Sunday, March 11, 2012

Double Indemnity (1944) -- Billy Wilder

Walter Neff is an insurance salesman with Pacific All-Risk. A routine stop at the Dietrichson's to secure renewals on some automobile policies sends him down a slippery slope, where lust leads to murder, and murder takes him on a trolley ride all the way to the end of the line. It's a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.


Double Indemnity is justifiably considered one of the great film noirs. Billy Wilder, having already found great success as a Hollywood writer, was just getting his feet wet as a director. This, only his third effort, placed him immediately in the ranks of America's top film-makers. A ground-breaking film, it has spawned decades of copiers, but no one made adultery and murder more fun for an audience than Wilder did here.

The film opens with an intriguing sequence--a car driving late at night and slightly erratic in downtown Los Angeles. It pulls to a curb in front of a tall office building. A man eases himself slowly out, supporting himself on the door for a moment. He is apparently hurt in some fashion. A night watchman opens the door, commenting that he looks all-in. The man's name is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). He makes his way to his office, where he drops exhausted into his desk chair. A cold sweat beads his forehead and for the first time we see the dark stain of blood on his shoulder. he's been shot. He switches on a dictaphone and begins to speak, confessing to a murder. His last lines grab you and capture the essence of all noir: "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money -- and a woman -- and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"

Walter Neff can't resist that ankle necklace.
It's a daring start by director Wilder--he's already revealed that his star is a murderer. And it stands to reason that he will likely be caught given his condition and the strict morality code of the day. What remains for the audience to discover is who is the woman, why doesn't Neff get her, and who shot him? It's a clever way to engage us and create tension, wondering how the story will unfold. (Wilder liked the technique of revealing up-front what is essentially the end of his film so well, he used it again, effectively in Sunset Boulevard six years years later.)

The rest of the film unfolds through flashback, interjected with voice-over narration and occasional returns to the office and the dictaphone. It begins with Neff arriving at the Dietrichson's. Mr. isn't home but the wife is, and Neff is immediately smitten. Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), in perhaps the most seductive entrance in all the genre, appears at the top of the stairs, wearing nothing but a bath towel and high-heeled bedroom slippers decorated with pom-poms.

After dressing she comes down and Neff explains the purpose of his visit, but he's got his eye on her leg and his mind's not on insurance. The script (by Wilder and Raymond Chandler) jazzes up the source novel by pulp crime writer James Cain with snappy dialog. When the two antagonists get together it is laced with plenty of double entendres. The most memorable exchange takes place during their first meeting:

Neff: I wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.
Phyllis: Just my name.
Neff: As for instance?
Phyllis: Phyllis.
Neff: Phyllis, huh. I think I like that.
Phyllis: But you're not sure.
Neff: I'd have to drive it around the block a couple of times.
Phyllis: (Standing up.) Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He'll be in then.
Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Neff: That tears it... (He takes his hat and briefcase after his advances are coldly rebuffed.) 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
Phyllis: That's what I suggested.
Neff: You'll 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: (Opening the entrance door.) I wonder if you wonder.

Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, a dangerous blond bombshell.

Much has been made of Phyllis being an iconic femme fatale, perhaps the iconic femme fatale character in all of cinema. She is certainly devious, and a tempting seductress for a man like Walter Neff, who's attracted to her borderline trashy looks and honeysuckle perfume. It doesn't take her long to size him up. She's an experienced predator and Neff is an easy mark. She plays hard to get just long enough while flaunting her sexuality, then turns on the vulnerability. It's a dangerous combination.

Because of the opening scene, the audience knows before Neff that this woman is bad news, or at least it's reasonable to assume so. He'll catch up to speed in the next scene.  

She invites him to return to the house the next afternoon. The husband is conveniently away. They get comfortable on the couch. Walter, with lust in his mind, may not be the sharpest man, but when she asks if his company offers accident insurance and if can she buy some without her husband knowing, a red flag goes up. Suspicious she's contemplating murder, Neff tells her she won't get away with it and leaves. Wilder lets you know what the character is thinking in a voice-over:
"So I let her have it, straight between the eyes. She didn't fool me for a minute, not this time. I knew I had ahold of a red hot poker, and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off."
But Neff is weak. When Phyllis turns up at his apartment that night to ostensibly apologize, she's wearing a tight angora sweater. He grabs her and kisses her, telling her that he is crazy about her. A shift back to the present with Neff and the dictaphone allows Neff to admit that what happens next isn't solely the result of being seduced by Phyllis. He's long wondered if he was smart enough to "crook the game," fraud the insurance company with a perfect crime.

Back to the apartment we find the couple still on the couch. Walter is reclined, having a cigarette. Phyllis is fixing her lipstick. The implication is clear--they have just made love. Walter tells her he will come up with a fool-proof plan to do away with her husband. A $50,000 accident policy with a double indemnity clause (paying twice the face amount for an accidental death) will yield them $100,000. The pact, and their fates, are sealed.

Phyllis provides the spark, but it is Walter who masterminds the crime. If throughout the film we feel some sympathy for the sap, it's also clear he is no innocent bystander. Several scenes depict him in what became a classic noir motif; shadowy venetian blind slats cross his face and body, suggesting prison bars. This is just one of the effective uses of shadow featured in one of the darkest of all noirs. Stanwyck gets the treatment too, and has a wonderfully dark scene at the end when she waits for Walter to arrive at her house. The lights are off and she fires up a cigarette. The smoke slowly wafts up as Miklos Rozsa's terrific score helps create a sense of ominous dread.



Another memorable scene takes place at Jerry's Market as the two co-conspirators surreptitiously talk over the plan as they reach for canned goods. Phyllis hides behind sun glasses. Filmed mostly on location, at least for the exteriors, L.A. provides a great setting for the action, one of the most entertaining aspects of classic films. Besides the 1940s wardrobe, we get the big period automobiles. There's a nice, atmospheric shot of the Hollywood Bowl from a wooded hillside.

The plan is all Walter's, and on the surface it's a fine one. They execute it well enough, knocking the unsuspecting husband off in a classic murder scene, with Neff hiding in the back seat of the car as Phyllis drives her husband to the train station. Director Wilder stages it all meticulously and with great suspense. Never showing the actual strangulation, the camera instead focuses on Stanwyck's face. A slight smile of satisfaction creases her lips, erasing any remaining doubt of the audience that the woman is anything but cold and wicked.

The sequence involves an impersonation, the placement of the body on the train tracks, and a tense moment when the getaway car fails to start. Walter has established his alibi. It all starts to unravel when his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a veteran claims examiner, starts to listen to his intuition. Convinced the death could not have been suicide based on statistics, and a highly unlikely accident, he concocts a murder scenario that remarkably mirrors what actually happened.

Walter and Phyllis dump the body.

As good as Stanwyck and MacMurray are--she received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress--it's Robinson's performance that most resonates and the character you most care about. He's completely believable and perfect as the slightly gruff, obsessive professional, whose passion is to protect the company and see his protege, Walter, get ahead. He's shrewd and can smell a phony claim a mile away. The two characters have a couple of terrific scenes together, masking their affection for one another in office banter. Keyes is always patting his vest pocket, looking for a match to light his cigar. Walter always produces one, lighting it with a flick of his thumb. In the film's last scene, the ritual is reversed.

"Closer than that, Walter."


For Stanwyck's character, Wilder famously had her don a blond wig. The wig, the anklet, and the sun glasses collectively help define Phyllis and demonstrate Wilder's skill at using little things to make one of his characters physically memorable. (Other examples in his canon are Jack Lemmon's bowler in The Apartment and William Holden's cigar in Stalag 17). She wears a lot of makeup too, suggestive of a less than high-class background, but a woman who knows how to flirt to get a man hot. Stanwyck fans won't find her unattractive, and the look works perfectly for Neff, a man not used to attention from a sexy woman.

Stanwyck could play anything, and do it damned well. Maybe that's why she never got a competitive Oscar. Academy voters likely took her for granted. If Phyllis Dietrichson isn't her best performance, it's right up there. Certainly, it is her most memorable one.

An important subplot with Phyllis' step-daughter and her boyfriend, a man named Nino Zachetti, comes into play. Zarchetti comes within a hair's width of being framed for murder, and Phyllis' unsavory past peaks Keyes' interest.

One of the best scenes takes place as Keyes comes to visit Walter at his apartment. Worrying about the case is causing him indigestion. He relates that he's starting to think that the "wide-eyed dame," as the beneficiary, may have murdered her husband. Phyllis arrives in the hallway as the two men talk and hides behind the open door when Keyes leaves for the elevator. Walter feels her presence, and for a moment, the audience gets to share his fear that Keyes will discover his relationship with the widow.


A narrow escape.

As Keyes closes in on the truth, the pressure ratchets up on the two lovers, and double-crosses make their ugly appearance. As Keyes so adroitly observes: "Murder is never perfect. It always comes apart sooner or later. When two people are involved, it's usually sooner." By film's end we are back in the insurance office, with Walter finishing up his story. It ends as all noirs do. No crime goes unpunished.

In all, the film nabbed 7 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture; Best Director--the first of 8 for Wilder in this capacity; Best Actress--the third of four for Stanwyck; Best Cinematography; and Best Music--one of 15 career nods for Miklos Rozsa. Incredibly, it won none.

1944 was a terrific year for film noir. Besides Double Indemnity, there was Laura; Murder, My Sweet; and Woman in the Window. Joseph LaShelle's camera work for Laura went head-to-head with John Seitz for Double Indemnity and won. Director Wilder used both men during his career. Here's a list of their Wilder films:

Seitz: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard.
LaShelle: The Apartment, Irma la Douce, and The Fortune Cookie

Author James Cain.


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