Crimes of the Heart
In the wee hours of July 16, 1938, an insurance salesman Walter Neff sits down at a dictation machine in the offices of Pacific All-Risk in Los Angeles to record a confession. That guy Dietrichson, who died mysteriously? Neff killed him. The wife who’s making a claim against her husband’s accident insurance? Neff killed for her… and for the money.
What’s this? We get the whole story laid out for us right as Double Indemnity opens — the butler tells us he did it, and why… and that he didn’t get either the girl or the loot, to boot. So where does the suspense come in, in this, perhaps the uber crime-noir suspense film?
Directed by Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend), with a screenplay written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, this is, yes, a potboiler about insurance… and also self-delusion. Sure, lots of the fun here comes in all the juicy details of the how and the why of Dietrichson’s murder, but the really luscious stuff comes in watching the fast and flirty repartee that flits between Neff (Fred MacMurray: The Apartment) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck: Meet John Doe, Christmas in Connecticut) transform itself into suspicion and mistrust as the slick and aggressive salesman who can sell anything comes to realize that he himself got sold, by a good-looking but cold-hearted dame. From Neff’s first visit to the Dietrichsons’ — in which a house call to renew an auto insurance policy results in instant sparks between him and the missus — to their ingenious and outrageous plan to outwit Pacific All-Risk and off the hubby (Tom Powers), Double Indemnity is noir catnip, for the crime itself and for the resigned regret with which the tale of it is told.
“Look, baby, you can’t get away with it,” Neff tells Phyllis as soon as he realizes why she wants to insure her husband against accidents… without his knowing it. He calls her “baby” a lot, his awkward masculine way of dealing with the fact that he’s immensely attracted to a gal who’s trying to make him an accomplice to murder. Neff is totally in control of all things — his life, his job, his emotions, his dames… at least he thinks he is. Not a man to lose his cool, he unexpectedly finds himself calculating the ways he and Phyllis could get away with Dietrichson’s murder, and make it look like an accident that would pay off a jackpot — “double indemnity” refers to a standard clause that grants twice the payout in the event certain unusual accidents. Neff knows all the tricks in the book, after all, and the claims manager at Pacific All-Risk, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), is Neff’s close friend. If anyone ever had a chance of pulling a fast one on an insurance company, it’s Neff.
But he doesn’t know Phyllis’ tricks… though he thinks he does. He throws a lot of double entrendres around — remarks about being, ahem, “fully covered” — but she is the one who is playing him, in her own subtle, evil way. Feminine wiles, indeed. And Neff hasn’t got a clue.
Sex is where the real danger lies, not in accidents and secret insurance policies but in letting your heart and, er, other vital organs get appropriated by the wrong person. There’s a lot of sex in Double Indemnity — none that you see onscreen, but it’s there nevertheless, in that ambiguous way of Hollywood of old. Stanwyck first appears in nothing more than a towel… a huge towel that covers her quite effectively, but it’s more the thought that she’s naked under it that drives Neff wild. That and the alluring anklet she wears, the one he can’t keep his eye off. And who’da thunk the father of his three sons could be so, well, sexy in his cocky cluelessness, tossing back bourbon, ever ready with a match for anyone’s cigarette, and calmly planning a murder? The uber 60s square dad was, in the 40s, kinda hot, for a rascal and a scoundrel. But we like him because he’s a scoundrel, right?
Double Indemnity is so criminally fun that by the time the story Neff is telling catches up with the present and we’re back in his office with him as he dictates his tale, we’ve totally forgotten that we knew how it was gonna end from the beginning. How’d they do that?
AFI 100: #29
unforgettable movie moment:
The head of Pacific All-Risk, annoyed at the prospect of laying out $100,000, confronts the “grieving widow” — and Neff and Keyes — with his theory of her husband’s death, and why it means no payout.