Take 35: Double Indemnity
I was really looking forward to watching Double indemnity when I started this project. It’s another Billy Wilder classic that is routinely referenced by film nerds. I knew it wasn’t one of his comedies, like The Apartment or Some Like It Hot, so I assumed it was a forerunner to Sunset Boulevard. This is both accurate and misleading in many ways. Released in 1944, this was certainly not the first film Wilder had written or directed, but I would say it was the first of his many contributions to the film school canon as we know it.
Many people argue that Double Indemnity is possibly the first film noir ever created. Wilder himself said on the topic: I never heard that expression film noir when I made Double Indemnity … I just made pictures I would have liked to see. When I was lucky, it coincided with the taste of the audience. With Double Indemnity, I was lucky. I am both unqualified and uninterested in engaging in that debate, but I will say that film exudes what modern audiences picture when they think of 1940’s cinema. The collaboration between Wilder and co-write Raymond Chandler undoubtedly laid the foundation for the rote detective pictures that would follow over the next decade creating a new breed of stock American hero and requisite damsel. Chandler and Wilder would both go on to make other contributions to the genre, most notably with The Big Sleep and Sunset Boulevard respectively. The ingredients are simple: a base of criminal psyche, followed by a cup of sexual overtones and repressed desires, a dash of alcoholism or despondency, add moody lighting and urban settings, best served with a couple of twists and turns regarding who is good and who is bad.
All of these elements converge in Double Indemnity to create that sense of foreboding and desire previously reserved for art-house French cinema. Wilder and Chandler tell the story in flashback format, daring to tell us the ending right in the opening scene: we know that Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, murders a man, confesses, loses the girl, and never gets the money. He then goes on to tell the story of how he met the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck. On an off chance, Neff drops in to meet Mr. Dietrichson who is not available but he and Mrs. Dietrichson acquaint themselves from opposite ends of a staircase while she’s wearing little more than a towel. The scene is ripe with sexual overtones and it’s not surprising when they meet again and inch closer and closer to acting on their flirtations. These early scenes where Diectrichson and Neff feel each other out, trading innuendos and coquettish refusals were my favorite in the film.
Those scenes possess that signature Wilder touch of revealing more than what the characters seem to want us to know, in spite of their overt expositions (nobody loves a good first person voiceover more than Billy Wilder).
However, as the engine of the film progresses and we learn more about Phyllis, there are some plot choices I find questionable. First and foremost to me there was a critical lack of motivation. When Phyllis first suggests her plan to buy accident insurance for her husband without him knowing, Walter cuts through like a hot knife on butter. He does not mess around and immediately calls out her real intentions. Yet, when she calls on him after the initial talk, it takes shockingly little convincing for Neff to shrug his shoulders and agree to the escapade. There is, of course, a very mild suggestion that they want the money, and of course, an even milder suggestion that they would like to get Mr. Dietrichson out of the way so they can sleep together, but this underlying motive seems flimsy at best.
And maybe that was by design. By the end of the film Phyllis tells us herself that she’s rotten to the core. We don’t see Walter killing her husband, but murmurs are audible as Stanwyck stares at us from behind the steering wheel of the car as a coy smile upturns the corners of her lips, eerily repurposed in Hitchcock’s Psycho 15 years later. When we learn that her step daughter also believes she was responsible for the original Mrs. Dietrichson’s death, we, the audience, along with Walter come to understand that there is no underlying reason. It’s possible if Neff had never dropped by that day that the thought of doing away with her husband would never have crossed her mind.
This is where, to me, Double Indemnity fails to strike the same resonance that Sunset Boulevard masters so effectively. The bones are in large part the same — we hear the story as a flashback told with the voice of a man ruined by a woman who lured him into her devices. But what Sunset Boulevard does is show the depth behind the characters that adds substance to the plot twists so that we are able to care more about the fates of those involved. I didn’t find myself overly concerned about what happened to either of the lead characters in Double Indemnity, or particularly shocked by any of the revelations — and none of that is because Neff tells us what’s about to happen from the beginning.
There is the important kind heart foil of Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes, whose self proclaimed “little man” always allowed him to rout out fishy claims. Walter knows that Keyes has caught his scent and is circling closer to the truth of the matter. Walter dedicates his confession to Keyes, and their bond is, in my mind, the only really emotionally palpable connection between characters in the film. It’s fitting that they share the final scene with a nice little Wilder dose of sweetness and connection. Walter has been lighting Keyes’s cigarettes throughout the film until the final moment after he tells his old friend and boss “I love you too” and Keyes reaches over to give Walter a light as he lay dying on the floor. The music crescendos with light strings and low toned brass horns, the perfect accompaniment to the bittersweet exchange. By right, this moment should occur between the romantic leads of the film, but Wilder and Chandler knew that the emotional connection between the two men had far more at stake.
I really wanted to like Double Indemnity, and while there are obvious flashes of brilliance, my biggest takeaway was more meh than wow. That said, I have seen the fruits that have come to bear as a result of this film’s entry into the American cinema landscape. Noir and reinterpretations of the noir filmmaking riddle this top 100 list — from Pulp Fiction to Chinatown, the gumshoe, booze laden, detectives hold a secure place in our collective narrative and cultural understanding of masculinity and justice. This film is a cornerstone for greatness in American movie making, and it is that foundational contribution that will keep Double Indemnity on the prolific list of must see works from Billy Wilder.