Double Indemnity (1944)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 47min

There are few film noirs one could point to that typifies the genre more than Double Indemnity, where Billy Wilder’s gloriously expressionistic set pieces and passionately cynical writing evolves one man’s macabre curiosity into a hideous corruption of his soul. Fred MacMurray leads as insurance salesman Walter Neff, the smooth-talking protagonist whose licentious entanglement with Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of one of his customers, proves to be the unravelling he always unconsciously harboured some desire for. Next to him, Barbara Stanwyck embodies the prototypical femme fatale in one of the great performances of the 1940s, delivering lines that are somehow both lustfully heated and ice cold at the same time. Together, both rattle off sizzling dialogue that only barely conceals the carnal attraction between the two paramours, playing on verbal repetitions and metaphors that practically beg for some sort of physical consummation.

I wonder if I know what you mean.”

“I wonder if you wonder.”

John F. Seitz masterfully shapes his low-key lighting to create these ravishing shots, shedding thin strips of light across his actors and sets.

But at its core, no matter how many times they profess their love or call each other “baby”, this shady relationship is not about sexual desire. Even thicker than the tension that bubbles through their romantic interactions is that which emerges in their partnership as co-conspirators, plotting the murder of Mr. Dietrichson to claim his life insurance money. Such immense wealth would allow them to run away and live happily together, though it does not take a great mind to see that this is not the ultimate dream for either of them.

For Phyllis, men are but disposable tools in her pursuit of luxury, and Neff is just one in a line of them, wedged between her late husband and Nino, her stepdaughter’s hot-headed boyfriend. Stanwyck is like an angelic poison here, framed in doorways of soft light while faking a conscience that wins the sympathy of others, or otherwise standing high up on balconies like a puppeteer slyly asserting her dominance over lovesick men.

Barbara Stanwyck swathed in soft, angelic lighting, ensnaring Fred MacMurray with her poisonous line deliveries and ice cold demeanour.

For our humble insurance salesman, the temptation is simply to prove a capability and intelligence that he cannot otherwise exercise in his ordinary life. “It was all tied up with something I’d been thinking about for years,” he wistfully ponders, recalling all those times he had seen customers caught out for lies on their insurance claims because of careless holes in their stories. To commit the perfect crime and escape the suspicion of his work friend, Keyes, and his inbuilt lie detector he calls his “little man” – that would be the ultimate validation of his supremacy. Within this scheme, Phyllis is nothing but an embodiment of his ego affirming everything he would like to believe about himself, deliberately letting him confuse his arrogance with love.

Though Wilder’s direction may be only secondary to his accomplishment in writing here, this ultimately means very little. Double Indemnity’s screenplay belongs among the best of film history, formally hinging its tightly wound narrative on Neff’s voiceover that dreamily slips us into a flashback and drives it along in rhythmic, pulpy bliss. Further cementing Double Indemnity as one of the greatest classic noirs is Wilder’s ability to match such visceral, imaginative writing with an expressionistic flair so perfectly in tune with his characters.

Chiaroscuro lighting is ridden all through Double Indemnity, but it is significantly announced right from the opening credits as this concealed figure hobbles towards the camera.
Light fixtures deftly worked into the mise-en-scène, partially obscuring the frame from this high angle.

Before we even know any of them by name, the opening credits introduces us to one in crutches, silhouetted against a white background and hobbling towards the camera. His face may be obscured, but we will later identify him as an injured Mr. Dietrichson heading towards his death – or is it actually Neff putting on the disguise of Phyllis’ late husband, gradually growing larger in the frame like an oil spill spreading outwards, until we are entirely consumed in his darkness? Such stunningly stark imagery can be found all through John Seitz’ shadow-heavy cinematography, incorporating lamps and ceiling lights into his mise-en-scène and shaping their dim glow with Venetian blinds that throw narrow strips of light across walls and faces, as Neff and Phyllis progressively sink deeper into the dark, bleak pit of their own corruption.

The association of Venetian blinds with film noir is typified here, letting light peek through in thin, sharp ribbons that tantalise our curiosity.

Additionally building out Double Indemnity’s tension is Wilder’s taut blocking, always considering the dramatic irony that connects the deceptions his characters create and the secrets they keep from others. A busy grocery store is the location where the two accomplices meet to plot their nefarious crime, standing side-by-side, hiding in plain sight behind packed shelves, and cutting themselves off from any possibility of physical flirtation. Later, Wilder crafts an indelible composition using the familiar geography of Neff’s apartment building, staging Phyllis behind an open door in the foreground while her lover stands on the other side, hiding her from Keyes who is off in the background. For all of this screenplay’s efficient storytelling, the sharp layering of the mise-en-scène is also working to subtly develop its characters and narrative, letting their treachery take full form.

Tense staging in this complex character interaction, underscoring the heavy dramatic irony.
Hiding in plain sight within this packed grocery store, taking both out of their comfort zones.

Of course, this lifestyle of deceit and depravity is not one that comes naturally to Neff though, who is acting more on his own insatiable curiosity than anything else. Much like Phyllis herself, the smell of honeysuckle that lingers outside her house turns from a sweet, alluring scent into something he associates with danger, and even their repeated promise of carrying out this murder “straight down the line” comes back to bite him when he starts wanting to pull out. By this point, all romantic chemistry has dissipated between the two. As Neff divulges in his voiceover, he knew right at the moment he committed the murder that he was going to be caught out, if not because of any slip-ups, then because of his own guilt.

Most of all, it is the shame he feels in fooling Keyes that gets to him the most, as while his colleague’s instincts tell him early on that there is something fishy with Phyllis’ insurance claim, the unquestionable trust he places in Neff clouds his better judgement. Still, all through the murder and cover-up, his “little man” remains the single largest threat to Neff’s insidious lie, proving itself to be a clever character conceit from Wilder. In a way, it is Keyes’ perceptive mind which motivates his workmate to commit this crime in the first place, as his assertion that there is no such thing as a perfect murder is taken as a challenge.

Venetian blinds in the workplace…
…and Venetian blinds on the train. Absolute commitment to an aesthetic from Wilder.

If there is a love story here in Double Indemnity, it is ultimately not about Neff and his femme fatale, but rather Neff and his best friend who he sets out to get one up over. Throughout the film, Wilder develops a loving motif between the two that sees Neff produce a match for his friend and light his cigarette for him, packing their relationship with affectionate intimacy in this simple action. It is this gesture which he also returns to in the film’s closing seconds, as the extended flashback comes to an end and Keyes sorrowfully discovers his friend’s wrongdoing. True to their relationship, their final exchange is part banter, and part profession of their sentimental feelings, transcending whatever wrongs have come between then.

“The guy you were looking for was too close. He was right across the desk from you.”

“Closer than that, Walter.”

“Love you too.”

As Neff lies on the ground bleeding out, it is now he who searches for a match in his coat, and Keyes who sweetly reciprocates the gesture. For all the fatalistic pessimism that roils through Double Indemnity, Wilder delicately polishes it with a light warmth in these quiet interactions, wistfully recalling a moral innocence worth savouring before it inevitably fades away into a dark, bitter void.

Formally paying off on this character motif to end the film, sweetly reciprocating the affectionate gesture.

Double Indemnity is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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