*RUST RATING: 💑 💑 💑 💑 (4/4) Scheming Lovers
Double Indemnity: Double the Crimes, Double the Criminals…Double the Fun
Based on the novella by James M. Cain, director Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity involves insurance salesman Walter Neff who is seduced by wealthy housewife Phyllis Dietrichson to help kill her husband for the insurance money. The term “double indemnity” refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies that doubles the payout in cases where death occurs on a train. As daring and intriguing as this murder plot may be, it is actually the two main characters played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck that have captivated audiences and critics for decades with Academy Award nominations in all major categories as well as the 29th spot on the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest American movies of all time.
Walter Neff: Insurance Salesman, Murderer, and Amateur Detective
We are intruded to the character of Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, as the narrator, telling the story as he remembers it:
Dear Keyes, I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it… Well, I don’t like the word confession, I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose. You think you’re such a hot potato as a claims manager; such a wolf on a phony claim… Maybe y’are. But let’s take a look at that Dietrichson claim… accident and double indemnity. You were pretty good in there for awhile Keyes… you said it wasn’t an accident, check. You said it wasn’t suicide, check. You said it was murder… check. (Double Indemnity)
To me, this made him come off more as a detective type of character because as we are learning the story from his point of view and as it happened to him, when he finds out something, we find out something, such as when he is describing covering his tracks after the murder of Phyllis’ husband, “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” (Double Indemnity). Another thing to note as that we are given the story plot right away at the beginning. This creates the feeling of not who done it, but how and why, which adds to the amateur detective feeling of Walter. He is giving us these answers little by little through out the film.
However “detective like” Walter seems, we learn very early on in the film that he is actually an insurance salesman and we experience his quick talking when he confronts Phyllis, “Who’d you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good looking dame’s front parlor and says, ‘Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands… you got one that’s been around too long? One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?’” (Double Indemnity). This quote shows that he is quick to figure things out and can tell what Phyllis is getting at when she is asking him questions about taking out a policy on her husband without him knowing.
In my research for the movie, I found a lot if interesting information on the character of Walter Neff. I learned that they changed his last name a little, “The character Walter Neff was originally named Walter Ness, but director/writer Billy Wilder found out that there was a man living in Beverly Hills named Walter Ness who was actually an insurance salesman. To avoid being sued for defamation of character, they changed the name” (imdb.com). I thought that was such an interesting fact because of the coincidence. About the actor that plays Walter Neff, I found out that, “Fred MacMurray’s reputation at the time was for playing nice guys, so he didn’t feel he was up to the challenge [of playing a murderer]. Dogged persistence on Billy Wilder’s part eventually wore him down” (imdb.com). I found this to be fascinating because Mr. MacMurray does such a believable job at portraying a villainous character.
Phyllis Dietrichson: Housewife, Damsel in Distress, and Femme Fatale
We are introduced to the character of Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck in a very sexually suggestive way, she is at the top of the stairs in her home and has loosely covered herself up with a towel, “Perhaps I know what you mean, Mr. Neff. I’ve just been taking a sun bath” (Double Indemnity). This was very risqué for the time period, but I think the purpose was to show that this is not your typical female lead character.
Furthermore, we find out that she has ulterior motives as she inquires about taking out an insurance policy on her husband with out him knowing. At first, Walter does not want any part of her schemes, but upon a visit to his apartment, Phyllis changes his mind as she oozes seduction and tells stories of how her husband mistreats her, “I feel as if he was watching me. Not that he cares about me. Not any more. But he keeps me on a leash. So tight I can’t breathe. I’m scared” (Double Indemnity). What closes the deal is when they kiss and then they start to plot the murder.
A lot of Phyllis as a character is learned from her appearance. She is well dressed and always put together so I found it actually funny when I learned in my research about her hair being a wig, “The blonde wig that Barbara Stanwyck is wearing throughout the movie was the idea of Billy Wilder. A month into shooting Wilder suddenly realized how bad it looked, but by then it was too late to re-shoot the earlier scenes. To rationalize this mistake, in later interviews Wilder claimed that the bad-looking wig was intentional” (imdb.com). Moreover, Barbara Stanwyck even complained several times about how she hated how fake the wig looked. I think the bad wigs shows how the character of Phyllis is not who she says she is and that she is a fake.
Double Indemnity is a film we are given the plot and the ending at the start of the film. Because of this, it is up to the film’s main characters to make the film interesting and worth watching. Not only do Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck accomplish this with their mesmerizing performances, the characters themselves and their interaction have made this film a classic of likable unlikable characters and as with one of my Phyllis says, “We’re both rotten” to which Walter replies, “Only you’re a little more rotten”.
Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Film