Double Indemnity (1944)

Dir. Billy Wilder. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

MacMurray made a career out of playing nice guys and friendly fellas, but heaven knows he’s a more effective heel than a buddy. Take one of the early scenes in the movie, where his Walter Neff has seen Phyllis (Stanwyck) in a towel from downstairs. I love scenes which use forwardness like a slap in the face – think Teresa Wright saying that she’s going to break up Dana Andrews’ marriage in The Best Years of Our Lives – and while a married woman in a towel with her hair a little wet is pretty racy for ’44, it has nothing on what Walter says to her when she’s downstairs with him. Here’s a married woman he never laid eyes on before five minutes ago, and his words are so immodest that it’s a wonder that he’s not struck by lightning right in the living room. (He takes his cue from a double entendre Phyllis makes when he comes in, but I’m not sure that was consent even during the Roosevelt administration.) Phyllis, who has probably had to do this bit a few times in her life, politely nudges him away from his ribald propositions, only slightly veiled with metaphor.

Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

Walter: How fast was I going, Officer?

Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.

Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

As much as we are told later on in the film that Walter is a decent guy, a nice guy, someone his anal but amiable boss, Barton Keyes (Robinson), would vouch for personally, this scene stands out. A nice guy does not, while presumably looking for a man to talk about his car insurance, try to get his wife into bed with him on that sales call, or at all, actually. What appears at first to be a demonstration of Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s skill with dialogue is much more than that; it’s our tip-off that Walter Neff is capable of some dastardly doings. In real life, no one would say that every guy ready to come on to a married woman in her home is likely to commit murder. In a noir, eh. MacMurray looks positively voracious in this scene, his pearly whites flashing and his eyes glinting. It’s a wonder that we don’t hear his stomach rumbling while he’s dialing up his repartee. To me, this is the movie’s most shocking scene, and in many ways its most frightening. All’s well that ends well, of course, as the two of them become lovers and accomplices in murder together.

As much as I am fascinated by that early scene where Walter flirts dangerously, I am even more taken by this film’s opening credit sequence, which is haunting in its simplicity. A man walks slowly but deliberately towards the camera on his crutches. His features are totally obscured, implying that this is a shadow more than a real person. At first it’s hard to tell exactly what’s happened to make him walk like that, but the closer he gets, with no further explanation as to what he’s there to do or how he got like that, the greater the foreboding. It’s one of the great tone-setters in a film ever, and between the opening credits and Walter’s pick-up lines, the film helps us to recognize what it’ll be up to, giving us ways to buy into the off-putting scenario, to be less titillated by the idea of a pair of lovers whacking the gal’s husband and more amazed that either one of them could be so rash.

Much of the rest of the film, especially in scenes with Walter and Phyllis together, slides into a sort of doldrums state. That’s always been impressive to me; most films are forced to continue escalating the stakes once they’ve hit a certain point, but Double Indemnity manages to raise the stakes so high early on that it can glide on its already elevated risk until it decides to reach a conclusion. Both of them come to recognize that once they’ve offed Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers), there’s not a whole lot for them to get excited for. The thrill of the sex presumably fades out not long after the killing, and by the midway point of the movie, Walter is spending a lot more time with Phyllis’ willful but well-meaning stepdaughter, Lola (Jean Heather), than he is with the woman he killed for. The movie sludges along in scenes where Walter and Phyllis meet secretly, knowing that the insurance company is wise to the unique circumstances of Mr. Dietrichson’s death. They speak in whispers in Walter’s room, at the local grocery store. Walter tries to get Phyllis to back off of her insurance claim, but she refuses. “All the way down the line,” she says grimly, recalling to him the way that he spoke forcefully about murdering her husband for the princely sum of $100,000. As far as the crime of murder itself goes, the way they went about it was practically perfect. When they say there’s no such thing as a perfect murder, though, “they” mean that what happens after always goes foul. Walter is emboldened and buoyed by Phyllis’ belief in his ability to scam the insurance company to the fullest extent, but going for the fullest extent – double indemnity – is proof that he could never have committed the perfect crime. Like any man given to giving in to his vices, he manages to diminish them while puffing up what’s most impressive about himself. She’ll have to do just what he says if they’re to succeed, Walter tells Phyllis, but doesn’t recognize that he’s most successful when he has a supervisor himself.

The soul of the film is that supervisor, Robinson’s Keyes. Shorter than just about everyone, including Barbara Stanwyck in heels, perpetually wracked with stomach pains due to a quarter-century of stress, he is the computer at the insurance company, a man who knows the actuarial tables backwards and forwards and, better still, is guided by his “little man,” his extraordinary sixth sense of when a claim is fraudulently put forward. Remarkably, he seems to be the only person in the film with a flair for objectivity. Walter and Phyllis have fallen deeply into their own subjective and destructive reality; Lola and her jealous older boyfriend are wrapped up in their own drama offscreen for some time; the boss at the insurance company, Mr. Jackson (Porter Hall), loses his head and all his subtlety when he fears that he’ll have to pay out $100,000 to Phyllis Dietrichson. Only Barton Keyes, stubby and with a taste for cheap cigars, is able to look at scenes with an objective eye, the only one who doesn’t have to be careful to keep his voice at a whisper. And curiously, he is often as not the comic relief as well; when Mr. Jackson hamfistedly tells Phyllis that her husband was a suicide, we can see Keyes roll his eyes. After telling the CEO off for making an enemy of the policy holder, he then accuses him of being clueless about the business of insurance itself, having been born to take over his father’s company. Everyone else in this story benefits from keeping mum. Keyes has a certain talent for biding his time, but he’s as willing to throw a verbal punch as anyone else. It was always hard not to like him; as he makes the brilliant (and absolutely correct) leap that Mr. Dietrichson had never been on the train but was in fact murdered and placed on the train tracks, we start to root for him as well. Walter is laconic and cool, traits which are amplified by MacMurray’s smooth voice. Keyes is active, always sparking, providing life to a film that is willing to stroll to its conclusion rather than sprint. Double Indemnity is paced beautifully, but part of the film’s success there is in handing over scenes to Keyes for him to anchor.

I don’t love the film noir trope of beginning with the end via narration; I think it reveals too much about what will happen to the character, even if we know from the conventions of the genre that our leading man won’t make it to the end anyway. (Ironically, I think Sunset Blvd and Double Indemnity are otherwise perfect movies, among the top twenty-five ever made in America, so I guess it matters less than I think it does.) In Double Indemnity, the strategy more or less pays off in the end. Walter, who has been hurt badly, perhaps mortally, has finished narrating his confession into a dictaphone at work in the wee hours. Walter is confronted by Keyes, who shows up in time to understand the gist of what his protege has been up to. The final shot of the movie is as effective as the opening credits. “You’re all washed up, Walter,” Keyes has said already. Lying on the floor, barely able to support himself to sit up, Walter’s body has proved that point totally. Keyes intends to get him a doctor, a solution Walter rejects. Perhaps he recognized the way that the blinds cast a shadow on him a few times in the film resembles a prisoner’s stripes, and he clearly sees no reason to be fixed up only to be kicked down again. Keyes, squatting down to Walter’s left, can only light a cigarette for Walter as he watches whatever’s left of his friend seep out.

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