Double Indemnity (1944) – Reflections on a Perfect Noir

07 Aug

double_indemnity1Double Indemnity is for me one of the most perfect movies ever made. It has the perfect cast, direction, music, lighting, perfect story told perfectly. It is a taut movie, with no wasted motion and where every word spoken and hand gesture has a purpose. I never tire of watching it, proving that an unhappy story with an unhappy end can be just as satisfying as a happy one.

When I first saw it, I was watching it for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and they are superb, but I was completely blown away by Edward G. Robinson. I had never seen him before in a movie and I couldn’t understand why I had not heard of him previously. It seems like outside of the classic film world, he is undeservedly unknown.

The story is fairly straightforward: an insurance salesman and a psychopathic housewife plan the murder of her husband and the collection of $100,000 dollars from the double indemnity clause in his accident insurance they tricked him into buying. Fred MacMurray is the salesman and Barbara Stanwyck is the femme fatale to beat all femme fatales. Seriously, I doubt there is anyone more cold-blooded than she is. Edward G. Robinson is the claims manager at the insurance agency MacMurray works at, who is convinced that “something has been worked on us,” but does not see MacMurray’s connection in the case.

Double Indemnity is a film noir, though I haven’t found a satisfactory definition yet. Many people do not even acknowledge film noir as an actual movie genre. Whatever it is – dark shadows, human weakness, seediness, low passion and desire, crime, murder, filmed in black and white – Double Indemnity is one of the ultimate examples. I once read of somebody complaining that the movie was clichéd, but someone else rightly pointed out that that is because Double Indemnity wrote the clichés.


Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson

The score is excellent. It was composed by Miklos Rosza, who I knew best for his music in Ben-Hur. If you close your eyes during the opening credits of Double Indemnity, you can almost see Romans marching by. It is so portentous of doom and, at the end of the movie, the doom that has arrived. The music enforces another common film noir theme: fatalism. There is very little sense that people are choosing their actions. Walter Neff, as played by MacMurray, is going to succumb to Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson and he is going to be undone by it. It is a gloomy view of human nature, where temptation is always given in to and destruction is inevitably the result.

The movie isn’t all gloom, however. It is considerably lightened by the presence of Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, a man who may look irascible while chomping his cigars, but has a warm heart and real affection for Walter. I’ve read of the story described as a triangle, between Walter and Phyllis representing lust and Walter and Keyes representing genuine friendship.

One aspect of the movie I’d like to explore are the motivations of Phyllis Dietrichson at the end. There is much ambiguity regarding whether or not Phyllis Dietrichson really falls in love with Walter Neff. He is planning on killing her, but she is ahead of him and shoots him in the shoulder. She has him in her power, she could have shot him again and finished him off, but she doesn’t. She lets him walk up and take her gun away. Then she says that she couldn’t fire that final shot. She admits that she’s been using him all along, but now, somehow, she’s realized that she loves him. Walter doesn’t buy it and shoots her dead.


Hiding a gun in the chair, always a good place to hide one, if you have to

So the question is: was she speaking the truth or wasn’t she? I have puzzled over this one for many months now. She certainly sounds convincing, but it seems out of character for her not to shoot him. Even if she did love him, she seems like the type to bury her emotions and kill him anyway. But if she wasn’t in love, why didn’t she finish him off? I think I finally have the answer…or at least, an answer…or a theory. Speculation.

I always wondered what she meant to do with Walter Neff’s body after she shot him. She could blame the boyfriend of her step-daughter, but there would still be the problem of Walter’s body being found at her house and any connection between her and Walter would probably bring the whole house of cards down on her because their greatest asset is that Keyes doesn’t have any idea that Walter is in on the plot.

But my thought is that since she never says or does an un-premeditated thing in the whole movie, why assume that she is suddenly speaking spontaneously at the end? It’s a slightly kooky theory, but might she have been trying to win him back? She shoots him in the shoulder and then suddenly finds that, although she has never loved him (something she is safe admitting because he’s already figured it out) she can’t bring herself to kill him now. She has a sudden burst of ‘true’ emotion and tries to carry him away on that emotion. Since she had succeeded before in carrying him away on emotion, why not now? And she’s a nurse, so she could probably fix his shoulder so he need never go to a hospital (which would probably also give them away). This way, she gets him back without the fuss of having to take care of a body…until she decides later to do away with him.

Her mistake, in my theory, would be in underestimating how strongly Walter has recoiled from her. She knows he’s feeling guilty about her step-daughter Lola, but she doesn’t realize just how guilty he feels. After shooting Phyllis he could have hung it on Lola’s boyfriend Nino, but he chooses not to because Lola loves Nino and Walter wants to help her. This highlights the essential difference between Phyllis and Walter. She is amoral, but he is only immoral. He does have a conscience. If they had both been amoral together, then they would have probably gotten away with murder. The reason they fail is not because they are found out, but because Walter’s nerves aren’t as good as Phyllis’ and because he does feel guilty. And that’s partly why he shoots Phyllis at the end.


Phyllis is now very dead

It seems a travesty today, but although Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography of a black and white film, Best Music, Best Recording, Best Screenplay – it lost in every single category. And just as bad, Robinson and MacMurray weren’t even nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor respectively. Going My Way ran away with most of the Oscars – much to director Billy Wilder’s chagrin – and although it might seem like an injustice today, in retrospect there was just no way in 1944 – when America was fighting evil murderers like Hitler – that the Best Actress award was going to go to a cold blooded killer like Phyllis Dietrichson instead of the innocent victim played by Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Psychologically, it just seems wrong. But I still believe that Barbara Stanwyck’s was the stronger performance.


Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Film Noir


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3 responses to “Double Indemnity (1944) – Reflections on a Perfect Noir

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