‘Double Indemnity’ shows a cool cat’s frightening dual nature

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Double Indemnity

Directed by Billy Wilder

Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler

U.S.A., 1944

There is a perverse sort of delight a film viewer can extract from witnessing the fall of someone too cool for school. How many times have vintage film noirs featured a protagonist which always had the right words to say at the right time, who could juggle aloofness with a total capacity to gauge and react to any imaginable predicament? Those character are typically the ones to end up on top. The Maltese Falcon has the greatest example of them all, with the Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade being the coolest cat around. Seeing that archetype character suddenly stumble, show signs of severe weakness, both of the emotional and psychological variety, makes for a fresh twist. Fred MacMurray, had the behest of director Billy Wilder, suffers that very fate in the highly acclaimed Double Indemnity.

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is one of his company’s leading insurance salesmen. Fire insurance, storm insurance, house insurance, you name it, they have it. One of his strongest allies in the corporation, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose task consists mostly of studying claims rather than the sale of insurance per say, can vouch, without reserve, for Walter’s qualities as a diligent, effective employee. Phyllis Dietrichs (Barbara Stanwyck) is his newest customer, who has called him over to discuss the possibilities of ensuring her husband (Tom Powers), who works in oil fields amongst the dangerous machinery. From the moment their eyes lock on that fateful day, with Walter, standing in the entrance, gazes up at Phyllis, upstairs overlooking from the 2nd floor balcony wearing nothing except towel, a lustful bond ignites between them. Walter plays the flirtation game with some witty lines, acting cool, hoping to seduce Mrs. Dietrich. The more he learns about her relationship with her husband, the clearer it becomes that Phyllis may want Mr. Dietrich out of the picture for good. Accident insurance? Oh, of course Walter can offer that. Without Mr. Dietrich even knowing about it? Yes, that is technically possible. In fact, the more improbable the accident, the higher the payment (hence the film’s title: Double Indemnity). Hmm, ‘accident’ insurance…right.

Billy Wilder, arguably most well known for his dramatic comedies such as The Apartment and Some Like it Hot, dabbles in the noir genre with impressive results, even though, despite what many fans claim, there are few loose screws to be found in Double Indemnity. Whereas a lot of these movies depend very much on style to compliment character interactions, director Wilder, who participated in the script’s redaction, concentrates most of his efforts on the characters, tightening the noose around them more and more as they plan, then execute and finally attempt to live freely after the murder of Mr. Dietrich. The factor of utmost importance in the set-up lies with the presentation of Walter Neff, played by recurring Wilder collaborator Fred MacMurray. The film cuts to the chase right away, presenting the protagonist as, first and foremost, a bachelor, a hip fellow, then revealing that he can be very much the shark, sniffing out a beautiful blond like the aforementioned sea-based predator reacts to a droplet of blood in the nearby waters. His poses, his looks, his sharp quips which implicitly reveal desire to devour Phyllis, etc.  He is, upon first glance, a character the viewers may live through vicariously.

However, Walter’s image soon morphs into something far less enviable, repulsive even. In the second meeting at Dr. Dietrich’s estate (during which the man of the house is still absent), the salesman and Phyllis engage in a far more dangerous kind of discussion, one with multiple insinuations of dispatching the husband altogether. The worst part of the scenario is that the initial approach is taken by Walter himself, who half-jokingly refers to the sort of payments received by widows when their loved ones perish in accidents. Phyllis plays the card of someone who is repulsed by the very thought of having her hubby killed, although Walter has never mentioned that they would perform the act as a couple. Nevertheless, the attitude seems filthy, a far cry from the cool cat seen in the first few scenes. Not before long the tables turn, with Phyllis inadvertently pleading her case for murder with stories of how Mr. Dietrich does not love, never has, and treats her like nothing more than an object, violently whenever drunk. At this stage Walter is convinced Phyllis is willing to go the distance in order to spend the rest of her days with him, and so drives home the idea of indeed committing murder to satisfy their deepest desires, not to mention striking it rich thanks to the infamous double indemnity clause included in accident insurance. Just who exactly is the more villainous of the two? Walter or Phyllis? Of course, the film eventually reveals the answer to that troubling question more explicitly than is hinted at first, but suffice to say that the first half of the picture, event he first two-thirds present both Walter and Phyllis as equally morbid. Yet, the tactic employed is deceptive. They always look good, always talk with smooth mannerisms and, if Phyllis is to believed, are ridding themselves of a terrible person. It is a veneer of coolness which attempts to mask the seedier psychology of the two lovers. Whether one believes the dame to be the actual villain of the piece is secondary to the fact that Wilder presents both characters are flawed in the worst way possible.

The aftermath of the murder presents a barrel of other problems, all of which prevent Walter and Phyllis from consummating their relationship. The most challenging obstacle are the various clues with point towards their culpability, clues which Walter’s close friend and mentor, Barton Keyes, sniffs out like a fox hound, approaching ever closer towards the truth behind the death of Mr. Dietrichs. Naturally, the passion between Walter and Phyllis should remain as secretive as possible, thus avoiding any suspicions about their involvement in the crime. Yet, their collective decision to go through with the plan in the first place was all about living together afterwards, or so the audience is led to believe. Now, they cannot be together at all, save for carefully played out ‘happenstance’ encounters at a local grocery store at which times they plot their incessantly delayed escape. Trouble in paradise? Most definitely. One revelation leads to another, with Walter eventually forced to reckon with the true Phyllis Dietrich, therefore making her out to be more dangerous of the two, although Wilder never renounces the idea of presenting Walter for all his strengths and weaknesses. In truth, the protagonist ends up possessing far more cons than pros.

The cast is excellent, as should be expected for a Blly Wilder picture. MacMurray plays the dual-layered Walter with all the right notes, thus preventing the viewer from ever really deciding whether they should be cheering him on or not. Stanwyck may even best her male co-star, turning both her charm and her villainy on and off like a switch. When people think of the great femme fatales of yesteryear, it comes as no surprise that Stanwyck is one such name, especially after having finally seen this movie in particular.

If there are are any flaws in the picture, they lie in the nitty gritty details. For one, barely hours after committing the murder for which he demonstrated so much steadfastness, Walter falls victim to paranoia, believing that despite his intricate plan, anything can go wrong. The sentiment can make sense considering that Walter is not exactly a professional killer, yet it does comes across as a bit of a 180 degree turn from what the film showed during the previous 35-40 minutes, during which he was absolutely in command of everything. Yes, it adds to the fun sense of suspense which highlights movie’s second half, yet it also seems to come out of nowhere. Another irksome plot point is how Barton Keyes (who, by the way, is amazing if only because the character is played by Edward G. Robinson, who can make any character he wants awesome), so perfectly fits the pieces together to figure, with 99% accuracy, how Mr. Dietrich was murdered. True enough, his job, one he has performed for 25 years, consists of studying insurance claims, and for that reasons it is understood that Keyes knows all the tricks in the book. He has become something of an amateur detective. Again, this helps build the suspense since more pressure is added onto Walter’s shoulders, but it also makes Keyes’ detecting skills appear a little superhuman.

Double Indemnity has a rightful place in the list of great film noirs. It also demonstrates Billy Wilder’s great dexterity as a filmmaker and storyteller.

-Edgar Chaput

 

4 Comments
  1. Dime Store Novel says

    Two great lines from this film:

    1. It was one of those places some fool paid $25,000 for a few years ago.
    Living in Southern California, we love this line because houses like Phyllis’s house would go for well over a million today.

    2. (Phyllis to Walter, after he makes a pass at her) Don’t you know there’s a speed limit in this town?
    Pure Chandler dialogue, much better than the original novel.

  2. Bill Mesce says

    Another beauty, Edgar, and this time one of the true classics.
    You know what the most impressive scene in that movie is to me? Are torrid couple conspiring in a supermarket. Look at most crime movies pre-noir: hardcore criminals, or murder-for-fun in things like THE THIN MAN, exotic types in THE MALTESE FALCON. But one of the most novel aspects of INDEMNITY, in its time, was showing rather everyday types — an insurance salesman and a housewife (though a rather well-situated housewife) — falling down an abyss dug with their own greed, lust, and impulsiveness.
    With INDEMNITY, murder and larceny were no longer the province of alien types, but — with just a little push and under the right circumstances — be something anyone could do, including the lady or guy in front of you in the check-out line.
    Nicely done, as usual, Edgar.

    1. Edgar Chaput says

      You, I had not even thought of that while watching the movie. You’re on to something though. It’s true that in most noirs the villains and heroes are very particular types, like detectives or career criminals. Even when they aren’t one of those, there is something special about them (private eye). Here, both doomed lovers are everyday types who fall prey to humanity’s most critical weaknesses.

      Heh, I feel you should be writing this stuff, not me!

      1. Bill Mesce says

        You do just fine, Edgar! Always enjoy reading these pieces.

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