Opening Up a Treasure: Double Indemnity
U.S.A. / Paramount Pictures / 1944 / Black and White / 107 Minutes / Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
As its tale of murder and betrayal unfolds, the title of this quintessential film noir will come to represent much more than an insurance policy. First, it doubles the motivation for fast-talking insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to act out his plan of murder. Neff explains to his accomplice and lover Phyllis Detrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) that her husband, their intended victim, must agree to travel to his class reunion by train because the policy they will cash in on pays double on unusual forms of accidental death "... the kind that almost never happens" he says. The symbolism behind the title becomes apparent when, after having killed Mr. Detrichson, Neff must now impersonate or "double" as his fatality and board the train himself in order to fulfil his plan. In doing this, Neff will seal his fate and ultimately fare no better than the victim whose identity he's assumed.
The film's chilling title foreshadows almost every narrative component that will either directly or indirectly relate to the anti-hero's downfall. Consider the evidence. The police have determined that Mr. Detrichson's death was accidental, meaning the only thing that can associate Neff with murder is the insurance claim itself. His friend and shrewd boss, an insurance investigator aptly named Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) has a double of his own, his "little man inside" who acts up when there's a phoney claim submitted. At first, Keyes, much to Neff's relief, thinks the insured's death is accidental. In a brilliant scene occurring in his boss' office, Keyes defiantly rejects his superior's idea of Mr. Detrichson's suicide asking: "Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No... No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk and we'll have to pay through the nose and you know it!" Later, however, his "little man" acts up in the form of a stomach ache when he cannot figure out why, after incurring a minor accident at work, Mr. Detrichson didn't file a claim; still another sign that it's the claim, or in this case the lack of one, that's arousing suspicion.
As Keyes starts to unravel the truth behind the insured's death, Walter and Phyllis' relationship begins to unravel as well. Phyllis' greed comes to the fore when a heated Neff demands the claim be dropped because Keyes knows too much, which she refuses to do. He persists, telling her that it's not just Keyes, but two persons who suspect foul play, the other being Mr. Detrichson's daughter Lola (Jean Heather). Finally, Phyllis’ duplicity is finally acknowledged when she admits to never loving Neff, having simply used him to get rid of her dominating husband. Walter also suggests that she has another guy, Lola's boyfriend, set up to get rid of him. She fires her gun at Walter but not fatally. Walter approaches saying "You can do better than that, can't ya baby?" As Phyllis questions her feelings for Walter when she cannot shoot again, he says coldly "Sorry baby I'm not buying." Phyllis pleads "I'm not asking you to buy, just hold me close." Neff does hold her close and then delivers the coup de grâce: "Goodbye baby." He shoots twice and kills her. Now a double murderer, Neff at first is willing to let Lola's boyfriend take the rap for both Detrichsons' murders. Unwilling to give up his last shred of moral decency, Neff changes his mind, drives to his office and speaking into a Dictaphone, delivers his confession.
This is where the film begins. In noir fashion, the wounded protagonist will narrate the story, delivered in flashbacks, of his demise. Utilising this storytelling device provides added insight into the central character's psychology by allowing him to comment on the preceding actions, reflecting on intentions and thought processes that might otherwise go unexamined. An emphasis on the darker, more complex psychological aspects of the criminal anti-hero is what helps define the film noir movement of the 1940s from the more simply constructed American crime movies of the 1930s like Little Caesar and Public Enemy. It's this realisation of motive, the true essence of film noir, that deepens the story, draws us in and increases our anticipation of the events taking place. We simply care more about characters we know more about. The deepest, most thorough understanding of this protagonist's reasons for his actions is ultimately what makes this film the most outstanding representation of its type. Neff, after having been shot by Phyllis, sweating profusely, confesses Mr. Detrichson's murder into his Dictaphone: "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." That says it all.
Double Indemnity contains another film noir staple in the form of Mrs. Detrichson, the "femme-fatale" who transforms a confident, highly experienced, no-nonsense insurance salesman into a wounded, confused sap. It is with this character, however, that the story suffers its one weakness. Because of the film makers' devotion to Neff's perspective and then those of Keyes, and even Lola's points of view, Stanwyck's Phyllis Detrichson remains underdeveloped, almost a stereotype. Her character’s ambivalence is, to a large extent, out of necessity since we are not supposed to know she is simply using Walter to get rid of her husband and has no legitimate feelings for him until the end of the picture. So naturally with that plot twist in mind, the filmmakers cannot present anything of substance from her point of view.
With this film its primary creator, Billy Wilder, found his true element. The film noir genre allowed him to explore his bona fide passion: the baser side of human endeavour, and steep his patented theme of desire and manipulation in a unique blend of acidic dialogue and cynical outcomes. Wilder's straightforward narrative approach is due in part to his involvement in the authorship of his projects as well as once having been a newspaper reporter. He eschews the stylistic flourishes of fancy camera work and innovative editing techniques used by Hitchcock and Welles. This allows his audience to remain focused on the dramatic elements and prevents distraction by an overtly visual approach.
Wilder's storytelling trademarks would enhance subsequent noir spin-offs such as The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and his masterpiece Ace In The Hole (1951) all of which contribute to a strikingly original and compelling cinematic repertoire.
James M. Cain who authored the similarly plotted The Postman Always Rings Twice also wrote the source material which was adapted by Wilder and noted novelist Raymond Chandler (creator of fictional detective Philip Marlowe) into its superior cinematic incarnation, Double Indemnity. Wilder and Chandler had a notoriously difficult time working together but finally managed to settle into a productive routine whereby Chandler worked primarily on the sensational dialogue while Wilder tightened the story elements. This earned the admiration of Cain who stated that if he had thought of some of the plot solutions the two writers came up with, he would have included them in his original novella.
Fred MacMurray's performance is a revelation. He rarely played the "bad guy" or anti-hero. Here he perfectly conveys the full gamut of Neff's emotional roller coaster ride, from his heightened romantic interest in Phyllis, a close camaraderie with his boss Keyes, right through to his ultimate demise. Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G Robinson two of the most consummate actors of this era are superb here as well.
The film is further aided by the characteristic noir photography of John Seitz, who in addition to capturing Neff behind shadows of bars foretelling his doom, boldly presents us with the most violently dramatic scenes in almost pitch blackness. His photographic artistry is perfectly wedded to Miklos Rozsa's music. Aside from its tragic opening theme, his score alternates between enveloping Walter and Phyllis in a beautiful romantic melody, which adds resonance to their professed feelings, to buzzing around them like nervous insects as the pair deal in their treacherous acts, thus increasing the suspense.
Wilder concludes his story with a scene of subtle poignancy. At the end, Neff notices Keyes standing in the doorway of his office. Keyes has heard most of Walter's confession. Walter asks him if he wouldn't mind waiting a few hours before calling the police, to give him time to make it to the border. "You'll never make the border," Keyes says to him, "... you'll never even make the elevator." As predicted, Neff collapses in the doorway succumbing to Phyllis' gunshot wound. The final exchange between the pair exposes the genuine heart of the story and reveals where the deepest feelings resided all along. Neff asks "You know why you couldn't figure this one Keyes? I'll tell ya... because the guy you were looking for was too close... right across the desk from you." "Closer than that Walter" Keyes replies, to which Walter finishes with "I love you too."
How To Best Appreciate This Treasure:
Currently, its best presentation is on this Region Free Blu-Ray:
Another excellent transfer is this Region B (locked) Blu-Ray from the U.K.
It is also available on this Universal Legacy 2 DVD set:
The film's original score by Miklos Rozsa has recently been made available here: