DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944, Billy Wilder)
© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Double Indemnity was described by Raymond Durgnat in his seminal survey of film noir as “perhaps the central film noir, not only for its atmospheric power, but as a junction of major themes” (47). James Naremore, meanwhile, agrees that Double Indemnity is “a definitive film noir and one of the most influential movies in Hollywood history” (81). Indeed, the film contains numerous classic noir elements, though it is also the case that some of these elements became classics because of the influence of Double Indemnity on other films. The film itself was a groundbreaking effort that barely made it past the Code censors, and then only after significant revisions. Directed by Billy Wilder and based on a 1943 novella of the same title by hard-boiled writer James M. Cain, Double Indemnity is built on a classic scenario in which femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) lures the greedy-but-weak insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to his doom as part of her own plan to kill her husband and make off with his insurance money. The story itself is not all that remarkable, but the execution—from the writing by Wilder and Raymond Chandler; to the performances by Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson; to the music of Miklós Rózsa and the camerawork of John Seitz—is superb. If you could only watch one noir film in your life, this should be the one.
Like so many noir films, Double Indemnity begins at the end, as a dying Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaks into a dictaphone, telling the story that will then be enacted in flashback on the screen, finally bringing us, at the end, back to the point where Neff, mortally wounded, staggers into the offices of his employer, the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company, to dictate his story. That story, as it turns out, is quintessential film noir. If anything, the film is even darker and more cynical than the original novel. However, the film, taking full advantage of its medium, is also much campier and more theatrical than the novel. Many of the scenes are classics of visual suggestiveness—like the one in which Phyllis walks slinkily down a see-through stairway wearing a honey of an anklet, looking every bit as dangerous as she is (even though shown only from the knees down), while Walter waits below ogling, the camera clearly representing his point of view. The scenes in which Walter and Phyllis furtively meet in a Los Angeles supermarket, surrounded by neat rows of commodities, are visual masterpieces as well, hinting (but only hinting) at a possible symbolic association between their criminal activities and the ethos of modern consumer capitalism.
Such scenes might be described as visual double entendres, double entendre also being crucial to the rapid-fire dialogue that helps to make Double Indemnity so truly memorable. This dialogue, far more interesting than any in Cain’s novel, is in fact more reminiscent of the verbal energies of Chandler’s novels. For example, Walter first sees Phyllis as she stands on a balcony at the top of that stairway, wrapped only in a towel, having just come in from sunbathing. The towel hangs tantalizingly (as if carefully arranged that way), seeming just on the verge of falling down to reveal her left breast. Insurance salesman that he is, Walter immediately reminds her how unfortunate it would be were something untoward to happen while she is not “fully covered.” “Perhaps I know what you mean,” she says. Something clicks behind both their eyes, whirrs inside both their heads, and the two are off to the races in a mad rush toward adultery, deception, and murder. Much of the rest of their dialogue is like a dangerous and delirious dance, each trying to one-up the other in elliptical suggestiveness, their conversations mirroring the way in which their relationship is both a torrid romance and a bitter competition.
Much of the text of Cain’s novel consists of rapid-fire dialogue between the two deadly partners as well, but the actual lines in the film, especially those spoken in the half-dark Dietrichson living room, one wall highlighted by the shadows of Venetian blinds, are far stagier and less realistic than those in the book. As their first encounter ends, Walter suggests that he is beginning to get interested in something other than selling insurance to Phyllis’s husband. She responds by reminding him, “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, breaking the verbal clinch for the nonce: “Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.” “That tears it,” Walter says, and turns to go, but a clear promise has been offered and it’s all downhill from here. Indeed, he drops a few more suggestive hints as he goes. “I wonder if I know what you mean,” she says. “I wonder if you wonder,” he responds.
This same meeting occurs at the beginning of the novel as well, but here the encounter between Walter (here called “Walter Huff”) and Phyllis (here called “Phyllis Nirdlinger”) is straightforward, with no real hint of flirtatiousness or cleverness, though Huff does believe he detects in Mrs. Nirdlinger a hint of larceny, wondering to himself if she might try to negotiate a kickback for helping talk her husband into buying a policy. There is also no stairway, no anklet, and no towel, though Phyllis is wearing pajamas in the middle of the day, suggesting that she is a woman of leisure. The only suggestion of a sexual spark between the two of them is Huff’s lecherous inner thought that “under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts” (6).
The dialogue in the novel, then, is serviceable and realistic, moving the story along with the aid of Huff’s inserted interior narration, which is also present in a reduced form in the film, in the form of Neff’s voiceover narration. This narration in the book, however, is more extensive and initially makes more clear the packaged and mass-produced quality of the Nirdlinger home. In particular, Huff notes (in an extensive passage not included in the film) how the Nirdlinger home is a typical commodified specimen of Los Angeles suburban life, interchangeable with virtually any other home in the area:
“All I saw was a living room like every other living room in California,” he thinks to himself, “maybe a little more expensive than some, but nothing that any department store wouldn’t deliver on one truck, lay out in the morning, and have the credit O.K. ready the same afternoon. The furniture was Spanish, the kind that looks pretty and sits stiff. The rug was one of those 12 × 15’s that would have been Mexican except it was made in Oakland, California. The blood-red drapes were there, but they didn’t mean anything. All these Spanish houses have red velvet drapes that run on iron spears, and generally some red velvet wall tapestries” (4).
Huff’s tone, like Neff’s in the film (which emphasizes things like the “dust in the air” in the room) is dismissive, but we should not underestimate the extent to which the Nirdlinger/Dietrichson residence is a dream home, particularly an American dream home. But it is a middle-class dream, a modest dream, a far cry from the mansions into which Philip Marlowe wanders in Murder, My Sweet or The Big Sleep. The reason it is like so many other homes in Los Angeles is because it epitomizes what people come to Southern California hoping to achieve. That it is presented in both the novel and (more effectively) in the film as a fake and manufactured goal—something people have been programmed to want rather than something that meets any real needs—is precisely the point. Even if they achieve this dream, what do they really have? Indeed, one reason why Double Indemnity is widely viewed as the quintessential noir film is the extent to which exemplifies the cynical attitude toward the American dream that is typical of film noir in general.
One reason the film is more effective than the novel in this sense is the way in which it turns its critique inward, making Double Indemnity itself (and, by extension, Hollywood in general) an example of the commodified falseness that it so effectively critiques. For example, the lighting and shadow effects for which film noir in general are justifiably famous are here used so extensively as to call attention to themselves. If the classic film noir visual is the pattern of light and shadow cast on a wall by light shining through a Venetian blind, then the classic example of this effect is the Dietrichson living room when Neff first walks into it, a pattern that suggests the world of shadowy morality into which Neff is about to be plunged but that also suggests careful composition. As Neff enters the living room, the shadows of the Venetian blinds fall not only on the opposite wall but on him, suggesting that he is about to become a part of what goes on here. Meanwhile, his own shadow is also cast on the opposite wall, suggesting that he, too, will contribute to the shadowy misdeeds that are to come.
And if the visuals of Double Indemnity are self-consciously composed, then the dialogue is even more so. Not so much realistic as expressionistic, this dialogue (like the lighting) is designed to create a mood, but also to call attention to its own manufactured quality. It is a kind of hard-boiled poetry, not only more Chandler than Cain, but also more Brecht than Ibsen, more melody than meaning, in a modern American version of the Shakespearean dialogue rejected so forcefully by Tolstoy because “nobody talks that way.” Among other things, the intentional artifice of such conversations suggests the hands of the makers: surely audiences are meant to delight to such lines as the creative products, not of Walter and Phyllis, but of Wilder and (especially) Chandler, with Cain in the background. At the same time, the artifice of these lines suggests the inauthenticity, not only of the relationship between Walter and Phyllis, but of the characters themselves. They speak prefabricated lines that are not their own because they are prefabricated subjects, produced by a consumer capitalist culture that turns out row after row of hollowly inauthentic individuals, as interchangeable as the rows of canned goods on the shelves of the supermarket that is, tellingly, the preferred meeting place of the two murderous lovers. It is not for nothing that Phyllis is willing blithely to exchange Mr. Dietrichson for Walter or Walter for Nino Zachette, or that Walter is also willing to change horses in midstream, jumping from the treacherous Phyllis, to Lola, her young and presumably innocent stepdaughter.
If all of this announces the postmodern dissolution of the stable bourgeois subject amid the rampant commodification of modern consumer capitalism, it is also the case that the film seems to provide, for contrast, a reminder of what a more authentic relationship might be. For Walter, in the film, not only attempts to carry on problematic love affairs with Phyllis and then Lola, but also has a sort of bromance with Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the head claims investigator at Pacific All Risk. Indeed, Walter is wont to answer Keyes’s gruff barbs by announcing, “I love you, too,” even as he habitually lights matches (with a suave flick of the thumb) for the ignition of Keyes’s phallic cigars, in a gesture the homoerotic implications of which are quite clear. In this film, as with film noir as a whole, simple polar oppositions do not hold, including even the opposition (so basic to Golden Age Hollywood film) between male and female.
Keyes’s dialogue is itself hard boiled, distinctively Robinsonesque, but the exchanges between Walter and Keyes are relatively straightforward and realistic when compared to those between Walter and Phyllis, indicating a much more candid understanding and stable bond between the two male characters. This dialogue, however, has a richness of its own, and Naremore seems correct when he sees it as the kind of dialogue that one might find between two screenwriters at a story conference, with Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company subbing for Paramount and the insurance industry standing in for the film industry, a suggestion that shifts much of the film’s obvious critique of capitalism into a more subtle critique of the film industry and of its complicity with capitalism.
The hyper-conscientious Keyes is in many ways the opposite of Phyllis, but in the world of film noir, such oppositions seldom exist in the form of simple good versus evil. For Keyes is also a hollow man. His devotion to his duty is almost inhuman, though that devotion does seem to be to his own personal code rather than to the company, for which he expresses a certain contempt. Meanwhile, Keyes, as the minion of a powerful corporation, can be brutal in his treatment of the little people with whom he comes into contact. Thus, in the early scene in which he dismisses a claim by truck driver Sam Garlopis (Fortunio Bonanova) as fraudulent (because of evidence that Garlopis intentionally set his truck on fire), Keyes seems to take genuine (sadistic) pleasure in humiliating the man, despite the latter’s protestations to poverty and hardship. Keyes is at his most human in his clear, somewhat fatherly, affection for Walter, to the point that this affection clouds the claims man’s usual sharp judgment, leading him to conclude that Walter could not possibly be involved in a plot to murder Dietrichson and collect the insurance. Nevertheless, when Keyes is confronted with the fact of Walter’s guilt, his affection for his younger colleague does not dissuade him from the swift performance of his subsequent duty. He refuses even to let the wounded Walter die quietly, insisting on calling the police and an ambulance, though, as the film ends, it appears that Walter may die before this “help” arrives.
Walter is, in many ways, the quintessential film noir hero. He thinks of himself as cynically wise in the ways of the world, yet, at every turn, he faces circumstances that are beyond his capacity to manage. Compared to Phyllis, he is a true naif; his proclivity for calling her “baby” throughout the film contains a grim irony that merely highlights her superior ruthlessness and sophistication—an irony that is, in fact, reflected in Walter’s own voice. In many ways, Keyes is even more naïve than Walter, however savvy he may be in the maneuvers used by policyholders in their attempts to extract payment from the insurance company. After all, Keyes seems to know very little about life beyond the insurance business. Once, he tells Walter, he nearly married, but took the precaution of having the woman investigated beforehand. What he found led him to conclude, as Walter summarizes it for him, that “she was a tramp in a long line of tramps.” This long line, for Keyes, apparently includes all women, so he now avoids them, sticking to the masculine world of business, whereby he manages to avoid the disasters that befall Walter when the latter becomes ensnared in Phyllis’s web. The final scene, in which Keyes looks down on the fallen Walter, now so helpless that Keyes has a light a match for him, thus doubly emphasizes Walter’s demise, while at the same time merely reinforcing the true helplessness he has experienced throughout the film.
This helplessness, this sense of being adrift in a world that passes understanding, is the typical lot of the film noir hero. As the plot to kill Mr. Dietrichson and collect on his accident insurance gets underway, Walter, in his voiceover narration, suggests that the “fates” have “thrown the switch, the gears had meshed, the time for thinking had run out.” This image, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times, caught in the machinery of his factory and fed through its gears like film through a projector, is a typical diagnosis of the modern condition, but Wilder’s film is far darker than Chaplin’s, his vision much more akin to that expressed by Al Roberts (Tom Neal) at the end of Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film noir cult classic, Detour. Wandering the nation’s highways without a home or an identity (he has already been declared officially dead), Roberts wonders not whether tragedy will strike, but when, warning the audience in his voiceover that, at any time, “fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”
Usually described by critics as a form of alienation or existential realization of the absurdity of human existence, this experience of helplessness in the face of mysterious, large forces beyond individual comprehension, might equally well be described as a failure of cognitive mapping of precisely the kind identified by Fredric Jameson as central to the experience of postmodernism. The circular narrative structure of Double Indemnity (and so many other noir films) reinforces this sense of cognitive dissonance: the characters merely spin their wheels, travel in circles, and get nowhere. The film is thus spatial, rather than temporal, in form, another formal characteristic that Jameson associates with postmodernism, the postmodernist loss of historical sense making it impossible for postmodernist writers to imagine the kind of strong narrative development and drive that propelled the earlier works of the great realist writers such as Balzac.
Balzac is, in fact, a crucial predecessor to the film noir sensibility, which might be described as what you get when you keep Balzac’s sense of the corruption and ruthlessness of capitalism, while losing his sense that history is a powerful, forward-moving force that sweeps away the past in its onward rush toward modernity. Balzac’s characters are willing to do anything as long as it helps them to get ahead; the characters of film noir are willing to do anything, but get nowhere. Film noir is decadent Balzac, Balzac without the sense of the dynamism that leads human societies inevitably to change, even if they only get worse. In both Balzac and much film noir, though, the force described as “fate” in Detour is actually something much more ominous: capitalism.
One can attribute the difference in perspective between Balzac and film noir to many factors, including broad historical ones. Balzac was writing in the early nineteenth century, at a time when capitalism was still on the rise toward hegemony in France. He was writing during a time of historical transformation, when a young and dynamic bourgeois class was still in the process of sweeping away the Ancien Régime. The noir cycle of films was produced at a time when capitalism was already fully ascendant (at least in the U.S.), so this loss of historical transformation is replaced by a despairing sense that nothing ever really changes, despite the constant superficial innovation that is the fabric of everyday life under modern capitalism. Moreover, Cain’s original conception of Double Indemnity was written in the midst of the Great Depression, when it made sense to be skeptical about the promise of capitalism and when any sense that capitalism might endure forever would not necessarily be taken as good news.
At first glance, the politics at stake in Double Indemnity are sexual ones. Andrew Dickos sees Double Indemnity as emblematic of a certain strain of noir films in which “fierce sexuality identified with the female image reinforces the misogyny behind the male construction of such a dangerous woman who clearly threatens the power of her male rivals” (145). For Dickos, the femme fatale in such films is able to lead the male protagonists to their dooms largely because they assume that, as males, they will be able to establish a position of dominance in their relationships with these dangerous women. “The ‘tragic’ error such men make, recurrent throughout the tales of femmes fatales, is in their attempt to control, to tame, the female image that at once arouses and threatens them” (145).
It is certainly the case that, in Double Indemnity, Walter seriously miscalculates his ability to handle Phyllis. He, at least initially, thinks of her as a woman, a wife, accustomed to being confined to the domestic sphere, though he also recognizes in her a fellow transgressor against conventional norms of behavior. He, a man of the world who is constantly out and about selling insurance to all different sorts of people, is confident that he understands the workings of the world better than does Phyllis. For her part, Phyllis is perfectly aware of his condescension and uses it to her advantage—though one might also argue that she herself miscalculates her ability to manipulate Walter. From the very beginning, their relationship is more a contest for power and control than of genuine romance. Little wonder, then, that it all comes to such a bad end, with each delivering a fatal gunshot to the other.
It is important, however, to recognize the careful construction of the Walter-Phyllis relationship not as an aberration, but as a typical result of life under modern capitalism, where the prevailing ethos of each-against-all dictates that all relationships between individuals are also contests between competitors. As opposed to the relationship of Walter and Keyes, which is figured as something of a throwback to earlier times, this relationship is purely commodified, purely instrumental, like every other product of modern capitalism as figured in the film: each partner is in it only for the profit that can be gained, not out of any sort of genuine feeling for the other.
Such interpretations are subtly reinforced by numerous elements of Double Indemnity, as in Neff’s reference to the mass-produced, soulless décor of the Dietrichson home or in the frequent use of mechanical and industrial metaphors in the language of the text. It is, for example, not insignificant that the murder plan centrally involves a train, trains having functioned since the nineteenth century as key metaphors for capitalist modernization. In this case, of course, the use of the train rhymes with the language of Neff’s narration, which often uses mechanical or industrial metaphors. Finally, as Naremore points out, Phyllis Dietrichson herself is a thoroughly commodified sexual object, even if she has actively participated in her own commodification. Compared with Phyllis Nirdlinger in the novel, he notes,
“The character portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck is much more blatantly provocative and visibly artificial; her ankle bracelet, her lacquered lipstick, her sunglasses, and above all her chromium hair give her a cheaply manufactured, metallic look. In keeping with this synthetic quality, her sex scenes are almost robotic, and she reacts to murder with an icy calm” (89).
Naremore sees Double Indemnity as a particularly grim condemnation of modern American society, arguing that the only other Hollywood feature from the same time period to treat the “theme of industrial progress with greater despair and sophistication was Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons” (82). Indeed, notes Naremore, both of these films were so negative in their diagnosis of the impact of modern industrial capitalism on the lives of individual human beings that both had to have their endings changed—Welles’ film when the studio reshot the ending behind his back and Wilder’s film when he agreed to change the original ending (which saw Neff executed in the gas chamber) in order to placate the censors implementing the Production Code.
Most critics have felt that The Magnificent Ambersons was diminished by its changed ending (which tacked an essentially happy—and very discordant—resolution onto a film that otherwise moves irrevocably toward doom and disaster), though most critics (supported by Wilder’s own statements on the matter) have tended to see the somewhat lighter (though still dark) ending to the released version of Double Indemnity actually to be an improvement. Naremore is not so sure, however, guessing that a final vision of Walter being killed by a coldly impersonal modern arm of the state would have won sympathy for him, while making the book’s critique of modern American capitalism all the more powerful.
However, Naremore grants that this critique is already quite powerful, focusing on the specifics of Los Angeles as a sort of ultimate embodiment of modern American society, as “a dangerously seductive Eldorado—a center of advanced capitalism, instrumental reason, and death” (82). For Naremore, what was truly controversial about the film, especially in the originally version, in which the gears of modern America turn relentlessly, carrying Walter to his death as if on an assembly line in the culminating gas-chamber sequence (82–83). Both Chandler and Wilder grew up in England, and Naremore suggests that they were able to critique Los Angeles so effectively because they viewed it with the eyes of outsiders.
As James Paris (who puts great emphasis on the unprecedented nature of Double Indemnity) notes, of Wilder, “Perhaps it took a European who had lost an entire world to see life with such a bittersweet sense of irony” (21). And yet, at the same time, Paris also captures something else important that should never be neglected when speaking of Double Indemnity—the exhilarating sense that one is encountering, while watching the film, a truly wonderful work of art. As Paris puts it, “What in Cain’s novel seems merely sordid is converted by Wilder’s magic touch into something rich and strange” (21). One thinks here of nothing more than that crucial moment in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) when young, wide-eyed Betty Schaefer remarks of the artificiality of a street that has been constructed on the Paramount lot as a movie set: “All cardboard, all hollow, all phoney, all done with mirrors. You know, I like it better than any street in the world.” In this sense, Double Indemnity captures not only the sordid reality of the contemporary American dream (and of the Hollywood dream factory), but also the glorious promise of dreaming in general.
Cain, James M. Double Indemnity. 1943. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2011.
Durgnat, Raymond. “Paint It Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1996. 37–51.
Luhr, William. Raymond Chandler and Film. Frederick Ungar, 1982.
Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. University of California Press, 1998.
Paris, James A. “‘Murder Can Sometimes Smell Like Honeysuckle’: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).” Film Noir Reader 4. Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2004. 9–21.
Schickel, Richard. Double Indemnity. British Film Institute, 1992.
 This novella had originally been published in serial form in Liberty magazine in 1936.
 For extensive (and fascinating) background information on the making of the film, see Richard Schickel’s book-length study.
 Indeed, as William Luhr has pointed out, machine metaphors permeate the text, suggest a certain deterministic view of reality as a giant machine that, once set in motion, cannot be stopped by human intervention (24–5).