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Double Indemnity

Directed by Billy Wilder, with Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwick and Edward G. Robinson, 107 minutes, 1944

DVD label for "Double Indemnity"

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 ruthless.

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 exciting.

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 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 I do."

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 slow-moving train.

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 say good-bye."

"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 said.

"I love you, too," Neff says.

Not a happy but a very neat ending to a tale of mendacity.


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This film ranks 59th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

This film ranked 68th in the Top 250 films at the Internet Movie Data Base as of December 22, 2009

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