Thursday, 1 August 2019
Noir Diary # 5 / Thoughts on... Double Indemnity
(Billy Wilder, 1944)
So, rather than wasting time by proceeding with a standard review, I thought it would be more interesting to frame this piece as a list of thoughts and observations which struck me after recently re-visiting the film for the first time in many years.
I first watched ‘Double Indemnity’ at the age of seventeen, as part of a module on Film Noir which formed part of my A Level in Film Studies (yes, I have an actual A Level in Film Studies, in case you were worried I’d been writing about this stuff all these years without the proper qualifications).
I recall the course tutor insisting we watch the film’s opening scene – in which the mortally wounded Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) drags himself through the offices of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company in order to record his confession on the tape recorder belonging to claims assessor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) - upward of a dozen times, painstakingly rewinding the VHS again and again as she encouraged us to explore the psychological significance of every vertical or horizontal line in the frame, and the placement of Neff’s figure in relation to them.
At the time, I recall finding this process extremely tedious, recognising even then that the notion that decisions taken by cinematographers, set designers, costumiers, lighting technicians on so forth on a commercial Hollywood thriller could collectively add up to some kind of grand, illuminati-style system of hidden, esoteric meanings, beyond the ken of casual viewers without A Levels in Film Studies, was… kind of far-fetched?
A few decades(!) down the line however, I can finally appreciate the value of this exercise, given the extent to which ‘Double Indemnity’ functions as a text book example of a director using visual detail as a fully developed form of alternative / parallel story-telling. This works both on the easy, conscious level of expressionistic set design (the insurance offices becoming a jagged ‘house of traps’, and the dusty Dietrichson house a seductive ‘lair of the spider’, both lousy with the ominous shadow-bars that so obviously foreshadow the prison cell lying in wait for their victims), but also through a remarkably effective brand of more fleeting, subliminal suggestion.
Check out for instance the lofty overhead crane-shot that is used to capture the dark, hunched figure we will soon identify as Neff as he exits a taxi and heads through the front doors of the insurance building. A presumably costly production decision, this tight, high angle composition functions solely to add a sense of vertiginous unease to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill, three second transition shot, implying the presence of a remorseless divine overseer passing judgement on this character’s earthly failings, and by extension promoting us, the viewers, from a chattering peanut gallery to a classical Greek Chorus, ready to bear witness to a tragedy.
This is all very ‘Film Theory 101’, I realise, but the depth of the film’s visual language remains remarkable, and it bears repeating. The prospect of erasing ‘Double Indemnity’ from one’s memory and watching it again for the first time, sans sound, as a kind of avant garde silent film, in order to see just how much of the story’s essential emotional drive and narrative information is communicated purely through Wilder’s relentless barrage of visual suggestion, is a fascinating one.
Likewise, I’m struck by the way that both of Billy Wilder’s key noirs (the other of course being ‘Sunset Boulevard’, 1950) depict Los Angeles as a kind of glimmering, transitory, fantastical space, intoxicating yet fraught with sudden danger. It’s difficult to put into words, but there is a particular thing that is there in both these films, lending them an almost magical realist quality; a specific sliver of movieland sorcery which was left largely dormant until David Lynch harnessed it so brilliantly in ‘Mulholland Drive’, half a century later.
It can perhaps be more strongly felt in ‘Sunset..’, and also to an extent I think in Hawks’ ‘The Big Sleep’ - both films which feel so oneiric that you wouldn’t be totally surprised if the characters suddenly stumbled upon some demonic puzzlebox or started fusing/transferring their identities into each other or whatever - but the true origin of this “thing” can be found in Double Indemnity’, in spite of the cold steel logic of Cain’s “just the facts, ma’am” plotting.
It can be felt in the gleaming exterior of the Dietrichson house (the smell of honeysuckle indicating a kind of Lynchian transition between worlds), in the sunlight gliding across the dark bonnet of Neff’s car and the quasi-gothic ‘web of the spider’ décor which surrounds Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) throughout, but, perhaps even more strongly, it can be felt in the scene in which Neff dallies with the nymph-like Lola (Jean Heather), in the trees above the brightly lit Hollywood Bowl; an image which feels SO weirdly mythic and unreal, whilst at the same time depicting a location entirely real, and indeed physically reachable, to American viewers of the 1940s.
What manner of place is THIS, the world beyond Hollywood is invited to ask; what giddy, mythic tragedies are being enacted here, day by day, through long, drowsy eternities?
(It is all too easy of course to assign the origin of this “feel” to Wilder’s status as an immigrant, parachuted into the monstrous heart of Hollywood Babylon in the early 1930s – but I’ll leave the biographers and researchers to fill in the gaps on that score.)
Directly related to the above –
“I told [John F. Seitz – Director of Photography] what I would like to get on the screen – you know sometimes when the sun kind of slants through the windows of those old crappy Spanish houses, and if the house is not too well kept, you see the dust in the air.”
- Billy Wilder, interview with John Allyn for ‘Literature / Film Quarterly’, February 1976
The best part of a century down the line from the classic Hollywood era, we tend to think of the kind of grand Hollywood / Beverley Hills homes exemplified by the Deitrich house in ‘Double Indemnity’ as being iconic, nigh on mystical, locations (I’m always reminded of the house in which Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid shot Meshes of the Afternoon, a year before this). So much weird, water-from-the-desert faux classical beauty, so many generations of darkest intrigue, ruined / rented lives of the rich and crazy, and gateways to the bottomless pit of L.A. Gothic.
It’s hilarious therefore to realise that, for Wilder, this place was simply “crappy” – a gaudy, nouveau-rich folly which he aimed to depict with distaste and disdain; kind of the 1940s equivalent of a modern satirist depicting the lives of myopic tech company middle-management types living in flimsy-walled new-build penthouses, perhaps? The silver drinks tray and the clouds of dust hanging in the air, so retrospectively romanticised by modern viewers, were simply meant to imply that the Dietrichsons drank too much and were too damn sloppy to look after the place!
(It’s all too easy to imagine that Wilder’s take on this must have been shared by his co-writer, the perpetually snobby Chandler, whose work ironically did so much to define the parameters of sordid L.A. mysticism. Perhaps domestic architecture and housekeeping might even have been the only subjects the two could find common ground on in their legendarily antagonistic partnership?)
Although I appreciated ‘Double Indemnity’ as an enjoyable and well-made film when I saw it as a teenager, one thing that prevented me from embracing it as a favourite was the fact that the scope of its story just seemed so small.
At that point in my life, I’d recently discovered Chandler’s novels, and I suppose my ideal of a Film Noir narrative was already more of a sprawling, labyrinthine kind of a thing – the kind of story in which a sardonic, down-at-heel private eye takes us on a whistle-stop tour of sinister locales housing shady, desperate characters, with gratuitous plot convolutions, shock double-crosses and armed confrontations happening on a regular basis, and corpses messing up the rugs in hotel suites and beach houses like clockwork every ten minutes, until it doesn’t really matter WHO is responsible for all the carnage, because everybody is guilty in spirit. (Something very much like ‘The Big Sleep’, in fact.)
So - a movie about one murder, in which the central character is an insurance salesman? That just sounded like some uncool, small-fry kinda stuff to my eager teenage brain, I suppose. It was probably still a few years before I’d read ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (a story whose success Cain was clearly trying to replicate with this one, of course), and begin to develop an appreciation for the “zeroing in”, rather than “spreading out”, approach to crime fiction.
In fact, with both Cain and Chandler looming large on its writing credits, it’s interesting to consider ‘Double Indemnity’ as a unique meeting point between these two modes of storytelling, as represented by their quintessential exponents within the ‘hard boiled’ field.
Cain’s relentlessly logical demarcation of the background, planning, execution and psychological ramifications of a single crime of course predominates in ‘Double indemnity’, but at the same time I think we can see some of Chandler’s “spread” creeping in here too, particularly with regard to the Lola / Nino Zacchetti storyline. In fact, with Wilder acting as a kind of intermediary, I think the film eventually manages to strike a pretty perfect balance between the two approaches.
As a tightly delineated three-hander, the story moves in as straight a line as the express train which poor old Mr Dietrichson gets kicked off the back of, resulting in a film which still feels fresh and accessible to viewers over 75 years down the line, marking out its central points and conflict so plainly that they’d probably hit home even to a hypothetical viewer who had just emerged from a lifetime of total cultural isolation, having never heard of this strange place called “America”.
At the same time though, the film’s world has a wider scope and a sense of depth, with Wilder & Chandler’s screenplay incorporating a web of cultural references and allusions that Cain’s more stripped down, utilitarian writing often lacks, spreading out beyond the tunnel vision of Neff’s all-consuming anxiety and Keyes’ dogged attempts to break the case, embracing a sprawling, waking dream of Los Angeles circa 1944… presumably the same one in which the loping predators and troubled degenerates of Chandler’s novels lie in wait, just around the corner.
“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money, and for a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?”
- Walter Neff
Although Stanwyck and Robinson have understandably claimed the acting laurels for ‘Double Indemnity’ over the years, upon returning to the film it is the man upon whose shoulders their characters dance like some cartoon good n’ evil double-act – our resident straight man / fall guy Walter Neff, as portrayed by Fred McMurray – who fascinates me the most.
Presented by the film as an easily-relatable every-man and a feckless victim of his own, work-a-day moral weakness, Neff is a figure whom the vast majority of viewers, after watching ‘Double Indemnity’ for the first time, will state that they found sympathetic - but why?
We may not expect the behaviour of our protagonist in a story like this to be admirable, but, until he launches his last-minute attempt to achieve a kind a doomed redemption in the movie’s final reel, Neff actually does very little in the film that might justify our sympathy.
Though his background and psychology are never explored in much detail, he exemplifies a very particular strain of malign blandness and calculated over-confidence which is still all too frequently encountered in the worlds of law, sales and insurance - always with a terrible (but never overtly acknowledged) loneliness and loss of self-identity at its core.
Through the first half of the movie at least, Neff has a great, whip-smart patter, dropping a ton of genuinely witty lines and very much giving the impression of being a good-natured, street-smart operator. But, all of this is exactly that – his professional patter.
Even in the death-bed confession which forms the film’s famous framing narrative – directed of course toward Keyes, the ‘father figure’ whose absolution Neff seeks – he barely manages more than a few sentences which sound genuinely sincere. Right to the end, he still has his ‘professional’ face on; he’s still looking to impress his audience, looking to make a sale.
Who really lurks behind the mask? Who knows. Neff seems, perhaps, to be a former college jock? Sporting trophies and boxing portraits adorn the walls of his otherwise rather impersonal apartment, and when he is shaken up after meeting Phyllis for the first time, he unwinds by going bowling. ON HIS OWN, you’ll note, because he doesn’t seem to have any friends outside of work. And really, what kind of 35-year-old former jock with a reasonably lucrative job and carefully manicured social skills lives alone, in a stuffy furnished apartment where no one ever seems to call..?
When Phyllis visits his apartment, Neff tries to make out that he’s living the bachelor dream (“do you prepare your own breakfasts?”, “I squeeze a grapefruit once in a while” – my god, that dialogue!), but the flat lighting and depressing, cramped-yet-empty squares of his uncomfortable-looking rooms tell a different story. If she didn’t already have him pegged as the perfect mark by this point, one look at his living quarters must have really sealed the deal.
The only points at which Neff’s mask slips come when he tries to explain the feelings that Phyllis (and later Lola) have aroused in him – at which point, he begins to sound like some kind of artificial man, experiencing emotion for the first time and unable to explain or correctly respond to it… a too-late glimpse of actual humanity that leads him, ironically, to his final, bloody grasp toward moral redemption.
We are briefed of course to see Neff as a victim – just a helpless pawn of Phyllis’s evil machinations, an ordinary joe who got himself in a jam, the same any one of us assumed-to-be-dumb-hetero-male viewers could have done. Judged purely on his actions however, he is as black-hearted a villain as has ever graced the screen.
Driven by lust for a married woman, he murders an innocent man for his money, then begins spending time with his victim’s orphaned daughter, before murdering the wife whom he professed to love in order to prevent her from ratting on him! What a callous, amoral, home-wrecking fiend! No jury in the land would ever give this fucker a break. Are we in the audience to ‘forgive’ him, simply because we’ve followed him around for a while and know he’s a likeable shmuck with a good line in banter?
It is easy in fact to imagine an alternative version of this story, told from the POV of Zacchetti or Lola perhaps, in which Walter Neff is the sinister, shadowy villain - the ‘other man’ creeping around behind the scenes, orchestrating their woes for his own fun and profit, until he finally cracks up under the weight of his own guilt.
Or, for that matter, wouldn’t it be great to see a version of this story told from Phyllis Dietrichson’s point of view? In Neff’s telling – filtered through the typewriters of no less than three straight-laced male writers – Phyllis is pure evil incarnate, beckoning her victims to death and perdition as surely as any vampire or Satanic emissary. But let’s face it, no one on the face of earth has ever framed their own actions in such villainous terms. (In fact, as great as her role as the quintessential femme fatale is in pulp/genre terms, I could easily imagine a certain cadre of critics finding the film’s failure to believably develop her character to be a real deal-breaker vis-à-vis the possibly of ‘Double Indemnity’ being considered as a “serious work”, or whatever.)
So, what kind of a spin would she herself put on things? Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’, never gives us the chance to find out (the climactic final confrontation between the lead couple in particular comes to us direct from Neff’s self-justifying recollection, with no witnesses, and no evidence presented to support his version of events) – but, it is the possibility the film offers for these kind of ‘Rashomon’-like alternative angles that I think lends this story its crucial sense of moral ambiguity, helping the film’s ostensibly simple, open-and-shut case to remain endlessly immersive and re-watchable across the years.
Although on a surface level, ‘Double Indemnity’ is refreshingly devoid of religious symbolism (though I’m sure the Film Studies boys & girls will be able to find some in there somewhere), the moral schema underlying the film is brutally remorseless in its sense of Old Testament damnation – very much in keeping with the sense of a ‘looming presence’, placing the audience in an implied position of divine judgement, which I identified above in the film’s opening scene.
It’s all about the seed of doubt (seed of lust?) which enters Neff upon his first meeting with Phyllis. From the moment he returns to his apartment after initially walking out on her and reconsiders, basically deciding “ah, what the heck”, he is done for. No forgiveness, no hope.
This kind of unswervable, predestined doom of course became a key element of the Film Noir formula for which ‘Double Indemnity’ to some extent set the template, but even so, few of the films which followed managed to hammered home their “inescapable machinations of fate” type stuff quite so ruthlessly.
Phyllis and Walter’s ‘love’ (if we may call it that) is blighted right from its inception by the corrupting force of sin. Each intimate moment they spend together feels sick with horror – and what’s worse, they KNOW it too. “It’s straight down the line”, their dialogue reminds us ad infinitum; yeah, all the way to the cemetery, we’re encouraged to ad-lib. (Hell, at least the doomed lovers in ‘Gun Crazy’ and ‘They Live By Night’ managed to have some fun before checking into the boneyard!)
The depths of moral turpitude to which Neff has sunk by the drama’s final act are truly wretched. Only by piling sin upon sin, murdering his lover in cold blood, can be try to crawl free and “redeem” himself. He may gain the last minute absolution of Edward G. Robinson, but what about the Big Man Upstairs? Not a hope in….. yeah, you got it. This is some Mortal Sin type shit right here, and we, at the end of the day, are the ones giving his floating spirit with the cartoon angel wings the “thumbs down”. Think on, the next time you feel like sewing yr wild oats, smirking young insurance men.