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The Great Movies: Double Indemnity

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Billy Wilder’s 1945 classic, Double Indemnity, is a classic example of film noir (or, translated, “dark film”). The plot: insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and his lover, Phylis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) scheme to have Dietrichson’s husband (Tom Powers) killed in order to collect on his life insurance policy. Neff tricks Mr. Dietrichson into signing what he thinks is an automobile insurance policy, but is really life insurance with a “double indemnity” clause: double the payout of the insured is killed, for instance, by a train.

(Spoilers below)

Double Indemnity is a great example of the film noir style. Neff narrates the film and the story is told as a flashback.

The movie is dark on many different levels: dark in the sense that much of what happens occurs at night, where the only light might come from a lamp or a lit cigarette. The characters inhabit a world of shadows, and use the darkness as cover to carry out plans of murder.

There is also a darkness of the soul in Neff and Dietrichson, as they coolly and calmly plan the murder of another human being. Neither character seems to be troubled by what they are trying to accomplish. And while an Alfred Hitchcock film may have characters that are ambiguous in their motives (and morality), Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson are clearly pretty devious.

The scheme to commit murder does not unfold according to Neff’s carefully thought out plan, and in the end, Neff is mortally wounded while his lover Phyllis is murdered, killed by his own hand. In the world of film noir, someone will have to die, especially when it comes to lovers. One or both may not be alive at the film’s end.

At first glance, the character of Walter Neff seems to be harmless. After all, he’s an insurance salesman! So, in that sense, he seemed pretty dull to me, just a regular guy without much personality. As the film progressed, it became clear that Neff wasn’t dull, just dead inside, ready to commit murder for money, and not too concerned with the morality of his decisions. Neff is also a liar, as we saw when Neff tricked Phyllis’ husband into signing what he thought was an automobile insurance policy. In my mind, Neff went from boring everyman to a man without morals or ethics, only interested in money.

As far as Phyllis goes, I must confess that I did not find her character particularly engaging. She didn’t leave much of an impression on me. As is the case in film noir, the woman serves the role of femme fatale, in this case working with Neff, who I assumed was her lover. Honestly, my opinion of her did not change at all from when she first appeared on screen. The only impression I got from her was that she hared the same cold heart as Neff.

Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), on the other hand, didn’t change at all during the film. As we meet him early on, it’s clear he’s driven and aggressive, as well as suspicious. He’s a man of intuition, and his suspicions are aroused with the death of Mr. Dietrichson. He knows that the train was moving too slow for someone to fall off of it and die. So, in that sense, Keyes remained pretty consistent throughout the film.

As far as Keyes and Neff are concerned, Neff appears to be Keyes’ subordinate. But Keyes also seems to know more than he’s letting on about Neff’s insurance scam. Does he suspect Neff? I think he does. Especially when he brings in the witness from the train who observed “Mr. Dietrichson” hobbling along to the rear of the train. Keyes also pieces together the inconsistencies with Dietrichson’s death: How the man took out an insurance policy with a double indemnity clause that paid double if the policy holder died in a train accident, and how he conveniently used a train for transportation not long after taking out the insurance policy. And Keyes knows that Dietrichson was killed before the train “accident,” as he knows that the train was only traveling 15 miles per hour. And, of course, Keyes knows that Neff was the insurance agent who sold the policy. Keyes seems a little suspicious of Neff throughout the film, and I think he knows, on some level, that Neff is involved in…something.

At the end, as Neff dictates his confession to Keyes via a Dictaphone, one gets the impression that the man is not particularly remorseful of what he has done. But I think on another level he wants Keyes to know the whole story. Keyes is obviously a man Neff admires, and perhaps even regards him as a sort of father figure. In that sense, Neff’s confession may be more about his wanting Keyes to know why he did what he did. Maybe, in this one instance, Neff is actually feeling guilty for what he did (well, probably not very guilty), and is leaving the recording for Keyes in order to absolve whatever guilt he might be feeling.

Characters with cold hearts, living their lives in literal darkness, willingly kill for a reason as simple as greed. That’s the atmosphere Billy Wilder created in Double Indemnity. A morality play: crime does not pay. Particularly in Phyllis’ case, where her punishment was death. Killed for a lack of remorse, I think. She was a character that did not have a change of heart as the film progressed. Neff remained cold and arrogant, as dark as the night, and unwilling to bring light into his world.

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About scottcsmith

  • The days of “film noir” are sorely missed now. You capture all the things that make DI a great flick. The darkness permeates the film on so many levels, and the only thing “bright” is the sheen on Stanwyck’s hair.

    Neff is likeable but basically a schlump, which also was a part of the film noir genre (think POSTMAN ALWAYS WRINGS TWICE, SCARLETT STREET, and REAR WINDOW among others).

    Nice post. Makes me want to rent these old flicks again.

  • Another good choice for a review. Moreso because I originally was too young to understand it and was bored. Then I ignored it. Recently I have seen it and, each time, it gets better. Edward G. robinson is excellent as the fair and supportive boss who always smells a rat. Fred MacMurray hasn’t yet been bought by Walt Disney and Barbara Stanwyck is, as always, the conniving bitch. I have always assumed that she was and just played herself but I don’t really know. She might have been a lovely person who could really change her character — for a whole career.

  • Alpha,

    I think Stanwyck was acting because she was in other things and different.

    Did you ever see BIG VALLEY? She was the family matriarch and no bitch.

  • Victor, you are probably right and it really isn’t important since what she did she did well. I wrote at 2AM and might have thought more about it. She is not a favorite actress but did have strong screen presence. I just remember her in too many roles as treacherous.
    However, I photographed and got to know a New York supporting actor who always plays heavies and he was incredibly sensitive and sweet. Your argument wins.

  • sharly farley

    You’re right, of course… They both know that Keyes is the key to getting away with murder. If they can get past him, the police aren’t going to be much of a problem. It’s worth noting that Billy Wilder cast both Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson against type… Fred was Mr. Nice Guy until this one, and Robinson was a distinguished alumnus of Warner’s Murderers Row… Barbara Stanwyck played everything, and never did have a type.