Noirvember: Double Indemnity (1944)
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a classic film noir and a classic crime drama about bad people doing bad things and doing them badly. It’s a rich narrative environment that has been explored in droves before and after. Double Indemnity was a box-office sensation, critical hit that was nominated for seven Oscars, and solidified Wilder as one of the most creative and daring writing and directing voices in cinema. This was only his third directing effort and it provided the freedom to make his own way through Hollywood. There’s a certain danger in going back to cinematic classics. It’s easy to see their influence in a sea of imitators and sometimes the accomplishments can be taken for granted just because the viewer is too removed from the initial splash the film made. Double Indemnity is a sharp, surefooted, and highly influential film that still resonates with suspense and intrigue. The formula was refined with Wilder at the helm and his genius can be readily recognized.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a mid 30s insurance salesman in Los Angeles. He gets into some big trouble when a prospective client, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), intimates that she would like to bump off her husband and profit from the act. Walter is appalled but also intrigued, drawn to the charms of the sexy Mrs. Dietrichson. He agrees and says they’re going to do it right. She takes out a hefty insurance policy on her husband that pays double for rare accidents, which spurs Neff to stage a phony accident where the injured Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) fell to his death off a train. The scheme is elaborate, with alibis, swapped identities, hiding places, and a minimal of public interactions. It seems perfectly executed that is until Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), starts inspecting closer feeling something is amiss. Neff must outwit his boss and co-workers and keep the scheme from getting further out of control.
“I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”
Thanks to the morally and creatively restrictive Hays Code, it’s easy to see all the roadblocks that could have sabotaged the movie from getting made, let alone becoming a great film. It’s a movie not just about adulterers but they’re also murderers, and the script places you in their perspective, clinging to hope they might succeed in their scheme. Admittedly, the characters are punished for their misdeeds by the film’s end as the Hays Code would demand, but the film experience was different, and Wilder made it so early on. Within minutes, as Walter Neff dictates his confession in his boss’ empty office, he admits to being a killer, to killing Mr. Dietrichson, and in doing so out of a desire for Mrs. Dietrichson. By the very fact that he’s slumped over, panting heavily, and confessing in sordid detail, we can rightfully assume that he did not get away with it. What’s left for the audience to discover? Wilder has already established the major turns of his story for his audience and seemingly robbed us of any notion of surprise. But that’s where Wilder’s storytelling prowess emerges, because it’s not so much a story of whether something was done or would be done, it’s a story of how and how to elude capture.
We’re locked into Neff’s perspective, and with it as an experienced insurance salesman, he knows the proper way to stage a murder, make it look like an accident, and not get caught. It’s in the details that Wilder hooks us, and as we watch the trap unravel, the movie becomes an exercise in nervous tension wondering what will trip up our lovers. An audience generally gravitates to smart characters trying to outwit others, appreciating the wiles but also, perhaps, wanting to see if the scheme can be accomplished. It pushes the audience into an interesting position of rooting for our murderer. There’s a wonderful scene right after Neff and Phyllis have deposited the body of her dead husband. They’ve hopped in her car and are ready to flee the scene of the crime, and that’s when her car won’t start. Wilder simmers in the moment, luxuriating in the encroaching panic as key turn after key turn only results in the sounds of a stalled engine. Finally, it starts, but during the sequence you empathize with the killers and their panic. Wilder and company have done their job and at least some part of the audience is pushing for them to escape. What happens later tests audience loyalty, but we’re still firmly in the perspective and in the shoes of the film’s killer, the only killer in the picture at that. He’s our man.
“I think you’re rotten.”
“I think you’re swell – so long as I’m not your husband.”
The staples of noir cinema really came alive with Wilder’s excellent crime drama. The visual signifiers we associate with the genre are all here in accordance, like the chiaroscuro lighting that bathed the actors in swaths of invading darkness. The lighting does a great job of reflecting the sordid schemes of our lovers. As soon as Walter accepts, the lighting changes drastically and the layers of dark creep in on the actors’ faces. The dialogue by Wilder and Raymond Chandler (his first screenwriting gig in Hollywood) has that robust rat-a-tat rhythms of hardboiled genre fiction that we love. The twists and turns keep an audience glued even though we have already been told the major plot particulars. The inclusion of Mr. Dietrich’s twenty-something daughter Lola (Jean Heather) from his previous marriage presents an intriguing complication. She suspects her wicked stepmother might have something to do with her father’s death as well as her mother’s death. Walter Neff keeps tabs on her as a means of trying to dissuade whom she tells her suspicions to, as a means of manipulating her, but then when Lola reveals that her ex-boyfriend has been seeing Phyllis on a nightly basis, we don’t know what to think. Is Phyllis setting up her own scheme to kill Neff? Is Lola knowingly manipulating Neff to enact vengeance against her hated stepmother? Is there anyone a guy can trust? It’s a fine character and played sincerely by Heather (Going My Way) almost to the point of ache. She stopped acting altogether in 1949, to the detriment of us all.
But the ultimate femme fatale is Stanwyck (The Lady Eve). I think what makes her work is the fact that she doesn’t immediately leap to mind as a femme fatale. She’s not the most gorgeous actress in Hollywood, though clearly still an attractive woman. The stiff blonde wig they saddled her with doesn’t help on that front. She’s a temptress that doesn’t sizzle off the screen so much as step from the mind because she feels more realistic. Working within the repressive confines of the Hays Code, Stanwyck still knows how to provide a sexy smirk to things left unsaid with her character. There are a few looks she employs that could make you melt. A standout scene focuses entirely on her face. Her husband is being murdered just off screen. That violent act is left to our morbid imaginations while we watch Stanwyck’s subtle expression of satisfaction cross her face only to dissolve when she knows better. I wish MacMurray (The Absentminded Professor) was a better scene partner with her. He seems overly stiff like he’s trying harder to get out the stylized dialogue in the tone the director wants. Wilder finds ways to subvert the actor’s tendencies but I feel like he’s at best a likable but limited dolt of an actor.
“You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”
Phyllis is a classic femme fatale figure and Stanwyck plays her with a beautifully controlled sense of menace, but I want to offer a different theory as to what kind of twisted love story inhabits Double Indemnity. I think Walter Neff was never in love with Phyllis, though he acknowledged her beauty and general seductive effect. This much is clear from his first meeting with her where the insurance veteran can’t help himself with how forward and transparent his flirting is. He’s interested, though he’s also interested in getting a sale, and then when she floats the idea of life insurance, his tone immediately changes. The flirting stops cold and he promptly sees himself out. But he can’t stop thinking it over. I propose he isn’t drawn to Phyllis so much as he’s drawn to the intellectual challenge of pulling off the “perfect crime.” He considers himself a clever man and this would put all his skills to the test. He knows what agents look for to suss out foul play. He knows what the police ask about. Now he gets to see if he can fool them all. In this interpretation of mine it’s not Neff’s love for the dame that gets him but his love of his ego. There’s a cold manner in how often he calls Phyllis “baby,” lacking apparent affection and instead seemingly turning the pet name into something dutiful. Oh, but you’ll argue, his voice over goes into great detail about the magnetic and sexual appeal of Mrs. Dietrichson, and that’s the point to remember, that it’s his voice over. Neff is retelling this story, knowingly dictating his confession, and perhaps he’s playing into a narrative that removes some of the emphasis from his true intentions. I propose Neff is an unreliable narrator. Since it’s from his perspective, his words are all we know about Phyllis and her assumed seductress ways. Having the final word on his story would provide a perfect opportunity for Walter to alter the story as best he sees fit, shifting some blame onto the woman who done him wrong. I believe that in the end it was Walter Neff’s desire to prove he could outsmart the world of law enforcement and get away with murder that drove him onto this wayward path and not a woman as fetching as Stanwyck and her anklet may have been.
There’s a very unexpected emotional current that surfaces fully by the conclusion of Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson was at a transitional point in his career, having been the lead in a slew of older crime pictures. An audience was prepped from association to consider Robinson a disreputable character, just as they had prepped to consider MacMurray’s character a likeable fellow from his previous comedic roles. Wilder’s film flips audience expectations to great effect. MacMurray is the cunning murderer and Robinson is the moral center. Keyes is exceptionally skilled at insurance fraud and it naturally should be him that unknowingly tightens the noose around his beloved employee as he gets closer and closer to the truth. He just can’t see it; Walter Neff is so close he inhabits a blind spot. When Keyes does discover the truth, his crushing sense of disappointment he tries to hold back is an emotional moment that hits hard. It’s the professional and loving relationship between these men that helps to add something more to Double Indemnity; it’s got the noir staples we come to expect nowadays but it also has a surprisingly sweet and affecting father/son relationship between mentor and student. Robinson is terrific in the bravado moments like when he unleashes a torrent of statistical categories on suicide types and methods and he also sells the quiet hurt of a proud man who must admit he placed his trust in the wrong recipient.
“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Double Indemnity is a film classic that holds up thanks to deft plotting that puts the audience in the place of the killers, solid twists and turns, and a clear understanding of the strengths of the genre. It’s a standout film noir that still stands rather tall. It’s always reassuring when the great pieces of art can still transport, still excite, and still resonate with the same feeling that communicates why they deserve their decades of plaudits and acclaim. Wilder was one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers who could hop genres like few others. His foray into noir cinema left a long lasting legacy for the genre and its fans to follow, and Double Indemnity is still the crackling crime thriller it was under the Hays Code. Perhaps the scrutiny of censorship forced Wilder and Chandler to get more creative, and the finished product is a taut and stylish imprint that others eagerly copied. There’s just something inherently interesting about bad people doing bad things badly no matter the best intentions of the moral crusaders of its day.
Nate’s Grade: A
Posted on January 31, 2017, in Noirvember and tagged barbara stanwyck, billy wilder, book, crime, doomed lovers, edward g. robinson, fred macmurray, killers as leads, noir, thriller. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.