Wilder: Double Indemnity (1944) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: Double Indemnity (1944)

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In 1938, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an experienced salesman of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Co., meets the seductive wife of one of his clients, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and they have an affair. Phyllis proposes to kill her husband to receive the proceeds of an accident insurance policy and Walter devises a scheme to receive twice the amount based on a double indemnity clause. When Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is found dead on a train-track, the police accept the determination of accidental death. However, the insurance analyst and Walter's best friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) does not buy the story and suspects that Phyllis has murdered her husband with the help of another man.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Oh man. Okay, so Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies. It's got everything: beautiful cinematography, witty writing, great music, fantastic acting, and, of course, belabored trolly metaphors.

This is Wilder hitting his first unqualified home run. While we're missing his usual writing collaboration with Charles Brackett, he instead teamed up with famous mystery writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler gives the film a harder edge than anything Wilder had put forth up to this point, but his major addition is dialogue that crackles with dark assessments and nasty put downs. It's dialogue with a new cadence that revels in the ugly world is slithers through.

This compliments the storyline which is a pitch black view of humanity's greed and vanity. Double Indemnity is the story of two completely vile people. One of them is the narrator, Walter Neff, and he manages to escape most of the film's scorn. The other, Phyllis Dietrichson, becomes a a shadowy presence throughout the movie, her world twisting as the opportunities arise. .

The revelations that we get all come from Phyllis's end are plenty and chilling-- she murdered her husbands first wife, and plotted to use her stepdaughter's boyfriend to rough the poor girl up-- and Stanwyck sells her as one of the most heartless and manipulating women to come across the movie screen. What sets Phyllis apart from a lot of cookie cutter femme fatales is the quiet tragic streak that runs under the surface. Her husband she wants killed doesn't seem that bad, but we'll never truly know if he is or not. She says she's using Zachetti as part of her plot, but it's just as likely that she feels more than a little sympathy for the hothead who has nothing. Frankly, Phyllis lies so much that even her last minute confession of love is cast into disbelief.

But these mysteries are emphasized in the movie, while what we learn about Walter isn't a whole lot-- he's a cavalier salesmen with loose morals at best. What motivates him, however, seems to be a lot more than just a physical desire for Phyllis, as his friendship with Keys the claims adjuster is often more of a one sided rivalry. Keys talks throughout most of their encounters, while Walter is forced to watch and listen with grudging admiration. When Phyllis' murder plot comes up, he sees it as more than just an easy score to make; it's his chance to put Keys' mouth to rest.

Of course, that anger gets a lot of interpretation, as does the Neff / Keys relationship. I've read a lot about this film (and there's probably still plenty more to read), but there are some interesting theories that have always amused but never grabbed me. One is that Keys is onto Neff the entire time, essentially continually pushing his luck to see if he can get Neff to give up. The other is that the friendship between Keys and Neff was more than friendship, but sublimated and turned into something nasty. Both are interesting, but neither are necessary or add much to the film.

Or so I think. What about you, Ryan? Is the moral of Double Indemnity not to channel your non-platonic love for Edward G. Robinson into a murder plot?

Double Indemnity is the first Billy Wilder masterpiece. Five Graves to Cairo was an excellent movie but like you said this is the movie where Wilder first hits it out of the park. If someone asked to show them one noir film, this is the one I would put in without a second of hesitation. Wilder and co-writer Chandler really get in the mud with these characters and we follow two highly unlikable characters throughout the film. Like you said the dialogue, framing of the film and music all work incredibly well together to make a film that will keep you riveted but also make you feel a bit dirty and I love it for that.

Furthering what you mentioned earlier, I think Phyllis is one of the most interesting female characters in film because of the fact that she lies about everything. Through the whole movie, the audience is never sure of what to make of this character. She lies, she manipulates and I have watched the film repeatedly and I still don't know if she has any actual human feelings or emotions or if the whole thing is an act. My favorite scene in the whole film is during the murder of Phyllis' husband. Neff does the dirty work while Phyllis drives and Wilder frames her face as the only thing in the shot. While you hear the struggle all you see is her face changing into what I can only call orgasmic delight.

I have gone back and forth on what this scene is saying. Is she a serial killer blooming and murder gets her excited, does she like being able to control men to such an extent that they murder for her, is she counting all of her money? I love how this scene tells you everything you need to know about her and yet nothing at all.

I don't know about you, but I don't actually believe that Neff never has any feelings for Phyllis beyond lust. I agree with you that Neff is in a competition with Keys even if Keys doesn't know it. A telling moment of this is when Keys comes to Neff early in the film and asks him to be his assistant. While most would say Neff turns down the offer with disgust because it would mean less money and more work, I think he turns it down because he wants to be seen onequalfooting with Keys and somehow this would give meaning to his life. The murder, plot for a double payout and all that transpires afterwards is not a man showing his love for his girl but a man trying to prove to the person he respects most that he is just as smart.

The last line of the movie sums up where Neff's heart was the whole time. He says "I love you too," but not to Phyllis, but Keys himself.

Exactly. And that's what kind of sells this ahead of a lot of other noirs I've seen. Phyllis is rotten to the core, no doubt (and her sexual excitement in the scene you mentioned may be the best moment in a great movie), but, because Barbara Stanwyck is, to be polite, a fucking great actress, her emotions never seemfake. When she cries out that she's feeling abandoned by Neff, she's absolutely right-- his own obsession has gotten away with him. And even when she does some repugnant things, she's smart enough to get other people to do a majority her dirty work.

Which always brings me back to the character of Nino Zachetti, the guy that Lola is chasing after and Phyllis is manipulating on the side. He, along with Phyllis' husband, are spoken of more often than they're seen. How bad is Nino? All we see of him is a hot temper and the insinuation by Phyllis that she's been amping him up so that he'll get Lola out of the way. Let's say Phyllis is telling the truth here-- why does Walter still tell Nino to go find Lola at the end? Hell, let's say Phyllis is lying and at best Nino's carrying on an affair with her as well. Those few seconds of honesty from Neff where he tells Nino to find Lola is played as upbeat, but really are him sicking an angry sociopath at this girl he has real emotions for.

And more to the point, Lola and Neff have a much deeper relationship than Neff and Phyllis. Lola and Neff go out, do fun and borderline romantic stuff together, and Lola is never anything less than completely honest. Contrast that to Phyllis, whose base of operations is the living room couch. Neff's trying to make his feelings for Lola parental, but is that guilt, or is there something more to it?

Okay, okay. The particulars of the Dietrichson household probably don't make for compelling reading, and there's lots of other stuff we need to cover. And first, I guess I'll toss you something I think you'll fight me on, Ryan. Double Indemnity has a score by one of the greats, Miklos Rosza, that is dark and brooding. But it's also quite loud, dark and brooding. The only thing is that this go around I couldn't help but feel that it's really hammering the nail on the head. Do you think it's too much, or does it mesh well enough that I should just shut the hell up?

Nino is an interesting character in a movie of very interesting characters so the poor guy gets overlooked a lot. What I take from Nino in the movie is he is not very bright and lets his penis do most of his thinking. He is a hot head and is easily manipulated by someone that looks like Barbara Stanwyck, but in the end he is harmless if left to his own devices. Because of that, I don't think Neff is "sicking" anyone on Lola but is giving her the best option out of the unappealing ones that are available.

Since you brought up Lola, I differ on what I think she represents to Neff. She comes off as a brat through most of the films and she is old enough to have feelings for Neff. Yet I think Neff sees her as a little girl and his final chance of salvation, that is something as "pure" as Lola could like him, maybe he is not such a bad guy. I never saw it as much of Neff being attracted to her too, but I will have to watch for that next time I watch the film.

When it comes to the music, I don't think it is as "loud" as a lot of dramatic movies from this time typically were. It is funny that you wrote this today because yesterday I just rewatched the next Wilder film "The Lost Weekend" and was very distracted by the music in that movie. I feel every beat of music playing in that movie was like a neon sign flashing "BIG DRAMATIC HAPPENINGS" kind of like Chris Cooper yelling "maniacal laugh" in the new Muppets film. I do have one final question for you. If we could have a do-over for Oscars how many Academy Awards would this film win? I can guarantee that it would destroy Going My Way and the only competition I see keeping it for a total sweep would be "Laura".

My favorite story about this movie is about the Academy Awards in 1944, where, after Leo McCarey won the Best Picture Oscar, Billy Wilder tried to trip him on his way to accepting it on the stage. It says a lot about Wilder, I think, and probably wasn't undeserved.

But, hey, 1944 was a much different time. While the war was certainly wrapping up, I think a pill of arsenic like Double Indemnity is still too dour for the audiences on the homefront, and something as syrupy sweet as Going My Way is much easier to digest (and, hey, we'll be seeing Bing Crosby again here in a few weeks). Even if this came out today, it would probably get slammed by some vague 'crowd pleaser' that's only seen by a half a million people that the Weinsteins vomited up at the end of November.

Going back to the score, I know how you feel. I don't think this film is quite as bad as that, but every once in a while Neff is sitting down in a chair and Rosza just keeps whaling into it. I think there's two really effective moments of the score, and the first is the final showdown between Phyllis and Walter. The loud bombastic score we've heard the entire film fades out, and a distant, romantic ditty filters into the darkened living room. The characters notice it-- almost as if the score had been all around them before, and they both just now have reached enough clarity to realize that there's been a dark theme to all of their actions-- and comment on it. It compliments that moment perfectly, because the melody sounds so old and wheezy, perfectly mimicking what's going on with the murderous pair.

My other pick would have to be the opening credits. It's a silhouette of Neff hobbling towards the camera, faking being the injured Dietrichson. As the score introduces us to the movie, it also introduces us to Neff's inevitable doom, and mirrors the scene later in the film where Neff is hobbling down the last car on the train, this time away from the camera. He's avoiding people's gazes, keeping his head down, almost as if he's trying to escape the audience's gaze as well.

I've got one for you-- there's a lot of people who watch this movie and only come away with one impression-- that of Barbara Stanwyck's blonde wig. Apparently Wilder insisted upon it, and then it took him a few days of shooting to realize how wretched it looked. Later, he tried to pass off the phony look as intentional, an indication of Phyllis' deceitful heart. I won't lie-- Barbara Stanwyck always looks good to me, and I think the wig works in showing what Phyllis thinks of herself. If it's a wig the character is wearing, it shows that we're dealing with someone who constantly hides behind guises and proprieties to get what she wants. What do you think?

If I was around in the 40's I probably would have helped Wilder trip McCarey but you are right that something "crowd pleasing" would still probably beat something this dour but damn is the movie just Wilder at his best. Like I have said before Wilder for me is so great because of the dialogue he has in his films. I want to highlight two scenes that jump off the screen for me.

The first one is the scene where Phyllis and Neff first meet. The sexual innuendos are flying fast between the two and everything you need to know about both of them you learn in this scene. Neff doesn't seem to mind that she is married showing he doesn't have scruples and she knows she can use sex to get what she wants. The dialogue between these two still give me goosebumps just listening to it. "There is a speed limit in the state Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour." Is the beginning of one of the best exchanges in a Wilder film and that is high praise coming from me.

The second scene I wanted to talk about is another scene I LOVE between Keyes and Neff and this one Neff doesn't barely speak. It is when Keyes is putting together the whole case for Neff and it is this time that Neff knows he is rightly screwed. Keyes is going to get him and he knows it and how Keyes sums up murder between lovers is so perfect and perfectly encapsulates noir fils in general.

"There it is, Walter. It's beginning to come apart at the seams already. Murder's never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it's usually sooner. Now we know the Dietrichson dame is in it *and* a somebody else. Pretty soon, we'll know who that somebody else is. He'll show. He's got to show. Sometime, somewhere, they've got to meet. Their emotions are all kicked up. Whether it's love or hate doesn't matter; they can't keep away from each other. They may think it's twice as safe because there's two of them,but it isn't twice as safe. It's ten times 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 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. She put in her claim... I'm gonna throw it right back at her. "

I am going to stop quoting the movie before I write the whole screenplay but one last thing I want to ask you is how Wilder uses Fred McMurray. The actor is mostly known for his cute Disney roles like The Absent Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog but Wilder always got something different out of him. A mean streak that shows no respect for any other person. Both Neff and his Mr. Sheldrake from The Apartment are people with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

He is so good in these films and so despicable that now whenever I see a clip from something like "My Three Sons," I have a hard time forgetting his Wilder roles and seeing him as the good guy. It is a shame Wilder never did get to work with Cary Grant because I would have loved to have seen where he would have gone with him.

That's some great dialogue, and Keys definitely has some great speeches. This is one of Edward G. Robinson's earliest supporting roles, since he'd been a full fledged star since Little Caesar in 1931. And while he's definitely had his fair share of great performances, this one is dynamite-- it's not hard to understand why Neff wants to impress such a verbose, clever and yet utterly helpless man.My favorite line in the picture comes from Neff, after the murder is committed and he's narrating back to Keys his uncertainty. That moment he's walking to the drug store, and his determined look, one he's worn throughout the entire, just melts, and he reflects:

Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.


Speaking of the word, I think we'd both be thrown in the Hague if we didn't bring up the cinematography in this picture. While film noir can traced back a few years earlier to The Maltese Falcon, the use of dust and light in Indemnity make it instantly unique. That last scene on in the darkened living room may just be the height of seedy beauty. It's also one of the first to be set in L.A., and the movie uses the town's phony aura to great effect.

There were just a few other things I wanted to touch on. It had never occurred to me before watching them in a row, but Walter Neff shares a striking similarity with John Bramble, our hero from Five Graves to Cairo. Both men are knee deep in the insurance industry. Seeing how Neff and Keys are shown here lights up Bramble's background just a bit more. Is 'insurance professional' just a good job that has some sinister undertones to it, or does Wilder think everyone who works in insurance wishes they were doing something else-- criminal or not?

Also, what do you take away as the moral of the story? I don't necessarily think it's anything as mundane as 'don't trust the blonde in the phony wig', but rather, like Wilder's later work The Apartment, he takes people to task for trying to achieve the American Dream by taking the easy way out. Neff simply can't admit his own inferiority, and Phyllis finds murdering her lovers more convenient and pleasing than trying to work things out together. That's always the temptation in this country-- the 'get rich quick' scheme seems so easy, but it takes a piece of you, no matter how you try and shake it. Though it certainly took bigger chunks of Walter and Phyllis that's for sure.

Lastly (I'm trying to wrap this up, trying!), how about the final shot? Double Indemnity has one of the more famous 'lost' endings, where Wilder trimmed off a scene with Neff being led to the gas chamber while Keys looked on. I think losing it was one of the great dumps of superfluous material ever arranged, since we get instead the final capper on the Keys/Neff relationship. Neff finally earns Keys' respect in the form of a light for his cigarette, but the cost of it is outlined in blood. It's a great ending to an undeniably great film.

The ditching of the original ending was one of the smartest things this movie did. From what I have read the original ending would have reminded me of something like Manhattan Melodrama and the "I Love You Too" ending was perfect for the movie. Some of my favorite endings of films are from Wilder movies because he just KNEW the perfect note to end a film on and this movie is no different.

The cinematography in this film is a thing of beauty. I think later noirs sometimes went overboard being "noir" with every street being wet and shadows/fog constantly creeping in, but Double Indemnity hits everything perfectly. We will talk about John Seitz when we get to Sunset Boulevard but he is probably just a rung behind Charles Brackett and Jack Lemmon on things that helped create the great Billy Wilder films.

The last thing I want to discuss is the answer to your question about the moral of the story. I think you are right with saying he is punished for his get rich scheme but I think it goes a step further than that too. He could have killed the husband easier and made a nice chunk of change but he had to be clever and add the double indemnity clause. It was this hubris and trying to be too clever that brings him down, that gets the "little man" in Keyes interested in the case. So I think you are right with "don't take the easy way" but you also have to add trying not to prove yourself to everyone else, or as the great Han Solo said, "Great kid, don't get cocky."

To wrap up my end let me just say that Double Indemnity should be seen by all film fans because it is pretty much perfect. For me it is the essential noir, the best role that Stanwyck ever had, and a wonderful showcase for both MacMurray and Robinson. The dialogue is crisp, the tone is nasty, the shots are beautiful and the movie unforgettable. You and I love Wilder to an almost unhealthy degree and this is Exhibit A in why that is.

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Next Week: Death Mills (1945)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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