Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood are hosting The Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon on January 20-22, 2019. Here's my entry.
“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money -- and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.” Walter Neff
Double Indemnity is one of the Essentials. A film that laid down the rules for the genre and set a benchmark for every Noir to come. Flashback structure, sucker who goes over to the dark side for a rotten dame, shadows of Venetian blinds reminiscent of prison bars, adultery, murder for profit, lust, greed, treachery, betrayal, moral corruption, fatalism…all there. Into the bargain the script has an abundance of witty banter copiously laced with acid.
Based on the eponymous novella by James M. Cain, the script was written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler as Cain was under contract to another studio. It was probably just as well as Chandler could write razor-sharp dialogue like nobody’s business. Wilder and Chandler basically deconstructed Cain’s novel and re-wrote it from the ground up. Rarely ever did a dream team of screenwriters get along as badly as Wilder and Chandler. For both by all accounts it was hate at first sight. Chandler was a recovering alcoholic and the story goes that it was his experiences with Wilder that made him fall off the wagon again. Wilder considered Chandler beyond hope in booze department anyway. Details vary, depends who’s telling the story. But Wilder believed that antagonism was good for collaboration. “If two people think alike, it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off.” Turns out he was spot on. Together Wilder, the sharpest tack in Tinseltown, and Chandler, the master of the slick double entendre, created something sensational.
Cain’s novella was based on the notorious 1927 Snyder/Gray crime in which housewife Ruth Snyder convinced her lover to murder her husband for the insurance money. It was to say the least a clumsy crime, easily found out. In his book Cain smartens up the criminals and the story considerably, infusing it with raw sex, cynicism and his patented bleak world view.
To no-one’s surprise Joe Breen was breathing down Wilder’s neck and had to put his two cents in: “The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation….” He should have kept his spare change. This kind of high praise recommends it not only to any Noir fan nowadays but would practically guarantee contemporary audience’s interest.
Needless to say, Wilder had no problem getting all the salacious points across, making caustic comments about human nature while ostensibly endorsing the Ten Commandments. The screenplay has some nasty touches. The plan for the murder is hatched in the baby food aisle of a supermarket, an image that seems to drive home the banality of evil. The entire movie is an exercise in what I'd call "Breen baiting". Breen just didn’t have the brains to see that Double Indemnity wasn’t a morality play about the punishment the wicked reap for their dirty deeds, but an amusement park ride about the sheer joy of watching the shenanigans of two amoral people almost get away with their crime. Wilder rightfully believed the audience would delight in watching bad people do bad things (Eddie Muller, Noir Alley Intro). The entire picture has a marvelously tawdry feel to it and the intensity of lust is easily conveyed even if we don’t see all the details. There’s more than one way to skin Joe Breen.
The movie turned out to be a honey of a great Noir. As always in the best examples of the genre, the audience roots for the morally corrupt. It would have bothered good old Joe.
The film is told in flashback by doomed protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), insurance salesman for the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s bleeding from a gunshot wound and while the lifeblood drains out of him, he confesses - via dictaphone - to his friend and mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), shrewd claims manager at the same company, how and why he became a murderer.
It all started when Walter stopped at a client's home one day to renew his auto insurance policy and instead met the client's wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). He falls for her like a ton of bricks, they become lovers and Phyllis proposes in a not too subtle move to bump off her louse of a spouse. She would like to take out an accident insurance policy over $50,000 without hubby knowing about it and then rigging the killing so it looks like an accident. The insurance policy even has a double indemnity clause to pay twice the amount if the death is caused by a freak accident.
The plan goes off like a clockwork. Walter kills Dietrichson before he’s supposed to go on a train ride, dumps the body on the train tracks and takes his place on the train to establish an alibi. The police accept the verdict of accidental death, initially. But Keyes doesn’t buy it and one look at Phyllis tells him everything he needs to know. So he goes to work like the good bloodhound he is.
Stanwyck gets one of the most memorable entrances in cinema history. Walter has come to call on Mr. Dietrichson. He’s not at home, but she is, wrapped only in a towel and standing at the top of a staircase, practically naked. It’s what the fashionable woman happens to model when greeting perfect strangers. And that’s a honey of an anklet she’s wearing. It's a piece of jewelry that is marvelously fetishized in the movie. It’s a dead giveaway. It’s the 40s version of the tramp stamp. Walter now has only one thing on his mind, and it’s not insurance policies:
”I was thinking about that dame upstairs and the way she’d looked at me. I wanted to see her again. Close, and without that silly staircase between us.”
Husband? What husband? He knows her game, or so he thinks. We get the feeling he’s met his share of desperate housewives before. Just not ones quite so thoroughly efficient when it comes to crime. She’s all dolled up and ready for murder.
Both trade barbs with the ease of longtime pros. Nobody can say "baby" just like Fred MacMurray. She coos and purrs barely-veiled insinuating come-ons though she makes a floozy’s feint at good-girl morality when Walter puts the moves on her. "There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff." It’s perfunctory at best. Her off-hand seductive attitude makes her innocent act more than unconvincing.
Conniving, manipulative and absolutely evil, she has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Phyllis is the opportunistic minx from Baby Face calcified into ice-cold ruthlessness and irredeemable amorality. Every one of her actions is coldly calculated, from her beach towel entrance to her flirting to her kisses. And everything about her is artificial. Her red lips, her smile… and ooooh that platinum blonde hair, a dodgy wig that many people can’t look past. It’s cheap and obvious but then so is everything about her. She has a touch of trash about her.
|A honey of an anklet|
Phyllis needs a sucker to commit murder for her so she doesn’t get blood on her mink. The conversation turns to crime surprisingly quickly. Could he help her out a bit? With her heartless and cold husband? He's soooo evil. This would have been most people’s cue to run the other way but there’s one born every minute. Walter can’t get her out of his mind.
“I knew I had ahold of a red hot poker, and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off...I was all twisted up inside and I was still holding on to that red-hot poker. And right then it came over me that I hadn't walked out on anything at all, that the hope was too strong, that this wasn't the end between her and me. It was only the beginning.”
Trouble is knocking at the door, and in Noir this knock is never ignored.
Walter Neff is a successful insurance salesman, a smoothy who would gladly sell a corpse some life insurance. He lives an unattached life, clearly obvious from his spare apartment. He’s been quite content with his life so far but deep down there has been something nagging at him, a barely recognized boredom, a diffuse longing for something more than his mundane existence. He’s been selling insurance to little old ladies for too long. The driving force of many Noir stories is the urge to escape, from oneself, from the ordinary, from responsibility, from one’s failures… Walter is another Noir (anti)hero who feels trapped in the prison of his mediocre existence. Yes, he says he killed Dietrichson for money and a woman but the roots go much deeper than that. There’s nothing so dangerous as ennui. It's death in small doses.
In his confession to Keyes Walter admits that he’s been thinking about how to crook the house for years, long before he ever met Phyllis. Unbeknownst to everybody, he’s been waiting for a bigger payday. And not just that, he realizes that has no compunction about murder at all. Walter didn’t fight the urge to kill because the stakes were $50,000. Plus the life of a man. But that is negotiable. Moral integrity is something that has never really been part of his mental makeup. Ethics are a flexible thing. One gets the feeling that his fall from grace wasn't from a great moral height. Not quite your average upstanding Joe Citizen.
There was also the wish to put one over on his friend Keyes, whom he loves but whose stringent work ethics and narrow world-view - that reduces every human emotion to statistical demographics - he rejects, and who has always bragged that nobody could cheat him.
Under Walter’s straight-laced facade a monster has always been lurking. It was just buried deeply under layers of accumulated boredom. Walter is another seeming paragon of virtue that is very believably transformed into a murdereous type. Noir punctures conventional assumptions about human behavior. People aren’t essentially good, in Noir under the right or wrong circumstances everyone was capable of almost anything. If life throws them a doozy of a chance.
That’s why he is easy pickings for Phyllis’s recruitment agency. The traditional reading of this film is that Walter is a hapless pawn in the game of an evil woman. It doesn’t stick at all. No doubt, Walter had the hots for Phyllis but that isn’t his incentive for murder. It's his incentive for sex. Crime is his quick fix for mind-numbing boredom and dissatisfaction.
Walter is no weakling. At one time Phyllis says to Walter: “You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead.” There's a lot of truth in it. He masterminded everything. Walter comes up with the plan to kill Mr. Dietrichson, Walter does the actual killing and Walter is the actor on the train. After the murder, Phyllis is incapable of starting the getaway car. Walter has to do it for her. He does so without any difficulty. Without him she would have been caught in a very sticky situation.
It really does not bear out the oft-repeated narrative that Phyllis is the dominant force. Walter is a proactive not a passive agent in this whole plot. Phyllis didn’t corrupt him, the seeds of crime were already sown long before he set foot in the Dietrichson house. Phyllis just left the door open a little and he follows her down the honeysuckle path to destruction without looking back.
For MacMurray his role was a departure from his image. Mostly utilized as a light comedic actor and folksy nice guy, Wilder saw something in him that he obviously didn’t see himself. Wilder had offered the role to almost every actor in Hollywood. All turned it down, including George Raft who has the dubious distinction of having passed on more choice parts than any other actor in Tinseltown.
MacMurray’s casting was a revelation and he showed hidden depths in his characterization even he didn’t know he had. MacMurray would sort of reprise his role a few years later in the respectable Double Indemnity knockoff Pushover.
In his review Roger Ebert stated:
“The puzzle of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity …is what these two people really think of one another… with the tough talk and the cold sex play. But they never seem to really like each other all that much, and they don't seem that crazy about the money, either. What are they after?”
Ebert is usually much more perceptive. No, they don’t like each other, they use each other. They’re not in love, they’re just in cahoots. They form a mutually beneficial murder society. This is Wilder’s cynicism at its best. There’s definitively primal lust there, but no love or warmth. It’s all hot passion with ice-cold disdain and contempt underneath. This is one love affair that is as cold as the grave.
Phyllis is clearly in it for the payoff. Her husband has lately not been too lucky in his business dealings and the payout from his life insurance would come in incredibly handy. As mentioned in other reviews, the femme fatale is never a working woman. Neither Phyllis, nor any other femme fatale, would ever dirty her hands with anything resembling work. That’s what other people - men - are for, to provide for her comfort. Phyllis is a lazy and languorous blonde who lives in an ornately-furnished oppressive mansion. She considers it a cage but the irony is that she did everything to get into that cage, including nursing her husband’s first wife - to death.
Phyllis is a pathological case. She’s made a career out of murder. It’s really the only “natural” solution for someone like her. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. She’s a woman who’s never felt any healthy emotion in her life. When Walter kills her husband - off-screen - she doesn’t even flinch. In that scene we only see Stanwyck’s face and it is a cold mask that allows itself only the tiniest of smirks. Just as for Walter, murder is her quick fix for all of life’s problems.
Whatever lustful passions may have existed between Walter and Phyllis cool off very quickly after the murder. As so often the criminal couple’s relationship turns sour and mutual distrust rears its ugly head. It is the peculiar problem of murderers. They must trust each other, but as each knows the other is capable of murder, trust is impossible. Paranoia, no Noir can do without. Soon they’re thinking of killing each other. Lust and hate can exist in perversely close proximity.
Walter learns that Phyllis has been seeing Nino Zachetti, her step-daughter Lola’s boyfriend, on the side. Walter can finally see the writing on the wall, that he was set up as a fall guy who’d end up on the trash heap. Walter wants out but Phyllis can't let him louse up their perfect crime: “Nobody’s pulling out. We went into this together and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us.” If one falls, so does the other. The “straight down the line” metaphor is used several times in the film. Keyes picks it up too:
“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.”
Little by little Walter feels the heavy pall of doom: “Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong…I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He knows his future is all used up.
Walter goes to have it out with Phyllis. She is a split second quicker and shoots Walter, though only wounding him. And then she has her two seconds of soppy remorse…if we believe her.
“I never loved you Walter. Not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart… I used you, just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me… Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot.”
Walter doesn’t buy it either. Like Bart has to kill Laurie at the end of Gun Crazy, Walter needs to kill Phyllis simply because she would go on killing remorselessly. Strangely enough, he kills her because he still has a conscience. He lets her have it pointblank. “Goodbye, baby.” Man that was cold. Even Phyllis can’t gamble against the house forever and win.
|The grieving widow|
The only positive relationship is between Walter and Keyes. Smart, shrewd and insightful Keyes is the moral center of the movie. He loves his job, cheap cigars, the statistics of murder and suicide and exposing crooked insurance fraudsters. He has a uncanny knack for sniffing out phony claims. His gut feeling - what he calls “the little man” - never fails him. It dawns on him pretty quickly that there’s something fishy about the Dietrichson case. He smells a rat. Or at least the cheap perfume that is splashed all over that Dietrichson file. That Keyes doesn’t come off as uptight or unpleasant is all down to Eddie’s wonderful portrayal. There’s something very lovable about him. Under all his blustering live-wire energy is a deeply forlorn man who, at the end of the day, always drinks alone. Keyes describes the many functions of his job. “An insurance manager is as surgeon, a doctor, a bloodhound; cop, judge, jury and father confessor.” It is perceptive foreshadowing. That is exactly what he’ll be for Walter.
Much has been made of the supposed homosexual undercurrents between Walter and Keyes and Wilder stated that their relationship is the true love story in the movie. In today’s lingo I’d settle for bromance. Keyes functions as a surrogate father for Walter. Love has many faces and not all of them are sexual. What I see here is just genuine affection. But however we want to view it there’s no doubt that the Walter/Keyes relationship has all the sincere warmth and respect that the Walter/Phyllis one is lacking. There is a purity in it that is devoid of any kind of selfishness.
It’s interesting to note that in the end Walter goes back to his office to confess to Keyes instead of running for the border. Richard Schickel suggests in his DVD commentary that Walter almost willfully commits suicide by not taking care of his wound. It’s a good point. He is a broken man who didn’t quite understand the depth which people can sink to. Walter can’t bear the shame of having let his friend down. And for what? Absolutely nothing. Walter needs Keyes’s absolution. And Keyes, the father confessor, grants it. Walter has been lighting Keyes's cigars all during the movie, and now as last act of friendship Keyes lights Walter’s.
The ending is incredibly moving and recaptures some of the humanity that had been absent from the movie so far. There is nothing but sadness in Keyes’s face after he’s heard Walter’s confession. Walter’s betrayal cut him to the quick. Walter spells it out for Keyes.
Walter: "Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. Because the guy you were looking for was too close – right across the desk from you."
Keyes: "Closer than that, Walter.”
Walter: “I love you too.”
A beautiful tribute. Walter was always his blind spot. Keyes once investigated the dame he wanted to marry but neglects to do the same with his friend. The real tragedy of this film is that Keyes cannot dismiss Walter the way he dismissed all the other frauds and fakes. With Walter's death a part of him died too.
At the end of the day there’s no insurance for an agent who planned his own downfall. Walter wasn't smarter than the rest, he was just a little taller.