Our reviewer Helen Tope revisits the classic 1944 film noir.
Provocative and darkly glamorous, Double Indemnity is director Billy Wilder’s take on the film noir genre. Released in 1944, the story of Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson is sultry and grubby. A tale of greed, corruption and lust, this noir is painted in the very deepest shade of black.
Adapted from the James M Cain novel, Wilder teamed up with Raymond Chandler to create the screenplay. Chandler, already established with his novels The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, marked his screen-writing debut with Double Indemnity. Chandler shifts perspective from detective to criminal, moving from sleazy bars to an insurance office.
The film’s narration by Neff, told in a series of flashbacks, starts with a clearly injured Walter heading into work in the middle of the night. Being let in by the building supervisor, Neff slumps into his office chair and begins to dictate a memo. But this is more than office memoranda; it is a confession. Neff is sweating and pale. He doesn’t have much time left.
We start at the beginning. Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman at Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. Young, good-looking and being scouted for promotion, Neff has everything going for him. Well-liked by his boss, Barton Keyes (a great performance from Edward G. Robinson), both men are married to the job. Keyes has spent most of his working life at the company, Neff has been there for 11 years, and in that time he has learnt a great deal about the insurance business. The devil’s in the detail – there is no fraudulent claim that makes it past Claims Manager Keyes’ desk. Keyes’ instinct for a dodgy claim is not only legendary, it’s unimpeachable.
On the way back from dealing with a claim, Neff decides to settle up some car insurance paperwork with a local man, Mr Dietrichson. Stopping off at the house, he finds only Mrs Dietrichson available.
Played by Barbara Stanwyck, Phyllis Dietrichson first appears at the top of a staircase, wearing nothing but a towel. Neff eyes the married woman with interest. Walter sits and waits for her to get dressed. Stanwyck’s entrance is an iconic moment: filming just her legs, Wilder draws our attention to Phyllis’ gold anklet, playfully jangling as she skips downstairs. This would have been code easily readable for Wilder’s first audiences. A married woman would wear an anklet to announce her availability to other men. Wilder wants us in no doubt of her intentions.
What begins is a dazzling wordplay, as Chandler employs some of his best dialogue. This is flirting, down and dirty. The looks exchanged between Neff and Dietrichson are pure cinematic filth. The connection is instant; Neff knows he’s in trouble, but he still plays the game, arranging another appointment to get Mr Dietrichson’s signature for the paperwork.
Meeting Phyllis again, Neff arrives to find that the Dietrichson’s maid has been given the afternoon off. As Phyllis pours Walter an iced tea, the conversation takes an unexpected turn. Phyllis is keen for her husband to get accident insurance. He is an oil executive, but likes to visit the oil field in person. Dietrichson is concerned for his safety. Is there a way, she asks, of getting an accident policy without him knowing?
Neff realises what Phyllis is asking. She wants Mr Dietrichson out of the picture, and a handsome insurance payout for a new start. Angry, Neff storms out. Phyllis follows him home, and falls into his arms. The scheme is for them – she wants that new start with Walter. Her heady, seductive tones pull Neff right under. They will make a plan together – the perfect insurance fraud. No slip-ups, says Walter. It’s got to be done right.
Phyllis has to find the right moment, and she persuades Mr Dietrichson to take a train for his next work trip. The plan is for him to ‘fall’ from the train. This small detail ensures that Phyllis will get a bigger pay-out on her husband’s death. Double Indemnity – an accident claim where the accident is from an ‘almost / never’ event – pays out double.
Fate then intercedes, as Mr Dietrichson breaks his leg at work. He demurs about the train journey. The plan is changed again. Hiding Neff in the back of her car, Phyllis pretends to drive her husband to the airport instead. Taking a wrong turn, they stop off in a side road and Neff strangles Dietrichson.
Impersonating the dead man, Neff hobbles on crutches aboard the train and minutes later, pretends to fall from the observation deck. He jumps off the slowly-moving train, and Phyllis meets him in her car. They lug the body onto the train tracks. His body is found hours later – the verdict is accidental death. The payout is due in full.
Neff’s firm isn’t happy at this prospect, and calls in Keyes. At first, Barton insists it’s a straightforward case of double indemnity – rare, but nothing underhand. Walter’s relief is palpable – he and Phyllis have got away with it. And then Keyes begins to ponder the facts more closely. Dietrichson had accident insurance but never made a claim when he broke his leg. Keyes reaches the obvious conclusion: Dietrichson never knew about the insurance policy. The claim is null and void, and the investigation moves from fraud to murder.
Wilder and Chandler, by ramping up the sex appeal and underplaying everything else, create a stylish psychological thriller. The seduction of Neff is all too easy for Dietrichson; Walter is a man longing for adventure. Using Neff as the chief narrator, we want to believe that Walter has everything covered, every probability accounted for. The screenplay drip feeds us information, but it isn’t until the last act that we see Neff is part of a much larger game.
Wilder’s morally ambiguous tale was perfect escapism for wartime audiences, but Double Indemnity did not have an easy transition onto screen. All three leads – MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson – when approached by Wilder, did not see themselves playing these roles. MacMurray up until this point, was famous for playing the good guy. Stanwyck doubted she was right for Phyllis, and Edward G. Robinson, while a character actor, still saw himself as first lead material. It wasn’t until he was offered the same salary as Stanwyck and MacMurray that he signed on the dotted line. All playing against type, Wilder brings out the best in each of them. Watching MacMurray’s haunted expression; Robinson’s quicksilver intelligence and Stanwyck’s sly sexuality; it is astonishing to think of Wilder struggling to get everyone in place.
Another challenge Wilder faced was how to make Cain’s pulp fiction novel large enough for the big screen. An insurance salesman falling for a housewife doesn’t necessarily have box office potential. Rather than avoiding the problem, Wilder explores the smallness of Walter’s world. To do this, Double Indemnity relies heavily on interiors – the shuttered windows and flecks of dust in the Dietrichson home speak not just of a marriage on the rocks – Phyllis neglects the house because, in her mind, she has already left. The blandness of the insurance office sketches in a sense of normalcy. As the film progresses, Wilder brings in the camera tighter. The rooms feel smaller, the air gets thinner. Not able to rely on gritty inner-city locations, Wilder creates atmosphere with sunlight: the streets of Los Angeles brood and shimmer. The film’s cinematographer John F. Seitz would go on to replicate much of the same visual language when he worked with Wilder on Sunset Boulevard.
In resolving the film’s ‘smallness’, Wilder instead concentrates our attention on the emotion splashed across the screen. Duplicity and intrigue play out, and we feel powerless as Dietrichson and Neff stumble towards the end of their story. Wilder and Chandler, experts in the mechanics of narrative, understood the emotional pull that keeps us coming back for more. Double Indemnity gets us, not with its devastating conclusion, but in the journey it takes to get there. We know how the story will end before it has even begun – but the thrill of the chase is everything.