Directed by Billy Wilder
Double Indemnity helped establish the film noir genre on the big screen. So many of the plot points and so much of the film’s style has been replicated countless times, from the narration of a doomed, morally-compromised protagonist to the slicing light that isolates part of a character’s face, hiding them in the shadows and suggesting a rotten heart that lurks beneath so many of us.
The noir storyline often involves crime and people who work in and around criminal activity, whether a cop or a private eye or, in this case, an insurance agent. The noir hero is jaded at the start of the film, then he identifies a way out of this way of living before the final downfall reaffirms his jaded perspective. Oftentimes this ‘way out’ is through the femme fatale, a seductive character who charms the protagonist but ultimately reveals herself to have double-crossed him. This trope takes the self-serious hero, already hardened to the ways of the world, and shines a light on his subtle optimism or hope underneath this gruff exterior. When she reveals herself to have been misleading him, he realizes that this is the way of the world. The jaded hero’s downfall often acts as a greater indictment of the world around him. It’s not just about what he’s gotten himself mixed up in, but how society has ruined him.
In films like these there is a heavy sense of doom. Like in director Billy Wilder’s famous film, Sunset Boulevard, we open with the narration of the protagonist, introducing us to his own downfall. In that later film, Joe Gillis talks to us from beyond the grave. We see that he’s already a dead man floating in the pool, and this gives the story a sense of doom. In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) staggers into his boss’ office to record a confession. Sweaty and mortally-wounded, we know that things aren’t going to end well, and soon Neff discusses the trap he found himself in. Though he’s not dead, he’s just as doomed as Joe Gillis.
Like later noir films, the entire story is narrated by the criminal, Neff. He is the antagonist to the character who would normally be the protagonist in this type of film, his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Keyes is wise, and it’s his job to look at each death that comes across their desk with suspicion. When someone dies, their life insurance policy demands a payout, and it’s up to Keyes to figure out if there was any foul play.
Neff meets Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and soon learns about her desire to have her husband killed, hoping to benefit from a life insurance policy he doesn’t yet have. From the start, Phyllis’ plan is so transparent, as Neff notes, but we know she’s up to something, at least because of the conventions of this type of character. She’s too smart for her own good, and Neff will surely fall under her spell.
Neff doesn’t bat an eye when he points out the flaws in her plan. He’s actually quite intrigued– well, he’s just attracted to her. They quickly profess their shared love and concoct a plan to have Phyllis’ husband unwittingly sign off on a life insurance policy before they will have him killed. The quickness with which Neff rushes into this plan points to his own darkness. We don’t have any reason to want Phyllis’ husband dead, as even Neff observes in his narration, but we go with it anyway.
After they go through with the plan, without a hitch, Keyes starts to investigate the death. He’s been at this job for too many years, seen too many things to believe this was an accidental death or even a suicide. There is something oddly delightful about watching Keyes unfurl this thought to be fool-proof plot, just as it was intriguing to watch as Neff carefully organized the murder.
As Keyes gets closer and closer to the truth, Neff starts to lose his cool. For a slick-looking, cigarette-smoking scowl of a man, it’s weirdly funny watching him squirm. This is when I think the film best uses Wilder’s comic sensibilities in conjunction with co-writer Raymond Chandler’s darker tendencies. Chandler, the writer of other noir detective stories following a private eye named Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye), brings an edge to this story that I don’t think you find in other Wilder films, even the one closest in nature to this, Sunset Boulevard.
I typically think of Wilder’s films as comedies. Two of his most celebrated films are 1959’s Some Like It Hot, about two men who have to go undercover as women in a travelling band where one of them develops an infatuation with Marilyn Monroe, and 1960’s The Apartment, about a company man who rents out his apartment to the executives for their extramarital affairs. Both premises are pretty absurd, based more in comedy than in drama. His first film, The Major and the Minor, just to add to this point, is about a woman who poses as a child in order to get a free train ticket but then must keep up the ruse even as she falls in love with a man who acts as a temporary guardian to her.
Double Indemnity is very dark, especially for the time, though I think there is a fine line between the darkness of the plot and comedy. Like a comedy (or a horror movie these days), the tone of the film is heightened, unlike the world as we know it. Everything is lathered in harsh shadows, the characters scowl like they just ate spoiled hummus, and everyone’s motive is suspect, even the good guy Keyes whose only motivation is financial.
In this way, the out of this world quality is so rigidly adhered to that it’s almost funny. The way Neff is so sure of himself is amusing, and the way he gets more and more nervous as the walls close in is kind of funny. Hell, the way he routinely says “baby” to Phyllis is hilarious, like the low-voiced mutterings of a fifteen year old trying out the term for the first time.
These characters already feel like parodies of themselves, even if the film takes it all very seriously. It’s a serious storyline, about murder and betrayal, but framed through these two characters’ eyes it becomes very melodramatic, and I think Wilder knew it and embraced it.
As Neff’s plan starts to come apart, he panics. He is quick to abandon Phyllis despite his insistence that he loved her when the police start to close in on her. He discovers that another man may have been involved with her, and this betrayal or just sexual insecurity pushes him to distance himself from her. Then he starts to fawn over the dead man’s daughter who peculiarly becomes close with him, her father’s insurance agent. When’s the last time someone poured out their soul to an insurance agent?
Neff starts to spend all his time with her before he confronts Phyllis and tells her she’s going down, planning to kill her and putting the blame on the other man she’s been spending all her time with. Phyllis reveals that this was her plan as well, and she shoots Neff in the shoulder but says that she loves him so much she couldn’t kill him.
Neff then shoots her, shoots the man who was supposed to kill him, and he stumbles into his office, mortally-wounded from the gunshot, to record the confession which frames the entire story.
In the novella on which this story is based, Neff and Phyllis commit joint suicide, but this “was strictly forbidden at the time by the Hays Production Code as a way to resolve a plot, so Wilder wrote and filmed a different ending in which Neff goes to the gas chamber while Keyes watches.”
This other ending was filmed but ultimately abandoned when Wilder realized that the ending, with Keyes helping the dying Wilder light a cigarette as he’s slumped against a doorframe, was good enough. It also eliminated another hurdle to passing the production code as the gas chamber scene was considered too gruesome to show.
Double Indemnity was considered untouchable by some, both by producers who refused to consider making a story about such a morally-bankrupt protagonist or by people upon the film’s release. Despite that, the movie is relatively tame, finding ways to avoid showing anything in too much detail. When Neff murders Phyllis’ husband in a car that she drives, the camera shows her hardened face, with the murder just offscreen. Similarly, the gunshots look harmless, at least as they’re filmed, and Neff’s death occurs rather quietly even as he’s in intense pain. After he collapses but before he dies, Keyes asks, “How are you doing Walter?” and Neff has enough of a sense of humor to deliver the line, “Fine… somebody moved the elevator a few miles away.”
The film was incredibly successful upon its release. A style that now feels inherent to the genre was something like revolutionary at the time. The film, set in sunny Los Angeles, takes place mostly in dark interiors with “gloomy, rotten interiors shot on soundstages to give the audience a sense of what lurks just beneath the facade – and just who is capable of murder. The contrast was heightened, in Wilder’s words, by “dirtying up” the sets. Once the set was ready for filming, Wilder would go around and overturn a few ashtrays to give the house an appropriately grubby look. Wilder and Seitz also blew aluminum particles into the air so that, as they floated down, they looked just like dust.”
The harsh, contrasting light can be traced back to German expressionism though a little toned down from what inspired it here. In films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the image is often distorted, with strong edges of light and dark. The result can be disturbing or exciting, but it’s certainly out of this world.
Though less obviously distorted, Double Indemnity makes use of the strong light and dark shadows, most often imbuing the film with a sense of overall darkness.
Characters lurk or hide in plain view. They try to blend into a world that offers them placed to hide, like it’s made for people as rotten as Walter Neff and Phyllis.
The lighting and staging, in this style, becomes much more symbolic than literal. Cinematographer John F. Seitz used “venetian blind lighting which almost gives the illusion of prison bars trapping the characters. Barbara Stanwyck later reflected, “…and for an actress, let me tell you the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter’s apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles – all that helped my performance. The way Billy staged it and John Seitz lit it, it was all one sensational mood.”
“According to Robert Sklar, a former chairperson of the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University, classic film noir is marked by major thematic elements: a plot about how a crime told from the point of view of the criminal, psychosexual themes are explored, and a visually “dark and claustrophobic framing, with key lighting from sources within the mise-en-scène casting strong shadows that both conceal and project characters’ feelings.”
It should also be said that Double Indemnity is extremely entertaining. It’s not just another academic viewing of a classic film that is only significant because of what it inspired for future films. The story and the characters are thrilling and amusing to watch. You want to see how it ends, even if you know they’re doomed. Perhaps there’s just something interesting about the slow motion train crash that is their lives. As corrupt people we don’t necessarily mind watching Neff and Phyllis go down in flames, especially since they’re quick to try and take the other down as well.
Up Next: The Lost Weekend (1945), The Lady Eve (1941), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)