Film Noir Classic: Double Indemnity

If Billy Wilder hadn’t been a tolerant man, Double Indemnity would never have been made. While Paramount was getting set to abandon the project because they couldn’t find someone to co-write the script, Wilder took it upon himself to find someone. After a little searching, he came across a fiction writer called Raymond Chandler. Wilder set up a meeting with Chandler, expecting to meet some retired private eye who had turned his hand to writing. Wilder couldn’t have been more wrong, something he learnt the hard way when a journalist walked through the door. And he was drunk.

Let’s be fair, it was the 1940s and this is what Hollywood was like during that period, but it’s still surprising that Wilder didn’t just storm out of the room and leave the incompetent looking Chandler to pass out. Instead Wilder gave him a chance, and much to his surprise found that he was right about many of the scripting issues. With his help, Double Indemnity went from a novella that was deemed unfilmable by everyone, to becoming a seven-time Oscar nominated classic.

Double Indemnity spawned the creation of American film noir, and one of it’s most recognisable themes; an innocent man dragged into a world of crime by the lust for money, and of course lust for the great looking dame. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman trying to make an honest living when he meets the voluptuous Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while visiting her husband about his insurance policy. Phyllis wants to set up some life insurance for her abusive and negligent husband without him knowing, and Walter soon realises she wants to kill him and claim insurance money. He dismisses it at first, but soon finds he’s attracted to Phyllis, and they both hatch a plan to kill her husband and make it look like he fell from a moving train.

The centre of the story is of course the dangerous love affair between Neff and Phyllis. And yet, when you examine it closely, it looks like they are anything but in love. Is Neff just a greedy guy after the money? It certainly doesn’t seem that way. For the most part, Neff is rather cool and confident. Not exactly what you’d expect from someone who’s supposed to be desperate for the love of the femme fatale. It’s a strange thing to see, but for the most part Neff and Phyllis are rather cold towards each other. Double Indemnity was of course made in 1944, so it’s unclear if they ever do sleep together. If they did, it would more than likely have taken place when Neff tells Phyllis he wants to organise the death of her husband.

Raymond Chandler didn’t have any experience writing screenplays, and during the early drafts it showed. He wanted to go away and write the screenplay alone over a booze-fuelled weekend, while Billy Wilder wanted to work with him and plan it meticulously. They ended up doing it Wilder’s way, when Chandler’s first draft looked like a list of camera directions. For the most part Wilder and Chandler didn’t get along, which led to Chandler quitting at one point when they disagreed over the dialogue. Wilder wanted the original dialogue from the Jame M. Cain story, while Chandler thought it wouldn’t work. Wilder brought in two actors to read out the dialogue, and found much to his surprise that the prickly Chandler was right.

Despite the scripting issues, Wilder decided to stick with it and finally began filming. Even though this was only the third film that Wilder directed, he is able to bring to it an original style. He doesn’t follow the traditional rules of film noir, and at many points doesn’t even seem interested in the issues on the character’s minds. Wilder goes his way, and allows the story to flow without any interference.

There are two rather noticeable tense scenes, and both involve Keys (Edward G. Robinson), Neff’s boss at the insurance company. One scene comes not long after the murder, when Keys brings in a man who saw someone impersonating the dead Mr. Dietrichson on the train. It was Neff he saw on the train, so he is understandably tense when the witness is brought in. The other more memorable scene though comes when Keys arrives at Neff’s apartment unannounced, and tells him that he’s convinced Phyllis killed her husband. Phyllis then arrives at the apartment, and because being there would be rather incriminating, she’s forced to hide behind the door until Keys finally leaves.

MacMurray in the end is able to bring a slightly lighter and more likable side to the character of Neff, and Stanwyck of course was one of the first actors to craft what we now know as the femme fatale. Neff and Phyllis play off each other in a rather unusual way that barely even resembles two people falling in love. If anything, they are only attracted to the idea of murdering Phyllis’ husband and running away together with the insurance money.

Wilder’s first choice for the role was Barbara Stanwyck, who wasn’t just the highest paid actress in Hollywood; she was the highest paid woman in the whole of the United States. Initially Stanwyck turned down the role, concerned about the idea of going from the lead heroine to being a cold blooded killer. Wilder was able to convince her though, telling her that it would be invigorating for her to take a risk. Wilder had a much more difficult time casting the role of Neff, who on paper seemed like a rather weak and insignificant person. Gregory Peck and James Cagney were about the many actors offered the role, and all of them turned it down. Fred MacMurray, an actor best known for comedy roles, was eventually offered the role, but Wilder had to effectively stalk him for a period of a month before MacMurray gave in.

With this being one of the very first American film noirs, it played a big part in crafting it’s original visual style. Wielder brought in John Seitz to photograph the film, a man considered to be one of the first in Hollywood to use large looming shadows, expressionistic jagged edges, and the infamous use of lighting through venetian blinds. It all fits in rather well with the rather hard urban atmosphere that Billy Wilder creates.

The only instances when we see any genuine emotion conveyed are during scenes between Neff and Keys. Edward G. Robinson also had apprehensions about taking a role in the film, considering he was going to be billed as the third star. However Wilder was able to convince him to take the role, by offering him a large salary and fewer filming hours. Keys comes across as a father figure for Keys, if not something more. Keys often confides in him, often hinting that he wants to make him his partner in the company. “The guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you” Neff tells Keys during the final scene. “Closer than that, Walter” Keys replies.

There is however one rather big issue in the film that never really gets addressed. We see at the beginning of the film that Neff goes to the office to record his confession to Keys, and yet when the film reaches it’s conclusion we see that he still plans to make an escape. Why would he confess and then escape? Perhaps Neff wanted to be caught by Keys all along. Maybe Neff is unable to control himself and must keep going, but still lays things out so then eventually Keys will discover the truth.

Double Indemnity certainly didn’t begin the film noir craze that ran from the mid 40s until the late 50s. It was however one of the first films to use the more darker, European style of film making, and present it to a wider audience. It has at its very heart a torrid relationship that appears to be so complex there are many different opinions on what Neff and Phyllis feel about each other. Perhaps, like most of their actions and motives, they’re keeping it to themselves.

Double Indemnity is now available on Netflix.

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About Eric Wood

Eric Wood is 21 years old, from Bury in Greater Manchester, and a graduate of Salford University where he studied Journalism and English Literature. His first novel comes out later in the year, and he begins work directing his first feature length movie in the summer. Eric absolutely adores all forms of writing and loves movies so he’s the ideal film critic. His greatest inspiration for many years has been Michael Crichton, as Crichton has written novels, non-fiction, screenplays, and directed movies. Eric would love to be able to achieve all of those things in my lifetime.

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One Response to Film Noir Classic: Double Indemnity

  1. Lisa MK says:

    Nice article, just want to point out that at the time when the film was made, there was no such thing as a film noir. That is a concept not used until years later to describe films with very distinct iconography.