100 Days, 100 Movies: Double Indemnity (1944)

(This post is part of my mission to watch and review 100+ of the movies on the AFI Top 100 American films of all time.)

Double Indemnity is a film noir which tells the story of shady insurance salesman, Walter Neff, and the femme fatale he’s goes bad for, Phyllis Dietrichson.  (Can I say how much I love that the femme fatale is named “Phyllis” of all things?) They try to plot the perfect murder and would have gotten away with it if not for the interference of Neff’s tenacious friend and boss, Mr. Keyes.

blog 1I’ll say this up front: I’m not much of a film noir person. The only other one I’ve ever truly liked up until now is Brick (2005) starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and even the ending of that one makes me angry. I suspect I’m too much of an optimist to really dig film noir. Even this film, I sort of like despite myself. But, dammit, Wilder stuck the ending beautifully. (I honestly can’t think of Wilder film with a sub-par ending. They seem to be a specialty of his.) A fabulous ending can make me forgive a lot. I don’t think I’m alone in that as a theatergoer.

I think we’ll break this review into what worked and what didn’t work for me. First of all: what didn’t work?

Basically? Walter Neff.

I hate the son of a bitch pretty much from his first moment onscreen.

blog 5He’s not even a loveable son of a bitch. He’s misogynistic and cynical, smug, and not terribly bright. I think at least part of this might be due to Fred MacMurray’s performance. He seems a little wooden to me, and I’m not sure if someone else could have made me like Neff or not.

Honestly, I’m not sure I am supposed to like Neff at any point. I suspect Wilder doesn’t want us to like Neff much, but it gets a little tough to sit through an hour and forty minutes of movie when you hate the protagonist. I think if anyone less skilled than Wilder had directed this film it wouldn’t have worked at all.

That’s really all I’ve got in the negative column, but since he’s the MAIN CHARACTER it’s kind of a BIG negative. Anyway, on to what worked…

As bad as MacMurray is in the Neff role that’s how GOOD Stanwyck is as the femme fatale. She growls and sidles and purrs her way through the whole movie, sex on a stick that she’s going to bludgeon you with. I loved watching her, and I think she gave a great performance.

blog 2What else worked? The writing. Damn, this is well-written. Witty. Sharp. Even lyrical at times:

“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

(Just as  a side note, apparently the two writers on this movie–Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler–detested each other, but I don’t think that shows in the finished product. Just goes to show that sometimes the most troubled productions create the greatest stuff.) The scenes between Neff and Phyllis are a particular delight of rapid-fire dialogue, double entendre and innuendo. They just don’t write movies like this anymore. Here’s my favorite example:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.

Walter Neff: Who?

Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?

Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.

Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?

Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.

Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.

Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.

Walter Neff: That tears it.

It was very interesting to have Wilder’s sense of humor pop up in a noir. blog 3

In the same vein of the writing, another part of what made this a bearable hour and forty minutes, despite Walter Neff, was how well the suspense element was handled. The writers did a great job of setting up wonderful suspenseful moments then having smaller moments of tension in those scenes: Neff and Phyllis kill the husband and dump his body–and then the car won’t start. After the murder, Phyllis wants to see Walter for a little lovin’, he gives her the go-ahead to come up just as his boss Keyes, who’s investigating the murder, knocks on the door. Phyllis is on her way up and Keyes is loitering in Neff’s apartment. If Keyes catches the two of them together it’s all over. Great suspense.

The other really surprising part of this movie is the friendship between Keyes and Neff. They really do care about each other, and their friendship is the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak, film noir sort of world.

Walter Neff: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.

Barton Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.

Walter Neff: I love you, too.

blog 4

What did I learn from this movie? This is another lesson in relationships. You can have a dark, bleak, cynical movie world and yet people can still enjoy it, find hope, if you have (at minimum) two characters who are really devoted and care about each other at the end of the day. The Neff/Keyes friendship is what saved this movie for me. So, this is sort of a mirror image to the Star Wars lesson: if you have characters the audience can’t care about (*cough* NEFF *cough*) then at least have characters who care about each other.

Can I see why this movie has become a classic? Even though I didn’t wildly enjoy it: Yes, I can. The writing is masterful. This film is very firmly in the film noir world, but I feel like it still does original things within that genre’s conventions. It also has fantastic performances from Stanwyck and from Edward G. Robinson as Keyes. It also has a really beautiful depiction of true friendship at its core, which was amazing to watch.

Favorite part(s)? The last scene. Hands down. They set it up so beautifully all through the rest of the movie that the pay off is very satisfying. The last scene alone is what bumped my admiration for this movie’s skill into a genuine liking. I also really enjoy the sharp-edged banter between Phyllis and Neff while she’s still trying to reel him in.

Overall rating: *** (I liked it)


One thought on “100 Days, 100 Movies: Double Indemnity (1944)

  1. Pingback: 100 Days, 100 Movies: The Beginning | Beth Matthews

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