Let me be clear: Double Indemnity is a damn fine movie.
Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir classic starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson skillfully takes viewers on a disturbing journey through the depths of human wickedness. Betrayal, greed and lust are all on display in this tale of murder and insurance fraud gone horribly wrong.
As is the case with his other noir classic, Sunset Boulevard, Wilder presents the film’s primary action through a kind of narrative confessional told in a series of flashbacks by protagonist Walter Neff. “Yes, I killed him,” Neff slurs into an office’s Dictaphone late at night. “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?”
Far from it, Mr. Neff.
Indeed, thanks to the delightful sordidness of the story in author James M. Cain’s 1935 novella, it took several years and several tries before a screenplay that could pass the era’s notorious production code could be cobbled together for Double Indemnity. The final version we see on the screen comes from Raymond Chandler, a man who knew a thing or two about crime fiction. Chandler famously scrapped much of Cain’s clunky dialogue and re-wrote it. The result is a tour-de-force of snappy lines and perfectly executed scenes that flow like the following one, in which Neff takes a pass at the woman who we know will eventually wreck him:
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter: That tears it.
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter: I wonder if you wonder.
Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis, the lonely trophy wife who longs to rid herself of her boorish husband, is something to behold. She is both vulnerable and insidiously serpentine at the same time – and the alluring toxicity of this mixture easily overcomes Neff’s initial objections to offing the man that is keeping them apart. Improperly inspired, Neff sets about using his inside knowledge of the insurance business to craft the perfect crime with the highest payout, but the minute details of the plot are really only window-dressing for the inner-lives of the plotters. At its heart, Double Indemnity is a morality tale about what happens when the baser elements of psychology – the aforementioned greed and lust – are given free reign. And the mechanical way the film’s subsequent violence and betrayals unfold perfectly illustrates the banality of horrible crimes, such as murder or adultery – or, in this case, both – once they have been decided upon by the principles who will carry them out.
The film also successfully depicts how morality can be something of a slippery slope. That is, if Neff can betray and kill one person, what is to stop him from doing it again, given that what can crudely be called a moral threshold has already been crossed? Nothing, the film seems to tell us. The end of immorality is a kind of nihilism that permits all manner of behavior, no matter how ugly.
Barton Keyes, the ornery claims investigator whose “little man” in his chest lets him know whenever someone is trying to pull a fast one on the insurance company, knows all of this. He peruses the ingenuity of human inequity for a living – and what is more, he knows how Neff’s morally bankrupt partnership with Phyllis ends before Neff does. As Keyes tells Neff about halfway through the picture, “it always comes apart sooner or later.” Guilty conspirators are forever tied to one another, and being the sort of people prone to making immoral choices, it is impossible for them to keep such a permanent bargain. Disintegration is inevitable.
What the filmmakers understood is how arresting the inevitable dissolution is, how wonderfully positioned it is to teach us about the awfulness of human behavior. Everyone thinks they know what goodness is and where it can be found, but not many people would look for evil in an insurance salesman and a housewife, and that is the source of much of the power and beauty of Double Indemnity.