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But first, what is film noir? Can we even call it a genre? And what does a movie need in order to belong to this notoriously slippery category?
Film noir literally translates to “black film,” and was first used in 1946 when French critic Nino Frank wrote an article called “A New Police Genre: The Criminal Adventure.” Frank wrote about the Hollywood films Laura (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Double Indemnity, among others, noting their brutality, darkness and cynicism, and labelling them “film noir.” (The term had been used in France in the late 1930s to describe poetic realist movies like Le Quai des brumes (1938), but most agree that Frank was the first to use it in its modern, Hollywood sense).
It is perhaps surprising that it was a French critic who called attention to the dark tendencies of these American movies, but it’s not actually that strange. After all, Hollywood films had not been shown in France during WWII, but when the war ended, French theaters were flooded with a backlog of Hollywood imports. This circumstance helped critics like Frank detect themes and tendencies that were less noticeable to Americans who didn’t have the option of watching Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon back to back, for example.
Anyway, the term film noir stuck, though it remains an incredibly sticky, contested label. Some scholars and critics refuse to grant film noir the status of “genre,” preferring terms like “tendency,” “category,” “mood,” “phenomenon,” “cycle” or “style.”
Part of the problem with the term film noir is that it was only applied retroactively; unlike musicals or gangster films, Hollywood studios did not have a category of “film noir,” and the filmmakers never described their films as such. Instead, most canonical film noirs were called “melodramas” when they were produced.
Another complicating factor is that the modern canon of film noir (which is itself a highly contested group) is far from a cohesive collection of movies sharing clear cut characteristics. For instance, we know that a movie is a western by its setting, and a musical is easy to spot because the characters sing and dance. But film noirs can differ hugely one to the next.
That being said, there are certain characteristics that shout (or suggest) film noir: an urban setting, a private detective, a femme fatale, an anti-hero, crime, a mood of cynicism and pessimism, corruption, moral ambiguity, fatalism, violence and brutality, erotic elements, a hardboiled style of narrative and dialogue, flashbacks, voiceover narration, a dreamlike quality, and sometimes a hopelessly tangled plot.
Film noir also has a certain visual style, which includes expressionist flair (composition, angles, etc., visitThe Lost Weekend for more on German Expressionism), and iconography like rain-slicked city streets, neon signs, Venetian blinds, and cigarettes. But perhaps the most salient element of film noir style is low-key lighting.
As Janey Place and Lowell Peterson write in “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” “Noir lighting is ‘low-key.’ The ratio of key to fill light is great, creating areas of high contrast and rich, black shadows. [Click here to learn more about the terms key and fill.] Unlike the even illumination of high-key lighting which seeks to display attractively all areas of the frame, the low-key noir style opposes light and dark, hiding faces, rooms, urban landscapes—and, by extension, motivations and true character—in shadow and darkness…”
Compare a comedy, The Lady Eve, which is lit in the more typical high-key style, with a film noir, Double Indemnity, dimly lit in low-key:
Along with the various characteristics and visual style, the era of production is also important when classifying film noirs. The 1940s-1950s are generally considered the classic period of film noir, with later films taking on the “neo-noir” label, though that is a whole other can of shady worms.
Nearly every convention of the category/genre/cycle of film noir has several notable exceptions (many do not take place in cities, for example, or lack a private detective character), which is why various scholars and critics disagree so much over what the term means. What doesn’t help (but fascinates) is that film noir is by its very nature mysterious and malleable. The movies just have a certain atmosphere–film noirs present a shadowy, cynical, stylish world, but these qualities can be difficult to quantify and classify.
It doesn’t stop people from trying, though! There are more books than you’d imagine presenting arguments for a certain definition of film noir, and it seems that each scholar’s canon differs from the next. Those championing a narrow definition of film noir might set out a canon of only several dozen films, whereas those who take a broader view might make room for hundreds of movies in their “definitive” lists.
Basically, there is no consensus and noclear canon, which is one reason that film noir is so intriguing! I’m not even going to get into the various influences of film noir, nor the reasons why it arose when it did/looks how it does. This post is already a monster, and it would never end if I tried to cover all of that.
But if you’d like to jump into the film noir morass, check out TCM’s free online course from Ball State University, or take a look at two of my favorite books on the topic: Film Noir Reader and More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts.
Despite all of this critical confusion, no one disagrees with Double Indemnity‘s categorization as film noir. As scholar Carl Freedman wrote, “Though the genre is too varied and complex for any particular film to be completely typical, it would be difficult to name another that comes closer to providing a paradigm for noir” (“The End of Work: From Double Indemnity to Body Heat,” in Neo-Noir).
Double Indemnity is the standard against which other film noirs and thrillers are judged, but it’s not just interesting in an academic sense. The film’s themes of betrayal, murder, and lust don’t go out of style, and this film still sucks you in eighty years after it was made. It somehow strikes a weird balance between highly stylized, very “of-its-time” but also timeless, which not many films manage.
Hardboiled author James M. Cain, who also wroteThe Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce, penned Double Indemnity in the mid-1930s. It was published serially in Liberty Magazine in 1936 before Cain included it as part of a collection of stories in 1943.
Cain was inspired by a sensational real-life murder: in 1927, a woman named Ruth Brown conspired with her married boyfriend Henry Judd Gray to kill her husband. She took out a hefty insurance policy on her doomed hubby, and with Gray’s help murdered the poor man. They were caught, found guilty, and executed. See the parallels to Double Indemnity?
Cain’s story was first submitted to the Production Code Administration (you can read more about that process and entity here) back in 1935 by MGM head Louis B. Mayer. But the PCA chief, Joseph Breen, shot down MGM’s hopes, writing that the story violated the Production Code and was “almost certain to result in a picture which we would be compelled to reject.”
Breen listed some of the violations, including the fact that “the leading characters are murderers who cheat the law and die at their own hands; the story deals improperly with an illicit and adulterous sex relationship; [and] the details of the vicious and cold-blooded murder are clearly shown.” Such a strong denial from the PCA shelved the story–without a Production Code certificate of approval, theaters wouldn’t show the film, so it wasn’t worth making.
Just to make sure the studios knew where Breen stood on Double Indemnity, his memo was sent to Warner Bros and Columbia, too. It would also make its way to Paramount eight years later when that studio began preparing to make the film in early 1943.
Despite the PCA’s strong objections, writer-director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep and other hardboiled novels, went to work adapting Cain’s story for the screen. Rather amazingly, Breen approved their treatment, writing in September, 1943 that it appeared acceptable, so long as the towel wrapped around Phyllis in her first scene “properly cover[s]” her and falls beneath her knees: “There must be no unacceptable exposure.” Also, the “whole sequence of the detailed disposition of the corpse is unacceptable…as a too detailed exposition of crime…We strongly urge, therefore, that you fade out after they take the body from the car…”
PCA files are fascinating. Breen and his staff handled the huge themes and issues, but tiny details (like the exact length of Phyllis’ towel) were dissected almost gleefully, too. When you’re guarding a nation’s morals, nothing can be overlooked!
Now that the script had preliminary approval, Paramount went to work. Barbara Stanwyck was cast as Phyllis Dietrichson, though Walter Neff was harder to find. Alan Ladd declined the part, so Wilder went to George Raft, who is most famous for his gangster roles and for passing on an extraordinary number of iconic movies.
When Wilder told Raft the plot of Double Indemnity, Raft asked him “Where’s the lapel?” The actor was convinced that at the end of the movie Neff would reveal himself as a policeman or FBI agent by flipping his lapel to display his badge! Raft wanted the character to be a true hero, and when Wilder told him there was no “lapel moment,” Raft turned down yet another legendary role.
Often Raft’s discarded roles went to Humphrey Bogart, but this time it was Fred MacMurray who took the part. Wilder thought MacMurray would be an intriguing choice because he typically played nice guys in light comedies.
But MacMurray wasn’t sure it was a good fit. He told Wilder, “I’m a saxophone player; I do little comedies with Carole Lombard.” (You can read about two of those “little comedies” here: The Princess Comes Across and Hands Across the Table.) But Wilder persuaded him, and MacMurray would later claim that Walter Neff was his favorite role. Fun fact: about fifteen years later, Wilder personally convinced MacMurray to play another anti-hero in The Apartment (1960).
Edward G. Robinson, who was wisely transitioning from his notorious gangster roles into a more diversified career, formed the third point of the unusual triangle as the claims investigator Barton Keyes. And off they went!
The opening of this film is so noir that it almost feels like a spoof. But that’s only because the dark, wet streets and a lonely city sparsely lit by piercing headlights and streetlights have become such strong markers of the style.
The car stops in front of the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company and Walter Neff (MacMurray) gets out. He limps into the building and stays mostly silent despite the kindly conversation of the elevator operator. Walter makes his way through the dark office and goes in a door marked “Barton Keyes, Claims Manager.”
He sits at the desk, gingerly sets up the dictaphone, and begins his confession. He says it’s July 16, 1938, he’s 35-years-old, and he killed Dietrichson. “I killed him for money. And for a woman. But I didn’t get the money…and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”
It’s an amazing line and a great scene. You can watch it here.
Cue the flashback as Walter says, “It all began last May.” We cut from the office to a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Walter walks up to a Spanish-style house, and his voice continues to narrate what we’re seeing. (We’ve got murder, voiceover narration and a flashback narrative already. Check, check, and check.)
Walter walks into the house and explains that he is an insurance salesman. He has stopped by to renew an auto policy with Mr. Dietrichson. He isn’t home, but his wife is…
There’s that towel. And it does indeed fall just below Stanwyck’s knees. Walter flirts shamelessly with Mrs. Dietrichson (Stanwyck), and she gives it right back to him. Immediately we know that neither of these characters is an upstanding, moral person. And that’s one reason this movie is so fun.
Phyllis Dietrichson tells Walter to wait for a moment–she was sunbathing but will put on some clothes and be right down. Walter grins as he waits for Phyllis. He’s a heel, we realize, and has no problem at all flirting with a married woman.
When Phyllis comes down the stairs, we get a shot of her high-heeled slippers and anklet. Whenever the camera lingers on feet like this, you know the character is bad news. It’s a fantastic trope.
Phyllis is still buttoning her ruffled dress as she walks into the living room. It’s yet another clue that she is iffy, morally and sexually speaking. After all, a nice lady always makes sure her clothes are properly fastened before engaging with a strange man.
Phyllis casually rebuffs his more aggressive efforts, but it’s perfunctory, at best. At one point she rises from her chair and paces, clearly pondering something. Then she asks Walter if he sells accident insurance, too. Her husband works in the oil fields and she worries about him so!
Walter doesn’t buy the “worried little woman” routine. There’s something awfully calculating and predatory about Phyllis. She seems excited yet contained, like a crouching panther, when she starts talking about accident insurance.
This is an amazing scene packed with double entendres, sexual tension, and desire. Eventually, Phyllis tells Walter that he can come back tomorrow evening. Her husband will be there and can sign the renewal, and she’ll be there, too, of course. Walter asks, “Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?” She says, “I wonder if I know what you mean.” He replies “I wonder if you wonder.” It’s great. You canwatch the scene here.
Fun fact: John Seitz, the cinematographer, achieved the look of “waning sunlight” in the dark, dusty house using “some silver dust mixed with smoke.” (Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck).
Another fun fact: Bosley Crowther, the reviewer at The New York Times, found MacMurray’s immediate attraction to Stanwyck difficult to believe, writing “Mr. MacMurray is a bit too ingenuous as the gent who falls precipitately under her spell. And the ease of his fall is also questionable. One look at the lady’s ankles and he’s cooked.” It’s pretty true–but I buy it.
Now for a costume appreciation break and wig discussion. We’ve got to get that out of the way. Stanwyck looks different in this film, mostly because of the brassy blonde wig. It’s an odd, clearly fake hairstyle with heavy sausage curl bangs and a platinum glow.
The wigs’ strangeness is not the result of changes in style, either; even when the movie was released people thought the wig was weird. Reportedly, an executive at Paramount said, “We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington” after he saw some of the early footage!
Critics mentioned it, too, for example,Variety’s review of the film included this line: “Miss Stanwyck is not as attractive as normally with what is seemingly a blonde wig, but it’s probably part of a makeup to emphasize the brassiness of the character.”
As Variety noted, the wig was intended to make Phyllis look trashy and inelegant, and perhaps to allude to her deceptive character and general boldness, which it certainly does. But that effect is somewhat overshadowed by the basic weirdness, though the wig did make it easier for Steve Martin to step into Phyllis’ place in his wonderful noir spoof, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). I’ll have more on that in a moment.
To Phyllis’ costume! Her clothes are especially interesting in this movie, so I’ll be paying extra attention to them. Paramount’s head designer Edith Head created the costumes for this film. She had first dressed Barbara Stanwyck in Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), but the relationship between designer and actress really took off on The Lady Eve (1941).
Before that film, Head remembered that “As for fashion, [Stanwyck] couldn’t have cared less,” but The Lady Eve changed her mind.
Stanwyck agreed, recalling that for The Lady Eve, “…Edith made the most beautiful clothes I had ever worn.” From then on, Stanwyck requested that Head design all of her costumes, and she had the designer’s name “written into every contract, no matter what studio [she] was working for.” Head and Stanwyck would go on to work on more than 25 films together (Edith Head and Paddy Calistro, Edith Head’s Hollywood.)
When Head designed for Stanwyck on films at other studios, she would only create Stanwyck’s outfits, and the studio’s designer would dress the other actresses. This was not an uncommon arrangement for powerful stars; Carole Lombard had a similar arrangement with Travis Banton, for example. For more on the relationship between Head and Stanwyck, and the various “tricks” Head used to make Stanwyck look her best, visit my post on The Lady Eve.)
Head worked her magic on Double Indemnity, though the goal for Phyllis was slightly different than for other characters who just needed to look beautiful.
The material is slinky and falls in easy folds when she settles into a dark chair, seductively revealing her knees. The shiny buttons, belt buckle, large jewelry, and platinum hair glitter as she moves, giving her a “cheaply manufactured, metallic look” (James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts.)
Phyllis appears tawdry, cold, and inelegant, an effect which was very much intended. Wilder “wanted to make her look as sleazy as possible,” and Head made it happen (Ella Smith, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck.)
Her costume also serves another purpose tailored to film noir. I propose that one reason Head chose a light color for this dress, and for others in the film, was due to the low-key lighting used throughout the movie. The dim light pools and shimmers along her dress and jewelry, turning her body into a sort of noir landscape of shadows and highlights. The pale dress and the blonde wig make Stanwyck practically glow, and keep her visible in the shadowy room.
Edith Head and her fellow designers would have been well aware of the cinematography and overall look of each film they worked on. The various departments (set, art, costume, makeup, etc.) worked together to create a cohesive movie, and smart designers like Head learned what worked on screen and what didn’t.
Head explained this collaborative process, remembering how during her early years at Paramount she: “learned to buck what a Hollywood designer must try to buck: first the star who puts herself in your hands but knows exactly what she wants, then the producer and the director, either of whom is likely to say, ‘I want a square neckline, my wife always wears one,’ the sound man who doesn’t like the rustle, the color consultant who worries himself sick about plaids and tweeds…”
“…the art director who insists, ‘You can’t use blue, the interior of my room is blue,’ the set decorator who screams, ‘Oh, my God, you can’t use a black dress for this scene, I’ve planned a black sofa!’…or the front office reminding you, as the day of economy came in, ugliest of all words, WE CAN’T AFFORD…or, finally, the censor who may decree that mousseline de soie is too diaphanous… ” (Edith Head and Jane Kesner Ardmore, The Dress Doctor.)
Head’s awareness of the various factors from sound to censors, and her habit of collaboration influenced her designs and would serve her well in an expressive movie like this one. Although she would not have called Double Indemnity a “film noir,” as that term did not yet exist, she would have known that it would be shot in a very dark, low-key style, and she certainly seems to have taken the lighting into account when designing the costumes.
The white costumes and light colors worn so frequently by Phyllis also play an interesting game in terms of characterization. In the popular, and occasionally scholarly imagination, femme fatales appear draped in black, sparkly dresses that ooze sexuality. Gilda’s iconic black strapless gown in Gilda (1946) and Kitty’s sultry, one shoulder number in The Killers (1946) have come to represent “the femme fatale dress,” but both of these black dresses are signaled as “costumes” worn to perform songs within the world of the movie.
Despite this, the gowns have become part of the iconography of the femme fatale, although Phyllis and other film noir dames are more often seen in modest white clothes than black dresses. (ps. I really enjoyed this article on Double Indemnity‘s costumes from the great Girls Do Film site.)
Back to the movie. Walter leaves the house and returns to his office. Barton Keyes (Robinson), who is a legendary investigator who never lets a phony claim sneak by, is yelling at a man who set fire to his truck in order to collect the insurance money.
After the confrontation, Walter and Keyes chat, and you can tell that they are very close. It’s sort of a father-son dynamic.
We also hear about the “little man” in Keyes’ gut who alerts him when something isn’t quite right. (It’s proto-Stephen Colbert and truthiness.) Keyes’ hunches are famous, and he’s a bloodhound when it comes to tracking down the truth.
This scene is important to get the relationship between Keyes and Walter, and to understand what a great investigator Keyes is (he plays the “private eye” role in this noir). But it’s also fun to see the mid-1940s decor in the office. All those tiny drawers! You can watch it here.
Walter gets a call from Phyllis later that day rescheduling his evening appointment to an afternoon visit. So Walter goes back later that week, but–shock!–Mr. Dietrichson isn’t there! Walter isn’t fooled by Phyllis’ fake-surprise at remembering that it’s the maid’s day off, too…
Phyllis starts with an innocent act, but the conversation soon turns to that accident policy and her troubled relationship with her husband. But it’s still full of great lines.
For instance, Phyllis tells Walter that her marriage is so dull she spends her evenings knitting. Walter says, “Is that what you married him for?” She answers, “Maybe I like the way his thumbs hold up the wool.” And Walter for the win: “Anytime his thumbs get tired…Only with me around, you wouldn’t have to knit.”
Eventually, Phyllis asks about the accident policy, and Walter is happy to explain. He becomes suspicious, though, when she starts talking about how her husband doesn’t want one, and would it be possible to get one without his knowledge?
Walter had no problem flirting (which seems a far too innocent word for these two scoundrels) but he’s not okay with a secret insurance policy. He says, “You want to knock him off, don’t you?” (there is such great slang in this movie!) She acts shocked and insulted, but Walter doesn’t buy it, and he’s happy to leave. He’s not interested in such underhanded dealings. At least not yet.
Costume appreciation break. Just a typical afternoon dress for receiving insurance salesman, right? Notice how the waist of the dress dips in the back. Stanwyck had a “figure problem,” a long waist and a low, wide bottom that stumped designers. Until Edith Head came along…
Head solved Stanwyck’s “problem:” “By widening the waistbands on the front of her gowns and narrowing them slightly in the back, I could still put her in straight skirts, something other designers were afraid to do, because they thought she might look too heavy in the seat. Since she wasn’t the least bit heavy, I just took advantage of her long waist to create an optical illusion that her derriere was just as pertly placed as any other star’s” (Edith Head’s Hollywood).
This dress is also a great example of the peculiarities of costume design for black-and-white films. Head later explained that: “When you do a black-and-white picture, you have to depend upon two things: extreme contrast, to get variation in light and shade, and then you have to be much more intricate in construction of clothes and much more elaborate in accessories, decoration, embroidery, and things of that sort” (Edith Head qtd. in Sam Staggs, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream.)
The intricacy of the designs was important because “A red sheath which might be magnificent for a scene in color would have looked like a gray sack in black and white” (The Dress Doctor.) For example, a dress like this pink one from Easy to Wed (1946), which is stunning on Esther Williams in high-key Technicolor, would look awfully dull, like a “gray sack,” in black and white. But Phyllis’ flower print dress has the extreme contrast and the elaborate detail that makes it pop in the black and white world ofDouble Indemnity.
Back to the movie. Walter goes to a drive-in where he drinks a beer in his car (!) and then bowls a few frames to quiet his mind. Just the typical activities one does when a customer solicits one’s help in murdering her husband.
But he can’t get Phyllis out of his head. You can watch the scene here.
Phyllis and Walter stand at the window watching the rain dance down the panes (of course it’s raining!), and soon they profess their “love” for each other with mutual “I’m crazy about you, baby.” Kiss. They have known each other for about fifteen minutes at this point, so it was about time, right?
Talk turns to Phyllis’ mean husband. He hits her and he never lets her do anything, plus he’s leaving all of his money to his daughter from his first marriage. He won’t ever grant Phyllis a divorce, so she’s stuck. Walter listens, but basically tells her that she can’t murder her husband because everyone gets caught sooner or later. And insurance companies “know more tricks than a carload of monkeys,” so they would be all over her if there was a big insurance payout.
Significantly, there’s never any mention of the evil of murder, no “you shouldn’t kill him because it’s bad to kill people.” Walter and Phyllis’ reservations are all very rooted in selfish consequences, which is one reason this movie feels so brutal, so dark, and so very noir.
Things look bleak for Phyllis and she begins to cry. They embrace, and a cross-dissolve takes us to Walter recording his confession. The cross-dissolve signals that Phyllis and Walter are going to have sex, but since this is a 1944 film that had to contend with the Production Code, we can’t watch it.
In the office, Walter talks about how he was partly interested in Phyllis’ plan because he wanted to pit his skills and inside knowledge against the insurance company and the police. He was in a perfect position to carry out insurance fraud, and he sort of wanted to see if he could do it! Again, there’s no real mention that he will be killing a human being as part of his game. That’s film noir for you.
Another dissolve takes us back to the apartment. Walter is sprawled on the couch smoking, and Phyllis is touching up her makeup. These are more codes for “the characters just had sex.”
Movies like this are so fascinating because of all the codes and shorthands the filmmakers employ to abide by the letter of the Production Code while still including crime, sex, and other no-nos. It can seem really tame by today’s standards, but it’s all there if you know how to read it.
Before Phyllis goes home, Walter pulls her in for another kiss. By this point he’s completely under her spell, and he tells her that he has changed his mind. He will help her kill her husband. They’re going to do it right and plan out everything so that they won’t get caught. They’re on the same trolley car to murder, taking it “straight down the line,” a metaphor that will crop up quite often.
Costume appreciation break. Phyllis wears a light colored coat over a white sweater and a slim dark skirt in this scene. It might seem counterintuitive to wear a white sweater to a seduction, but it really works. The sweater is so thin you can see Phyllis’ bra underneath, and it clings quite tightly to her figure.
The white sweater signals both demure (long sleeve, crew-neck) and sexy (very tight and slightly sheer). Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper focused on its vampy side, writing “Stanwyck broke all the Hays [Production Code] rules, including the ban on sweaters, in DoubleIndemnity” (Hedda Hopper, “Looking at Hollywood.Chicago Daily Tribune. 12 June 1944.)
This costume is likely another instance of Edith Head working with Wilder and Seitz’s vision for the scene. It is one of the darkest interiors in the film, and most of the shots are from the waist up. Walter, also in a white shirt, and Phyllis remain visible partly because of their white tops as they pass in and out of shadows.
A few nights later, Walter comes by the house to get Mr. Dietrichson to sign the auto insurance forms/his secret accident policy. Phyllis and her step-daughter Lola (Jean Heather) play Chinese checkers while Walter goes through his sales pitch. It’s obvious that Lola and Phyllis are not pals.
This scene is a notable example of costume design and the idea of a “foil.” As I mentioned earlier, not every femme fatale is always dressed in black sequins. Most often, the femme fatale is coded relatively within each film, usually as the counterpart to a “good woman.” This juxtaposition helps to easily separate the different types of women in that old binary of good/bad, or virgin/whore.
Edith Head employs this juxtaposition in her costume design; after all, femme fatales can’t always be in strapless black dresses, but they can be subtly coded as “sexier” than the other women in the film. That’s what is going on here: Lola is in a pale, modest dress with a bow at the collar, and Phyllis is garbed in a low-cut, black fringed number with a large brooch at her décolletage.
The styles and the colors set the women apart; as Edith Head said later: “I think you see colors before you see details, and certain clichés will work—virginal white for a girl, black for a vamp” (Deborah Landis,Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design.) In this film, Head uses both clichés, sometimes playing with and sometimes against the standard connotations. She goes with them in this scene.
Anyway, Walter gets Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) to sign the accident policy, which he thinks is the auto insurance renewal. So far, so good. For Phyllis and Walter. Not for Mr. Dietrichson.
Phyllis walks Walter to the door and they have a brief whispered conversation before he takes off. Phyllis watches him go, a peculiar smile on her face. You can watch the scene here.
Walter’s night isn’t over yet, though. Lola has been waiting for him, hoping that he will drive her into the city. She told her father that she was meeting a friend, but she’s actually meeting a boyfriend, Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr.) Lola’s father doesn’t approve of Zachetti, so Lola has to sneak around. Once we meet Zachetti, it becomes clear why Mr. Dietrichson isn’t a fan. He’s hostile and aggressive, and scarily possessive of Lola. He’s upset that she rode with Walter, for example.
Besides the general excellence of this masterpiece, it is fun to watch just for the views of Los Angeles and the general 1940s environment. Many scenes were shot on location; for example, the exterior of Walter’s apartment was shot at 1825 North Kingsley Dr., the garage was in the El Royale building on Rossmore Avenue, Jerry’s Market was at 5330 Melrose Avenue, and scenes were filmed on Sunset Boulevard, Western Avenue, and Hollywood Boulevard.
Now that the accident policy has gone into effect, Walter and Phyllis set the rest of their plan into action. Although this movie does give some elements away beforehand, it doesn’t show the audience every detail of the plan, which makes it extra-exciting when we watch our two “heroes” execute their intricate plot.
Walter and Phyllis are extremely careful. For example, they don’t call each other (that could be traced), but instead meet at Jerry’s Market near Phyllis’ house when they need to talk.
Despite their precautions, they’re highly noticeable when they both stop in front of the baby food and stand there for minutes at a time speaking in low voices.
Fun fact: this scene is used extensively in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) with Steve Martin as Phyllis. You can watch that version here. Another fun fact: Edith Head designed the costumes for that film, too. Her expertise in 1940s style and the fact that she designed many of the original outfits came in handy! It was her final film in a career that spanned nearly sixty years.
Walter wants to make it look like Mr. Dietrichson died on a train because the accident policy has a “double indemnity” clause that pays double on certain rare accidents, like deaths on trains. As luck would have it, Mr. Dietrichson’s Stanford reunion is coming up, and he plans to take the train. Walter and Phyllis want to murder him on that trip, thus doubling the $50,000 payout. It’s all coming together…
But then Mr. Dietrichson breaks his leg! The trip is cancelled, so Walter and Phyllis have to think of another plan. But the wait is taking its toll. They don’t dare see each other, and their enforced distance is very frustrating. Also, Phyllis’ powerful hold over Walter seems to weaken when she’s not around, and he starts vaguely second-guessing the entire thing.
Then the fates smile on our evil pair. Phyllis calls Walter with good news: her husband has decided to go on the trip after all. He’s catching the 10:15 train that very night. It’s a wonderful scene because Walter is with Keyes when she calls, and Walter has to pretend it’s just some random lady on the phone, not his murder accomplice. There’s an extra layer of betrayal built into Walter’s actions, since he and Keyes are so close, and Keyes just finished asking Walter to come work with him in his department when Phyllis called!
The pair swing into action. Walter heads home, careful to make his presence known to as many people as possible because he needs an alibi for the evening. He asks the garage attendant to wash his car, calls a co-worker, and puts a piece of paper in his doorbell and phone box so that he will know if anyone stops by or calls. He needs people to think he was at home all night.
Then he changes into a suit to match Mr. Dietrichson, grabs a towel to serve as a cast, and walks to the Dietrichson house. He sneaks into the garage and hides in the backseat of their car. Phyllis and Mr. Dietrichson arrive soon after, and Phyllis and Walter lock eyes as she puts her husband’s suitcase in the back. It’s creepy.
Phyllis turns down a very dark street and honks the horn three times to signal Walter. He rises from the back and kills Mr. Dietrichson right there in the car. We don’t see the murder; instead, the film lingers on Phyllis’ face. Although this was partially mandated by the Production Code, (remember that Breen didn’t want to see the murder nor the corpse), it’s a masterful choice, and more effective than seeing Walter kill Mr. Dietrichson, in my opinion.
Our eyes stay fixed on Phyllis as we listen to her husband’s dying gurgles and groans. She doesn’t say a word, and she barely changes expression. There is certainly no pity nor remorse in her face, and she actually seems to grow stronger and ruthlessly happy as he dies beside her. It’s chilling.
The murder was just the beginning of the plan. Now they need to get “Mr. Dietrichson” on the train. When they get to the station, Walter puts the body in the trunk, grabs the crutches, and follows Phyllis to the train pretending to be Mr. Dietrichson.
Phyllis says goodbye to her “husband” and heads back to the car with the corpse hidden in the back. Meanwhile, Walter makes his way to the observation platform on the caboose. But he’s not alone. Obviously Walter can’t have a witness!
So Walter asks the friendly man (Porter Hall) to fetch his cigars from his compartment. Once he’s gone, Walter jumps off the slow-moving train and waits for Phyllis to meet him at the appointed spot. Then they throw the corpse on the tracks and run back to the car.
It’s all very neatly done. Clever, cold, and ruthless.
When Phyllis tries to start the car, the engine sputters and dies. Uh oh. She tries again and again without any luck. The seconds tick by, and the suspense is crazy. Finally, Walter is able to start the engine, and the pair make their getaway. Although we know that Phyllis and Walter are doing something very bad, we still root for them. We’re glad their car finally started because we really don’t want Phyllis and Walter to get caught.
Fun fact: the car scene wasn’t in the original script. Wilder’s own car wouldn’t start after a day of shooting, and he liked the idea of adding something similar to the movie. It’s funny that this wasn’t part of the master plan because it is one of the most memorable moments in the film.
Another fun fact: contemporary reports note that some night scenes were filmed in Phoenix, AZ because Los Angeles had blackout regulations which made it difficult to shoot at night. This film was in production in September through November 1943, as WWII was raging, so such regulations were the norm. But since the movie is set in 1938, there’s nothing about WWII in the film.
Phyllis drops Walter off near his apartment. He is glad to find that no one called nor came by, though it’s unclear what he would have done if someone did try to get in touch with him during those hours. Then he walks to a nearby drugstore for some food and more alibi support, which gives him the opportunity for some more amazing noir moments.
His voiceover comes back as he walks down the dark, deserted street. He explains that although the plan had gone off perfectly, he was suddenly overcome with a sense of dread: “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He feels that everything will go wrong.
But it doesn’t. Days pass and no one gets suspicious. It seems perfectly reasonable that a man with a broken leg could have lost his balance, fallen off the train, and broken his neck. But then the president of the insurance company hears that they are on the hook for a $100,000 payout (a little over 1.3 million in 2015 dollars) and takes a look at the case himself. Mr. Norton (Richard Gaines) then calls in Keyes and Walter and tells them that he thinks Mr. Dietrichson committed suicide, which, of course, negates the accident policy.
Walter stays quiet, but Keyes comes to the rescue. He destroys Mr. Norton’s theory in a magnificent monologue. Actuarial tables and suicide statistics have never been so dramatically fascinating! Keyes’ conclusion is that there is no way Mr. Dietrichson committed suicide. The company will have to pay. (It’s terribly ironic and poignant that Keyes, who is Walter and Phyllis’ most dangerous foe, actually helps their case.
Then things get even more interesting. Mr. Norton asked Phyllis to come by to discuss her husband’s policy. She walks in wearing her dark suit and mourning hat, and plays the part of grieving-wife-shocked-to-learn-about-the-accident-policy-and-also-insulted-by-the-suicide-theory perfectly.
Walter and Phyllis barely look at each other in this scene, but you can feel Walter’s terrible tension. Phyllis seems quite cool, though. Deception is her thing, after all.
Phyllis rocks that veil, and she naturally has a handkerchief at the ready.
Despite Keyes’ assertions to the contrary, the president refuses to pay the double indemnity on the grounds of suicide. Phyllis fully intends to sue.
That evening, Phyllis stupidly calls Walter to ask if she can come to his apartment to talk about their options. He stupidly agrees. As he waits for her, guess who stops by unannounced? Keyes! He’s been thinking about the Dietrichson case, and his “little man” is performing somersaults in his gut. Something isn’t right.
Walter is in a tough spot. If Phyllis walks in, which she will at any moment, the game is up. But clever Phyllis hears Keyes from outside Walter’s door and waits in the hallway.
Walter listens to Keyes’ theories, calm on the outside but churning within. Keyes is getting closer to the truth, though he harbors no suspicions about Walter.
It’s another suspenseful scene, and it only gets crazier once Keyes leaves the apartment. Fortunately for Phyllis, the door opens out into the hall (unusual), so she hides behind it as Keyes and Walter step into the hallway.
I love this door gag. It’s used a lot, as when Cary Grant hides behind the door in The Awful Truth (1937), but never with this level of suspense.
Now that Keyes is gone, Phyllis and Walter can discuss their next moves. First, they really can’t see each other for a while. Now that Keyes is investigating, they need to be crazy-careful. And Walter doesn’t think that Phyllis should sue the insurance company. He is certain that a lawsuit will only end up exposing the murder. But Phyllis doesn’t like that, not at all. She wants that money!
Walter is starting to wish they’d never killed Dietrichson, whereas Phyllis seems energized by the crime. But there is not much either one of them can do. Things have changed between them, but they’re inextricably bound together by the murder. There’s no getting off the trolley. It’s straight down the line.
Things just get worse for Walter as the days go by. Lola shows up in his office with her own suspicions. She tells Walter that she saw Phyllis trying on a black hat and veil days before her father died, and she thinks that Phyllis had something to do with his death.
Her suspicions are based on more than premature mourning attire, though. She tells Walter a terrible story about how her mother died. She was so sick that her father hired a full-time nurse, and they all went to Lake Tahoe together in the middle of winter.
One night Lola walked into her mother’s room to find that all the windows had been thrown open and the blankets taken from the bed. The room was freezing cold, and her poor mother was terribly ill and delirious with fever. Lola was covering her up when the nurse walked in and gave Lola a look she never forgot.
Her mother died soon after–guess who the nurse was?
Phyllis. Of course.
Lola thinks that Phyllis killed her mom so she could marry her father for his money. Lola was too young to do anything back then, but now that her father has died she can’t sit by and let Phyllis get away with it.
This is not what Walter wanted to hear. His most immediate problem is Lola going to the police, so he decides to wine and dine her to keep her mind off of the murder. (He must think she’s really dumb and shallow if a few dates will erase her suspicions about her father’s death.)
He’s right, though. Lola has such a lovely time with him that she doesn’t seem concerned about Phyllis killing both her parents! He must be a wonderful conversationalist.
Meanwhile, Keyes is still working away at the Dietrichson case. Walter gets a nasty surprise when he comes by Keyes’ office and sees Mr. Jackson (Porter Hall), the man from the observation platform, waiting outside. Keyes tracked him down and wants to ask about his encounter with Dietrichson.
Keyes has a new theory: Dietrichson was murdered before he ever got on the train. The theory is bolstered when Mr. Jackson looks at a picture of Dietrichson and says the man he talked to definitely wasn’t him. (But he doesn’t recognize Walter as the imposter.) Keyes is thrilled. He’s getting close to the truth! He tells Walter that he is sure that Phyllis was in on the murder, though she must have had an accomplice. Keyes still doesn’t suspect his protege of being that man, though.
Her final lines to him invoke their “down the line” metaphor, but now it’s not a profession of love. It’s a doom-filled threat: “We went into this together and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us. Remember?” And off she goes after giving him a terrifying look.
Walter’s voiceover joins in with this dark line: “Yes, I remembered. Just like I remembered what you had told me, Keyes. About that trolley car ride and how there was no getting off until the end of the line where the cemetery was. And then I got to thinking what cemeteries are for. They’re to put dead people in. I guess that was the first time I ever thought about Phyllis that way. Dead, I mean. And how it would be if she were dead.”
Things are getting serious.
But remember, it’s just a movie. Here are Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Wilder between takes of this scene in Jerry’s Market:
The shoot was a relatively easy one without huge personality conflicts or troublesome elements. Stanwyck had a good deal to do with that, as she was one of the most professional, least temperamental actresses of the classical era. Wilder remembered that Stanwyck was “as good an actress as I have ever worked with. Very meticulous about her work. We rehearsed the way I usually do. Hard. There were no retakes.”
Wilder’s opinion of Stanwyck was shared by many in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera. Stanwyck had risen to movie stardom after a long, difficult career dancing in vaudeville and working on the stage where she had developed great working habits and an easy-going attitude. She’d been in films since 1927, but retained her trouper roots and never acted like a diva despite being a huge star. For example, Stanwyck had a habit of learning not only her lines, but everyone else’s, too, and her impeccable preparation meant that everyone on set performed better. For more on Stanwyck, you can read Victoria Wilson’s massive biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940. I’m currently waiting for the second volume.
Back to the movie. Phyllis seems prepared to kill Walter, Walter is thinking about killing Phyllis, Keyes is closing in,and Walter still has to romance Lola! They meet up again and go sit high above the Hollywood Bowl, but Lola isn’t enjoying it.She starts to cry, but it’s not about her dead parents nor her murderous stepmother. No, she’s upset because Zachetti is seeing someone else. Guess who?
Phyllis, of course! Walter sits, stony-faced, as he hears the news.
After his date with Lola, he sneaks into Keyes’ office to figure out just how much the investigator knows. Turns out, quite a lot.
Walter listens to Keyes’ dictaphone recording of his notes and finds out that Keyes is certain that Phyllis and a partner murdered Mr. Dietrichson. He’s had someone surveilling Phyllis for days and thinks he’s found her accomplice: Zachetti. Lola’s unfaithful boyfriend has visited the Dietrichson house for several nights now. Lola was right!
Just to twist in the knife even further, Keyes’ voice intones that he did check up on his colleague Walter Neff, but Neff has an alibi for the night of the murder. So that’s good?
Walter calls Phyllis from Keyes’ office and asks if he can come by that night. He needs to end this.
Cut to Phyllis preparing for his visit. She wears flowing white lounging pajamas, which is fortunate because the house is so shadowy that we can barely see her. She hides a gun under the seat cushion and lights a cigarette as she waits in the empty, dark house. This is not going to go well.
Walter arrives and they start their old flirty chit chat, though it’s not nearly as playful as before. After all, this time they’re being casually cool about how they’ve murdered someone, how Phyllis has used Walter and betrayed him, and how they’re both terrible people. “Rotten” through and through.
Walter asks Phyllis about Zacchetti, and she tells him that she kept him around just to fill his mind with poison about Lola two-timing him. She hoped that Zachetti would eventually snap and kill Lola, thus transferring all of Mr. Dietrichson’s money to Phyllis. She’s a real charmer.
Walter tells her that Keyes is on to her but that he thinks Zachetti was her accomplice. He tells her that he can still get away with it, but it’s too late for her. Then he gets up to close the curtains, and that little silver gun comes out. She shoots him.
She gets him in the shoulder, but he walks towards her like a zombie spouting film noir gems: “You can do better than that, can’t you, baby? You’d better try it again. Maybe if I came a little closer? How’s this? Think you can do it now?”
She doesn’t move as he takes the gun from her and asks, “Why didn’t you shoot again, baby? Don’t tell me it’s because you’ve been in love with me all this time.” They’re practically embracing now in a wonderful representation of one of this film’s themes: the close relationship between love and hate and lust and violence.
Phyllis looks up into Walter’s face and says, “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.”
He says, “Sorry, baby, I’m not buying.” And she wraps her arms tighter around his neck and says, “I’m not asking you to buy. Just hold me close.”
Then she feels him press the gun to her stomach and looks at him in shock. He fires two shots as he holds her, and the camera stays on her face until she slumps in his arms. He lays her down on the sofa and leaves the house.
Costume appreciation break. This is the darkest interior scene in the film, and the white outfit helps to keep Phyllis visible. Moonlight streams in through the venetian blinds and the shafts of light fall on her and create moody stripes on the fabric. In a dark outfit this effect would be minimized or lost, and she would blend into the dark room.
Also, dressing Phyllis in “virginal” white is a more complex choice that neither telegraphs the character’s evil, nor signals her goodness, but instead plays with her character more subtly.
Phyllis is super evil–no amount of white can counteract that. But I think this costume taps into the idea that femme fatales are deceitful and manipulative. One imagines that Phyllis knows exactly when to wear a feminine white dress and when to bring out the black fringe and sequins. Thus, although ending the film in flowing white clothes might seem out of character, it is actually quite in keeping with Phyllis’ ruthless nature.
And it’s not at all unusual. In fact, in three more film noirs (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946),Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Stanwyck wears white when she dies. All of these films’ costumes were designed by Edith Head.
Back to the movie. Walter sees Zachetti approaching as he leaves the house. Walter gives Zachetti Lola’s address and tells him to go smooth things over. The young man hurries away.
Walter’s intervention in that romance keeps Zachetti from going in the house, and maybe ensures that Lola will have someone in her life, but it’s also a very questionable decision. After all, Phyllis said she was pretty close to getting Zachetti to murder Lola in a jealous rage, and we’ve been hearing throughout the movie about what a troubled, quick-to-anger guy he is. There’s a good chance that Lola is going to die a violent death at his hands. Maybe not immediately, but at some point. Thanks, Walter, for telling Zachetti where to find her!
Anyway, cut to Walter recording his confession in Keyes’ office. The flashback has ended, we’re in real time now. He’s almost finished his story when he hears something and looks over his shoulder. Keyes is standing in the doorway. He knows.
Walter chats with his mentor as he bleeds in the chair, never breaking his confident, caddish exterior. He asks Keyes not to call the cops right away, and not to bother with an ambulance. Walter plans to make it to Mexico, he just stopped by to tell Keyes what happened. Keyes lets him leave the office, but we hear him calling for an ambulance as Walter stumbles to the elevator. He doesn’t make it.
Keyes joins him on the floor and lights Walter’s cigarette in the cute way that Walter always used to light Keyes’. It’s a very tender moment. Keyes and Walter were almost father-and-son, and it’s very fitting and poignant that they are here together.
Walter tells Keyes that his investigation was top notch; the only problem was that “The guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from you.” “Closer than that, Walter,” Keyes says quietly.
And Walter smiles and says, “I love you, too.”
It’s unusual that the scene between the actual lovers was so horrifyingly cold compared to this sweet, tender one between coworkers, but it really works. The love between Walter and Keyes was far more real and good than anything that Phyllis and Walter shared.
The relationship between Walter and Keyes has led some to find homosexual undertones in the movie, though for me their love is much more familial and lacks a sexual element. Regardless, this final scene has been called “one of the most powerful images of male love ever portrayed on the screen: a pieta in the form of a surrogate father’s lighting the cigarette of his dying son.” (Bernard F. Dick, Billy Wilder).
Fun fact: Wilder intended to have another ending showing Walter going into the gas chamber. They shot the scene knowing it was questionable in terms of the Production Code, and indeed, Breen wasn’t thrilled. He wrote in December 1943 that “We have read the balance of the script…As we advised you before, this whole sequence in the death chamber seems very questionable in its present form. Specifically, the details of the execution…seem unduly gruesome from the standpoint of the Code, and also will certainly be deleted by censor boards…”
Wilder ended up cutting the scene after preview screenings despite his co-writer Raymond Chandler’s protests. I think it was the right call. Here’s an interview with Wilder discussing the alternate ending.
The disagreement over the gas chamber scene wasn’t the only issue between Wilder and Chandler. Apparently Chandler’s alcoholism re-surfaced in a big way when he was adapting Double Indemnity to the screen, and Wilder watched him fall apart.
Chandler later wrote that “working with Billy Wilder…was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it about as much about screen writing as I am capable of learning, which is not very much.” And Wilder said that Chandler “gave me more aggravation than any writer I ever worked with.”
Wilder also said that working with Chandler made him especially interested in his next project, The Lost Weekend (1945), a fantastic film about an author struggling with alcoholism. Wilder said he made The Lost Weekend in part to try “to explain Chandler to himself.”
Double Indemnity was released in April 1944 and was well received by critics and audiences. Daily Variety‘s review was full of praise: “As a piece of screen craftsmanship it is masterful, especially in the writing and directorial phases, with only one other crime tale of this general nature comparable for calibre, namely, ‘The Maltese Falcon.’” (It’s interesting that Variety linked those two films together back in 1944, as they generally top the lists of film noir.)
Variety continued: “…The brilliant and exceptionally literate as well as gripping screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, is done with the conciseness, the clarity, the suspenseful idiom of an ace police reporter…” and “The dialog is a delight. The mechanism of the narrative is novel. The suspense devices are cleverly used. The narrative always remains clear-cut and straightforward, but never approaches monotony, even though the audience is in on every development from the very first. The final result is as if the beholder had sat through a genuine case in a criminal court.”
Crowther at The New York Times agreed with that assessment, writing that Wilder “has detailed the stalking of the victim with the frigid thoroughness of a coroner’s report, and he has pictured their psychological crackup as a sadist would pluck out a spider’s legs. No objection to the temper of this picture; it is as hard and inflexible as steel.”
Weekly Variety called it an “absorbing melodrama” and mentioned the real-life murder that supposedly inspired Cain’s story (noting that the victim was “sash-weighted to death”?) Both reviews praised the cast, with Daily Variety writing “…all these items of cunning, guilt, emotional turmoil, dark passion and finally tragic recoil are given complete conviction and haunting reality by a superbly impressive cast.”
And “MacMurray establishes himself with the best of his profession in a flawless delivery, sustained across almost two hours of constant camera scrutiny through shifting shades of emotion from easy arrogance to frenzied fear. Barbara Stanwyck, her hair blonded, her behavior never out of kilter with her conscienceless role, is the ultimate wanton, consummately played. Edward G. Robinson musters his finest talent to give living reality to a fascinating character.” And despite the wig, Weekly Variety noted that Stanwyck’s performance “is consistent though the character in the final reel would have been stronger had not the scripters sought to reflect some sense of human understanding for her.”
Stanwyck’s performance of what Variety called a “mercenary, nymphic wife” won her a Best Actress nomination, though she lost to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Today, Stanwyck’s Phyllis is considered to be one of the greatest villains and femme fatales of all time, coming in at #8 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Villains List.
Stanwyck acted in several more film noirs, and after finishing yet another dark film, No Man of Her Own(1950), she joked, “My God, isn’t there a good comedy around? I’m tired of suffering in films. And I’ve killed so many co-stars lately, I’m getting a power complex!” (Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck.)
Stanwyck has since come to be known as the “undisputed first lady of noir” (Scott Snyder, qtd. in Julie Grossman, Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-Up.) Her fame as a femme fatale would probably be amusing to her, but she was right when she said that “roles in which [actresses] play evil women sometimes make a deep impression” (Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck.)
Besides Stanwyck’s Oscar nomination, Double Indemnity also received nods for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (black & white), Best Sound Recording and Best Music (scoring of a dramatic picture). Amazingly, the movie didn’t win any of its eight categories!
Double Indemnity inspired several re-makes, including TV movies in 1954 and 1973, and 1981’sBody Heat (a loose re-make and prototypical neo-noir/”erotic thriller.”)
There are also some parodies of Double Indemnity, including Big Trouble (1985), a fantastic Carol Burnett spoof (see below), and of course Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
Well, this post got out of control and is ridiculously long, and yet I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this complicated movie. If you’ve managed to make it this far, I applaud your efforts. Go get yourself a treat.