Deep Black Noir: “Double Indemnity”

“Murder sometimes can smell like honeysuckle…”
Patrick Coffin

The film noir genre is on dark, velvety display in such films as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946),The Postman Always Rings Twice (adapted in seven different films since 1946). But director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) uniquely typifies film noir and provides an enduring ideal for filmmakers. Some film historians say the genre began with the Wilder film, although, as William Park points out in his definitive study, What Is Film Noir?, the term wasn’t much in circulation prior to the 1970s anyway.

To help bring the popular serialized James M. Cain novella to the big screen, Wilder brought in Raymond Chandler, the famous hardboiled writer known for his rat-a-tat dialogue and brilliant use of subtext (Chandler’s most famous creation was detective Philip Marlowe).

The story is simple and direct enough. A successful insurance salesman falls for the wife of one of his clients and eventually agrees to participate in killing him in such a way that triggers a double indemnity clause in the policy (the widow gets twice the pay-out if the client dies in any of the narrow, highly unlikely, ways).

Because it’s noir and not straight drama, things go terribly, irredeemably wrong.

Double Indemnity breaks one of the cardinal rules of story-telling—we know the final outcome in the first seven minutes. Would-be lover and co-conspirator Walter Neff (a grim-faced Fred MacMurray) makes a full after-hours confession into his Dicta-phone, and yet we stayed riveted nonetheless. We know the whole thing goes down in flames, but we don’t know when or why.

Throughout Double Indemnity, we’re in thrall from beginning to end, attentive to every detail of each scene, waiting to see what misstep or discovery will trigger the deadly collapse of the whole conspiracy. Wilder and Chandler construct a voiceover flashback to the future. Very few movies can hold an audience in suspense if they already know how the story ends—Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is a good example of a rule-proving exception.

A few allusions to the death penalty give the viewer quiet little reminders of what the diabolical duo risk by going through with it—“straight down to the end of the line,” as the wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), puts it. The line is repeated several times by the pair and delivered ironically given at the end by boss Keyes, who uses it as a metaphor for the cemetery. A gas chamber scene was, in fact, filmed but dropped from the final cut; except for still photos, it has been, to date, not recovered.

Neff’s attraction to Mrs. Dietrichson arises at their first meeting in her living room while the head of the house (Neff’s client) is not at home. Neff drops by innocently enough to remind him to renew his car insurance. Phyllis, sensing a malleable mark, steers the conversation toward accident insurance. They openly flirt in a scene that provides an astonishing amount of exposition about illicit sexual desire hidden just beneath the surface of chit-chat about speed limits and the shininess of her anklet. At this point the movie could have been titled Double Entendre.

Their entire relationship is compressed into that first exchange. It’s the meeting of two needs: his need to give off a whiff of conquering machismo and her need to find a partner in crime. It’s also a study of the relationship between greed and lust, and how each frenetic impulse feeds off the other.

Neff is more weak than evil. He’s a clever man, but not terribly wise. Phyllis certainly sees him as tailor-made to her plans because he’s an insider to the very industry she wants to scam. As noir dames go, Phyllis isn’t really even classically pretty. Her strength lies in her feminine wiles, her subversive charm, and her smoldering eye contact. By the end of the first act, the Johnny Mathis line, “Look at me—I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree,” comes to mind while watching Neff’s willing submission to Phyllis’ spell. Despite the Brillo pad hairdo, Barbara Stanwyck’s performance exudes the mesmerizing sexiness of a femme fatale who knows the exact location of her would-be lover’s buttons, when to push them, and when to back off and let him chase her.

That a movie that trades on adultery and murder could even get made in 1944 is remarkable. The announcement of the Cain novella’s adaptation triggered letters of concern from the Breen Office (formerly known as the Hays Production Code office) to Paramount executives. As often happened during the Golden Age of cinema, the limits imposed by the Production Code resulted in the shaping of a very strong script that manages to convey the intensity of lust (and its horrendous aftermath) without falling into voyeurism or explicit violence. If Double Indemnity were remade today, its makers would force-feed us all the salacious bits that the original left to the imagination.

The protagonist Neff is a snapshot of fallen human nature. Slowly, through one small decision at a time, his temptation to break the Sixth Commandment mushrooms into breaking the Fifth—a dynamic as old as David and Bathsheba. On the other hand, when the scheme is almost accidentally toppled by Lola, the 19-year-old daughter from Mr. Dietrichson’s previous marriage, Neff shows a softer side. He wants to protect the girl, but their scenes together are thick with irony since he himself is the harm from which he wants to shield her.

Then there’s the smart, sparkling dialogue between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. The same talent for spotting phony claims that Neff admires in his boss becomes a source of heart-pounding anxiety. The two insurance pros enjoy a rough-and-tumble rapport, replete with mock barbs and ironic tension. Keyes is the confessor to whom Neff unburdens himself into the Dicta-phone—then a new invention—although an absolution never comes.

Keyes’ references to his inner “little man” (said while pointing to his stomach) are funny, but to Neff they now represent a clear threat to the capital crime he intends to commit. Keyes’ little man may also stand for Neff’s own conscience, which he has eroded and hardened with the deepening intention to join Phyllis, come what may. And, boy howdy, does it come.

Double Indemnity is an extended parable of the stages of sin: you see the fruit; you want the fruit. But the fruit is forbidden, so you have to jigger the system—starting with euphemisms. At each step you rationalize, ignore inconvenient facts, and eventually you take the whole bait, forgetting that the bait always comes with the hook. And the hidden hook is barbed, and extremely sharp. This sense of danger lurking beneath the normal-seeming surface is a hallmark of artfully made film noir, as Hitchcock’s career attests.

The look and feel of noir stems equally from cinematography as from art direction and costume. Director of photography John F. Seitz brings his gift for atmospheric dread to the visual ambiance of Double Indemnity, as with other Academy Award-caliber Seitz-Wilder collaborations, such as Sunset Boulevard (1951) and The Lost Weekend (1945). Los Angeles, one of the sunniest places on earth, is made to look dark and foreboding, thanks to Seitz’s adroit interplay of deep blacks and stunning whites. The iconic venetian-blinds shot (the melancholy gaze of a character through venetian blinds at night) arguably began with Seitz’s efforts on Double Indemnity.

The composer Miklós Rózsa infused the film with its suspenseful soul. His work animates more than 100 films, including his last score, which, in another nod to irony, was for the black-and-white Steve Martin film Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a comic homage to—what else?—film noir of the 1940s, the very visual style his music helped fashion.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Wilder’s small masterpiece took home none. The night belonged to director Leo McCarey, whose Going My Way clobbered the competition. Actress Stanwyck, director Wilder, producer (Joseph) Sistrom, and writer Chandler had to stay in their seats at the 17th Academy Awards ceremony on March 15, 1945, on an unseasonably cold night at the old Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

But the years, critics, and cinephiles alike have been kind to Double Indemnity. It was called “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress in 1992, and was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century put it at #38, and in 2007 it was 29 on their 10th Anniversary list.

For unremitting suspense, gallows humor, and ironic tension, Double Indemnity is without peer.  How do I know? My little man tells me.

This article was first published for Catholic World Report