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Double Indemnity (1944)

by on 2011/03/03

“They’re stuck with each other, and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end of the line, and it’s a one way trip, and the last stop is the cemetery.”

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Now this is my idea of film noir. It’s not the hard-bitten street cop taking on a gutter mob. It’s worse. An average person, getting ahead, going too far, unable to escape. The vain, terrible struggle of the doomed. In Double Indemnity’s world, there are two kinds of people: those who fear it could happen to them, and those who are fooling themselves.

Based on the novel by James M. Cain, and co-scripted by author Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder, I’d seen the movie once before and remembered enjoying it. Only this time I had a vague flicker of doubt, having been disappointed by Billy Wilder’s later Stalag 17. I need not have been concerned.

Double Indemnity follows the tragic misadventures of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a 35-year-old salesman for Pacific All Risk Insurance of Los Angeles. Exhausted, wounded, and apparently breathing his last, he delivers his confession via dictaphone, a framework employed well in advance of the similar D.O.A. (1950).

It all begins when Neff pays a sales call to an auto policy client, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers). He feels an immediate rapport with Dietrichson’s wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). After an initial period of small talk, flirtation, and careful guarded questions, they plot to eliminate her husband “accidentally” and claim a hundred thousand dollar payment.

However, as quickly as the plan is enacted, complications emerge. Heart-stopping accidents pile up. Neff’s fellow, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), begins an unnerving investigation. Phyllis becomes erratic in playing the waiting game. “We did this so we could see each other but now it’s pulling us apart,” she laments.

Of course, the twists and turns don’t end there, although to say more would spoil it. Double Indemnity is an incredibly textured piece. Like the best heists and mysteries, it engages the intellect in the construction of an alibi, the execution of a plan, and the procedure of an investigation. In addition, great chemistry helps us to empathize with the cast, adding depth and resonance to the logistics.

Its successful broad strokes are complemented by clever and engaging details:

  • The opening image of the local rail works under construction
  • Neff’s description of (cinematically) unconventional senses, like the smell of Phyllis’ perfume and roadside honeysuckle
  • Cards laid above his door and telephone bells, simple tricks presaging those used by James Bond in Dr. No

Impressive enough to merit its own attention, the “detail” of dialogue not only tells the tale, and tells it well, but layers on additional value without undue weight or clumsiness. Neff notes “the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg”, a shackle to the man who “keeps me on a leash so tight I can’t breathe”. He’s drawn in by the vivid imagery, while retaining his paranoid cynicism: “I think you’re swell, as long as I’m not your husband.”

Its confessional narration, winding events, and clever wit all work well, but what really puts this effort over the top are the stylistic details. They push it from melodramatic mystery to legitimate noir. Everything feels like night, even the high-contrast days. Chiaroscuro effects throw shadows across the players, every doorway frames a silhouette, and bright lights may expose uncomfortable truths. As if in defense, characters operate by night, don hats and coats, and surround themselves with cigarette smoke.

Still, there’s just as much significance in the unseen. Critical Rubicons are passed off-camera, planting the violence in our minds, if not our eyes. A lush orchestral score delivers subtle punctuation, then vanishes for long stretches of creepy, suspenseful silence. Through an open window, the strains of distant jazz mark a poignant contrast to the trap the characters have built around themselves.

My greatest insight came in one of Double Indemnity’s many moments of dread, of false failure. A getaway car won’t start. Neff commits suspicious acts only to discover he’s not a suspect. A possible accusation unexpectedly points to suicide. All of these incidents put my nerves through the wringer, and yet none more than Keyes and Phyllis converging on Neff’s home simultaneously. I realized then that I was actually worried about the villains.

A femme fatale in a bad wig and bullet bra is one thing, but rooting for the bad guys? Now that’s noir.

* * * * *

Not rated

108 minutes

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