Sep 261944

What is often missed about Double Indemnity is that it is a comedy, a dark, twisted, comedy. It’s a parody of Film Noir made while Film Noir was still forming. Just count the number of times the word “baby” is used.

Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (From the novella by James M. Cain)
Paramount, 1944
Runtime: 107 min
Cast: Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton)

A Few Thoughts

What is often missed about Double Indemnity is that it is a comedy, a dark, twisted, comedy.  The world of most Film Noirs is an extreme version of our world–everything has been kicked up a notch. Billy Wilder just took it up an additional “notch.”  It’s a parody of Film Noir made while Film Noir was still forming. Just count the number of times the word “baby” is used.

Double Indemnity has one of the most common Film Noir plots. In this version, sleazy (though not “evil”) insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) tries to renew a policy with an unpleasant man, but instead is seduced by his young wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). The two decide to kill the older man, but his death only leads to suspicion and their eventual destruction. James Cain wrote the novella after he’d already used the plot in his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (replace the sleazy insurance man with a rough drifter and the two stories are close to matching). The first Postman film came out two years after Double Indemnity (a second version with Jack Nickolson and Jessica Lange came out in 1981). But The Postman tells the story with deadly seriousness. There are no laughs there. But it’s all laughs in Double Indemnity. Deep seriousness requires some level of hope. When the world is empty, you can only laugh and this world is as empty as they come..

Take one of the most famous exchanges between Walter and Phyllis:

Walter: I wish you’d tell me what’s engraved on that anklet.
Phyllis: Just my name.
Walter: As for instance?
Phyllis: Phyllis.
Walter: Phyllis, huh. I think I like that.
Phyllis: But you’re not sure.
Walter: I’d have to drive it around the block a couple of times.
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He’ll be in then.
Walter: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?
Walter: 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.
Walter: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around 90.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter: That tears it… 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
Phyllis: That’s what I suggested.
Walter: You’ll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so. I usually am.
Walter: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter: I wonder if you wonder.

What a marvelous exchange, and how completely artificial. In Noirs like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, the characters speak in a manner I’ve never heard in real life, but believe, or want to believe, could exist if only I could find someone witty enough. But the dialog in Double Indemnity passes all bounds of reality. No one will ever speak such words at the corner restaurant.

Wilder made satires of society and of humanity, and he didn’t think much of either. In Double Indemnity, there are no really good people, only one bright person, and no way for people to interact in any meaningful way. The moral and intellectual pinnacle of the story is Barton Keyes (Robinson), an insurance investigator with a soft spot for Walter. Yes, he is intelligent, but it has cost him his ability to interact with other humans to the point that he had his long-ago-potential bride investigated (needless to say, she didn’t hold up to deep inspection). Keye’s says that Walter’s not bright, just less stupid then everyone else, and we, the viewers, should accept his view. Phyllis is a bored sociopath. Lola, the daughter, is a spoiled fool. And Nino, Lola’s boyfriend, is a violent thug (mysteriously, he is a medical student). Nino is the barbarian at the gate while Walter is the con man in society.

So in this dark world of stupid, morally bankrupt people, Wilder puts together Walter Neff, who would be at home only on the cheapest of used car lots, and a scantily clad Phyllis Dietrichson in a comically fake wig. They decide to commit murder.  Which brings us to the big question of the film–why? Why do they want to commit murder? Sure, Mr. Dietrichson is a louse. Sure, there is some money involved. But neither of them are that angry with Dietrichson or that greedy. They claim love is the reason, but there is no love between these two. She’s just a conquest to him. He’s just a pawn to her. What’s more, their plan is ridiculous. Neff breaks Dietrichson’s neck, then they plant him on the tracks to imply he fell off the back of a 15 mile per hour train, after taking out a policy that pays double for a death on a train. Their crime is up there with one of Wily Coyote’s. Walter has to know that the policy will bring it all to the attention of Keyes. So why? For fun. For something to do. That’s it. These are two jaded people who play roles in life. They are both successful, more or less. Murder is the next step. The money is just a way of keeping score.

As a final joke, Walter, trying ever so slightly to make amends, sends Lola back to Nino. Perhaps the only good thing to happen in Double Indemnity was Lola leaving Nino, but now they will be back together and he will beat her and society will go on.

What wonderful cynicism.