Back when I was a boy, I watched entirely too much television. Of course, who could blame me? Tempted by a luxuriant three, count them, three channels, albeit one of them fuzzy in bad weather, to choose from! However, I do not regret watching the Early Show on Channel 3. Back in those bygone days, many stations would run old movies from the thirties, forties and fifties, between 3:00 PM-5:00 PM. Thus I first experienced some of the classics of cinema, and one of my favorites was Double Indemnity, 1944, the first of the film noire genre. Adultery and murder were perhaps too mature topics for me in my initial pre-teen viewings, but I was fascinated by it because it seemed to be a playing out on screen of what I was learning at the time from The Baltimore Catechism: that sin will lead inevitably to destruction unless contrition and amendment are made. The film was fortunate to have at its center three masters of the craft of acting.
Fred MacMurray, born in Kankakee, Illinois, 37 miles from my abode, in 1907, was a good guy in real life and usually in reel life. A firm Catholic and staunch Republican, he tried to join the military after Pearl Harbor but a punctured ear drum kept him out of service. He adopted a total of four kids with his two wives: his first wife dying from cancer in 1953, and his second wife remaining his wife until his death. (Such fidelity was as rare in Hollywood then as it is now.) On screen MacMurray played to type and was almost always a good guy, but not always, and it is ironic that the two best performances of his career came when he played bad guys: weak, lustful and doomed Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and the scheming, cowardly Lieutenant Thomas Keefer in The Caine Mutiny.
Barbara Stanwyck had a Dickensian childhood from which she was lucky to emerge alive, her mother dying of a miscarriage and her father going off to work on the Panama Canal and never being heard from again. A series of foster homes followed, which Ruby Catherine Stevens, as Stanwyck was then named, constantly ran away from. Dropping out of school at 14 to begin working, she never looked back. Breaking into show business by becoming a dancer in the Ziegfield Follies at age 16, she was a star on broadway in the play Burlesque before she turned 20. Changing her name to Barbara Stanwyck, she broke into films immediately thereafter, displaying a flair for both drama and comedy, specializing in strong independent women. Her personal, as opposed to her professional, life was a mess. Married in 1928 to her Burlesque co-star Frank Fay, they adopted a son, Stanwyck having been rendered sterile by an abortion at 15. The marriage ended in divorce in 1935, Fay during the marriage often slapping Stanwyck around when he was drunk. Stanwyck got custody of their son. Stanwyck was a hovering and authoritarian mother, leading to a life long alienation from her son after he became an adult. Stanwyck married actor Robert Taylor in 1939, and, after numerous acts of infidelity on both sides, divorced in 1950. Ironically Stanwyck and Taylor did stay friends after their divorce, Stanwyck, who never remarried, referring to him as the true love of her life. In her politics Stanwyck was a staunch conservative Republican who supported the investigations of Congress into Communist infiltration into Hollywood. Remaining in demand as an actress almost until her death in 1990, she filled her last years with charitable work. Stanwyck was well equipped by her own tumultuous life to give depth to her portrayal of the murderous, scheming Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.
Although remembered today chiefly for his gangster roles and his portrayal of the rat-like Dathan in The Ten Commandments, Edward G. Robinson was actually an actor with a very broad range of work: comedies, dramas, historical epics, you name it. By 1944 he was age 51 and realized that his days as a leading man were coming to a close. His half comedic role as the insurance claims adjuster Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity he viewed as a step in his transition to being a character actor. Always a liberal, Robinson was blacklisted in Hollywood due to his affiliation with Communist front groups. Robinson admitted as much by an article he wrote for the American Legion Magazine entitled “How the Reds Made a Sucker Out of Me”. His comeback came when anti-Communist director Cecil B. DeMille, who thought that Robinson had been treated unfairly, cast him in the scene-stealing role of Dathan in The Ten Commandments.
Spoiler alerts in regard to the following:
The film opens with insurance agent Walter Neff stopping by the home of a Mr. Dietrichson. Dietrichson had his automobile policy with Neff’s company, and the policy is about to lapse. Dietrichson isn’t home but his wife Phyllis is, and Neff instantly falls in lust with her. They flirt with transparent double entendres seasoning the witty dialogue that illuminates the movie. Phyllis is attractive and sleazy, a combination Neff finds irresistible. (Director Billy Wilder had Stanwyck wear a bad blonde wig for the part, to give her the touch of the gutter that makes her performance so realistic.) Neff sets up a meeting when Phyllis’ husband will be home, and then Phyllis seems to rebuff his advances. Neff leaves and thinks nothing more, initially, of what seems to be a casual unsuccessful dalliance.
Back at the insurance company Neff has an encounter with claims adjuster Barton Keyes. Keyes specializes in ferreting out fake claims. When he reads a fake claim he has indigestion and can’t eat, Keyes saying that a little man who is inside him is tying his guts into knots. Robinson plays Keyes as a half comic figure who is something of a mentor for Neff. Throughout the film, Keyes is the closest thing Neff has to a friend.
At Neff’s second meeting with Phyllis, she explaining that her husband is not available, he quickly realizes that she wants him to write an accident policy on her husband and that she then intends to murder her husband. Repulsed, Neff leaves. This is his opportunity to escape the doom that is about to envelop him, but his lust for her is too strong. When she shows up at his apartment, they fall into each other’s arms, and craft the plan by which the murder of her husband will be made to look like a railroad accident, so Phyllis can collect a double indemnity, twice the amount of the insurance policy.
In addition to adultery and murder, two other sins now make their appearance: avarice and hubris. Serious sins often do not march alone but come in platoons. Neff confesses to Phyllis that he has been thinking for years of how a perfect scheme could be hatched to cheat an insurance company. However, the plan he comes up with is almost laughably bad. As Neff tells Phyllis, double indemnity provisions in insurance policies involve the type of accidents that almost never happen. Thus Neff ensures that his insurance company will be taking a good hard look at this supposed fatal accident, especially since it occurs within a month of the policy being issued. Additionally, this plot involves Neff getting aboard a train pretending to to be Dietrichson, leaping off the train when he is unobserved, and placing the already murdered Dietrichson’s body on the tracks. This gives a golden opportunity for someone to see him on the train and later to identify him as not looking anything like Dietrichson, which is precisely what happens. That this master murder plot is so incompetent adds to the sense of doom surrounding Neff as step by step he treads the downward path.
The couple commit the murder and all seems well initially, with Barton Keyes telling the sceptical President of the insurance company that it is a valid claim and that the company would lose any legal challenge. However, Keyes’ little man acts up, and Keyes becomes convinced that Phyllis murdered her husband. His suspicions are confirmed when a witness who saw Neff on the train says that the man he saw was a good 15 years younger than Dietrichson and could not have been him.
Neff is aghast as he realizes he has committed murder for nothing, especially when Lola, Dietrichson’s daughter, tells him that she suspects that Phyllis not only murdered her father, but also her mother, when Phyllis was employed as a nurse for her mother. Neff also learns that Phyllis has been two timing him with Lola’s boyfriend, perhaps planning to use him to murder Neff.
In a confrontation with Neff, Phyllis shoots him in the arm but is unable to make herself shoot him fatally, which strikes me as the only false note in the film. A cold blooded killer like Phyllis would not have had qualms about gunning Neff down. Neff has no such compunctions and after hugging her and hearing her say that she loves him, shoots her to death while saying goodbye.
Neff has arranged for the boyfriend of Lola to show up and tells him to leave and go to Lola, the woman who truly loves him. He, though wounded, goes back to his office and tapes a full confession, which serves as the narration of the film. Keyes shows up unnoticed until the confession is completed. Neff tells him that he is going to Mexico, but falls to the floor, weak from blood loss. Keyes tells him sadly, “Walter you’re all washed up.” The film originally had a gas chamber scene, but Billy Wilder decided it was not necessary and he was correct. From the moment the film began it would have been clear to the audience that Neff was doomed and was going to pay for his crimes.
It is a trite observation that virtue is its own reward. We forget however that sin is often its own punishment, fairly often in this world and always in the next. Just as virtuous actions often lead to more virtuous deeds, sins often form a chain that can bind a soul and destroy lives in such a short time. Horror of sin was one of the lessons I took from the movie Double Indemnity, and how skillfully that message is conveyed as we see an ordinary everyman like Neff dragged down by sins he is too weak to overcome. Anyone who has not seen this masterpiece should remedy that lack as soon as possible.