Double Indemnity (1944)

"Double Indemnity" featured image

Double Indemnity (1944). Directed by Billy Wilder. Starring Fred MacMurray (as Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (as Phyllis Dietrichson), and Edward G. Robinson (as Barton Keyes). Screenplay by Raymond Chandler.

Double Indemnity manages to do something many may have thought impossible: it makes the insurance business seem sexy, exciting, and dangerous. In this film noir, insurance salesman Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) drops by the house of Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck) to renew her husband’s auto policy one afternoon, and eventually, due to his sleazy infatuation with Mrs. Dietrichson, he consents to forging new life insurance papers for her husband that she can use to cash in on an enormous sum once she has tidily eliminated him. It does not take long for the seemingly decent Neff to succumb to Mrs. Dietrichson’s wiles, and soon he is masterminding the plot not only to kill Mr. Dietrichson but to do it in the most profitable way: via a double indemnity clause in the new life insurance policy that will make death by fall from a train pay out double the usual amount.

The plot originated in the real-life story of Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray, who in the 1920s perpetrated a very similar crime against Snyder’s husband using a double indemnity clause. Both were swiftly captured, tried, and executed. Writer James M. Cain covered the Snyder-Gray trial and based his short story “Double Indemnity” on its sordid details. Upon the story’s publication in 1935, the major Hollywood studios competed for the right to adapt it, but the Hayes Office, which had final approval on movie content, insisted that the material was unsuitable for filming. It took nine years for Billy Wilder’s production to come to fruition.  Wilder had to agree to show that both Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson were sufficiently punished in order to get final approval.  Despite this agreement, when Double Indemnity was finally released, a high-profile campaign led by American singer Kate Smith sought to convince movie-goers not to see the film.

One of the reasons that the story must have seemed so objectionable to the Hayes Office was the character of Walter Neff.  Actor Fred MacMurray was presumably cast as Neff in part because he had previously specialized in light roles and could portray a character who could be persuaded to kill given the right circumstances but who otherwise would not strike one as a killer.  It does not, however, take long for the audience to discern that MacMurray’s Neff, while new to murder, nevertheless seems primed for the violence that ensues.  As a result, it would be a mistake to say that this film shows the transformation of an ordinary man into a slick killer.  Even at the start of the film, it is clear that Neff is not a typical insurance salesman.  The movie is a series of flashbacks narrated by Neff as he confesses his crimes into an office Dictaphone one night, and he admits during the movie’s guiding voiceover that he had been scheming to commit some kind of insurance fraud for some time. It is also evident that his life is already rich in seediness.  When he arrives at the Dietrichson house to persuade Mr. Dietrichson to renew his auto insurance claim, and he finds Mrs. Dietrichson there, wrapped in a bath towel, he immediately begins flirting with her in an extremely sleazy way, and the sleaze continues through the subsequent scenes. The dialogue here is fast-paced and sharp, almost impossible to believe in its cleverness and suggestive nature, and yet it perfectly suits these two characters in this moment.  Neff is clearly accustomed to making the moves on his client’s wives; he seems very comfortable accosting Mrs. Dietrichson, who welcomes his advances. I so enjoy seeing Barbara Stanwyck in her cheap blonde wig nestled in the oversized easy chair in the Dietrichson living room, bouncing her ankle as she flirts with Neff.  It is evident that while Neff has not killed before (unlike Mrs. Dietrichson, as we later learn), he is unsavory and thus a good match for Phyllis.

Indeed, Neff slides into a life of violence fairly easily and without conflict.  It is Neff who actually kills Mr. Dietrichson in a car as he hides in the back seat, with Mr. Dietrichson in the passenger seat and Mrs. Dietrichson at the wheel. We do not see the murder; instead, while it is transpiring, the camera focuses on Mrs. Dietrichson’s wild face, filled with a mixture of thrill and transported joy.  Not seeing Neff committing the crime somehow makes it worse, his evil more profound.  He does not seem to have any trouble committing the deed.

This was one of the first Hollywood films devoted to discussing and carrying out the precise steps necessary to conduct murder.  Most of the film consists of the banal details of planning the crime and of the characters waiting around once the crime has been committed.   Consider how much time, for example, Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson spend waiting around in a grocery store debating what to do in the days leading up to and following the murder, or how many times Mrs. Dietrichson phones Neff from a drugstore payphone in order to feed him updates.  The number of scenes of them pretending to browse through aisles of baby food—a grotesquely wholesome visual contrast to what they are actually discussing—greatly outnumbers the film’s scenes of violence.  Similarly, on the night of the crime, Neff behaves methodically and later relates in his Dictaphone confession the matter-of-fact way that he prepared for the murder: he places a card in his doorbell ringer so he can tell if someone has buzzed his apartment while he is away, he does the same for his telephone, and he lets the building attendant know he is staying in and has him clean his car. None of this information is necessary to his confession, but it does reveal his delight in having carried out a plan completely from start to finish with every element precisely arranged and well thought-out, even reveled in.  His is a strange kind of evil.

This is not a crime of spontaneity, nor is it a crime devoid of pleasure.  After Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson have dumped Mr. Dietrichson’s body on the train tracks and retreated back to their car, Phyllis attempts to start the car over and over again but fails. Panic ensues: their car parked adjacent to the body will surely give them away. Finally Neff leans over and manages to get the car started.  A look of pure elation passes over their faces, they glance at each other, and they drive away.  I think this is one of the dangers the Hayes Office perceived in this movie: Double Indemnity comes close to exhibiting the pleasure that these characters take in their crime with some of the enthusiasm that they themselves feel and with very few disclaimers. It lets us see their lows but also their highs, and while Neff’s voiceover seems to be there to temper some of the positives that we see, the film nevertheless lets us see quite a bit.

One of the film’s other tempering voices is the extraordinary Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, a crack insurance claim investigator who works down the hall from Neff.  Keyes thrives on shutting down phony claims and is endlessly preoccupied with the cases on his desk. He claims to have an intuitive sense of when a claimant is lying; the “little man” in his stomach begins to act up, telling Keyes when and where to investigate further.  His relationship with Neff is beautifully understated.  For example, Keyes is always shown in a waistcoat stuffed with papers and cigars, and although he smokes constantly, he can never produce a match when needed. During their office chats, Neff listens to Keyes’s investigative hunches and lights matches for him in a caring and sympathetic gesture that is never fully translated into words.

Keyes seems to be the voice of good and reason in the film, and he is the driving force to unlock the secret of the Dietrichson insurance claim. Before we assign him a virtuous position too hastily, however, we should remember that Keyes primarily seeks to save the insurance company money.  Unlike a proper police detective, Keyes’s work is of a financial nature, and justice is an incidental outcome of his inquiries.  There is a wonderful scene where we see his process at work: Keyes and Neff are meeting with their boss to discuss the Dietrichson claim, and Keyes surprises Neff by insisting that the death is accidental, not a suicide (a ruling of suicide would be beneficial to the company as it would not have to pay out). Keyes explains that he has volumes and volumes on suicide divided by type in his office, and he masterfully lists off an inventory of these types. He knows them all, by the book, down to the last letter, and he admits with frustration and disappointment that the Dietrichson case is not a suicide.  Yet we are not surprised when a few scenes later, Keyes is back in Neff’s office telling him that his “little man” is acting up and he suspects that something is not right in the Dietrichson case.  Keyes’s instinct is so strong that it can override his voluminous learning.  He is a man of competing expertises: both the intellectual and the primal.  We see that in some ways he and Neff are similar, insofar as both are engaged in a constant balancing act between their animal feelings and their intellectual, methodical powers, but it is Keyes’s instinct that wins the day while Neff’s careful plotting fails.

One of the most wonderful things about this movie is the final scene, where Neff, having been shot by Mrs. Dietrichson, is discovered by Keyes back in the insurance office.  Neff has narrated the entirety of his crime into a Dictaphone late at night, and Keyes has arrived to turn him into the police.  Neff attempts to walk towards the elevator but slumps down nearby, unable to escape. Keyes follows him into the hallway and finds Neff on the ground.  There is a brief exchange, and Keyes mentions something obliquely about Neff meaning a great deal to him.  Neff pulls a cigarette from his coat pocket and attempts to light it but cannot, so Keyes obliges.  Neff, of course, has done the same for Keyes all throughout the movie.  It may seem strange to say today, given what smoking has become to a modern American audience, but lighting that cigarette is a gesture of reciprocal love that reveals the fondness Keyes feels for Neff, but in a very casual, very banal way.  In this way Keyes’s final gesture towards Neff is as commonplace as Neff’s insurance scam, as Keyes’s work, as Mrs. Dietrichson’s calls from the drug store, as the conspiratorial dates at the grocery—but one of the charms of this movie is the way that it takes the commonplace and elevates it into something profoundly meaningful both in dramatic and ethical terms.

One last thing I must say for this movie.  When I was in graduate school I spent many hours listening to BBC radio adaptations of great detective stories: Miss Marple, Poirot, the Father Brown mysteries, the Teahouse Detective, V. I. Warshawski, and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe stories.  I must confess that I was rarely able to understand the Chandler stories at all.  Although I attempted to enjoy at least their atmosphere, I could never follow their plots.  I felt rather defeated by this until the BBC ran a radio documentary about Chandler, hosted by a major Chandler enthusiast, who admitted right away that he suffered from the same problem but loved Chandler very much.  That was comforting to hear.  So I suppose I am rather pleased that I can watch Double Indemnity, whose script was written by Chandler, and actually say that I had no problem understanding the plot, who killed whom, or the characters’ motivations.  I feel as if this movie finally permits me to like Chandler, both for his material and for his inventions. One of Chandler’s many contributions to the script was the voiceover, which helps immensely, and the snappy dialogue, which we have come to expect from film noir, in part because of this movie.

You may be interested to know that at 16:12 in the movie, there is a brief cameo of Chandler; he is the man holding the book.  Apart from a home movie, this is the only known filmed footage of the author.