Double Indemnity (1944) dir. Billy Wilder writ. Raymond Chandler & Billy Wilder (from the novel by James Cain) cine. John Seitz music Miklos Rozsa edt. Doane Harrison star. Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Porter Hall, Fortunio Bonanova, Jean Heather, Bess Flowers, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, John Philliber


Lawrence Russell

the cosmology of sex

Double Indemnity: is this the definitive film noir? 1) it's in black and white, and 2) it certainly has the pathology: a woman gets a man to commit her crimes on the promise of sex and big money. And that her male dupe is betrayed and takes the fall for the crime is de rigueur for the genre. It's an ancient story, older than the Bible and the moralists who wrote it, a mythology from our genes, perhaps.

The frame narrative that contains the story of Los Angeles insurance agent Walter Neff's entrapment and destruction by the fatal sexual magnetism of the ex-nurse Phyllis Dietrichson is classic Wilder, one which he was to repeat with stunning ironic effect in Sunset Boulevard... and one which, on the face of it, should be the wrong way to tell a story. If the fate of the protagonist is revealed from the beginning, what's left to keep you watching?

A lot. Double Indemnity is a trial in the court of public opinion. We know the accused is guilty as he has confessed... but we want to know the details because this man Neff (Fred MacMurray) doesn't look like a criminal even though he's been shot and is reciting his confession into the dictaphone of his boss. The use of the dictaphone is more than a visual prop, as Neff adopts the terse narrative style of an office memo to reveal his role in the murder of the oil industry manager Dietrichson and the attempted fraud of the Pacific All Risk insurance company. It's interesting to note that the script writer -- the famous crime novelist Raymond Chandler -- used a dictaphone to outline his stories, so the novelty of this new technology was something he was familiar with. So we take sociological/cosmological notice that on the eve of the Second World War, the confession has become a secular ritual between man and his machine.

Double Indemnity: Neff confesses

The cosmology of sex: in a divine universe, sex is the completion of a crime; in a secular universe, sex is the prelude to a crime.

Double Indemnity exists in a placenta of secular astrology, where fate and chance are subject to the mathematics of an insurance company's actuarial tables rather than to the divine Fortune of a Christian God... or any god for that matter. Fate is a condition of individual intelligence, knowledge of the odds, the mathematics of the perfect crime. In this way the male patsy is invariably an expert, an insider capable of executing his lover's desire with stealth and viral consequence. Walter Neff is just such a man. Walter Neff is the architect of the symbolic matrix, double indemnity, a scripted crime in which the rip-off is a double payoff for double trouble.

As Neff dictates his final memo to his boss -- the little man with the big cigar, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) -- the story reverts to the beginning, when Neff stops off at the Dietrichson's Mediterranean revivalist villa in Glendale one day in May, 1938, on a routine car insurance assignment. Dietrichson isn't home but his wife is, wrapped in a towel, fresh from "a sun bath". It's lust at first sight, especially when Neff spots that kinky little ankle bracelet on that kinky little ankle as Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) descends the tiled stairway.

Phyllis: You from the Automobile Club?

Neff: All Risk....

Double Indemnity: Stanwyck as femme fataleIndeed. It's not long before Neff is willing to risk all for this luminous blond femme fatale who seems to be the perfect partner for his thrust and parry dialogue:

Neff: (as they walk to the door) 8.30 tomorrow evening, then...

Phyllis: That's what I suggested.

Neff: Will you be here too?

Phyllis: I guess so. I usually am.

Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean...

Neff: I wonder if you wonder...

In a society where manners mean discipline, innuendo is the preferred method of sexual engagement. Chandler was a master of this sort of sub-textural dancing, where dialogue is always a hidden agenda about to be revealed. "I wonder if you wonder" is the sort of brilliant mutant palindrome in which the statement is its own mirror -- "I wonder if you wonder/ you wonder if I wonder" -- a telepathic seal on the perfect crime.

murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle

The ambiguous character of MacMurray's Walter Neff... a nice guy, modestly successful, but a loner with a faint smell of cynical opportunism within his persona, a salesman who won't say no to a glass of ice tea... or maybe an extra pair of panties for his closet. While there's no evidence of any previous skullduggery, we sense that his fall from grace isn't from a great moral height. On the walls of his bachelor apartment we might notice the triptych of bare-knuckle prize-fighters... but think nothing of it. He has a nice manner, is respected at work -- Keyes wants him to be his assistant manager.

Yet, smart as he is, Neff is just another blind love chump: "How could I have known that murder sometimes smells of honeysuckle...."

The smell of the Spring honeysuckle on the roads of Glendale remind him of Phyllis' perfume, a scent she says she picked up across the border in Ensenada. Even as he's dying from her bullet, his last action is to try and get to the border, as if this sanctuary might somehow return him to the arms of the woman who betrayed him.

Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale isn't as much a testimony to her beauty as it is to her superb acting and the magical noir cinematography of John Seitz. She's no voluptuary, no garter-belt maw of erotic death, but an atmosphere. Like an animal, Neff recognizes her by smell, not by common sense. Stanwyck's Phyllis has the urgent edge of destiny, the woman who has been waiting for his arrival, and now that he has arrived, becomes his tarot for the future.

In the recently invented culture of thirties Los Angeles, people encounter people without history. It's Neff's misfortune to discover when it's much too late that Phyllis has a history -- one that includes the murder of her husband's first wife. Like a black widow spider, Phyllis uses sex as a weapon, and her pleasure is political more than sensual.

Orgasm and death, incubation and replication -- this seems to be the bleak mechanistic reduction of it all, the black loveless heart of the matter. Within the modernist sets of the classic film noir sex is primarily an act of self-destruction.

the murder: the play within

A minimized situation as a maximized action is classic Billy Wilder. Consider the scene where Neff visits the acerbic, alcoholic Dietrichson in his house in order to get his signatures on two sets of forms -- one for his automobile insurance, the other for the double indemnity life insurance his wife and her new lover have arranged as a prelude to his death. Tired, irritated, distracted by his daughter Lola's unacceptable liaison with a med-school dropout, Dietrichson is easily duped, signs the second form, accepting Neff's assurance that it's merely a required duplicate of the first.

But just as his deception has been initiated, so too the deception of Neff himself. The symbolism is in the chequers game that Phyllis and Lola play nearby. Lola says she's going out to meet her girlfriend, denies any intent of meeting her boyfriend, the penniless Nino Sergetti. Yet when Neff leaves the house, he finds the sexy young Lola waiting for him in his coupe... and once again he finds himself being manipulated by a woman. But who is manipulating who? As it develops, Neff's ambiguous relationship with Lola fits perfectly with Phyllis' second agenda.

The actual murder of Dietrichson is carried out like a play wherein Neff is both his assassin and his understudy. That Neff pretends to be the dead man complete with crutches and leg cast when he boards the train for Palo Alto is both a prophecy and a parody of his fate. Like some latter day Oedipus, his wounded leg is a fatal match for the bracelet that Phyllis wears on her left ankle.

So Neff pretends to be Dietrichson and pretends to fall from the Observation Car of the train... and when the police find Dietrichson's body it seems to be a simple case of accidental death, regardless of how rare death by falling from a train happens to be. It's so rare, so improbable, it qualifies as a double indemnity in Pacific All Risk's actuarial scale. So a $50,000 payout becomes $100,000 (which in 1938 would be the equivalent of a million five today or thereabouts).

Yet it's the very improbability of this form of death that draws Keyes's suspicions. Edward G. Robinson embraces his role of the little man with a "little man" inside like an old snake guarding a treasure.

Double Indemnity: Keyes with NeffWhile his expression is as sour as the cigars he habitually smokes, he nevertheless has real affection for Neff, and even offers him a job as his assistant. When Neff turns him down, Keyes says, "I thought you were smart, Walter... but you're just little taller." This reference to size is, of course, a reference to the double-self: big man, little man, moral man, smart man.

straight down the line

The symbolisms make us smile with their forthright ironies. Dietrichson's "double" crutches are incidental compared to the many other instances of "double" imagery, such as Neff's two "crimes" (Dietrichson and his daughter) or his two shots when he completes his role as sexual executioner. The self-serving morality of the situation is often repeated in the phrase "straight down the line", a euphemism that bonds Walter and Phyllis in their murder pact. Whether "rolling a few lines" in the bowling alley to relieve tension or constructing a false accident between the two rails on the train tracks, the line these greedy pair of lovers follows is anything but straight.

And it's through the second woman -- Dietrichson's daughter Lola -- that Neff learns just how divergent Phyllis really is. It's Lola who reveals that Phyllis murdered her mother, and that Phyllis is now involved with the chippy Nino Sergetti. Jealousy is one thing, but what are we to make of Neff's relationship with Lola? We never see him having sex with Phyllis, yet we assume it, just as Keyes through his intuitive "little man" assumes there is something not right about the Dietrichson claim. But Neff and Lola? He sees her repeatedly in parallel to Phyllis' "affair" with Sergetti, takes her to dinner, listens to her cry (just as he'd listened to Phyllis cry) on the hill above the Hollywood Bowl... all ostensibly in a friendly way to distract her from those accusations about her cheating lover and her murdering step-mother.

Double Indemnity: Lola and NeffIn their first scene alone together, Lola says, "I thought you could let me ride with you...." We just know that if Double Indemnity were to be remade today, say, ambiguity would be discarded, the sex scenes made explicit.

So is Neff acting sexually or politically? Phyllis thinks it's both. In their final scene she accuses him while admitting her own nefarious duplicity with Sergetti.

accidentally on purpose

When Phyllis's double-cross is confirmed for Neff (after listening to a recording of Keyes's analysis of the claim), he realizes one murder is not enough. Keyes has had Sergetti tailed and now Sergetti is viewed as Phyllis's accomplice. Is it jealousy or criminal pragmaticism that sends Neff into the honeysuckle night to settle up with Phyllis in her dimly lit house?

Double Indemnity: a Noir den

This is one of the great film noir scenes, photographically as well as dramatically. Phyllis, scented and wearing silk pajamas, conceals her pearl-handed pistol below a cushion before dimming the lights. She lights a cigarette, settles back on the couch to await Neff. The shadows of the venetian blinds cast their signature noir bars across the stucco wall. When Neff enters, he is preceded by his shadow, as if this rendezvous is already in the immaterial world.

Phyllis: We're both rotten.

Neff: Only you're a little more rotten than me....

Phyllis shoots first but seems unwilling or incapable of finishing the job. Conscience or real love? In their final clinch, Neff fires twice, makes no mistake. Double Indemnity. As he leaves the house, he remembers to pick up his hat... that recurring metaphor in this modernist fable of sex and death. No longer will they meet "accidentally on purpose".

crime and the impotent lover

Lola recounts to Neff how she saw Phyllis in the days before her father's death trying on a black hat, rehearsing to be a widow before the mirror. The pre-meditated murder is an act of theatre for the impotent lover. Both Phyllis and Neff are childless loners, individuals who are constantly rehearsing, yet never create anything except death. Both might be rotten, but they are allowed a small measure of redemption. Phyllis's hesitation, her inability to finish Neff off suggests some love, however small. But Neff's second thoughts about his frame-up of Sergetti suggests a much grander love, a real contrition -- he might be doomed but there's no reason why Lola shouldn't have a second chance.

Walter Neff carries Phyllis Dietrichson's bullet with him to end like a snake bite. In fact, he wasn't shot in the middle of July when this sordid tale concludes, but rather in May when he first saw and was scented by her. "I loved you, Walter, and I hated him," says Phyllis in the final clinch. "I wasn't going to do anything about it... until I met you. You planed it."

Even today, looking in on Walter Neff as he recites his death monologue into the absurd horn of a primitive recording machine, the whole business looks and feels like an elegant madness. In the noir universe, there's no insurance for an agent who writes his own plan, it seems.

© LR 6/2000


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