Op-ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Double Indemnity’ (#84)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
Can you be in love with somebody if you are aiming to use them to kill your husband before having them sent to prison so that you can be wealthy and independent? According to AFI, Phyllis Dietrichson can be all of these things while still being in love with the weak, easily corruptible Walter Neff. She is one of the classic femme fatales and they aren’t usually driven by their desire for money and power rather than being motivated by their love for the men they are exploiting. This is a common trope in the film noir genre but Double Indemnity is different from other entries in the genre because Neff is different from the venal, fairly dumb marks that inevitably make bad decisions. I don’t think that he loves Dietrichson either and she thrills him because she is so cruel and morally unscrupulous rather than living by the book as he has. He is excited by the idea of taking a walk on the wild side and her harebrained ideas allow him to carry out bad deeds. This could have been a story that was rotten to the core as the two central ‘lovers’ don’t truly care for one another but there is real compassion and tenderness between Neff and his friend and father figure, Barton Keyes, and that is what keeps us in agony as Neff’s life falls apart before our eyes.
The film is about bored insurance salesman Walter Neff, Fred MacMurray, who falls under the spell of the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson, Barbara Stanwyck, when he arrives at her house to sell automobile insurance to her husband, Tom Powers. Dietrichson eventually convinces Neff to murder her husband so that they can be together and collect a large payout as a result of the double indemnity clause that they have written into his life insurance policy without his knowledge. Although they initially believe that they have pulled off the perfect murder by killing Dietrichson and then placing him on the train tracks to make it appear that he commit suicide while Neff impersonates Dietrichson in the train the case is investigated by Neff’s scrupulous co-worker Barton Keyes, Edward G. Robinson. Flaws in their plan are quickly brought to light and the two begin to fight as Neff takes measures to protect them while Dietrichson tries to drag a man into disposing of Neff. The latter figures out what is going on and he and Dietrichson end up having a showdown in which they shoot one another. Neff talks to Keyes as he dies without expressing hope for the future.
Love or infatuation is often a part of the noir genre as any Burt Lancaster film from this era featured him falling hopelessly in love with a stunning minx like Ava Gardner or Lizabeth Scott. He played sensitive but not too bright types who were earnest enough to think that these shifty-eyed ladies were being honest when they said that they felt threatened by the man they were with. It was painful to watch something like Criss Cross (1949) because we saw a nice guy who only ever wanted to satisfy the desires of his girlfriend being driven to commit increasingly vicious acts in order to keep the dream of being in love, alive. We felt bad for the men he played and we could shed a tear because he was destroyed by a cruel world but Neff isn’t a clean cut man who only wants to be in love and he is very much of the cruel world that he inhabits. He pretends to be a Lancaster type but he is as vicious as everybody around him and is only held back by the fact that he is not intelligent enough to get ahead.
He admires Dietrichson when they first meet as she stands above him in her towel and holds a cigarette between her fingers. He is clever enough to know that she is trying to seduce him but he isn’t strong enough to outwit her and can only submit to her demands. The two of them set up their little plan quite quickly and Neff’s smarmy grin becomes repulsive as he preens every time he comes up with an idea that will further complicate their plan. He looks like a proud peacock and we take some pleasure in seeing him through Dietrichson’s eyes as she sees him for the dummy he is and smiles with a hint of reproachful whenever he actively seeks her approval. Billy Wilder invites us to view him as a stooge while seeing her as a cruel sociopath who can easily get her way and when you realize this you wonder why you care about either of these people. I think we can all relate to Neff because he acts on all of the dark desires that we are able to successfully repress and his efforts to break away from the mundanity of his office job allow us to live vicariously through him. We are all fascinated by what would happen if we made a split-second decision that could ruin our lives and watching Neff dig himself into a hole makes us queasy while also allowing us to affirm the fact that we have made the right choices in life by not deviating from the usual path and choosing not to break any of the rules set out by society.
The casting of MacMurray is key to making us respond to Neff in the right way as MacMurray was famous for appearing in family-friendly comedies and romantic dramas. He was Katharine Hepburn’s kind suitor in Alice Adams (1935) who accepted her when she lied about her family’s background and this meant that audiences appreciated him as the ultimate square-jawed, lovable young man. When he played a deeply unlikeable loser who chose to murder an innocent man it changed his image and I can’t imagine how much this casting must have shocked audiences in 1944. The film might have even been more effective for them as they could believe in Neff as a nice guy before he revealed his true nature. MacMurray is so good at separating the persona he adopts when he nervously tries to convince people that he is trustworthy and had no involvement in the killing and the persona that comes out when he is indulging himself and beaming from ear to ear when he imagines killing a man. All of this is wonderful as we take delight in seeing the mercurial qualities in his personality but when he becomes a man on the run in the second act he is hypnotic. MacMurray looks like a sad little boy who wants to avoid being slapped on the wrist by his mother and he still doesn’t seem to fully understand the gravity of the situation he is in.
His eyes are full of fear but there is still the sense that he is a sheepish schoolboy who thinks he can worm his way out of this situation through charm and resourcefulness. We start to feel protective over him as he doesn’t know what is coming for him and regresses back to acting like a child when he begins romancing Lola, Dietrichson’s stepdaughter. MacMurray sells the moment when everything fully sets in for Neff so effectively. When he is shot by Dietrichson he starts to understand that he can and will die and there are forces in the world that are stronger than him. He doesn’t oversell it and he refuses to go broad as he gapes at the woman who had been his accomplice. Everything clicks into place for him and it is like he has resurfaced from some bizarre drug trip as he begins to desperately crave the safe, boring life that he had been trying to escape from. Something shifts and you find yourself feeling a deep and unexpected sadness at the thought of this dense insurance salesman messing everything up for no reason.
As stated above we also end up caring about Neff because of the bond he has with Keyes. Robinson doesn’t have the face of a sweet patriarch who supports you when you are feeling down and in most of his scenes he glances at his friend suspiciously by narrowing his eyes but he does exude a certain warmth. He and MacMurray seem very comfortable in each other’s presence and the unspoken platonic love between them lurks beneath every professional conversation that they have. These are two men who see open declarations of love as a sign of weakness and they respect people who are good at their jobs so they try to remain as impersonal as possible in their conversations. It is through their acting that you see Keyes turning on his friend and putting two and two together. Neff also wakes up to the fact that this is the only person who matters to him and in his final moments he opens up to Keyes. They reach a level of emotional intimacy that they had not reached before and Keyes goes from being a disappointed wreck to helping his friend regain some level of dignity in his final moments. They continue with their tradition of not opening up to one another but they both look towards the future with a certain dread and try to soften the blow of Neff’s inevitable death.
This relationship was what made Double Indemnity successful and it gives it a different flavor to its many imitators who don’t seem to realize the fact that there are cerebral emotions hiding behind the hard-bitten cynicism represented by Dietrichson. This has been a highly influential picture but most people seem to steal the visual style and then write purple prose in an effort to echo Raymond Chandler. There is something fake about wannabes like The Black Dahlia (2006) as everything looks a little too clean and polished to make us believe that Los Angeles could be Hell on earth. You can just imagine the art director walking into each location and ordering five flower pots whilst talking about budgetary constraints with their assistant and making references to Robert Siodmark. I am not against filmmakers trying to evoke memories of these 1940s classics but they need to get the right rough, unvarnished feel. When I look at the Dietrichson’s living room I just accept it as a place that she has lounged around in for days on end. I can imagine her stiffly sitting on the edge of the couch with a cigarette in hand and a cunning expression on her face as she stares at her husband. She isn’t a great housewife so it makes sense that dust clings to everything and barely any light seeps into the room. You don’t get the sense that somebody walked onto set and meticulously arranged everything before the cameras started rolling and Stanwyck’s movements are natural and fluid. This is what people still haven’t figured out and it dawned on me that there was something special about this production. Billy Wilder himself commented on the fact that it was remarkably easy to get this film made and there were fewer bumps in the road than usual so maybe that is why it turned out so well.
As much as the set design looks natural, there are also shots that are deliberately otherworldly as Wilder represents Neff’s tortured mindset through images that would be more at home in German Expressionist cinema. In Neff’s apartment building the light is filtered through the room in a strange way as there are triangles of light that will illuminate parts of character’s body but leave others in the dark. When Dietrichson gets out from behind a door and into his apartment in one scene, she stands in the shadows for a few seconds and regards Neff, who is fully exposed to the light. This could be representative of a whole lot of different things as Neff is the one who actually committed the murder so he is exposed to more scrutiny and will end up being seen as the perpetrator of the crime so he is more exposed to the world around him. Dietrichson lurks around in the dark and gets away with her crimes as those who are looking for suspects in the possible murder have ruled her out as an option. The darkness also makes her look like a witch as she emerges from the shadow and claws at Neff as though he is her prey and her animalistic movements tell us to be very afraid of her. All of this imagery tells us something about the characters and their relation to one another rather than just existing to dazzle us. This is not an exercise in style over substance but it manages to have a lot of style anyway.
Finally, I feel like I have an obligation to talk about femme fatales and the way they are employed. Typically they are women who use men to get what they want by leading them into danger while trying to avoid getting in trouble themselves. Because noirs were most successful during a period in which the Motion Picture Production Code determined what could and couldn’t be displayed on films, most femme fatales were brutally punished for their actions. Occasionally they are allowed to show some vulnerability as they will occasionally fall in love with the dopes who have agreed to work with them or they are genuinely in a relationship with a man who is abusing them. Most of the time they are cold-hearted killers who would use anything to get ahead and Dietrichson falls into this category. Stanwyck doesn’t soften her and we are sure that this is one heartless bitch right up until she gets killed. The story wouldn’t work as well if she had as much depth as Neff and she needs to be evil incarnate if we are going to relate to him. It is almost difficult to appreciate Dietrichson for what she is as Stanwyck’s performance has been imitated and parodied by dozens of actresses with less talent who hope to seduce the audience by donning a cheap blonde wig and gnashing their teeth together. Stanwyck was a singular presence and there hasn’t been anybody since who has hit the same notes that she was hitting in the 1930s and 1940s. That raspy voice gives each line she delivers very odd inflections and her face could only have come out of a Lois White painting. I can only imagine how inadequate other actresses playing femme fatales feel when they have to live up to Stanwyck’s legend.
Now we get back to a discussion of whether Double Indemnity should have made this list at all. It really shouldn’t have because it does not feature a romantic love story between Neff and Dietrichson. This is yet another situation where voters picked a great film but put it on the wrong list as they displayed a blatant disregard for genre placement. This did make the list of the top 100 movies and that is acceptable because it may very well be one of the best films made in America. I hate the fact that I have been put in this position as Double Indemnity left me thrilled and I was on cloud nine as endorphins ran through my veins at the thought that I had just consumed a great piece of cinema. When I get around to ranking all of the entries on this list I will face a conundrum as I don’t know how I will rank the entries that should not have qualified for the list in the first place. I want to base my ranking on how romantic something is as well as considering overall quality so I can’t say that Double Indemnity will end up ranking very highly.