There are four things a film noir must be: dark, smokey, seducing and cynical. To write a decent piece about Double Indemnity, one of the best examples of film noir, I feel the need to pull the shades closed, put on a fedora and let cigarette smoke waft around the room. But I don’t smoke, and with my modern computer screen blazing at me, it’s hard to strike that dark mood anymore. It’s as if all noir retired along with the typewriter.
In the film directed by Billy Wilder, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman and when he visits the Dietrichson household about renewing their auto policy, he gets more than he expected. Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is at home, clad only in a towel on the second floor looking down to Neff in the entry way. The attraction is instant and rather than shoo Neff away to come back when Mr. Dietrichson is around, she meets him downstairs and starts to ask questions about accident insurance. Neff is no dope and can sense that Phyllis has murder on her mind. Neff resists at first, but she pulls him in with lustful greed and together they concoct a plan to get Mr. Dietrichson accident insurance without him knowing and then stage a scene that looks like a train accident, because those pay double. But Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) can sense that something isn’t right and creeps closer and closer to figuring out that Neff was in cahoots with Phyllis the whole time.
What makes this story so compelling is how we feel that Neff could be any good man and Phyllis can be any woman who chooses to use her sexuality for evil. Neff has many chances to back out, but he’s driven by greed and lust. Because of his inside look at the insurance business, he gets overconfident and thinks he can outsmart the system. Meanwhile Phyllis is the face that can launch a good man into a murderous fraud scheme and keep cold and calculating enough to take that blond wig seriously. I still can’t look at a woman with dark eyebrows and perfectly molded blond hair without thinking of Double Indemnity, and I would never trust them.
One of my favorite moments in the film is the suspenseful scene where Keyes visits Neff’s apartment at the same time that Phyllis is due to arrive. Keyes talks about how he’s sure she was working with a partner to kill her husband and stage his death, it’s only a matter of time until the two are found together. Meanwhile, Phyllis is listening just behind the door. The best part is how tense everything feels as Neff realizes Phyllis is behind the door and Keyes says, “They may think it’s twice as safe because there’s two of them, but it isn’t twice as safe. It’s ten times twice as dangerous.” The warning goes straight to the both of them.
Sadly, Double Indemnity did not win the award for best picture, but I can understand why. In 1945 with war raging and people trying to keep positive back home, a film dark film about murder and scheming women just isn’t what the world needed to take top honors. A film about murderous adulterers was already controversial, so it’s not surprising that it lost to Going My Way’s story of a heartwarming singing priest. But today, Double Indemnity is the go-to film when studying film noir. It’s upheld in the AFI’s top 100 as #29. And personally, it takes a great weight off my shoulders to know that my husband has finally seen it.
“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”