“They’ve committed a murder and that’s not like taking a trolley ride together where each one can get off at a different stop. They’re stuck with each other. They’ve got to ride all the way to the end of the line. And it’s a one-way trip, and the last stop is the cemetery.”
Double Indemnity is widely regarded as one of the first and finest film noirs of all time. , written by Wilder and famous hardboiled crime writer Raymond Chandler, based on the novel of the same name by another famous hardboiled crime writer, James M. Cain, it’s a film about many things – murder and greed, desire and temptation, guild and paranoia – but the most important is failure. Double Indemnity brilliantly begins at the end. One night, at the offices of the Pacific All-Risk Insurance company, empty except for an elderly night watchman and a few janitors, an insurance salesman named Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) stumbles into his office. We see he is sweating heavily and bleeding from a bullet wound in his shoulder, and we watch as he uses a Dictaphone to record a startling confession for his claims manager, Mr. Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) about the death of one of the company’s policy holders, Mr. Dietrichson. “Want to know who killed Dietrichson?” Walter asks. “Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours Keyes. I killed Dietrichson. Me, Walter Neff, insurance agent, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars – until a little while ago, that is. Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money. And for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”
It’s a bold way to start a movie. We know who did it. We know why he did it. And we know he isn’t successful. This would have destroyed a lesser movie ; any amount of tension the film could have gained would have been shot straight between the eyes. But under the talented hands of Wilder and Chandler, Double Indemnity becomes an intensely structured film about the complexity of human behavior.
Told mainly through flashbacks, Double Indemnity is the story of Walter Neff (two f’s, as in Philadelphia), an insurance salesman, who meets the woman to kill for: Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of one of his clients. The first time Walter meets Phyllis, she is wearing nothing but a towel and an anklet. Walter becomes infatuated with her. “I kept thinking about Phyllis Deitrichson and the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg,” her says at one point. They trade some witty and wonderfully old-fashioned double entendres and it soon becomes clear that they have some sort of attraction to each other. But things soon take a darker turn when Phyllis tells Walter about how unhappy she is in her marriage. Maybe if Mr. Dietrichson had an accident, Walter and Phyllis could be together. And if that accident happened to be part of a double indemnity clause, which pays double for certain accidents that almost never happen, then all the better. But of course, we already know this story does not have a happy ending. The film never lets you forget that Walter is confessing this tale of failure from his office while bleeding heavily from a bullet wound in his shoulder.
Double Indemnity is a dark film, filled with dark shadows and even darker motivations. But that darkness is balanced out by the slick, humorous dialogue. While Wilder and Chandler are famously said to have despised each other while working on the script (Chandler called working in Hollywood an “agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life”), the final product is wonderfully witty. In Walter and Phyllis’ first meeting, Walter asks the maid “where would the living room be” to which she replies “In there, but they keep the liquor locked up.” “That’s okay,” Walter replies. “I always carry my own set of keys.”
Or take a look at this section of dialogue, probably the most famous interaction in the movie.
If Walter and Phyllis’s relationship is the rotting skeleton of Double Indemnity, then Walter and Keyes’ is the film’s surprisingly tender heart. It isn’t exactly a father/son bond; they’re more like mentor and protegé. But the film focuses so heavily on the toxic relationship between Walter and Phyllis that when it decides to throw an emotional fast-ball at the end, it takes the viewers by surprise.
As , played by the fantastic Edward G. Robinson who rattles off his dialogue faster than a machine gun, Mr, Keyes is an odd little man. He’s comically dwarfed by Walter in every scene, he’s always fumbling about in his pockets for a match to light a cigar, and he’s describing how he has a “little man” in his stomach who helps him sort out the “phonies.” It’s almost as if we’re supposed to question if we should take him seriously at all in the beginning of the film. But Keyes is smart, and the film never lets us forget that. And throughout the film, he inches closer and closer to the truth. But he doesn’t figure it out until he overhears Walter’s confession. And Double Indemnity ends on this broken relationship – Walter fumbling to light a cigarette and Keyes lighting the match, something we’ve seen Walter do on several occasions in the film.
“You know why you didn’t figure this one, Keyes?” Walter asks. “Let me tell you. The guy you were looking for was too close. He was right across the desk from you.”
“Closer than that, Walter.”
Keyes is such an important character that the original script ended with him. After Walter is taken into the gas chamber (a scene shot but cut), we follow Keyes out of the prison. I’ll let the script do the talking.
CAMERA SHOOTING IN THROUGH THE OPEN DOOR AT KEYES, who is just turning to leave. Keyes comes slowly out into the dark, narrow corridor. His hat is on his head now, his overcoat is pulled around him loosely. He walks like an old man. He takes eight or ten steps, then mechanically reaches a cigar out of his vest pocket and puts it in his mouth. His hands, in the now familiar gesture, begin to pat his pockets for matches.
Suddenly he stops, with a look of horror on his face. He stands rigid, pressing a hand against his heart. He takes the cigar out of his mouth and goes slowly on towards the door, CAMERA PANNING with him. When he has almost reached the door, the guard stationed there throws it wide, and a blaze of sunlight comes in from the prison yard outside.
Keyes slowly walks out into the sunshine. Stiffly, his head bent, a forlorn and lonely man.