DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain
DOUBLE INDEMNITY in one sentence:
Golem: A guy breaks his leg, falls off a train, and dies... or does he?
Yourself: Forget it Moltar - it's Chinatown.
Here's a story about me and DOUBLE INDEMNITY:
Yourself: I've never known the difference between German expressionism and film noir.
Golem: My understanding is that the main difference between German expressionism and film noir is historical. Although I'm pretty sure German expressionism tends to take its methods farther and get crazier, that's based off of very little data.
I had to write a paper about this in college, but all I really wanted to talk about was DETOUR.
Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: I like the names! Neff (arious), Keyes (key[e]s), Phyllis (fill - as in, with purpose, or emotion, or skittles) - you know who everyone is right there. I'm a sucker for good wordplay - it puts me in the metaphor mindset. Here's a fun fact: the book has Walter's last name as "Huff". Also interesting, but I like Neff better. For one thing it feels less made-up.
I found myself so engaged by the story that I barely had the mental capacity to spare for anything else. There's a lot of complex motivation. Why does Phyllis want money? Why is Lola attracted to Neff? What the hell is Nino Zachetti's deal? Why does Walter reject the job as an investigator? What the fuck is Keyes' "little man"? The question that looms over the entire movie is why is Walter confessing? We never get a simple answer. To be clear, this is a compliment, not a complaint. The movie is a lot to chew on, but the flavor goes on and on.
Golem: This part is always difficult to write, but DOUBLE INDEMNITY poses a particular challenge. The plot itself can be hard to watch because you know how it ends from the beginning, but that is the point, after all. The film takes its time really digging that in. I always feel relief watching Walter walk out on Phyllis after calling her out for her insurance scam, only to remember that he's currently bleeding out in his office chair.
If we can go beyond plot, there are also weird little bits of Walter's personality--he loves name-dropping Keyes, his self-defeating way of waffling between justice and gain--which are frustrating to watch in action, but are crucial to the film's identity.
The key to any good noir flick is generating frustration in just the right way. I often teeter between boredom and edge-of-my-seat tension depending on how our lead comes to his (...never "her," to be frank) tragic flaw(s).
The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: The main textbook example of film noir, which is the main textbook example of a filmic aesthetic. I'm not trying to be pretentious, I just feel a little presumptuous trying to decontextualize a movement that is the subject of literally 65% of post-graduate film theory dissertations. It is ingrained in my head more as a film fan than as a film noir fan (which I am not). In fact most of the noir tenets can be learned just by watching any film made since the '40s, not least of all neo-noir (I like CAPE FEAR).
Plenty of the stuff I picked up on isn't necessarily stuff I picked up on so much as it caught my eye specifically because I've heard it discussed. For instance, visual motifs such as shadows, matches, cigarettes/cigars, doors/locks/key[e]s, smoke, hats, feet, windows, palmer, childs, norris, blair, and macready. And it's all shot in the accentuated light/dark dynamic that looks so nice in black and white. Compare the brightly lit insurance office of Keyes' investigation with the dark scenes Walter and Phyl share after committing their crime. Also, if you're trying to remain inconspicuous, I don't think it's a good idea to wear sunglasses inside the grocery store.
Speaking of the grocery store, were grocery stores in 1944 actually just shelves and shelves of canned food? Seems believable, it being the war and all. Regardless, it's a good metaphor for repression.
Golem: DOUBLE INDEMNITY is the gold standard for noir, due in no small part to its visuals. Black and white, lots of venetian blind shadows, see the paragraph above. But it's also about off-kilter shot composition: just enough to be conspicuous without being comical.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY creates tons of striking images, making it plenty of fun and easy to watch. Phyllis' house at the beginning of the film is blisteringly white, putting on the appearance of perfection and innocence. "Murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle," Neff remarks. And the film's climax takes place inside the house late at night, with its action almost obscured by darkness. Phyllis' face moments before she's shot is particularly creepy because she's the only bright spot in the frame, surrounded by inky black. Also because Barbara Stanwyck is great.
But DOUBLE INDEMNITY creates those striking images with way more than color. Take, for instance, the elevation motif. It introduces Phyllis at the top of a staircase above Walter, and it has Walter walk the hallways above a sea of off-screen salesman most of the film.
Performances to speak of?
Golem: Edward G. Robinson plays a great Keyes here. His strong personality is driven by deep, statistically-proven convictions. For example, you should see him go on a tear about suicide statistics. Everyone in the audience laughed when he took that drink of water [editor: re-watching it I laughed again]. Anyway, he puts his heart and soul into catching frauds, and his earnestness comes out in Robinson's exuberant performance. I just wish I knew why he considered Walter such a good friend. I get the idea that Keyes is drawn towards more competent--no, respectable insurance salesmen, but that's something I hear rather than see.
In fact, Keyes himself marks a nice contrast to Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff, who is often cool, collected, and distanced. As Walter says, "I don't rate this beef. I clipped a note to that Gorlopis application to have him thoroughly investigated before we accepted the risk." He thinks he's in control, he looks like he's in control, but the whole situation is beyond him. I just don't find that engaging, so I don't take much interest in the performance. If I had to guess, that would be why I've never enjoyed DOUBLE INDEMNITY.
Yourself: I'm not sure "why does Keyes like Walter?" is the right question to ask. While I agree that Robinson is a delight, part of that is his lack of conflict. As you say, it's cathartic to watch a man who wears his "little man" on his sleeve. But Keyes is a one-dimensional element that informs the rest of the players - his close friendship with Walter didn't make me question him, rather it made me conclude Walter must be a stand-up guy. Keyes is trusting - he never suspects Walter til he hears the confession. His passion evaporates in the face of betrayal, his voice becoming a somber monotone. Walter expects a long speech, intimating the complex motivation for his sin. But for Keyes it's simple black-and-white: "You're all washed up".
I think you also underrate Walter Neff by honing in on the expressiveness of the performance. He's not just cool, he's distinctly emotionless. The Walter we see from scene-to-scene is merely the conductor of the psychosis projected through his recollections. This is expressionism, after all, and the majority of the film is a recreation of Walter's confession. This Keyes, and this Phyllis, and this Lola, are his fictions. I wouldn't go so far as to invoke the doctrine of the unreliable narrator, but the exaggerated performances hint at Neff's idolization of Keyes, his infatuation with Phyllis, and so forth.
A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: The use of dramatic irony throughout DOUBLE INDEMNITY is one of those things that makes me say oh yeah, this is an actual film. It involves technique. Not that every farce on the planet is high art, but there is something to be said for comedy that aspires beyond punchlines. DOUBLE INDEMNITY gets double use out of it by driving tension with would-be humorous scenarios.
Case in point: Keyes interview with Mr. Jackson, the only man on the train to have spoken with the soon-to-be-deceased "Mr. Dietrichson" (i.e. Walter-in-disguise). When Keyes reveals he's about to bring in Mr. Jackson, Walter's face freezes. He follows the action with his eyes but stands out of the line of sight, afraid to reveal himself or even to speak until he's had time to formulate a plan. Walter grimly glares at his potential accuser, ready to jump on the offensive. Their initial handshake relieves the mounting tension - Mr. Jackson doesn't seem to recognize the impostor - but his brief double-take keeps the dance alive. When the two are left alone and Jackson's had a moment to think, he starts twisting his head for a clear look at Walter, reigniting the tension. Walter's weaving in attempt to stay out of sight is a cartoony image, funnier because we actually hope the dumb trick works. Of course it can't, and Mr. Jackson gets his clear look... whereupon he mistakes Walter for a fellow trout fisherman. So we get a chance to laugh at ourselves and Walter for getting worked up about nothing.
Golem: "It's straight down the line for both of us," Walter Neff says. The film fixates on rails, a one-way movement that consumes. This idea is referenced as soon as the opening credits. The shadow of a man on crutches walks closer and closer towards the screen, slowly but without changing course, eventually swallowing the whole thing in its darkness.
The opening sequence reflects on Walter as he walks through train cars to his fake death. You might superimpose one over the other in your mind. In one, he's alone, and not even present onscreen; he's just a shadow. In the other, he quietly shuffles past train passengers, keeping his head down and hoping no one notices him. He's not just isolated from the world, he's isolated from himself, having taken on the identity of Mr. Dietrichson.
Walter's journey through the train cars ends in his fake death routine. He imagines this as his escape from The Fate Train; as he says, "It's you that's going, baby. Not me. I'm getting off the trolley car right at this corner." In reality, he's throwing himself right onto the tracks to his own death. Walter plans his own death, which comes to fruition when he gives himself up at the end (beginning??).
What does it all really mean?
Golem: Crime doesn't pay. Keyes says:
They've committed a murder and that's not like taking a trolley ride together where each one can get off at a different stop. They're stuck with each other. They've got to ride all the way to the end of the line. And it's a one-way trip, and the last stop is the cemetery.Murder stains its perpetrators with guilt that won't wash off. Walter maintains his personally, while Lola hangs on to Phyllis' where she would just as easily have forgotten it. And when Walter and Phyllis kill Mr. Dietrichson together, that guilt binds them together: "I'm afraid of us," Phyllis says to Walter. They're stuck facing each other. Predictably, it eats up Walter inside, but when Phyllis--femme fatale extraordinaire--crumbles at the end, it's a killer moment.
But DOUBLE INDEMNITY has plenty of doubles, and having to face your guilty self can be just as difficult as facing the guilt in someone else, as you can see in Walter.
Yourself: I'm not sure the movie ever invokes criminal justice. Keyes statement applies broadly to the idea of sin. But maybe I'm being a semantics sally. After all, the insurance company provides surrogate law and order. And Phyllis' murder streak only caught up with her when she went for the double indemnity payout.
My general sensation was of stuff more like "repressed emotions really fuck you up". The canned food got me thinking about it. If you look at the murder through the psychoanalytical expressionist's lens, maybe Mr. Dietrichson represents Walter's social responsibility (he makes money, he's always at work, his idea of vacation is a college reunion) and Phyllis is his primal urge (forwardly sexual and violent, no concern for law/marriage/policies). So you have a classic conflict between id and superego being negotiated by the ego, Walter. Keyes, whom I originally read as the superego, actually could work as an external conscience, basically just a semi-omniscient observer (if I was feeling brash I'd say God). He rants about suicide because he doesn't buy that the social identity could just up and kill itself. The speech about two murderers being stuck on the trolley til the end of the tracks initially sounds like it applies to Phyllis and Walter, but it could also be taken to mean Phyllis and her husband, as Walter assumes his identity to commit the crime. Thus instead of a (honestly fairly goofy) truism about murder it becomes a statement about the inseparability of the person: you can't just dump the superego - the social role - at the next stop. Without the superego present, the house becomes a heart of darkness and Walter is consumed/killed by the id.
I honestly just thought of that right now, I need another viewing to determine if it makes any sense.
Note to future self on watching DOUBLE INDEMNITY:
Golem: I know that this is a stretch, but it always bugged me that A) Walter imitates another man and B) the film's name could be mistakenly read as "Double Identity."
Yourself: Re-evaluate that theory up there. Whenever you get around to it, consider Lola, insurance, and Keyes' "lil' man".
[****NEW!!!! PROMOS SECTION!****]
Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of the neo-noir landmark, GREMLINS!