One of the most extraordinary of all the films noir, Double Indemnity is a crackling masterpiece from director Billy Wilder. This 1944 picture features a screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler and is based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novella of the same name. It teems with cleverness and a simmering loneliness, embodying all that is wondrous about the genre.
There is a staggeringly chilly relationship at the core of Double Indemnity that keeps the audience guessing right up until the final frame. The trick of it all is that Wilder and Chandler frame the thing in flashback, so there are answers and the whodunit has been revealed. Somehow, the puzzle remains and the fragments are scattered throughout this hard-boiled thriller.
The movie opens with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) returning to his office late at night. He begins speaking into a Dictaphone, confessing to a murder. He addresses his confession to the claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) and the tale reveals itself in flashback as the doomed Neff meets the glorious Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) on a house call.
They share obvious chemistry and Dietrichson is curious about taking out a policy on her husband (Tom Powers) without his knowledge. Neff is turned off at the idea and leaves, but he can’t get the dame out of his mind. She visits him later and he agrees to a scheme that will see him off her husband and allow her to collect twice the insurance policy’s face value. Naturally, there are complications.
Neff’s interest in Phyllis is obvious from the outset. He fixates on her anklet, drives pretty hard for the hoop before she rebuffs him. But he can’t shake her and the “way the anklet cuts into her leg,” so he stews about it when he gets back to his lonely apartment. He stares out at the rain, wondering about its mysteries until she arrives and says he left his hat at her place.
Things crackle like this throughout Double Indemnity, with the world unfolding not in logical loops but in concentric circles of raw sex and shocking ideas. There is a murder at the core of this thing and it’s driven by a sense of attraction, but that attraction is so perverted by time and space that it’s hard to quantify poor Walter and Phyllis as being in any kind of relationship.
Stanwyck’s character says as much late in the game when she tells Walter her true feelings. The actress delivers this with steely precision, accomplishing the discovery of that little area between anguish and icy resolve. There is nothing but rottenness inside her, she claims, and the audience probably believes her. She has the trail of bodies to prove it.
As for Neff, he’s an aloof and hard man. In Phyllis, he’s not just wrapped in a web but he finds an object. He talks to her with word bullets, punctuating his sentences by calling her “baby.” But the word rings out less like a romantic attachment and more like a label, like he’s marking her as a thing. Does he love her or does he just lust after her as a conduit to buck the fixation of his ordinary life?
Keyes is the other piece to this puzzle. He figures shit out. He smokes cigars and, in a way that Neff admires, bucks the fixation of his ordinary life by flaunting authority and running around without a suit jacket. He gets in trouble, but he’s so damn good at his job that nobody cares much. Keyes also never carries matches. They blow up in his pocket, see?
Double Indemnity takes these personalities and their fixations and traps them in a world of shadows and slatted doors. There’s smoke and the streets are slicked with constant rain. John Seitz’s camera courses through the thorny prisons and bars of California’s Spanish-style homes and protracted offices. Every so often, it gets trapped by its own devices.
There is the moment where Phyllis visits Neff just after Keyes, for instance. Here is an occurrence of sublime tension, with the knock at the door coming too soon and Neff wondering when Phyllis is going to show up to ruin everything. But the movie makes her clever and she listens in first, then Seitz’s lens watches her as she hides. It’s a good thing Keyes had such a disagreeable supper.
The settings are desolate, the polish is hard-edged and pitiless, the crime is textbook. Double Indemnity understands the blue basics of ice-cold crime, but it also trades in a scornful sort of futility. As Neff explains at the outset, he did it for money and a woman and he didn’t get the money or the woman. Ain’t that pretty?