I picked up an inexpensive DVD of this film for this project and was rewarded by an intro from one of those TV commentators that introduce old movies from what I am guessing is Turner Classic Movies. And what did I learn? That it took eight years to get Double Indemnity made. That was just getting the script approved by the Hays Code. Casting was another problem as all three of the leads had to be talked into making the film. Fred MacMurray mostly did romantic comedies and didn’t think he was the right kind of actor for the role before his studio contract put him into the film anyway. Barbara Stanwyck loved the script but mostly played good girl roles, so she wasn’t initially sure she could play a murderer. Edward G. Robinson also loved the script but was resistant mostly because he didn’t want to simply have a supporting role.
Granted, all three made the film and the cinematic world is better for it.
Now, as I posted in a past YouTube Selection, Double Indemnity‘s co-writer/director Billy Wilder was recently selected as the best screenwriter of all time by a survey of working screenwriters. From what I have learned, Wilder was more interested in a good script than any fancy camera work, and while he does have some very distinctive shots in his portfolio, it’s often his dialogue that really snaps. That’s important for a noir, and we might be hard-pressed to find a better noir.
It certainly helps that Wilder’s writing partner on Double Indemnity was Raymond Chandler, the writer who probably more than anyone else invented the genre.
Noir is often about a world where everyone is at least a little corrupt. The protagonist isn’t a heroic figure. At best, he’s only in a moral grey zone. At worst, he’s a villain in a protagonist’s role. The latter is the case here. Insurance agent Walter Neff (MacMurray) goes to a client’s house because the policy lapsed, and he wants to see if the client will renew. There he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), and she makes a rather striking entrance given her attire..or lack thereof.
OK, an attractive blonde in just a towel (she was sunbathing when Neff stops by) is bound to get the man’s attention. What keeps it? She has a plan and he’s the right guy to maybe pull it off. She claims her husband is verbally abusive. He believes it, and if they can get her husband to purchase a life insurance plan with a double indemnity clause, then the two might be set for life. Why? That would pay out extra money if the man dies in an accident. Once the man buys the policy, the two kill him and fake an accident.
By the by, seeing as how Phyllis is basically a Lady Macbeth to a pliable tool thinking with his hormones, I was a little surprised to see the husband really is a verbally abusive man.
Surprisingly, there is a moral force here in the form of Neff’s boss and friend Barton Keyes (Robinson). Given that Robinson is probably best remembered for playing mobsters, that is a surprise, but Keyes has a talent for smelling a rat and finds there’s something off about Phyllis’ claim. That said, as much as Keyes is portrayed as a good man, one who has been a good friend to Neff, the man the framing device sets up as the figure a wounded Neff is confessing to, he’s not a cop. He’s an insurance investigator. He’s not there to see justice is done. He’s there to make sure the company doesn’t have to pay out a large false claim.
And yes, Neff is caught, but not by Keyes. He’s caught by greed, his and Phyllis’. The pair of murderers don’t even trust each other well enough to finish their scheme. Neff hears that Phyllis might be going with another man, her stepdaughter’s boyfriend, and that’s on top of the other issues, like Phyllis’ late husband getting the idea that Phyllis was looking to kill him and changing his will to let that same stepdaughter inherit the money. Phyllis and Neff fight, Phyllis shoots Neff, and Neff shoots Phyllis in a final embrace. She’s dead. He may be dying. The only thing left to do is go back to the office and make a final report for Keyes.
One of the things that allowed Wilder to get the script past the Hayes Code, by the by, was the fact that both the leads are punished for their deeds. He make some other changes, ending not with Neff’s execution but simply with a wounded Neff lying on the floor, possibly dying, as Keyes reassures him that the two were actually friends. That’s the closest a film like this can come to giving its lead character a happy ending. The standards of the time insisted that crime should never pay.
But really, even if it was somehow forced, the two leads paying for their crimes is really the only way a story like this can end. Neither Neff nor Phyllis are trustworthy. Neff is controlling and looking to manipulate everything to his own benefit, though as he notes in his first scene he didn’t get the money or the girl. Phyllis can clearly see that Neff himself actually is an easily-manipulated pansy, and when she can’t get what she wants from him, or she may have finally gotten it, she can push him aside. That should not be a surprise to anyone. Of course it ends with the two punished. They were both villains, but they were also completely incapable of accomplishing their goals by working together. He didn’t know what he was dealing with, and she ultimately wasn’t interested in sharing.
That’s noir for ya.
NEXT UP: Three World War II veterans comes home and try to adjust to civilian life in the 1946 drama The Best Years of Our Lives.