Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Double Indemnity (1944)
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Background

Double Indemnity (1944) is director Billy Wilder's classic film noir masterpiece - a cynical, witty, and sleazy thriller about adultery, corruption and murder. The urgently-told, highly-stylized story was Wilder's third film after The Major and the Minor (1942) and Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Wilder effectively used locales in the greater Los Angeles area: the Glendale train station, the Hollywood Bowl, 'Jerry's Market,' a night-time downtown office building, a Spanish-style house on Quebec St., the protagonist's apartment at the Chateau Marmont, etc.

The material for Double Indemnity was derived from 'hard-boiled' James M. Cain's 1943 melodramatic novella Three of a Kind that first appeared in 1935 in abridged, 8-part serial form in Liberty Magazine. It was adapted for the screen by director Billy Wilder and detective novelist Raymond Chandler (who was best known for his character Philip Marlowe, played by Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944), Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), and Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake (1946), among others).

[Cain's first infamous novel was a 1934 best-seller that was also staged in 1936 and made into a film in both 1946 and 1981 - Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner, and Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1942, It.) was an unauthorized version of Cain's work - the first of the three. Another of Cain's 1941 novels was also made into a popular film noir with Joan Crawford - Mildred Pierce (1945).]

This great film noir received no Academy Awards, although it was nominated in seven categories: Best Picture, Best Actress (Barbara Stanwyck with her third nomination and a career total of over 40 films), Best Director (Wilder's first directorial nomination for only his third film as director), Best Screenplay (co-scriptwriters Chandler and Wilder), Best B/W Cinematography (John Seitz, working together with Wilder on the second of four films), Best Sound Recording (Loren Ryder), and Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Miklos Rozsa). [This was Wilder's fourth nomination as screenwriter, after nominations for Ninotchka (1939), Ball of Fire (1941) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941).] Its major competition came from Leo McCarey's 'feel-good' film Going My Way - undoubtedly, Double Indemnity's hard-boiled themes and cold cynicism hurt its chances for the top prize, during the war years.

It was a tremendous oversight that both Edward G. Robinson (as supporting actor) and Fred MacMurray (as lead actor) were denied Academy Award nominations. Robinson had never received a nomination during his entire career. Both Robinson and Fred MacMurray played roles against type (Robinson gained notoriety for his role as a gangster in Little Caesar (1930), and MacMurray had previously played genial, lightweight, good-guy roles in comedies) - and their performances represented some of their best career work. [MacMurray would star in another against-type, bad-guy role in Wilder's The Apartment (1960).] Actually, this was also Stanwyck's first unsympathetic villainess role, something she would later reprise in Walk on the Wild Side (1962).

This seminal tale, told in the past tense (in voice-over), involves two major characters with "an unholy love and an almost perfect crime." (The names of the main characters in the original novel were Walter Huff and Phyllis Nordlinger.) Both are duplicitous and callous lovers - a beautiful, shrewd, predatory and dissatisfied femme fatale housewife (with blonde bangs and an enticing gold anklet) and a likeable 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. Their fraudulent, almost perfect crime leads to guilt, suspicion, betrayal, duplicity, and thrilling intrigue in a film with numerous swatches of sharp and nasty dialogue.

It was billed as "Paramount's SHOCKING, SUSPENSE-FILLED MASTERPIECE OF LOVE...AND MURDER." From its opening sequence, the film identifies with the self-destructive murderer and his murder plot, using the metaphor of a train ride with the evil heroine that goes "all the way...to the end of the line." Its tagline from a poster declared: "You can't kiss away a Murder!"

The sensational film was unlike many other films of its time - its storyline of a deliberate and brutal crime inspired by adultery and the promise of insurance money was considered innately amoral, objectionable, and distasteful by the censorious Hays Office (a "blueprint for the perfect murder"). Originally, a gruesome execution scene at the end of the film, in which the claims manager watched as the convicted protagonist was led to the death chamber at San Quentin, was cut, discarded, and replaced with its present ending - one in which the murderer was also justly punished for his crime.

[The film's story was based on a real-life crime in March of 1927 perpetrated by married Queens, NY housewife Ruth (Brown) Snyder and her lover, a 32 year-old corset salesman 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. Both were convicted and sentenced to death - and were electrocuted in January of 1928 at Sing Sing. An infamous tabloid picture, surreptitiously taken (with a camera strapped to his ankle) by news photographer Thomas Howard of Ruth's body as she was executed, was published on the front page of the New York Daily News. The Snyder-Gray case in the late 1920s prompted the release of Picture Snatcher (1933) - it starred James Cagney as the daring newspaper photographer who took the taboo picture of a woman dying in the electric chair. It was remade as Escape From Crime (1942).]

The influence of this definitive film noir (with its typical conventions of "Venetian blind" lighting and voice-over narration) can be found in other countless imitations ever since - such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and (1981), Body Heat (1981) (with Richard Crenna as the murdered husband and Kathleen Turner as the murderess accomplice), and The Last Seduction (1994) (with Linda Fiorentino), but it has never been surpassed. Whether it was the 'first true' film noir can be debated. It also inspired two TV films: a 1954 version with Frank Lovejoy, Laraine Day, and Ray Collins, and the ABC-TV 1973 inferior remake for its "Movie of the Week," starring Samantha Eggar, Lee J. Cobb and Richard Crenna. And the supermarket scene, with actual clips from the film, was spoofed in Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).

The Story

Behind the credits, a silhouetted male figure on crutches (weakened - or in sexual terms, castrated), wearing a hat and overcoat, advances straight toward the camera, gradually filling the screen with black. [One must ask in retrospect after viewing the entire film, is the man with crutches the doomed protagonist of the story (Walter Neff), or the doomed man he impersonates (Mr. Dietrichson) during a murder plot on a train? The duplicity evident in the film, and in the film's title and its characters, are exemplified in the film's very first ambiguous image.]

On a wet, dark street in Los Angeles during the early morning hours, near where a maintenance crew from the Los Angeles Railway Corp. is working (a sign identifies the locale), a 1938 Dodge speeds along. The vehicle runs a red light and swerves as it barely misses a collision with a Los Angeles Times newspaper truck.

Emerging from the car, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) enters an office building, moving in a way which makes it appear that he is pained and that there is something wrong with his shoulder. He is greeted by the night guard and elevator operator of the Pacific Building, who obviously notes that Neff's physical condition and lack of responsiveness aren't normal. [Presumably, the old man alerts Keyes, who arrives later in the film.] The porter notes - significantly - that he hasn't been able to acquire life insurance because of his faulty heart [Neff's heart - and life - have already been lost to the femme fatale of the tale over life insurance]:

They wouldn't ever sell me any. They said I had something loose in my heart.

In the elevator ride to the 12th floor where he works - the ill-named Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company (founded 1906), a pale and haggard Neff leans against the elevator wall, somewhat in pain. He turns on the light in his office and staggers to his desk. Wounded and bleeding from a gunshot wound, clearly dying, Neff sits in his swivel chair, loosens his tie, takes out a packet of cigarettes, dumps them onto the desk, picks one of them up and lights it one-handed with a wooden match, and then rolls himself over to his office dictaphone [a new invention at the time], uncovers it, and inserts a new cylinder in the recorder.

In flashback, identifying himself as the killer in the opening scene, he tersely dictates a confession of murder to a fellow worker [a surrogate father figure], dated July 16, 1938. In the form of an office memo, he explains to the firm's Claims Manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) how he committed the "perfect" crime that was too perfect:

Office memorandum. 'Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager, Los Angeles, July 16, 1938. Dear Keyes: I suppose you'll call this a confession when you hear it. Well, I don't like the word 'confession.' I just want to set you right about something you couldn't see because 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. You 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 made one mistake. Just one little mistake. When it came to picking the killer, you picked the wrong guy. You want to know who killed Dietrichson? Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours, Keyes. I killed Dietrichson - me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars... (He glances down at his shoulder wound.) - 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 woman. Pretty, isn't it?

Intermittently throughout the film that is told from a fatalistic point of view, Neff changes his voice, alternating subtly from a confession to a rhythmic, flowing narration, as he continues to link together the various scenes in the flashback. It is significant that his insurance company, "All-Risk," is exactly what Neff has willingly done to associate with the blonde femme fatale.

Immediately after his confession, Neff explains how he became involved with Los Angeles housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a conniving, seductive, icy blonde bombshell. A few months earlier at the end of May (in 1938), he had stopped in a seemingly routine call at the Dietrichson family's California Spanish-style house (#4760) near Los Feliz Boulevard in Glendale, California, to encourage the head of the household, Mr. Dietrichson, to renew his car-insurance policy. [The real house, called the 'Death House' in Cain's novel, was at 6301 Quebec Street in Hollywood.]

During the flashback, it is learned that Mr. Dietrichson is away, so Neff is forced to make his way past the maid Nettie (Betty Farrington) when she assumes he is "selling something." The first image and appearance of Mrs. Dietrichson is bewitching as she asks: "Is there anything I can do?" She cooly emerges at the top of the stairs landing looking down, wearing only a bath towel on account of being interrupted while sunbathing - she's not "fully covered." Taking her in lustfully, he slyly jokes about the Dietrichsons' insurance "coverage":

The insurance ran out on the 15th. I'd hate to think of your having a smashed fender or something while you're not, uh, fully covered.

When she tells him that she has been taking a sunbath, he again kids her by observing: "No pigeons around, I hope." After she promises to be right down after putting "something on," Neff is told to wait in the living room, but advised to not try to sample the locked liquor cabinet. [In an interesting play on words, Neff asserts that he carries around his own keys - Keyes is the name of his insurance colleague]:

Neff: Where would the living room be?
Nettie: In there, but they keep the liquor locked up.
Neff: That's all right. I always carry my own keys.

As he looks around the musty room, shaded by the slats of the venetian blinds (beautifully filmed by Seitz), his narration describes the dusty-aired, stuffy interior of the sealed-off house - revealed with a few bright shafts of California sunshine streaming in from the outside. His eyes are drawn to a photograph on the piano of Dietrichson and his daughter by his first marriage, Lola:

The living room was still stuffy from last night's cigars. The windows were closed and the sunshine coming in through the venetian blinds showed up the dust in the air. 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 the 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.

As Phyllis comes downstairs into the dark claustrophobic atmosphere (where she is figuratively and literally trapped), the camera is focused on her legs (from Neff's point-of-view) where she wears an engraved, gold ankle strap on her left ankle, flashing it at him. From behind - in a mirror image, he watches her exhibitionism as she finishes buttoning up her dress and putting on her lipstick, and remarks: "I hope I've got my face on straight." When she turns from the mirror, she leaves him still following her with a fixed gaze. She joins him in the tawdry living room, where she looks cool and sexy in a summer dress, but slightly slutty, with a deliberately flashy, fake blonde hairdo with bangs [Stanwyck wore a shoulder-length, phony-looking blonde wig]. As they talk, Neff introduces himself, and discusses the lapsed auto insurance policy and his insurance work:

Phyllis: I hope I've got my face on straight.
Neff: Perfect for my money.
Phyllis: Neff is the name, isn't it?
Neff: Yeah, two 'Fs,' like in Philadelphia, if you know the story.
Phyllis: What story?
Neff: The Philadelphia Story.
Phyllis: Suppose we sit down and tell me about the insurance. My husband never tells me anything.
Neff: Well, it's on your two cars, the La Salle and the Plymouth. We've been handling this insurance for Mr. Dietrichson for three years and we'd hate to see the policies lapse.

After she has seated herself in a big chair in the living room, with her legs crossed and drawn up sideways, his eyes catch sight of her anklet - [he is literally caught in her "honeysuckle" web, a reference that is made later on in the film]:

That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson.

Phyllis smiles and uncrosses her legs and then offers an explanation why her husband has let the car insurance policy lapse - he is too busy down at Long Beach in the oil fields. Neff learns of competition from the Automobile Club for their business, and then suggests a new 50 percent retention feature in the Pacific All-Risk collision coverage. This causes Phyllis to stop short:

Phyllis: You're a smart insurance man, aren't you, Mr. Neff?
Neff: Well I've been at it eleven years.
Phyllis: Doing pretty well?
Neff: It's a living.
Phyllis: You handle just automobile insurance, or all kinds?
Neff: All kinds. Fire, earthquake, theft, public liability, group insurance, industrial stuff, and so on right down the line.
Phyllis: Accident insurance?
Neff: Accident insurance? Sure, Mrs. Dietrichson.

He notices the kinky anklet again, and then in a classic sequence filled with sexual innuendo, they playfully and flirtatiously engage in a double-entendre conversation about "speeding" and "traffic tickets" - a continuation of the driving/fast car metaphor:

Neff: I wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.
Phyllis: Just my name.
Neff: As for instance?
Phyllis: Phyllis.
Neff: Phyllis, huh. I think I like that.
Phyllis: But you're not sure.
Neff: I'd have to drive it around the block a couple of times.
Phyllis: (Standing up.) Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He'll be in then.
Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Neff: That tears it... (He takes his hat and briefcase after his advances are coldly rebuffed.) 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
Phyllis: That's what I suggested.
Neff: You'll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so. I usually am.
Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Neff: (Opening the entrance door.) I wonder if you wonder.

After his first encounter with her, there is a clear mutual sexual attraction between them. In hindsight, Walter mostly remembers the pure physical magnetism he felt for her lethal "honeysuckle" perfume smell (purchased by Phyllis in Ensenada - across the border, she later tells him) - even though he realizes she had a strangely calculating look:

It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Maybe you would have known Keyes the minute she mentioned accident insurance, but I didn't. I felt like a million.

Star top salesman Neff returns to the office where he works with Barton Keyes, an inflexible, expert 26-year veteran claims investigator who is capable of quickly spotting dishonest claims. Sam Garlopis (Fortunio Bonanova), an insured truck driver from Inglewood has submitted a claim for his burned-out vehicle. Keyes tells the claimant about his finely-tuned ability to detect false claims. Like Neff who carries around his own 'Keys,' Barton Keyes possesses his own intuitive "little man" that is capable of shrewdly detecting, rooting out, and punishing evil:

Keyes: Every month, hundreds of claims come to this desk. Some of them are phonies. And I know which ones. How do I know? Because my little man tells me.
Garlopis: What little man?
Keyes: The little man in here. Every time one of these phonies comes along, it ties knots in my stomach. I can't eat.

One of the "knots" in his stomach involves Garlopis' "crooked" claim. Keyes determines that the insurance claim for the truck is fraudulently phony - Garlopis had soaked a pile of shavings with kerosene and lit them in his truck. Treating the man with haughtiness and lack of sympathy or forgiveness, Keyes refuses to listen to the poor truck driver's circumstances: "I'm just a poor guy. Maybe I made a mistake." He quickly convinces the truck driver to sign a waiver on his claim to forgo his claim and make him "an honest man again."

Intolerant, self-righteous and doctrinaire about following rules, Keyes possesses a heartless, absolutist morality. He is upset at company inefficiency and poorly-researched claims:

Keyes: What kind of an outfit is this, anyway? Are we an insurance company or just a bunch of dim-witted amateurs to write a policy on a mug like that?
Neff: Now wait a minute, Keyes. I don't rate this beef. I clipped a note to that Garlopis application to have him thoroughly investigated before we accepted the risk.
Keyes: I know you did, Walter. I'm not beefing at you. It's the company. It's the way they do things. The way they don't do things. The way they'll write anything just to get it down on the sales sheet. And I'm the guy that has to sit here up to my neck in phony claims so they won't throw more money out the window than they take in at the door.
Neff: Okay, turn the record over and let's hear the other side.
Keyes: Well, I get darn sick of tryin' to pick up after a gang of fast-talking salesmen dumb enough to sell life insurance to a guy who sleeps in the same bed with four rattlesnakes. Walter, I've had twenty-six years of this and let me tell ya, I -
Neff: And you loved every minute of it, Keyes. You love it, only you worry about it too darn much, you and your little man.

Neff understands that fast-talking Keyes is driving himself crazy with his constant worrying, "little man," meticulous perfectionism and obsessive, stringent attention to detail:

You're so darn conscientious you're driving yourself crazy. You wouldn't even say today's Tuesday unless you looked at the calendar. Then, you'd check to see if it was this year's or last year's calendar. Then you'd find out who'd printed the calendar and find out if their calendar checked with the World Almanac's Calendar.

Although Keyes knows he has heard the truth about his style, he affectionately asks Neff to leave his office before he throws his desk at him: "Now, that's enough from you, Walter. Now get out of here before I throw my desk at you." They often banter with each other in their easy-going relationship within the company. When Keyes pats his pockets for a match and comes up empty-handed, Walter quickly lights a wooden match for his cigar (one of many such instances in the film). He parts with a loving phrase often spoken to his cohort during the film: "I love you too" - but Keyes doesn't reciprocate the strange affection [until the climactic ending].

Walking back to his office, Neff smugly narrates his thoughts to himself about the seemingly, cold-hearted Keyes - in voice over:

I really did, too, you old crab, always yelling your head off, always sore at everybody. But you never fooled me with your song and dance, not for a second. I kinda always knew that behind the cigar ashes on your vest, you had a heart as big as a house.

In his office, there is a phone message from Phyllis about the car renewals. She changes the appointment from the evening to the next afternoon instead. Walter is intrigued enough to change his schedule around to accommodate her, although he ponders why she avoids the evening appointment with her husband:

But I kept thinking about Phyllis Dietrichson - and the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg.

The next scene follows Phyllis' feet and ankles - from Neff's point-of-view as a remembered gaze - as she descends the stairs again to answer the door. The anklet glistens on her leg as she moves to the entrance hall to open the door, finding him leaning against the doorway with a wide grin on his face:

Phyllis: Hello, Mr. Neff. Aren't you coming in?
Neff: I'm considering it.
Phyllis: I hope you didn't mind my changing the appointment. Last night wasn't so convenient.
Neff: It's all right. I was working on my stamp collection anyway.
Phyllis: I was just fixing some iced tea. Would you like a glass?
Neff: Unless you've got a bottle of beer that's not working.
Phyllis: There may be some. I never know what's in the icebox. Nettie! Oh, about those renewals, Mr. Neff. I talked to my husband about it.
Neff: Oh, you did?
Phyllis: Yes, he'll renew with you, he told me so. As a matter of fact, I thought he'd be here this afternoon.
Neff: But he's not.
Phyllis: No.
Neff: That's terrible.

Walter is suspicious of her motives in another confrontational conversation when he arrives at her place. In the living room, she has poured him a glass of iced tea. Neff realizes that her maid has the day off when she calls again impatiently for the maid. He offers to run the vacuum cleaner:

Phyllis: Nettie! Nettie! Oh I forgot, today's the maid's day off.
Neff: Never mind the beer, iced tea'll be fine.
Phyllis: Lemon? Sugar?
Neff: Fix it your way. As long as it's the maid's day off, maybe there's something I can do for you...like running the vacuum cleaner.
Phyllis: Fresh.
Neff: I used to peddle vacuum cleaners. Not much money, but you learn a lot about life.
Phyllis: I didn't think you learned it from a correspondence course.

Realizing that both the maid and Mr. Dietrichson are not present, Walter asks for her to call him by his first name rather than Mr. Neff as they get comfortable on the sofa. She describes her older husband's (Tom Powers) dangerous profession with the drilling crews in the Long Beach oil fields. Phyllis discusses not only renewing the auto insurance but also buying additional coverage - accident insurance - for her husband:

Phyllis: He's got me worried sick.
Walter: You mean, some dark night a crown block might fall on him -
Phyllis: Please don't talk like that.
Walter: But that's the idea.
Phyllis: The other day, a casing line snapped and caught the foreman. He's in the hospital with a broken back.
Walter: That's bad.
Phyllis: It's got me jittery just thinking about it. Suppose something like that happened to my husband.
Walter: It could.
Phyllis: Well, don't you think he ought to have accident insurance?
Walter: Hmm, mmm.
Phyllis: What kind of insurance could he have?
Walter: Oh, enough to cover doctors and hospital bills, say a hundred and twenty-five a week cash benefit, and you rate around a fifty thousand capital sum.
Phyllis: Capital sum, what's that?
Walter: In case he gets killed. Maybe I shouldn't have said that.
Phyllis: I suppose you have to think of everything in your business.
Walter: Well, your husband would understand. I'm sure I could sell him on the idea of some accident protection. Why don't you talk to him about it?
Phyllis: You could try, but he's pretty tough going.
Walter: Oh, they're all tough at first.


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