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DOUBLE INDEMNITY(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: from James M. Cain novella “Three of a Kind”/Raymond Chandler; cinematographer: John Seitz; editor: Doane Harrison; cast: Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton), Fortunio Bonanova (Sam Garlopis); Runtime: 106; Paramount; 1944)
“A splendidly chilling noir tale about murder, immorality, lust, and greed.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

A splendidly chilling noir tale about murder, immorality, lust, and greed. The three stars are all magnificent. The director, Billy Wilder, an Austrian émigré, is in top form, as this film was made before he became too leery of Hollywood and became more cynical than hard-boiled. The James M. Cain story is crisp, darkly-spun, hard-edged, and pessimistically brooding. It was Wilder himself who made the script so taut relying on the drunken Chandler, his screenwriter, for limited support. Chandler was too inebriated to work on the script, but was skilled in making the dialogue sparkle. The result of Wilder’s efforts to streamline the story and keep it obsessive, is a film that can make you sweat. Its dark and moody cinematography is brilliantly shot by John Seitz setting up the hypnotic rhythmical flow of the story, as narrated by MacMurray’s brooding voiceover. If all that wasn’t enough to make this one of the best noir films ever, add on the odd attraction the two killers have for each other and the genuine father and son like relationship between the MacMurray and Robinson characters and you’ve got a film that perfectly captures the dark atmosphere of the prewar Los Angeles scene.

Walter Neff (MacMurray) is a successful and ambitious 35-year-old bachelor insurance salesman. Barton Keyes (Robinson) is the cunning claims manager of that insurance company, who has been there for 26 years and doesn’t miss a trick of his trade. Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) is a good looker who married the oilman (Powers) of the wife she was a nurse to and according to her stepdaughter Lola (Heather), purposefully let her die so that she could marry her rich father. The marriage turned out to be a sour one, where she doesn’t love him and he doesn’t love her. Her reason is because he doesn’t provide her with the kind of income and attention she wants. He has lost a lot of money in oil investments and has since become a sullen man. His probable reason for not loving her, is because she has ice water in her attractive veins.

Phyllis meets Neff by chance, who came over to the house to see her husband but he wasn’t in. Neff gets her to take out an accident policy on her husband without his knowledge, while Phyllis uses her sexual allure to get Neff to fall for her and cook up the scheme that will make them both rich. Neff falls for her hook, line, and sinker, and devises a brilliant scheme to collect double on the $50,000 policy by killing her husband and making it look like an accident, where it looks like he fell off a moving train. They fulfill their bargain by becoming secret lovers, patiently waiting for a time when they could declare their love openly. At least that is their temporary plan of things, a sort of half-hearted explanation for this imponderable relationship they got themselves into.

The film opens in the dark of the late night, with the badly bleeding Neff just entering his workplace office building and going up to his 12th floor office to dictate a memorandum on a Dictaphone to Barton Keyes: July 16, 1938. It is for a confession, stating that he committed a murder, gently chiding Keyes for being right about the case being a fraudulent claim but wrong on who the male party was who did the killing. Telling him, you picked the wrong killer. “I killed him for money–and for a woman. I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the woman.”

The film then goes into a flashback with Neff saying it all began a few months earlier in May, when I went to get the renewal on Mr. Dietrichson’s auto insurance but he wasn’t in. When I caught a look at Mrs. Dietrichson wrapped in a towel and then looked at her ankles as she went down the stairs, I knew only that I wanted to be with her. At that time, he says, I didn’t know that murder can smell like the honeysuckles I smelled on her street.

Watching the characters interact belies the twisted beauty of the film, particularly the interaction between the bored Phyllis and the restless Walter. Both are after something exciting but are not clear exactly where their relationship is going until their third meeting, after they slept together in his apartment and the inner workings of their devious plan is fully concocted, with no retreating from the plan now being possible. Neff’s a cocky womanizer, someone who thinks he knows all the angles, who can’t stop lusting for her even becoming blind to what their relationship is and what they are actually doing. While Phyllis seems to be without a heart, a cold and bitter femme fatale, who, at first look, seems to be at blame for what transpired. But it seems as if chance played a great part in the tragedy that was to happen, as the two combustible personalities were alike more so than they at first realized and their chance encounter set everything in motion. They will carry off a murder that they probably wouldn’t have done, if they just thought about what they were doing and what they really wanted in life.

There was a factual case this film was based on: the murder in 1927 of Albert Snyder, from Queens, New York, who was murdered by his wife and an insurance agent lover who were trying to collect his insurance benefits.

The relationship between Neff and the older Keyes is almost like a father-son relationship. The younger man has a deep respect for the older man’s abilities and powers of deduction, somehow wanting to show him up to let him know that he could outfox him. While the older man wants him to inherit his post when he retires, he sees similarities in their life; he is like the son he never had. There is a genuine love between them, but they are both too caught up in portraying the hardened men they want to appear as than to recognize their very tender needs.

Once the couple decided to do the crime they must have realized they had no plans of what to do after it was committed. All their energy was spent on making it a perfect crime and now they couldn’t spend time together having sex, which is what they both probably wanted even more than the money.

It would have been a perfect crime, but then too many questions kept popping up. The clever plan called for Neff to establish an alibi that he was home at the time, for him to wear the same suit as her husband does when he boards the train, for Neff to hide in back of the car and strangle him before they reach the train, and for Neff to board the train with his crutches and pretend to be him on the train. The first thing that goes wrong is that there is a Mr. Jackson (Porter) in the last train car and to get rid of him, Neff has to get him to run an errand to get cigars. Jackson will become a witness for Keyes. Neff then jumps off the observation platform of the slow moving train and places the body of Mr. D. near the tracks. The police believe this is an accidental death, thinking that probably his crutches got tangled up and he fell over. But Keyes has studied how people die for a long time in his career and can’t believe that this death was an accident. Keyes also becomes suspicious that the victim never tried to collect on the accident policy he had, when he broke his leg.

The other complication is that Lola was going out with a boy her father doesn’t approve of, Nino Zachetti (Barr), and they breakup. After the murder Phyllis befriends the boy and he seemingly becomes her lover at least Neff thinks so, as does Keyes who has her house watched and observes him spending many nights there.

Keyes is real smart and soon figures out exactly how the murder took place, shaking off his boss’s (Gaines) opinion that it was suicide. According to Keyes, the train was moving too slow for a person intent on suicide. Since it is in Keyes’ nature to be suspicious of everyone, he might have also been suspicious of Neff without realizing it, as his stomach always acts as if a “man” were in it and he becomes all tied up in knots when he suspects something is wrong.

By now, it has dawned on Neff what he has done and that he won’t get away with it. His romantic interest in Phyllis has also soured, he just wants to break it off and forget about the money. But she seems to now be interested only in the money and won’t listen to Neff’s admonition. He tells her, once Keyes is onto something fishy he never lets go. Neff tells her that Keyes will turn down her claim and that if she sues, he will uncover the truth in court and she’ll go to the gas chamber.

Also, at this time, Neff is innocently seeing Lola and learns how she saw Phyllis practically murder her mother, but was not believed by her father because she was a child at the time. This interest in Lola is refreshing for him, he finds that he would rather be with her than with Phyllis. Neff realizes that all he can do is straighten things out with Phyllis. Neff must stop Phyllis from suing as he is smart enough to know that once she gets on the witness stand, it’s all over for the both of them.

The climactic scene takes place in the dark of Phyllis’ house where Neff goes to kill her, knowing that Nino will get blamed for the murder. What Neff doesn’t count on is that Phyllis is also planning to murder him, as she shoots him when he goes to close the window blinds. Neff then walks toward her, taunting her to fire again and Phyllis responds, “No, I never loved you Walter–not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you, just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot.” Neff has heard enough from her and fires his gun, killing her instantly, after the first and only time she probably told the truth in her life.

A running gag throughout the film, is thatNeff continually lights the cigars of the “matchless” Keyes. Now the favor is returned as Keyes lights the cigarette of the fallen Neff, unable to escape to Mexico, who will either die from his gun wound in the street or get the gas chamber. This comes after they both profess their love for each other, men who have difficulty knowing what love is because they haven’t looked at their heart the way they look at their mind for strength. As Wilder’s perverse sense of humor supports the film’s grim conclusion that both Phyllis and Neff were not criminals in the real sense of being criminals but were weak-minded individuals, unhappy with their lives, who succumbed to their human failings.

Wilder’s original ending of having Neff die in the gas chamber was scrubbed by him as being unnecessary, so we’ll never know if that ending was more powerful than the present one. Wilder told an interviewer that Neff’s death was among “two of the best scenes I’ve ever shot in my whole life” (the other being the Sunset Boulevard opening). What this ending left was a question mark as I wondered why Neff returns to the office to confess to Keyes, if what he really wanted to do was to escape. It suggests that Keyes was his alter ego, the only one whom he didn’t feel right about lying to and that he didn’t want to escape; but, instead, he wanted to die letting Keyes know that he cared about him. Take note of their last comments: “You know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes?” I’ll tell you, “Because the guy you were looking for was too close–right across the desk from you.” Keyes says, “Closer than that, Walter;” and, then Neff says, “I love you, too.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”