The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Double Indemnity (1944)

26 07 2011

When I was just a wee girl I used to check the TV listings for the local stations that played movies all night long. If I found an intriguing title (anything with ‘damned’ or ‘blood’ in it was a surefire winner) or a cool old horror story or space opera that would be playing on the late late movie, I’d set my alarm and creep downstairs to watch it — usually sitting about two feet from the TV with the sound low so I wouldn’t wake my parents. The Movies That Made Me Weird(er) is a look back at the films that populated my childhood dreamscape.


Classic Film Noir is such a weird thing. Hollywood would option films based on sexy, blood-soaked novels full of perversion and existential bleakness, but then scriptwriters and directors had to tone down the sex and violence and change gay characters into straight characters and make sure the bad people get punished, etc. because no major studio was willing to release a movie that didn’t get a seal of approval from the Hays Office. That meant the movies had to communicate a lot of stuff through subtext — ESPECIALLY sexual stuff — which was a thing that mostly flew way over my head when I was a kid. It was the ’70s; according to the popular entertainment I’d checked out thus far, if people in a movie or TV show liked each other, they slept together.  I was used to seeing characters kiss for a while, then cut to them in bed with the sheets pulled up under their armpits smoking a cigarette, being groovy and digging each other’s rap, or whatever. So these weirdly chaste movies that were supposed to be about sex confused the hell out of me.

Take Double Indemnity (1944) for example. Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson are having a torrid affair — so torrid, in fact, that he is persuaded to kill her husband. I totally did not understand why the dude was so willing to take a chance like offing this pushy dame’s husband in exchange for what seemed to me to be some minor closed-mouth kissy-face and a whole lot of jibber-jabber. Obviously I wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize all that jibber-jabber was where the sex was happening:

Plus, I mean, it was Steven Douglas playing an insurance salesman who had the hots for the mom from Big Valley. I had seen enough dumb TV comedy to know that insurance salesmen were those dudes you avoided talking to at parties, not hard-boiled criminals. Never mind the cognitive dissonance of seeing iconic TV parents being young and hot-to-trot.

I should back up a bit here and explain why it even occurred to me to watch this movie at the tender age of eight- or nine-ish. My first exposure to several old movies was through sketches on the Carol Burnett Show. I distinctly remember being disappointed in Scarlett’s actual curtain dress when I finally saw Gone With the Wind; the Burnett Show sketch “Went With the Wind” had made an indelible impression on my tender young psyche.

They did a sketch based on Double Indemnity called “Double Calamity” with Carol as Phyllis and Steve Lawrence as Neff Leff (“Nice to meet you, Mr…?”  “Leff.” “Leff?” “Right.”) Phyllis’ anklet jangles like sleighbells when she walks. Neff Leff has an anklet that jangles, too. It’s that kind of sketch. Anyway, when I saw Double Indemnity in the TV listings, I decided to check it out.

The movie opens with a nice credits sequence that features a man in silhouette crutching toward the camera until his shape fills the screen:

It’s late at night. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) makes his way to his office at Pacific All-Risk Insurance. He’s been shot in the shoulder. He lights a cigarette and begins to record a confession of murder into his Dictaphone.

“I killed Dietrichson – me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars…until a 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?”

This is a slam-bang beginning to a story, and even more so for me. You see, I’m one of those people who reads the last few pages of a mystery first. Knowing up front who did it, and why, always helps me better appreciate the way a plot is constructed. If I have to start guessing, I eventually make up my own story in my head and lose the thread of whatever I’m reading or watching. I guess that’s some kind of attention deficit on my part, but whatever. Back to our featured film.

Flash back to Neff’s first meeting with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). In the novel, her last name is Nirdlinger, which I bring up for no reason other than the word ‘Nirdlinger’ is funny. Anyway, he’s come to the Nirdlinger Dietrichson home to ask Mr. Nirdlinger  Dietrichson about renewing his auto insurance. He’s not home, but his spectacularly trashy wife is. She greets him wearing a towel, which gets Neff’s attention. They have some witty stairway repartee and she goes to change, leaving him to wander the living room and voiceover about how hot she is. Phyllis reemerges — wearing an anklet, a pair of those little high-heeled fuck-me slippers with the feathers on them, and a very prim dress —  and proceeds to play the fuck out of Neff, her body language accentuating the thrust and parry of their conversation nicely. Neff has no idea; he just thinks he’s doing AWESOME with this chick. There’s a reason Barbara Stanwyck was the highest paid actress in Hollywood at that time. She’s really, really good. Even with that Jackie Rogers Jr. wig she’s sporting.

They arrange for Neff to come back the next night, when Mr. Nirdlinger Dietrichson will be at home, and he heads back to the office. It is here that we are finally introduced to Barton Keyes, to whom Neff’s confession is addressed. Keyes, played by Edward G. “Where’s Your Moses Now?” Robinson, is SO COOL. Seriously, he’s one of the greatest characters on film. He’s a claims adjuster with an uncanny ability to ferret out fraudulent claims, and he’s also Neff’s close friend and mentor.

Keyes is telling a client named Garlopis about the ‘little man’ inside him, the one that can spot a phony anytime, anywhere, and how that  little man knows how full of shit Garlopis is — which is why Keyes sent some guys to investigate his burned out truck and figured out he set the fire himself. Keyes is great, all gruff and dismissive and way too smart for the room but still humane and compassionate, after his fashion. He’s just a big old idealist who’s seen enough of the world to have developed a tough exterior. Robinson’s performance is nuanced enough on its own that we don’t need Neff’s voiceover to figure that much out. After a little rant about the world going to shit, starting with Pacific All-Risk Insurance, Keyes goes to light a cigar but has no fire. Neff is at the ready with a match, which he strikes and offers Keyes with an ironic “I love you, too.” It’s a nice little bit of physical characterization that cements the emotional authenticity of their relationship — the central one of the film, sexy anklet-wearing hos notwithstanding.

Eventually Neff figures out that all those insurance questions Phyllis likes to ask aren’t just because she’s super-fascinated by his manly-hood. She wants Mr. Nirdlinger Dietrichson well insured so she can profit from his “accidental” death. Neff informs her in no uncertain terms that he is NOT that kind of insurance salesman and resolves to blow her off. Undeterred, Phyllis shows up at his place. She says she came by to drop off his hat, but she ain’t got no hat with her.

By the end of the evening, Neff is Down For Whatever. He’s hooked just as much by Phyllis’ charms as by the intellectual exercise of planning and executing the perfect crime, using his understanding of the way insurance claims are investigated. Actually, I think maybe it’s MORE about the intellectual exercise for him; Phyllis is sexy and all, but she’s hardly a puzzle to be solved. Neff is clearly a smart guy who’s been coasting for a long time. Coasting gets boring for smart guys after a while, and that makes them ripe for temptation into all kinds of bad decisions and questionable adventures.

Anyway, Neff gets even more into the plotting of the thing than Phyllis anticipated, and comes up with an idea to get Mr. Nirdlinger Dietrichson killed by a ‘train accident’, which would mean the insurance policy would pay out double. Which is what ‘double indemnity’ means: if the insured dies under certain circumstances, the policy is worth more. Neff insists that they not be seen with each other and that she never call him from home, only a pay phone. If they need to communicate in person, they meet at the grocery store.

A diabolical scheme is hatched beneath the baleful glare of CAND BEANS and CAND MILK.

Phyllis hates this shit. She’s one of those chicks who gets validation from having a guy around to serve her needs and remind her that she’s hot; what good is Neff if he’s not doing that? Neff reassures her by saying all the right things — he’s crazy about her, she’s always on his mind, etc. — but he’s way more into the challenge of the plan than he is her. That’s the way it seems to me, anyway.

So they do the evil deed, in a sequence that meticulously lays out all the little details of the plan. This was the first time a Hollywood film had delved so deeply into the means and motivations behind a crime; sixty-some years later, there are massive TV franchises that do that shit week after week. As a result, to my modern eyes, this part ends up feeling a little bit draggy. Although, I’m a philistine who likes to drink a coke and milk before bedtime, so what do I know? Anyway, Neff murders Nirdlinger Dietrichson in the car as Phyllis drives. Since Nirdlinger Dietrichson is played as a cranky unpleasant old dickhole, we’re not exactly broken-hearted when he meets his end. Neither is Phyllis. As her husband chokes out his last breaths, she wears this “I remember I used to like this song” kind of expression:

which is creepy and awesome.

Now Neff’s got to play it cool at work while his company investigates the death. In a fun scene, he and Keyes discuss the case with the president of the company, who attempts to assert his dominance immediately by dogging Keyes’ rumpled magnificence (rolled up shirt sleeves, no jacket) and then tells them that he’s no dumb empty suit but a super smart crackerjack insurance man and he KNOWS that the company isn’t going to pay out this policy because it wasn’t an accident — it was suicide. And he’s called Phyllis into his office in order to inform her of this fact, which he does in the most dickishly bloviating way possible. After Phyllis shames him with grieving widow outrage and storms out, Keyes schools Captain Insurance on all the ways that people commit suicide, and how none of those ways is to hop off the back of a slow-moving train. It’s the greatest speech about actuarial tables in the history of cinema.

Neff and Phyllis are feeling pretty good about how things are turning out, especially since it seems that Keyes is convinced it was an accident. That feeling is short lived for Neff, however. Keyes’ indigestion is acting up, and he’s starting to wonder if Nirdlinger Dietrichson’s death was an accident after all. He comes by Neff’s apartment and tells him there’s something up with the case:

Neff’s also got a crisis of conscience in the form of Nirdlinger Dietrichson’s daughter Lola, who comes to him and confides that she thinks Evil Stepmother Phyllis may have offed her mother in order to marry her father, and has now offed her father, too. Also, she’s broken up with her bad-news boyfriend and has moved out of the family home. Because she seems like a swell kid (and because he doesn’t want her to tell anyone else the stuff she told him about Phyllis) Neff takes her out to dinner. He feels bad about that whole killing her dad thing and he wants to cheer her up. They begin seeing each other.

A few days later Keyes calls Neff into his office:

Keyes: After all the years we’ve known each other, do you mind if I make a rather blunt statment?

Neff: About what?

Keyes: About me. Walter, I’m a very great man.

whereupon Keyes reconstructs the murder of Nirdlinger Dietrichson with devastating accuracy. He’s got it right in every particular, he just doesn’t know who Phyllis’ accomplice was. MacMurray plays this scene really well; you know his guts are in terrified little knots and it’s all he can do to keep from breaking out in a flopsweat, but at the same time he’s impressed with Keyes’ deductive powers, and even boyishly pleased when Keyes expresses his admiration for the neatness of the plan.

You’d think this turn of events would convince a clever murderer to lay low and not pursue collecting the insurance policy. But Phyllis is not a clever murderer. For example, she and Neff haven’t been able to see each other because she’s under constant surveillance, so when he calls and tells her he’s got to talk to her, she meets him at their secret grocery rendezvous with this foolproof disguise:

FOOLPROOF DISGUISE.

which, I mean…seriously? She’s not even trying.

Little Ms. Master of Disguise is not about to give up that sweet, sweet money, Neff’s sudden cold feet notwithstanding. He calls her out for the murder of the first Mrs. Nirdlinger Dietrichson. She calls him out for making time with her stepdaughter and for going soft. She’s not about to let his scruples get between her and her dream of Scrooge McDuck-diving into piles of dead husband dough. He’s the one who planned and executed the thing, she reminds him — she just went along because she was an unhappily married woman blinded by love.

Pro tip, ladies: once you’ve manipulated some dude into killing your husband for you, don’t brag to the dude about how you pulled the strings and made the puppet dance. Guys do not like that sort of thing.  Also, don’t imply that you’re gonna frame him up and sell him out in order to save yourself. The guy who was smart enough to plan your husband’s murder is smart enough to plan yours.

Which, of course, is what Neff does. He goes to Phyllis’ house late at night, intending to rid himself of this troublesome woman once and for all. But Phyllis has plans of her own…

Double Indemnity is a stone classic, you guys. It’s based on impeccable source material (seriously, if you haven’t read any James M. Cain, go and do that RIGHT NOW), beautifully shot, terrifically acted, and full of deliciously quotable dialogue courtesy of Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. It is my considered opinion that you, Dear Reader, will enjoy the shit out of this movie. I don’t care who you are.

I would have to be a complete Armond White to give Double Indemnity any less than five out of five Slutty Ankle Bracelets. If you like things that are awesome and you are at all culturally literate, you’ve seen it already. If you haven’t, do it soon. It’s a great capsule education on Film Noir, which is a classy and cool thing to be able to talk about at parties that feature drinks other than beer in cans.

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