The world of insurance sales will never be as sexy and suspenseful as it is in Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). The renewal of auto insurance, a transaction that nowadays can be completed in minutes from the relative safety of a smart phone, sets off a series of events punctuated by murder and dripping with deceit, seduction, and betrayal in this Hollywood classic. Co-written by Wilder and mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is viewed by many as the first and best American film noir. Studio stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson each took the dual professional risks of playing against type in the film adaptation of a story long viewed as “too taboo” for the screen. Their performances bring life to a razor-sharp script that set the gold standard for film noir, artfully introducing now-clichéd narrative devices like subjective voiceover narration, uncannily accurate detective speculation, and (perhaps most memorably) flirtatious, rapid-fire double entendre. Wilder and Chandler’s script, and particularly Stanwyck’s smoldering performance, keep the audience riveted in suspense for 100-plus minutes, despite the presence of a framing device “spoiling” MacMurray’s fate in the opening scene of the film.
The film begs the question, how can two self-described “rotten” Los Angelinos, characters who, on paper, seem irredeemable and morally repugnant, be so luminous and enthralling once embodied on-screen? Decades before Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway would play the romantic eponymous antiheroes of Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE, MacMurray’s Walter Neff and Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson command our attention to their hypnotic allure from their first scene together–despite eventually being guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud, fornication, adultery and murder. Due to the standards of film decency at the time as delineated in the Production Code, such things were not to be depicted or even suggested, much less romanticized. But working with MacMurray and Stanwyck, Wilder does just that, to grand effect. Not only does he adapt the risqué source novel for the screen and lose nothing, he adds an unforgettable heat and stylistic flourish to make the story all his own.
Looking at the finished film, and indeed by surveying Wilder’s entire body of work, one can surmise that he, like his most successful contemporaries, saw the Production Code adopted by Hollywood in the mid-1930s as an artistic challenge – a series of hurdles easily surmounted with some sly writing and editing. With all of Wilder’s work, but especially here in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, the allure is in the film’s suggestions and flirtations with the viewer, rather than in its depictions –in its best moments it connotes rather than denotes. The film’s power of suggestion is evident in the dialogue, when, for example, Walter offers to do anything for Phyllis on her maid’s day off, even “run the vacuum;” but Wilder also only hints at what his characters are capable of in perhaps the film’s most memorable shot — when he lingers on Phyllis’ unflinching, icy-cold stare as her husband is killed just off-screen.
After a dramatic opening scene where we see Walter Neff rush into his office to make a late-night confession, Wilder uses flashback to relocate us to an idyllic Los Angeles neighborhood on a warm May day. Neff rings the doorbell on “one of those California Spanish jobs,” the impressive Dietrichson mansion. After talking his way past Nettie, the Dietrichsons’ maid, Walter meets “Mrs. Dietrichson.” From his prime position in the foyer, Walter looks up to behold Stanwyck, brazenly greeting the strange man wrapped hastily in a towel, fresh from what seems to be some nude sunbathing on the roof. Cue the first in a long line of double entendres: as an insurance salesman, Walter wants to make sure the Dietrichsons are “fully covered.” As Walter waits for her in the dusty study, Phyllis dresses quickly and fastens on her favorite anklet before descending the grand staircase…and the rest is history.
One cannot watch DOUBLE INDEMNITY and not notice Neff’s hyper-masculine bravado and posturing; it is exaggerated to the point of comedy. Perhaps Wilder, as a German émigré, meant to satirize “the man in the grey flannel suit” so ubiquitous in early 40s America. Polite and congenial at first, once Walter senses Phyllis’ interest, he affects a confident swagger and delivers stern, staccato rejoinders, punctuating every other sentence with a stern, almost patronizing “baby.” Neff’s machismo becomes one of the film’s most endearing qualities, inspiring romantic screen toughs for decades to follow; and yet, this overconfidence is what leads to the pair’s undoing. Walter is sure he’s thought of everything, that he’s in the driver’s seat on this scheme, and that it’s been perfectly planned. But when his confident façade cracks as his gnawing guilt begins to get the better of him, he turns on his partner-in-crime, who reveals what we in the audience have suspected all along—that the smart and determined Phyllis Dietrichson has been in control the whole time, baby. “No one’s backing out now,” she warns Walter after removing the sunglasses she’s been wearing in their supermarket meeting spot.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY functions as a taut suspense thriller, despite our knowing from the outset that Walter Neff will confess his crimes and therefore doesn’t “get away with it.” Neff summarizes his character’s fate in one of the film’s first lines, “I did it for the money, and I did it for a woman. I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman,” a line that becomes shorthand for the entire genre to follow INDEMNITY. We are held in suspense by Wilder as the killers’ getaway car won’t start after they’ve dumped a body; he rivets us to our seats when Phyllis hides behind a door in the hallway outside Walter’s apartment while Keyes hesitates to leave and raises his suspicions of her. Perhaps on a subconscious level, Wilder’s film was so successful because it plays on wartime anxieties regarding femininity, unruly women and the “bored housewife.” We only meet Mr. Dietrichson for a few moments halfway through the film, and we learn early on that he’s often away on business, leaving Phyllis to her own devices. When he’s briefly onscreen, they bicker, and Phyllis memorably explains that all he’s good for is helping her knit. Does the film suggest that this neglectful husband is at least partly to blame for his own fate? Do we empathize with him? What becomes of women left home alone, according to the film? Wilder may have realized that this would be an unsettling notion for GIs to grapple with as they watched the film in 1944.
The film may tap into these male anxieties, but ultimately redeems itself from this quasi-misogynist underpinning, since Stanwyck’s Dietrichson is anything but the bored housewife starved for attention. Brought to life onscreen by the era’s biggest and perhaps most versatile movie star, Phyllis Dietrichson is a highly intelligent and complex character, whose motivations we can never fully comprehend. Nowhere in the film is this more evident than in that inscrutable close-up of Stanwyck’s face, cool and calm as Walter Neff does her dirty work just off-screen. So unimpeachable is her character, she won’t even share the screen with the murder she has “allegedly” orchestrated. One comes away from DOUBLE INDEMNITY recognizing it as one of Stanwyck’s absolute best screen performances, straight down the line.