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Pulp Corner: Double Indemnity

If you’ve ever looked into film noir, no doubt you’ve come across Double Indemnity. It’s often cited as one of the definitive examples of the genre. It actually transcends noir in my opinion and works effectively as a crime drama attracting a wider audience.

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I won’t spend a lot of time focusing on the plot here, but if you’re not familiar it’s fairly simple. Walter Neff (played by the always likeable Fred MacMurrary) is an insurance salesman who one day by chance encounters Phyllis Dietrichson (in a noir defining role for Barabra Stanwyck). Dietrichson is married and the two go in on a plot together to murder her husband and collect the insurance money. As these movies usually go there ends up being a snag in the plan and everything begins to unravel.

The movie is based on the novella of the same name by veteran crime author James M. Cain who also wrote the books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce which were made into classic film noir movies in their own right. (He is also credited with script revisions for another of the genre’s staples, Out Of The Past). The novella itself was based on a true crime story.

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That’s already a great start for a movie, but here’s where it proves its pedigree. Billy Wilder, one of the best American film makers of this time period steps in to direct and calls up Raymond Chandler to help turn Cain’s novella into a film script. Chandler along with Cain and Dashiell Hammett were considered the godfathers of the hard boiled dialogue driven crime and detective stories. Chandler most known for his work with his detective character Phillip Marlowe was an excellent choice to bring in. His script re-writes were invaluable but his amazing ear for dialogue is what helps elevate this movie to another level. Any scene where it’s the two main characters conversing with one another is absolutely electric (although the amount of times Neff says the word “baby” surpasses absurdity):

Phyllis: He has a lot on his mind. He doesn’t seem to want to listen to anything except maybe a baseball game on the radio. Sometimes we sit here all evening and never say a word to each other.
Walter: Sounds pretty dull.
Phyllis: So I just sit and knit.
Walter: Is that what you married him for?
Phyllis: Maybe I like the way his thumbs hold up the wool.
Walter: Anytime his thumbs get tired. Only with me around, you wouldn’t have to knit.
Phyllis: Wouldn’t I?
Walter: You bet your life you wouldn’t.

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The internal dialogue/narration is equally as powerful:

Walter: That was all there was to it. Nothing had slipped, nothing had been overlooked, there was nothing to give us away. And yet, Keyes, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.

Walter: It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?

As powerful and memorable as the lines in the movie are, it’s Barbara Stanwyck who steals the show. Her portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson is the high water mark for femme fatales in any noir.  She comes off as a dedicated wife and a bit of a helpless damsel in distress at the start but reveals herself through the film as increasingly dark and “rotten” by her own accord. The sadistic look of pure elation on her face when her husband is getting killed is really nothing short of astounding and disturbing. Watching the movie again, it’s great getting to see through her facade from the start. This all culminates in one of the great endings in all of noir where she finally reveals her true self to Walter Neff after shooting him.

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Phyllis: 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. I never thought that could happen to me.

Cold as ice.

Part of what makes this movie so sinister is the cinematography of John F. Seitz bathing much of the sets in shadows and venetian blind lighting. It’s everywhere, contrasting from the bright California outdoors. It’s a relatively small set too, like many noirs. In this instance focusing mainly on the Dietrichson’s house and Neff’s office. Some other places get seen like Neff’s apartment and the grocery store, but not many and certainly not for long. The cast is pretty bare bones as well, boiling down really to MacMurrary, Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. We didn’t talk about Edward G. much in this article, but just know he (as always) turns in a great performance and is essential to the story.

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I noticed something interesting in my latest viewing of Double Indemnity that I may not of had I not recently read Raymond Chandler’s “Lady In The Lake” which was written at roughly around the same time. There’s a point in both that book and Indemnity where the main character caught up in the whirlwind of the situation takes a quiet moment to just stare out the window perhaps playing catch up in their minds but there’s no dialogue, just a drink in their hand. It’s something that’s less pronounced in Indemnity and completely unnecessary in both, but I’m quite fond of it. A rare chance to see our leads when they aren’t being leads.

This movie has a special place in my heart, I can’t remember if it was the first noir I saw or if that honor goes to The Maltese Falcon. Watching one of them made me want to watch the other. A good 10 or so years ago I was randomly flipping through the channels one night and I stopped on TCM long enough to see Walter Neff driving to the Dietrichson’s house near the beginning of the movie. Then I was lucky enough to witness the dialogue between the two. I immediately began to ask my dad questions, being the closest resident old movie buff that I knew. When I went out to rent it shortly after, I was greeted at the counter by a young Arthur Harkness who proclaimed the excellence of the movie. I was sure I was making the right decision. If you haven’t seen it, it’s time for you to make the right decision. The Universal 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition is a beautiful transfer and restoration, so if you’ve ever thought about it now’s the time.

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About Biff Tannen

Film Noir, Pulp, Comic Books and Hitchcock.

Posted on March 2, 2015, in Features, Movies, Pulp Corner, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I couldn’t agree more with nearly everything you wrote. Amazing movie that gets better every time I see it. Definitely not enough mention of Edward G. Even though he has a minor role he does a great job with it. I find myself looking forward to his scenes just as much as, if not more, than the stanwyck/macmurray one on ones.

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