Double Indemnity was not Billy Wilder’s first directorial effort. But, as far as history is concerned, it is his first great directorial effort. And, it was the first of many. Easily one of the top five directors in American history (see my list of the Greatest Directors), Wilder’s filmography as both a writer and a director spans over half a century and sixty films, including writing efforts in Ninotchka and Midnight in 1939. He would also write the screenplays for every movie (save one) that he ever directed, among those are classics like Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Ace in the Hole, The Spirit of St. Louis, and Witness for the Prosecution.
Double Indemnity got this reign started. Really, from 1944 to 1960, Billy Wilder was king of Hollywood; the director’s chair was his Chrysanthemum Throne. It should be no mere coincidence, in light of what we’ve seen so far in this blog, that this reign began in the tail end of the era of Great American Screenplays, with a film noir that channeled every theme and stylistic archetype that film noir came to represent. Double Indemnity is a special film noir in that it adopts virtually every possible qualifying factor in the arbitrary definition of the genre.
After watching The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, you have enough proof to see that it is impossible for a film noir to adopt every theme and archetype, because some of the themes and archetypes are contradictory. That’s why I made sure to say that Double Indemnity “adopted virtually every possible qualifying factor.” How do these films demonstrate to us the existence of exclusive character types and story arcs in a diversity of the films in the noir genre? It comes down, as so many of the Great American Screenplays did, to sex.
In The Maltese Falcon, the masculine sex won on an appeal to the new character type created by Humphrey Bogart, Dashiell Hammett, and John Huston. Not so in Double Indemnity. Now, those who have seen the film may be asking an important question: how exactly does the femme fatale win in Double Indemnity? She wins, regardless of what happens to her, by making her male counterpart lose…it’s as simple as that.
One thing that The Maltese Falcon established in the noir genre was that character was immortal, and victory in the shadowy world of noir is defined not so much by who gets caught, killed, or cheated, but rather by who establishes dominance over the other. What makes these conflicts so interesting is that they often operate in reverse to what we see in other genres. As opposed to a gradual determination, ending in a climax, of who “wins out”, in film noir (mostly) that determination is found at the outset. The interest arises in watching this domination evolve. This is undeniably the fact in Double Indemnity. You watch the emasculation of the male character who, for all intents and purposes, satisfies the character type magnified by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.
The scene occurs at the outset. Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray (who would later rise to fame in My Three Sons, the television show, as well as in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and a couple signature 1960s live-action Disney movies), walks up to the Dietrichson house. Upon entering, he sees a sight unlike any in Hayes-code Hollywood, one with a sensual propensity that hadn’t been matched since the more permissive silent era. Mrs. Dietrichson, played by the quintessential noir siren, Barbara Stanwyck, stands atop her staircase in none but a towel, and she asks Neff to stay awhile.
Her tone is obvious, and Neff is caught in that ever-tempting trap of forbidden passion, the one where you know you should leave, but that makes it all the harder to open the door. Before he knows it, she has him answering questions that he knows he shouldn’t answer, and beginning to entertain ideas that he knows should not be his. Somewhere between her pining for sex and her pining for violence she becomes more than a coquette, but a killer, a femme fatale if there ever was one. Their dialogue is laced with metaphors of domination that at first glance seem sexual but have a deeper implication: she is the puppetmaster, and he has no way out.
The best example of this conversation is very famous, and has gone down in Hollywood lore as the one of the most thematically telling innuendos in the great era of American screenplays. To avoid repetition, I mention it in my introductory essay to the noir genre. You can find that here.
She convinces him to sell her husband an accident policy, one with a rare indemnification clause which allows for double recovery in train accidents. In exchange, Neff would help her ensure that just such an accident occurred. They would take the money for themselves and run off together.
Wilder’s brilliant screenplay uses two brilliant devices to engross his viewers as the plot develops. First, he uses a device unique—at least at the time—to the film noir genre. On top of that, he invokes an appeal to suspense like the one that I covered very early on in this blog.
The first “unique device” is that of narration. The film begins with Neff speaking into a Dictaphone. He’s obviously injured or ill in some way. He addresses a coworker (Barton Keyes, played by the gangster-film legend Edward G. Robinson). From the outset, we know this: Neff is a goner; he’s been caught, or is about to be caught, and there’s nothing he can do about it. We know right away that there won’t be any plot twists here (other minor ones). This is standard procedure in classic film, lending credence to the cliche, “it’s not about the destination…it’s about the journey.”
Throughout the remainder of the film, Neff’s narration brings pulse, propensity, and a perfect timbre. There’s a chicness to his delivery, not unlike the sort of stylishness that Humphrey Bogart introduced in his Sam Spade character. It matches the chicness of Barbara Stanwyck’s grace, her veiled aggression, and her fashionable finesse. And, above all, it lets us into his mind in a way that is neither burdensome or threadbare. Again, film noir was not one about drama in the traditional sense: it was about retribution for the obvious flaws in one’s life, and the question of whether the person has enough character to box out those flaws.
The second device Wilder uses, not quite so unique to the genre, is that of the “empathy” of true horror. As I explained in-depth in “My Take on…Suspense”, the best type of horror is the type wherein the viewer (a reasonably altruistic person, I hope) is taken away into a struggle over good vs. evil, hoping, for some strange reason, that evil wins out.
Take for example one of the finest examples of Wilder’s directorial skill in the film. Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson have completed their plans, and they are about to execute them in an all too literal way. As Neff goes about following the plan to a “T” (a plan he helped devise knowing full well the tricks of the trade when it came to accident policy investigations), we are stricken with nervousness. Will someone recognize him? What about that passenger on the back side of the train, the one who may very well stop everything from working? How will they not get caught?
And then, after the plan’s completion, when Barton Keyes (who, we learn, is in charge of investigating claims for legitimacy) starts looking into the “Dietrichson accident”, we constantly hope he gives up his search. We, along with Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson, hope that he diverts his gaze just long enough for this whole thing to get swept under the rug.
As of yet, I’ve never met a single person who hoped that they’d get caught. I never met a single person who hoped that Neff changed his mind, that Mr. and Mrs. Dietrichson salvaged their broken marriage and lived happily ever after. I never met a soul who wanted Keyes to figure it all out on his own, rescind the funds, and ensure that the two conspirators got locked away for the rest of their lives. As a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite. People get almost annoyed at Keyes’ perseverance.
What we end up with is the truest definition of suspense. How would you feel if you were locked up in a web of your own making, the walls closing in around you, with no way of escape. With each passing breath it becomes more and more likely that it will all end, and yet, with each exhale the end is not yet there. That’s what it’s like to get caught in a lie.
Wilder creates this angst through his masterful screenplay and his astute direction. See, we know all along that they’re going to caught. We know this from the very beginning, and yet we just hope that maybe it won’t turn out that way. But, it does. That’s what is so striking about film, or any work of art for that matter; it’s so invariably permanent. I remember watching a short film in my Seminary class while in High School. At the end of the the film, a teenage boy nets a fifteen-foot jump shot in his driveway. When my Seminary teacher stood up to address the class at the end of the film, he said dryly, “I’ve watched this movie for years, and never once has he ever missed. It’s incredible.”
Meanwhile, not only are the devices of narration and empathetic horror working to lock us in, Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is twisting her webs beyond the screen. Are we not unlike Mr. Neff, ensnared and enraptured by her cunning, beauty, wit, and influence? In much the same way Humphrey Bogart came to define the dominant film noir male after The Maltese Falcon, Stanwyck’s performance in Double Indemnity is the stuff for ages. Of all the great femme fatales, she may be the greatest. Maybe that is yet another reason why we want so badly for her and Neff to win, because we step into Neff’s shoes a little. We want to them to win because she wants for us to want it. And we’ll do, or want, anything she wants.
Which brings us full circle. Where both Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity share many of the essential characteristics of film noir (however arbitrary they may be), they differentiate most in their approach to the sexes. We are given opposite sides of the same coin, though. In the end, it’s not really about which gender is doing the dominating so long as there is someone doing it. This is where film noir, the screwball comedy, and the American Western all come to a point: it’s about establishing the winning character, and that is usually done through their mastery of banter and their manipulation of lust. While she emasculates the male, she becomes the queen.
Stanwyck’s role in creating this archetype cannot be praised enough. She channeled the character with precision, every syllable and every move breathed a subtle mix of sweetness and acidity—a flavor of “cake” that only the noir genre could create. Her beauty was undeniable, her sensuality honed, her grace unmatched, and her eloquence sure. The way they dressed her up (and down) ran parallel to the shadowy, dark world that Billy Wilder worked to create alongside his cinematographer John Seitz. Of course, she and Wilder were not alone in creating this character, just like how Bogart and Huston weren’t alone in creating Sam Spade. Due credit needs to be sent to authors James M. Cain (who wrote the book upon which the movie was based) Raymond Chandler (who co-wrote the screenplay with Wilder.) Both of these men were staples of the genre on the literary end, members of the “hardboiled school” of American fiction that included Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly.
Before the movies brought these characters to life by pitting them against an Expressionist world of shadow, they were first created by these edgy and influential novelists.
These characters needed the sort of visual accompaniment that the film noir genre brought. They were characters that operated in absolutes. In and around darkness they worked, and in all things (even their altruism) they were self-serving. They worked to reconcile fault, not through penance, but through victory over their mortal counterparts. The sort of crooked angles and dark shadows they cast are magnified by the visual world created all around them. Even the light things seem darkened in this alter-reality where everyone has something pithy to say and far too many are willing to pull a trigger.
The performances both behind the camera and in front of the camera in Double Indemnity worked to create this visual experience, complete with characters that resided perfectly within its world. Throughout the film, the viewer is drawn in to the stunning simplicity of its starkness, cheering for the bad guy as they watch his world crumble all around him.
Billy Wilder is one of my very favorite directors. Barbara Stanwyck is one of my very favorite actresses. I think, that after watching this film, you’ll feel much the same way I do. Their respective roles in making a film noir masterpiece, replete with comedy, violence, suspense, romance, and broken hearts, seem to haunt you, even long after the film’s close.