THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 52: DOUBLE INDEMNITY

by Daniel Suddes


Director: Billy Wilder  Adapted Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (based on the novel by James M.Cain)   Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G.Robinson  OSCAR COUNT (0) – 7 nominations including Best Picture and Best Director

Most people, when they hear the words “film noir” used, think of hard boiled detectives with a bottle of liquor in their desks, beautiful women who serve as MacGuffins to the plot, and vast conspiracies that show how corrupt society is. Those people are incorrect. Film noir is not about good versus evil, and the women are not meant to be plot points. Noir, which did not really become a viable genre until World War II, was about how good men were slowly becoming evil as they tried to make sense of a world gone wrong. Femme Fatales represented their own frustrated perception of their gender roles, and the best films had protagonists who were just as much a part of the conspiracy the antagonists were planning. These themes have stayed with cinema since, and can be seen in practically every postmodern protagonist.

Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity defines the noir more than any other classic. It doesn’t even need to do so with detectives. No, it is not about the mystery – there is none to be solved. The main character, Walter Neff, is an insurance salesman, and the antagonist. He admits to his crimes at the beginning of the film. Audiences know the ending – but the film still manages to convey a sense of suspense. It also manages to shoot to the top of a genre that has many classics (The Maltese FalconTouch of Evil) but has never quite been equaled.

The film’s strength is not in its plot. Compared to the Gordian knot of a narrative that makes up, say, L.A. Confidential, the scam is remarkably straight forward. Neff is an insurance salesman, Dietrichson has a rich husband. The two scheme to sell Dietrichson’s husband a life insurance policy (with a double indemnity clause, essentially granting the husband more money in the case of his death) then scheme to murder him, make it appear like an accident, and collect.  The ending, as I said, is revealed right up front (the story is framed as Neff’s full confession that he records into a Dictaphone while bleeding profusely) and it should not seem like suspense is created.

But there are two ways that it does. Early noir was not dependent upon the story. To describe them is a little beside the point. What matters is the construction of the story and how it plays out. There had been noirs before this one (including the Thin Man films) that helped establish the archetypes that every noir uses. But Double Indemnity established the mise en scene. Every set in the film is covered in shadow. But it goes deeper than that. Every single building and room is more like a representation than an actual place. Every place has a pall of decay (the office that Neff works at is strewn with papers and quite cramped). It is a commentary on the “decay” of society that allowed people like Neff to exist. What caused it? Wilder does not say. But that is what makes the film’s themes so fascinating – it allows audiences to make up their own minds.

What really stands out, however, is how the characters are defined. No one in the film is really good or evil. They can be aloof or malicious, but each have moments in which they do act heroically. Neff does seem to be a kind person to Barton Keyes. He is merely caught up in the excitement of his own plan. And Dietrichson at least does seem to care about Neff, even if he blows her off. And no, I do not believe that Neff is under Dietrichson’s spell. He insults her quite a bit and, at the time of his confession, does not blame her. She may be an instigator, but I do not believe that this was some sort of commentary on the weakening male role in society. No, it is about the hidden darkness that exists in the hearts of everyone. All noirs talk about that. But Double Indemnity is one of the few that explores its characters and attempts to understand how they arrived there.  That is the quality that makes the film stand out.

What really stands out, however, is how the characters are defined. No one in the film is really good or evil. They can be aloof or malicious, but each have moments in which they do act heroically. Neff does seem to be a kind person to Barton Keyes. He is merely caught up in the excitement of his own plan. And Dietrichson at least does seem to care about Neff, even if he blows her off. And no, I do not believe that Neff is under Dietrichson’s spell. He insults her quite a bit and, at the time of his confession, does not blame her. She may be an instigator, but I do not believe that this was some sort of commentary on the weakening male role in society. No, it is about the hidden darkness that exists in the hearts of everyone. All noirs talk about that. But Double Indemnity is one of the few that explores its characters and attempts to understand how they arrived there.  That is the quality that makes the film stand out.

The best moments in the film involve any scene with Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson. The scene above is just one of many, but it exemplifies the roles that both characters must play. But honestly, the best scene in the film involve the first meeting of these two characters. The dialogue in this film is razor sharp (“he’ll be home when he gets here, if that’s any help” chides a maid) and each and every line has almost one hundred different meanings. It is like if William Shakespeare decided to make some extra money by writing crime serials. It is also interesting to watch Barbara Stanwyck’s performance and how she knows about the power she has (observe the moment with the anklet). It is one of the best introductions in all of film, and one that propels the film to another level.

Did You Know?: An alternate ending of the film had Walter Neff going to the gas chamber. Wilder decided against this ending, as he thought the current one was superior.


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One response to “THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 52: DOUBLE INDEMNITY

  1. Very interesting write-up. I didn’t consider any of these issues when I watched the film (it came in a film noir box set) but it’ll certainly be food for thought when I end up rewatching it. From the collection I received I enjoyed Out of the Past the most.

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