History & Film: Lust & Greed — Double Indemnity

by Bethany Latham

Femme fatale Phyllis Deitrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and slick insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in 1944's Double Indemnity.

Femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and slick insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in 1944’s Double Indemnity.

When one speaks of film noir (“black film”), it’s a genre that conjures immediate associations – highly stylized American films from the 1930s to 1950s, black and white, dramatic lighting focusing on harsh contrasts between shadow and light, and dark, crime-driven plotlines populated by hard-boiled private eyes and femme fatales. These plotlines often end badly for the protagonists, and it’s a fateful sort of journey; the viewer knows where the road will end, it’s just a matter of the scenery on the way there. This genre finds its roots in the hard-boiled detective novels of the 1930s, the work of authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But the genre quickly outgrew these roots, and even critics who specialize in film noir disagree on the essential elements a film must possess to be so designated. Some offerings often classified as noir have not a detective to be found, near domestic plotlines, were filmed in color, and even have a “happy ending” of sorts (e.g. Leave Her to Heaven, 1945). The genre has also exceeded its original temporal boundaries – newer offerings such as 1974’s Chinatown and a spate of noirs in the 2000s (e.g. The Black Dahlia, Hollywoodland, et al.) harken back to the golden age but have added modern conventions, giving rise to the term “neo-noir.” The genre has even, arguably, made its way into the future with such dystopian noir offerings as Blade Runner (1972). Essentially, defining noir is a matter of style and tone – the viewer knows it the instant she sees it.

I love this genre, and had I word count enough and time, could wax poetic about dozens of films which fit within it. Since I should (must) restrain myself, I’ve chosen one film which I feel is an exceptional offering. It isn’t a typical hard-boiled detective story, and while it showcases most of the conventions of noir, it has a decidedly unconventional protagonist: an insurance salesman.

“Double indemnity” is a term used in life insurance policies, a clause requiring the company to pay double in cases of accidental death. Thus, the observant viewer can guess by the title of this 1944 film of the same name that someone is going to die, “accidentally” on purpose, leaving “loving relatives” with double the insurance payout. The opening credits feature the silhouette of a man, on crutches, hobbling towards the camera, until he completely fills the screen, rendering it dark. The viewer is then violently thrown into the opening scene: a car speeding down a dark roadway. The car skids to a stop and its driver makes his way into the darkened offices of Pacific All Risk Insurance, where the desks are empty at this late hour. He sits, pulls up a Dictaphone, and the viewer finally sees his face, agleam with sweat, as he begins recording his confession: “I killed Dietrichson. Me, Walter Neff. Insurance salesman. 35. Unmarried…I did it for the money, I did it for the woman. I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.” In this succinct opening, the viewer learns not only the entirety of the plot, but is treated to the two primary motivations in film noir: greed and lust. The voiceover is another mainstay of noir, allowing the protagonist (I hesitate to use the word “hero” for such morally bereft individuals) to tell his own tale. For Neff, it begins with a trip out to sunny Glendale to get a renewal on a car insurance policy. When he enters the large Spanish-style house, he finds that the policy owner, a Mr. Dietrichson, isn’t at home, though his (much younger) wife certainly is.

Walter Neff is played with amazing adroitness by Fred MacMurray, a surprising casting decision, as at the time MacMurray was known for playing “nice guys.” In this role, his hint of nice guy charm is subsumed beneath a slick worldliness. It’s personified in the way he lights his cigarettes (for this is the 1940s, and we must all be smoking or drinking – preferably both – all the time): using his thumbnail, he flicks the match into flame in a single, smooth movement. Neff isn’t some nerd toiling over actuarial tables. He’s a salesman. He’s a player. And never is it more evident than in his first meeting with the lady of the house. As he waits in the foyer looking up, she stands on the balcony above, on full display, and she knows it. Clad only in a towel, she’s been sunbathing. Neff mentions his errand, the signature for the insurance renewal, and quips that he’d hate to think that Mrs. Dietrichson wasn’t “fully covered.” The looks exchanged between the two are unmistakable, and Phyllis (for Phyllis she is, as Neff learns from the name engraved on her anklet) goes to change while Neff makes himself comfortable in the living room.

The Dietrichsons’ living room, where much of the most important action in the film takes place, is a world away from the sunny exterior of the house, and is a typical noir environment: it’s still stuffy from last night’s cigar smoke, and one can feel the claustrophobia, though the room is large. Noir characters are always trapped by something, and the fact is reflected in their surroundings. Light slants through the blinds, making horizontal shadows across the furnishings and the inhabitants, a stylistic choice that became a mainstay of noir. Dust motes dance in the bars of light, and there’s an overall feeling of almost smoky obscurity to the scene, as well as confinement. It’s an illustration of the artistic concept of chiaroscuro (Italian for “light-dark”), and noir films use it to excellent effect to highlight faces, to give a three-dimensionality and tone to what are essentially shades of grey. So there the viewer has it: a sunny exterior hiding desperation and darkness inside – just like the characters.

Canny claims adjuster Barton Keys (Edward G. Robinson) relays his suspicions to Neff.

Canny claims adjuster Barton Keys (Edward G. Robinson) relays his suspicions to Neff.

The camerawork on Phyllis is equally effective. She’s framed from high-heeled shoes to hemline as she descends the stairs, inviting the viewer to share in Neff’s ogling of her gams. Phyllis Dietrichson, as played by a very blond and badly be-wigged Barbara Stanwyck, is obviously a femme fatale from the second she steps on screen. She aspires to the taste that comes with wealth, but her racy anklet and platinum hair smack unmistakably of sleaze. She and Neff banter back and forth, with Phyllis mentioning another insurance company with whom her husband has been speaking, and asking cynically if Neff can do just as well. Neff responds that he “never knocks the other guy’s merchandise,” but he can do better for her. Though ostensibly an insurance-related conversation, the double-entendre is obvious, and more like it fly thick and fast. The encounter ends with Neff agreeing to return when Phyllis’s husband is at home.

But of course, the next time Neff comes calling, somehow the husband isn’t home, and it’s the maid’s day off. Phyllis asks with sweet circumspection if she can get a life insurance policy on her husband without “bothering him at all,” but Neff is no fool. He knows her game, and pulls no punches: “You want to knock him off, don’t you? Got a husband that’s been around too long you want to turn into a little hard cash – just give me a call, you think I’ll help you collect.” Neff assures her he isn’t that crazy. “You’ll hang just as sure as 10 dimes’ll buy you a dollar.”

But as the viewer knows, Neff’s fate is already sealed. And that’s another convention of noir this film showcases: the idea of fate like a train on a track, a train that can’t be stopped, speeding the “hero” to destruction. There are opportunities to veer onto different tracks, but protagonists are too greedy, libidinous, or stupid to take advantage of them. Neff and Phyllis repeatedly use the phrase “straight down the line” to describe how they’re joined together in this endeavour. So when she visits him at his apartment, as the rain pours down, they devise their plan to murder her husband, make it look like an accident, and collect the double indemnity payout of $100,000. Neff isn’t completely devoid of conscience; he evinces guilt at depriving Phyllis’s step-daughter, Lola, of her only remaining parent. But even this sentiment seems motivated by less than pure underpinnings – in addition to being “a great little fighter for her weight,” Lola is a very attractive girl, a fact which obviously isn’t lost on Neff when he takes her out to dinner in an attempt to allay her suspicions about her step-mother. This film is somewhat atypical in offering a sort of shared blame, taking a bit of the burden off of the femme fatale, who often bears almost sole responsibility, like Eve, for tempting the “hero” to his dastardly acts. Neff admits that he’s been thinking for years about a play for money just like this, “long before I ran into Phyllis Dietrichson.” Phyllis is the archetypical femme fatale – a sociopathic manipulator wrapped in a package of seeming helplessness – but Neff immediately knows her for what she is. He chooses to throw his lot in with her anyway. So after a convenient fade out, since the Hays Code wouldn’t allow a man and woman not married to each other to be shown in bed together, Phyllis and Neff are on the couch in his apartment, she reapplying her lipstick while he languidly smokes a cigarette. The sex out of the way, they put Neff’s plan into action – it involves Phyllis’s husband, a train, and an “accident.”

Oddly, the third figure which makes up the triangle really isn’t Phyllis’s rude and boorish husband, who’s almost a nonentity except as an impetus for the murder. Rather, it’s Neff’s boss and friend, claims adjuster Barton Keys, played perfectly by a constantly cigar-smoking and shirt-sleeved Edward G. Robinson. Keys can sniff out a false claim a mile away, and once on the scent, he’s as tireless as a blood-hound. Throughout the film, it’s clear that Neff doesn’t fear the police, only his “friend,” Keys. Neff knows the trade, so he knows he’s planned the “perfect” murder, but he also knows Keys is the one man with the capacity to see through it. To Neff’s advantage is the fact that, in this case, Keys is wearing blinders – his friendship with Neff leads him to suspect everyone but the salesman as Phyllis’s partner in crime, once his “little man” (his intuition) tells him it wasn’t an accident. As Keys remarks off-handedly to Neff, “Murder is never perfect. It always comes apart sooner or later. And with two people involved, it’s usually sooner rather than later.” How things “come apart” is one of the most riveting aspects of a noir film, and this one accomplishes it with aplomb. I won’t ruin it for you here, because if you haven’t seen it, you need to watch this movie. But the “come apart” is a staple of noir, for criminals are never allowed to benefit from their crimes – the Hays Code demanded that they reap the morally edifying and criminally punitive consequences of their very naughty actions.

Double Indemnity is directed by Billy Wilder, who had help from Raymond Chandler in writing the screenplay, so snappy dialogue and perfect pacing are a given. The suspense is palpable, and the characterization is spot-on. Though it wasn’t the filmmakers’ original intent, at almost 70 years remove, it has the added bonus for history lovers of providing a window into the past, the West Coast of the 1940s, from the architecture to the costuming to the “technology.” The film was nominated for no less than seven Academy Awards, and didn’t manage to win a single one. The story is based on a novella by James M. Cain, who himself based his work on the real-life murder of a husband by his wife and her lover in 1927 NYC (as a random aside, you can find another fictional treatment of this incident in A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, Scribner, 2011).

So if you’re looking for an archetype that hits all the high points of the film noir genre, look no further than Double Indemnity. In its dark tone and the inevitability of its conclusion, it’s a thematically perfect example of this type of film – and a darn good movie.

About the contributor: BETHANY LATHAM is a professor, librarian, and Managing Editor of HNR. She has written a book, Elizabeth I in Film and Television (2011), and she also publishes in various scholarly and popular journals, as well as writing for EBSCO’s NoveList database. She also serves as Internet Editor and a regular reviewer for Reference Reviews.


Published in Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 63, February 2013

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