Double Indemnity (1944)
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Directed by Billy Wilder
Damn, that was a good movie. You will, of course, feel like you’ve seen and heard this before, which speaks more to the profound influence this entry into the film noir genre has had on the culture. It’s said to be the movie that set the standard for all film noir to come after. A few months ago, I watched the pilot episode of Columbo and was reminded of how similar the murder plans are. You may recall The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple or The Man Who Wasn’t There, both obvious nods to this masterwork. I can’t express how satisfying it is to finally see a film held up as a significant part of the canon and see that it truly lives up to the hype.
Walter Neff is an insurance salesman hoping to get a client to renew his automobile policy. On a house visit, he meets Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of the policyholder. A flirtation ensues, and Neff is invited back later when no one is around. He starts to realize that Phyllis is interested in a life insurance policy for her husband with an inclination to off him and collect the money. Neff is in too deep at this point and decides to go along, coming up with the plan and dealing with obstacles along the way. But not all is as it seems and the murder only leads to more questions and problems, the law closing in at every turn.
Ten minutes into this picture, I was hooked. The dialogue is so sharp and helps to elucidate the characters so beautifully. Neff is a shark of a salesman, knowing how to read a person but tripping over his own carnal wants. Phyllis is a magnificently complex character, constantly twisting back on herself and revealing more layers, keeping the audience confounded. It highlights how poorly the femme fatale trope has been handled by later writers who provide one-dimensional cartoons instead.
For a film made during the heyday of the Motion Picture Code, I was shocked at how dark the picture gets. The more gruesome bits are obscured, but it’s clear what is happening. We watch Phyllis’s face as she looks away during her husband’s murder, hearing it happen offscreen. She and Neff haul the man’s corpse around without any sentiment, chucking him into the crime scene they believe will fool the authorities. There’s a lot of adultery that had to have raised eyebrows at the time. The movie doesn’t choose to scold these characters like good noir should always do; instead, it allows the audience to peek in on people losing their humanity in the coldest way possible.
Chandler and Wilder did not collaborate well during the writing of the script, with Wilder wanting to stick faithfully to the novel while Chandler sought to take creative license. It was the novelist Chandler who is responsible for much of the crackling dialogue that helps the movie pull in the audience. Chandler also wanted to make Los Angeles a relevant setting, bringing in locations that you wouldn’t find in other big cities like Chicago or New York. Ultimately, Chandler’s experience working in Hollywood ruined his sobriety driving him back to drink. In a 1945 essay in Atlantic Monthly, Chandler ranted about how horrible the studio treated him. Wilder would respond later that Chandler had final script approval but was drunk most of the time and, therefore, unable to attend important meetings.
All of this drama and the subject matter led to Double Indemnity being such a wonderfully sleazy piece of crime fiction. Like a good film noir, there are no heroes in this story. It’s just desperate people digging their own graves and disregarding the humanity of anyone besides themselves. We get the “crime doesn’t pay” ending that was pat for this sort of picture, but the darkness of the journey causes that punishment to not have the sting it should. Instead, we’re left ruminating on how easy it was for these people to kill for their own gain.