichson, but the claim catches the eagle eye (or sensitive stomach) of Barton Keyes. Edward G. Robinson played him, and with his long movie experience he handled Keyes’ long speeches expertly. He is the insurance company’s claims manager, a quasi-detective, and as Neff says, “a wolf on a phony claim.” “Once he gets his teeth into something, he never lets go.”
Keyes does get his teeth in, and Walter and Phyllis fall out over how to deal with him. More trouble comes when Neff tries to talk Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) into keeping quiet about her suspicions. Phyllis thinks Walter is falling for her, and maybe he is. Finally the partnership blows up.
From the beginning of the film, we have been watching Walter with a mortal gunshot wound, talking a confession for Keyes into a Dictaphone. His starting that confession starts the movie, and the whole story comes to us in 107 minutes of flashback. Why does Neff confess to Keyes and not the cops? Half of this film rests on Walter Neff’s relationship to Keyes, half on his affair and plot with Phyllis.
She is the classic femme fatale of noir films. And boy, is this film noir! A French critic, Nino Frank, coined the term when, once World War II ended, French film people began to see American movies again. Frank’s example was The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941), but many film historians call Double Indemnity the first film noir. The phrase means dark film, and shadows and night scenes and dark streets, often rain-soaked, mark the genre. (Cinematographers love rain-soaked dark streets for the reflections.) The darkness mirrors the inner life of characters, ambition, lust, guilt, fear, mistrust, etc. The lighting is chiaroscuro. Wilder’s DP, John Seitz, called it “textures of light.” To bring the psychology out, the camera uses slow pans and intense close-ups. Compositions tilt and go off-balance—these movies often show a touch of German expressionism. Here, the darkness contrasts with sunny Southern California. These dramatic visuals were just the thing to compete with the growing popularity and expense of color.
In noir, there are lots of guns and cars. Music in the film noir, like Miklós Rózsa’s in this one, uses jazz, dissonance, atonality, and tone clusters, twentieth-century styles as opposed to the string-soaked nineteenth-century music of conventional Hollywood. And the dialogue is witty and snappy, often seasoned with double-entendres. There has to be a crime, and someone trying to succeed at it or solve it. Very important in noir—we often identify with the bad guy. There’s a pervading sense of fate or good/bad luck. There’s a feeling of being trapped. There’s betrayal—nobody can trust anybody. And always there’s a femme fatale who tempts and corrupts, often the detective. Sometimes, as here, she’s a fellow-criminal. She is a beauty with a throaty voice. (Lauren Bacall topped, or bottomed, the rest of the actresses at that.)
Here Barbara Stanwyck plays the femme fatale. She usually wears white, an ironic contrast to her real nature. Wilder shopped with her for a special wig to make her look sleazier, and an angora sweater helps, as does a much commented-on anklet. She makes an unforgettable entrance in nothing but a towel. “I’ve just been taking a sunbath,” and Walter quips, “No pigeons around, I hope.” Languorously she descends a staircase to meet the tumescing Neff, who was only trying to get her husband to renew his auto policy. They engage in sexy dialogue, lots of hidden meanings that Wilder and Co. were able to sneak past the Production Code censors. At their second meeting, she ever so guardedly hints at the possibility of murdering her husband. Neff sharply refuses, but as he says, “The hook was too strong.” And when she shows up at his apartment later and they have sex, he says, “We’re gonna do it and we’re gonna do it right. . . . This has got to be perfect, you understand? Straight down the line.” And with that phrase Neff links their plot to the dominant image of the film.
It starts with a man on crutches limping behind the credits, finally taking over the screen. The first shot shows Neff’s car careening through the dark streets of L.A. past a sign for the Los Angeles Railway Corp. We see trolley tracks (more of that later). Symbolically, Neff, the driver, ignores a stop sign. Neff is managing Dietrichson’s auto insurance, and the murder takes place on a train. In one heart-stopper of a scene, the getaway car won’t start—Wilder himself put this in. But the screenwriters, Wilder the director and Raymond Chandler of detective story fame, filled the dialogue with transportation. “Right down the line,” first spoken by Walter Neff in his salesman’s patter, becomes the promise the two murderers keep repeating to each other. But Keyes takes it over as he figures out the case:
They’ve committed a murder, and it’s not like taking a trolley ride together, where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride, all the way to the end of the line. And it’s a one-way trip, and the last stop is the cemetery.
Neff dies trying to get to his car and escape to Mexico: “Only somebody moved the elevator a couple of miles away.”
Life is a journey—that’s the dominant image and a metaphor we all share. “Take it one step at a time.” “I’ve come to a fork in the road.” “You have to look beyond the headlights.” The common phrase now for the future is, “going forward,” but the metaphor cuts deeper in Frost’s “I have miles to go before I sleep” or “I took the [road] less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” And on and on. Life as journey is one of the powerful metaphorical systems essential (according to Lakoff and Johnson) to our thinking. And Double Indemnity builds and builds on that metaphor. It feels right and commonsensical to me, even in the artificial world of film noir.
Closely related to the idea of life as a journey is a theme that I’ve come to think runs all through Wilder’s work: things or people being in the wrong place. The murder plot here depends on everything being in just the right place: death on the train paying double; Neff’s elaborate preparations at his apartment; his jump off the train and Phyllis’ bringing Dietrichson’s body to just that spot at just that moment. But it’s just the wrong place, the place that tips Keyes off to the plot. And there was the tourist from Medford, Oregon, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The meetings in the grocery store—the wrong place for a pair of murderers. In effect, the whole film takes place because Neff is in the wrong place. Why did he go to Keyes’ office in the middle of the night to confess? (The elevator operator notes the improbability.) Why didn’t he just drive to Mexico as he says, at the last minute, he plans to do?
In the end, Neff’s wound brings him down, and his last words are, to Keyes, “I love you too.” Keyes indicates finality by reversing an affectionate gesture we’ve seen all through the picture, Neff lighting Keyes’ cigar. The end.
Some critics get a knee-jerk reaction: these men have a homosexual relationship. It seems far more likely to me that they are is a couple of men’s men acknowledging an affectionate father-son tie. “I love you too” echoes an earlier, not so painful scene in which Keyes tries to make Neff’s life better.
Keyes is older and certainly wiser than Neff, and Keyes doesn’t respect salesmen. “They’ll write anything just to get it down on the sales sheet.” Keyes tries to enlist Neff as his assistant and heir apparent in a more admirable calling, claims manager/detective. (But Neff has already begun his murder scheme.) The two men have an affectionate, kidding relationship in which Keyes tries out his ideas on Neff and grumbles about his job, and Neff kids Keyes. After Neff ribs him about his obsession with rooting out fraud, Keyes responds: “That’s enough from you, Walter. Now, get out of here before I throw my desk at you.” And Neff replies, “I love you, too.” That’s flashback; then in his confession he adds: “I really did, too, you old crab.”
As Wolfenstein and Leites showed, in American films of the classic period, the central relationship is father-son, and the central issue is reconciling those two. And, as here, another theme says that sex leads to crime and the characters’ downfall. No sex with Keyes, but plenty in Neff’s relationship with Phyllis Dietrichson.
She hates her husband and her stepdaughter Lola. She murdered Dietrichson’s first wife. Finally she says, “I never loved you, Walter. Not you, or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart.”
After turning against Phyllis, Neff’s final loyalty is to Keyes, and his last action shows his fundamental decency. Neff has a sexless dalliance with Lola, complete with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, a very different relationship from the one with Phyllis. In the finale he doesn’t take the opportunity to pin the second murder on Lola’s hot-tempered, controlling boyfriend. “She’s in love with you. Always has been. Don’t ask me why.” Neff does his best to send Lola’s boyfriend back to her, and that tells us, the audience, that he, unlike Phyllis, is not rotten to the heart. With Phyllis gone, he goes to his office and begins his confession to Keyes. The only family Keyes or Neff has is the other man. Father-son with no woman. Non-sex with Lola leads to a moral act. Sex with Phyllis leads to murder and death. Talk to father leads to repentance.
Wilder plays on this absence of family by having the partners in crime meet in a supermarket. In one intriguing bit, a woman asks Neff to lift down an item that’s too high for her to reach: “Mister, could you reach me that package of baby food?” It’s a striking contrast to Neff’s constantly calling Phyllis, “baby.”
Phyllis talks about her heart, as, earlier, Neff had said, “She had to know [all the details of the plot] by heart when the time came.” Neff says of Keyes, “I kind of always knew that behind the cigar ashes on your vest you had a heart.” The first mention of “heart” comes with the elevator operator’s dicky heart in the opening sequence. Maybe because the Code was so prissy about bodies, noirs tend to foreground just that, bodies. Again and again we watch Neff and, finally, Keyes light a match with a fingernail. There’s Stanwyck’s entrance in towel and anklet, for example. Or Keyes’ “Every time one of those phonies comes along he ties knots in my stomach,” a gut reaction, we would say. Keyes compares his work to a surgeon’s, while a salesman is, for Keyes, “a gladhander, a backslapper.” Dietrichson broke his leg, an unnecessary twist to the plot. He died of “a broken neck,” and later, Neff, knowing that Keyes has figured out the crime, wants to drop the claim: “It isn’t the money any more. It’s our necks now.” Retribution—he had broken Dietrichson’s neck. And Keyes had complained, “And I’m the guy that has to sit here up to my neck in phony claims.” Phyllis describes Lola as “crying all over your shoulder.” These are all normal American idioms, and Austrian-born Wilder loved American slang, but they foreground bodies and what the characters are doing to and with them, when the Code is trying to make movies sex- and bodiless.
This film embodies the three themes that run all through Wilder’s work. Sex and money get entangled. Identities shift and change (as, here, Neff plays Dietrichson and Phyllis plays--what? discontented housewife?). And ultimately Wilder’s films embody the studio system within which he worked. Here, in the finale, Phyllis and Neff lurch toward morality. She doesn’t fire a second shot to kill him, despite her confession that she is totally rotten and never loved him. He looks out protectively for Lola. But, above all, Neff confesses. Why does he confess to Keyes? Father-son. But why does he confess at all? The studio system requires a nod to conventional American morality as embodied in the Production Code. Wilder originally planned to show Neff dying in the gas chamber, but that ending doesn’t compare to this office memo, the essence of capitalist bureaucracy (those rows and rows of desks on the ground floor!).
One of the marvelous touches in this film came from Wilder coping with the Code. It tabooed showing a murder in detail. So, when Neff, hidden in the back seat, is breaking Dietrichson’s neck in the passenger seat, Wilder points his camera not at Dietrichson or Neff, but at Phyllis who is driving. Stanwyck/Phyllis quietly smirks as she hears her hated husband die. Wonderful acting, but the shot also has all the major themes of this film: transport, the evil of woman and sex, the body. There are touches like this all through the film.
Pushing against censorship can challenge an artist toward greatness. Although Wilder had directed only two films before this one, Double Indemnity is a masterpiece. Wilder shows he is a master director, totally and beautifully in control of his medium despite (or because of) the limitations of the studio system in which he was working.
Items I’ve referred to:
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Wolfenstein, Martha and Nathan Leites. Movies: A Psychological Study. Glencoe IL: Free Press, 1950.