By Carter B. Horsley
It wasn't the first film noir and its stars
were not the most glamorous and it reveals its end right near
the beginning, but "Double Indemnity" is a great film
because of its fabulous and very cynical dialogue, the high quality
of its acting and perhaps because no other film better illustrates
the obsession of passion and the allure of evil.
It is a movie that puts the viewer on the naughty
edge of flirtation and danger and then proceeds to show them the
just and predictable, but still very surprising desserts.
Its stars are not very good role-models and are, in fact, pretty
deplorable, but their pathos is fascinating. The film doesn't
preach about destiny or take any moral high ground.
It's just nitty-gritty tough and honest and
Why not? That's its theme most likely. You're
guilty the moment the thought crosses your mind.
Fred MacMurray never became a top star because
he was too much Everyman - average and bland and not terribly
Barbara Stanwyck, on the other hand, had been
a top star for some time even though she was not a great beauty.
They used to call Ann Sheridan the "oomph girl," and
Stanwyck certainly deserved that title as well. But here she wears
a cheap platinum blond wig and is nasty rather than tasty although
her toughness makes her pretty sexy.
This is neither an elegant caper movie nor
almost trailer-park camp. It straddles many American roads, honking
its way with a runaway momentum. What makes the trip memorable
is the sophistication of its patter and the non-chalance of its
characters hurtling toward their doom.
In his December 20, 1998 review of the movie,
Roger Ebert notes that "the puzzle of Billy Wilder's 'Double
Indemnity,'' the enigma that keeps it new, is what these two people
really think of one another." "They strut through the
routine of a noir murder plot, 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?" he asks.
The movie is based on a story by James M.Cain,
who also wrote "The Postman Always Ring Twice." According
to Ebert, Cain was not available when Billy Wilder decided to
film it and Wilder hired Raymond Chandler, the author of "The
Big Sleep." Ebert wrote that Chandler "turned up drunk,
smoked a smelly pipe, didn't know anything about screenplay construction,
but could put a nasty spin on dialogue.
"Together," he continued, "they
eliminated Cain's complicated end-game and deepened the relationship
between Neff and Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the claims manager
at the insurance company. They told the movie in flashback, narrated
by Neff, who arrives at his office late at night, dripping blood,
and recites into a Dictaphone. The voice-over worked so well that
Wilder used it again in 'Sunset Boulevard' (1950), which was narrated
by a character who is already dead the first time he speaks."
"The hero is not a criminal," Ebert
observes, "but a weak man who is tempted and succumbs. In
this 'double' story, the woman and man tempt one another; neither
would have acted alone. Both are attracted not so much by the
crime as by the thrill of committing it with the other person.
Love and money are pretenses. The husband's death turns out to
be their one-night stand. Wilder, born
in Austria in 1906, who arrived in America in 1933 and is still
a Hollywood landmark, has an angle on stories like this. He doesn't
go for the obvious arc. He isn't interested in the same things
the characters are interested in. He wants to know what happens
to them after they do what they think is so important. He doesn't
want truth, but consequences. Few other directors have made so
many films that were so taut, savvy, cynical and, in many different
ways and tones, funny. After a start as a screenwriter, his directorial
credits include 'The Lost Weekend,' 'Sunset Boulevard,' 'Stalag
17,' 'Sabrina,' 'The Seven Year Itch,' 'Witness for the Prosecution,'
'Some Like It Hot,' 'The Apartment' and 'The Fortune Cookie.'
I don't like lists but I can't stop typing. 'Double Indemnity'
was his third film as a director. That early in his career, he
was already cocky enough to begin a thriller with the lines, 'I
killed him for money - and for a woman. I didn't get the money.
And I didn't get the woman.' And end it with the hero saying 'I
love you, too' to Edward G. Robinson."
In the movie, MacMurray plays Walter Neff,
who was called Walter Huff in Cain's book, and Barbara Stanwyck
plays Phyllis Dietrichson, who was called Phyllis Nordlinger in
Cain's book. In his fine and lenghty review, Tim Dirks observes
that the movie involves "two major characters with an 'unholy
love and an almost perfect crime," adding that "Both
are duplicitous and callous lovers - a beautiful, shrewd, predatory
and dissatisfied femme fatale housewife (with blonde blangs and
an enticing gold anklet) and a likable insurance salesman. Their
calculated, cold-blooded scheme to brutally murder her husband
for purposes of lustful desire and financial gain, because of
a double indemnity clause in his accident policy, ultimately fails."
According to Dirks, the story was based on
a real-life crme in March 1927 "perpetrated by married, Queens,
NY housewife Ruth (Brown) Snyder and her lover, a 32-year-old
corset salesmen Judd Gray." "She persuaded her 'Lover
Boy' to kill her husband Albert, editor of Motor Boating magazine,
after having her spouse take out a $48,000 insurance policy -
with a double-indemnity clause. But their sloppy, conspiratorial
murder was quickly detected and they were apprehended."
"Originally, a gruesome execution scene
at the end of the film, in which the claims manager watched as
the convicted protogranitst was led to the death chanbre at san
qunetin, was cut, discarded, and replaced with the present ending,"
Mr. Dirks wrote.
The film starts with Neff returned to his office
at the insurance company, wounded, and inserting a new cylinder
into his dictaphone to dictate a confession for Barton Keyes,
the company's claims manager, played by Edward G. Robinson.
"I just want to set you right about something
you couln't see beuase it was smack up against your nose. You
think you're such a hot potato as a Claims Manager; such a wolf
on a phony claim. Maybe you are. But let's take a look at that
Dietrichson claim. Accident and Double Indemnity You were pretty
good in there for a while, Keyes, You said it wasn't an accident.
Check. You said it wasn't suicide. Check. You said it was murder.
Check. Your thought you had it cold, didn't you? All wrapped up
in tissue paper with pink ribbons around it. It was perfect -
except it wasn't, because you make one mistake. Just one little
mistake. When it came to picking the killer, you picked the wrong
guy. You want to know who killed Dietrickson? Hold tight to that
cheap cigar of yours, Keyes. I killed Dietrichson - me, Walter
Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible
scars...until a while ago, that is. 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 women. Pretty, isn't it?"
The story is told in flashback and begins with
Neff paying a call on the Dietrichsons in Glendale, California,
to get Mr. Dietrichson to renew his car insurance. Mr. Dietrichson
is not in but his wife descends the staircase covered in a towel.
Neff remarks that he hates "to think of your having a smashed
fender or something while you're not, uh, fully covered."
Neff dictates to Keyes that "On the piano
in a couple of fancy frames were Mr. Dietrichson and Lola, his
daughter by his first wife. They had a bowl of those little red
goldfish on the table behind the big Davenport. But to tell you
truth, Keyes, I wasn't a whole lot interested in goldfish right
then, not in auto renewals, nor in Mr. Dietrichson and his daughter
Lola. I was thinking about that dame upstairs and the way she
had looked at me, and I wanted to see her again, close, without
that silly staircase between us."
When the movie was made, the Hayes Office ran
a stiff censorship of innuendoes and virtually anything that smacked
of sex and certainly "dames" and the "honey of
an anklet" Mrs. Dietrichson was wearing. Neff asks her what
is engraved on the anklet. "Just my name," she answers,
"Phyllis." Neff says he thinks he likes the name, leading
her to ask "but you're not sure." "I'd have to
drive it around the block a couple of times," he suggests.
She tells him there is a 45-mile-an-hour speed limit and when
he asks how fast he was going she tells him "around 90."
They agreed that he'll come back the next evening when her husband
will be home and he asks if she will be there, "same chair,
same perfume, same anklet?"
When Neff returns to the Dietrichson's house,
he discovers that the husband and the maid, Netti, are off and
he tells her that "as long as it's the maid's day off, maybe
there's something I can do for you...like running the vacuum cleaner."
"Fresh," she declares, continuing
their provocative banter as she proceeds to inquire about possibly
getting accident insurance as well as car insurance since her
husband works in the oil fields, adding that there was no need
to "bother" the husband about it. Neff is somewhat outraged
at her interest in accident insurance: "Look, baby. You can't
get away with it. You want to knock him off, don't ya?" adding
that "Whaddya think I was anyway? A guy that walks into a
good-looking dame's front parlor and says, 'Good afternoon. I
sell accident insurance on husbanbds. Have you got one that's
been around too long? One you'd like to turn into a little hard
cash? Just give me a smile and I'll help you collect? Huh! Boy,
what a dope you must think I am!"
This quick escalation to plotting murder is
rather shocking and she says "I think you're rotten."
Things suddenly move at the speed of a train
wreck as Neff says "I think you're swell. So long as I'm
not your husband."
She tells him to leave.
Later he muses that he "had hold a red
hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burned" his
hand off. But soon he admits to himself that he "was still
holding on to that red-hot poker," adding "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."
She then shows up at his apartment on the pretext
of returning his hat although she was not holding any hat. He
tells her to put the non-existent hat in a chair and she remarks
that she "must have said something that gave" him "a
terribly wrong impressions," adding "You must never
think anything like that about me, Walter...I want you to be nice
to me, like the first time you came to the house."
"It can't be like the first time. Something's
happened," Neff says, and she agrees, "I know it has.
It's happened to us."
She suggests that perhaps she should leave
and he agrees but as you turns to leave he grabs her and declares
"I'm crazy about you, baby."
She tells him that she married her husband
out of pity after his first wife, whom she served as a nurse,
died. She says that he's always mean to her and that his life
insurance will go to his daughter, Lola.
"So you lie awake in the dark and listen
to him snore and get ideas," Neff says, and she assures him
that she doesn't want to kill her husband "even then he gets
drunk and slaps my face." That prompts Neff to remarked "Only
sometimes you wish he was dead" and she admits "Perhaps
Neff tells her, however, that the insurance
company knows "more tricks than a carload of monkeys"
and that his claims manager, Keyes, is extremely sharp.
Later he dictates to Keyes that "maybe
she had stopped thinking about it, but I hadn't."
She tells him that she can't stand it anymore:
"What if they did hang me?"
He tells her that they wont "because you're
going to do it and I'm going to help you." She asks him if
he knows what he's saying. "Sure I know what I'm saying.
We're going to do it and we're going to do it right. And I'm the
guy that knows how." He then describes his plan and says
it will be perfect, "straight down the line," a phrase
that will be repeated often.
"Double Indemnity" is a clause in
which insurance companies agree to pay twice the amount paid for
if the person is accidentally killed in certain types of accident,
like on a train. The phrase has nothing to do with "double
jeopardy" which means that a person cannot be tried twice
for the same crime.
The husband causes them to delay their plan
when he breaks his leg at his job,
Keyes, meanwhile, offers Neff a job, with a
paycut, as his assistant, arguing that a claims man "is a
doctor and a bloodhound, and a cop and a judge and a jury and
a father confessor all in one," addig that "I picked
you for the job, not because I think you're so damned smart but
because I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of
the outfit. I guess I was wrong. You're not smarter, Walter, you're
just a little taller."
The pair carry out their plan to murder her
husband and to make it appear that he had fallen off a train and
broke his neck.
The president of the insurance company, however,
suspects it may have been a suicide in which case the company
would not be liable to pay the claim. She acts indignant and storms
out of his office claiming that when she came in she had no idea
she was owed any money.
Keyes is scornful of the company president
arguing how unlikely it is to commit suicide by jumping off a
Later, however, Keyes tells Neff he doesn't
understand why the husband had not submitted a claim for his broken
leg and he comes to the conclusion that he didn't know he had
an accident policy and that it must have been murder.
Not long thereafter, the husband's daughter,
Lola, visits Neff to tell him she is suspicious of her stepmother
because she saw him trying on a black hat and veil two days before
her father's death. "She did it for the money. Although you're
not going to pay it, are you, Mr. Neff? She is not going to get
away with it this time, because I'm going to speark up. I'm going
to tell everything I know." Lola has broken off with her
boyfriend, Nino Zachetti, and moved out of the house and a man
who saw Neff on the train posing as the husband tells Keyes that
the man on crutches he saw was not Dietrichson but someone else
although he does not recognize Neff who is the room. Keyes tell
Neff afterwards that he is convinced the husband's death was murder
and that the man involved with the wife will show up: "They
may think it's twice as safe because there are two of them. But
it isn't twice as safe. It's ten time twice as dangerous. 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 vot 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."
Neff now is concerned that if she sues to get
the money from the insurance company they will get caught, but
she tells him that she loved him and hated her husband but was
not "going to do anything about it - not until I met you.
You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead," adding
that "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 us."
Lola and Neff go to a concert at the Hollywood
Bowl and she tells him she thinks her stepmother is now having
an affair with Zachetti.
Keyes later tells Neff that the "man"
in the case showed up and Neff sneaks ito Keyes's office to listen
to Keyes's dictated memo on the case and is thrilled to hear that
Keyes vouches for Neff without reservation and confirm's Lola's
suspicions about Zachetti.
Neff then schemes to kill her and have Zachetti
blamed for both murders.
He visits her at her house and tells her that
he is "all through thinking" and "just came to
"Suppose you stop being fancy. Let's have
it, whatever it is," she demands.
Neff relates Keyes's trolley car scenario and
declares he's not gonna be one of the two riders to the cemetery
because he has another guy to take the ride.
She tells him that she was "working"
on Zachetti and intended to have him get into one of his jealous
rages over Lola: "you known what he would have done to her,
don't you, Walter?"
"Yeah, and for once I believe because
it's just rotten enough" he remarks.
"We're both rotten," she says, just
before she shoots him in the shoulder
"You can do better than that, can't you,
baby? You better try it again. Maybe if I came close," he
says, as he grabs the gun away from her. "Don't tell me it's
because you've been in love with me all this time."
"No. 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 gire that second shot. I never thought that could happen
to me," she declares, but Neff says, "Sorry, baby, I'm
not buying." He shoots her twice.
In the last scene back in Keyes's office, Neff
discovers that Keyes has entered and has been listening and Neff
tells him that "I suppose I get the big speech." Keyes
tells him that he's "all washed up."
"Thanks, Keyes. That was short anyway."
Keyes lights Walter's cigarette in a role reversal
because Walter had always lit Keyes's cigarettes.
Neff tells Keyes that the reason Keyes couldn't
figure out the case was that "the guy you were looking for
was too close, right across the desk from you."
"Closer than that, Walter," Keyes
"I love you, too," Neff says.
Not a happy but a very neat ending to a tale