Double Indemnity

Published June 24, 2009

[In summer 2009, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series of films under the rubric of “Crime and Punishment” at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (Go to for details or to register to attend.) The second film in the series, Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder (1944), was screened yesterday evening, June 23, 2009. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about the movie. My introduction is below, and available in MP3 format here.]

Last week, in introducing our screening of The Public Enemy, I said that my guiding inspiration in thinking about this film series has been the idea of the little guy who thinks big, a nobody who sees a quick route to becoming a somebody – in short, the criminal individualist rather than the gang member. At the time of The Public Enemy and for a couple of decades after it, this idea of ambition gone wrong in a regular guy (as opposed to a great man, like Macbeth) continued to seem fresh and exciting and produced an astonishing number of great films, several of which we will be showing here. Now it has become a cliché – and the part about its being “wrong” has been forgotten. This morning I went to a critics’ screening of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, opening a week from tomorrow, which stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and was not surprised to find not the slightest hint of irony – except in the title – about its portrayal of the romantic bank robber and murderer as a rock star before there were rock stars.

We take such stuff for granted these days. The tradition of moral ambiguity has become so entrenched that we’re not even shocked when the cops are made to seem more evil than the robbers. That tradition had its origins in the original Public Enemy and movies like it. But if there were those at the time who romanticized people like Dillinger, there were many more who could understand the appeal of certain kinds of criminal aspiration without forgetting that it was criminal – and what that meant in terms of human tragedy and heartbreak. All the same, as I also mentioned last week, those crimes of ambition are going to look to some people like a disturbing parody of the American Dream. To some, indeed, like Theodore Dreiser when he called his most famous novel An American Tragedy – the basis of the film we’ll be seeing in two weeks’ time – they look indistinguishable from the American Dream.

How quickly moral ambiguity can become unambiguous! All you have to do is flip the good and the evil, as in Mr Mann’s vulgar paean to John Dillinger. But that’s not what’s happening – yet – in tonight’s film, Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity of 1944, based on a novel by James M. Cain as adapted by Wilder in collaboration with Raymond Chandler. Next week’s film, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was also based on a Cain novel and has almost exactly the same plot as this one – as, for that matter, does the penultimate in our series, Body Heat. All involve a woman and her lover plotting to kill her husband, and I think part of the point of this domestic dimension to the crimes these films represent is to keep the frisson of horror at criminality alive in us through the shock of this betrayal of the sacred and traditional bond between husband and wife.

Double Indemnity is often identified as being among the first true films noirs – the name given by French critics to a particular kind of American crime drama of this period which has by now lost approximately as much of its meaning as criminality itself has. In Double Indemnity, however, the technique is at its freshest. Billy Wilder’s camera – wielded here, as in Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard by John F. Seitz – may have been the first to produce the distinctive look of film noir. Many of the scenes take place at night or in shadows, or in darkened rooms with light coming through Venetian blinds visible in patches on the walls as the characters plot their route to “A Place in the Sun.” The shadow of a man on crutches appears over the opening credits and looks forward to the obscured face of Fred MacMurray in the opening scene as he staggers up to his office, and again on the train, as he impersonates the dead man.

When he first visits Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in her Spanish hacienda-style home, MacMurray’s Walter Neff remarks on the dust there, hinting of her bad housekeeping as a synecdoche for her being in other ways a bad wife. Perhaps this is what makes him think of her as ripe for the plucking in the first place. Accordingly, Wilder makes the dust visible in the sunlight streaming through the half-closed blinds – the same too-enticing California sun that has lured her outside for a sunbath when we, and Walter, first meet her, to the neglect of her wifely duties. I speak, of course, of the contemporary view of such things. The physical counterpart of the moral darkness and dirt of the film looks forward to Phyllis’s confession at the climax that she is “rotten to the heart.”

We find ourselves in the moral as well as the visual universe of films noirs. The individualist hero here as elsewhere takes on another sort of synecdoche – in this case a big insurance company – which may stand in for anyone’s idea of what constitutes The System. You know the one I mean. It’s The System which has been designed by God or nature, “history” or human ingenuity, to keep poor people poor and rich people rich. This is another cliché that wasn’t quite so much of a cliché in 1944. As in so many of the classic noir films, too, our hero almost beats the system but, reaching for his idea of happiness, only succeeds in being crushed by it in the end. You can’t help wondering if all those Hollywood Marxists, some of whom were to be shaken out of the system during the McCarthy era, learned from Wilder – who seems to have been more or less apolitical himself – how to use this paradigm as a sort of political code.

It was another Code, named after Will Hays of the studios’ own Production Code Administration, that forbade any film to show crime paying or evil prospering. This led to film after film during the greatest years of Hollywood’s classic era with similar plots. The criminal might not have prospered, but he would make audiences wish that he had. What many of the authors of these films would have called “capitalism” was also the sort of “system” that heroic outsiders might vainly strive against and make us love them for their strivings. The only stipulation was that they had to fight it as heroic individuals, rather than by heroically leading the proletariat, which is what makes the story of Double Indemnity so paradigmatic for our series.

And yet there are several ways in which the film seems to skitter away from my blunt analytical scalpel and refuse its classification among the others. To start with, its hero doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, like Tommy Powers in The Public Enemy. He doesn’t, apparently, have anything to prove or even a deep longing for a better life like George Eastman, the hero of A Place in the Sun. He has a good job that he enjoys and a nice apartment in pre-war Los Angeles. There is a set of golf clubs visible in the corner of it, and it’s a little hard to get our minds around the idea of a downtrodden golfer. It is also hinted that he enjoys the “active social life” – as they would have put it in those days – of a middle-aged bachelor, even though he wears a wedding ring throughout. That, by the way, seems to have been a mistake in continuity, noticed only in pos
t-production, rather than a significant detail about his character.

Walter doesn’t seem particularly ambitious or greedy, nor do I think that he is, like the other two leading men in the films with the same plot, the victim of a femme fatale – or an amour fou for the amazing blonde bangs of Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson. Wilder in later years was said both to have regarded that bizarre wig she wears throughout the movie as his biggest mistake in making it and, perhaps jokingly, to have said that it was intended as a deliberate clue to her more general falseness and deception. But I think that, in thus disarming her natural sexiness – even coming close to making it look ridiculous – whether deliberately or not, he denies us the easy certainties we naturally look for in explaining Walter’s motivation for such an appalling crime.

Wilder is also supposed to have said that the real love story in the film is that between Walter and the bulldog-like insurance investigator, Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson. There is no doubt that this is the most intimate relationship we see him in, and it makes the framing device of Walter’s confession to Keyes through the dictaphone seem natural. Insofar as Walter explains his motivation in his confession to Keyes, his crime appears to have been a sort of intellectual exercise. He compares himself to a croupier, “the guy behind the roulette wheel” who, constantly on the alert for cheaters and hustlers with another kind of “system,” the kind designed to beat the house, suddenly finds himself in possession of a theory of his own about how to “crook the house” and not get caught.

That intellectual approach to his crime is also an important point of contact between him and Keyes, to whom he always refers by his last name – just as Keyes always refers to him by his first. At one point, Keyes offers him a job as his assistant, claiming in his bluff, curmudgeonly fashion to find him marginally less stupid than the other people at the firm, but Walter turns him down, claiming to prefer the life of a salesman – as well as the extra money he can make that way. So Walter is keeping the secret from him of their common affinity for anatomizing the dark heart of human evil. “I was trying to think with your brain, Keyes,” he says as part of his final confession. At the same time, Keyes is also keeping a secret: that of the fatherly affection he feels for the younger man but hides under his crusty, bad-tempered exterior.

Or at least he keeps it until the penultimate line of the movie when, in reply to Walter’s saying that he couldn’t solve the mystery because the culprit was too close – “right across the desk from you” – Keyes softly replies, “Closer than that, Walter.” Walter’s “I love you too” in reply had also been said earlier in the film, apparently with ironical intent. But repeating it, in confessional mode, he had already affirmed its literal truth. “I really did, too, you old crab. Always yelling your head off, always sore at everybody. You never fooled me with your song and dance, not for a second. I kinda always knew that behind all the cigar ashes on your vest was a heart as big as a house.”

Wilder actually filmed a completely different ending from the one we see here. Walter’s horrific imagination of being patched up by the doctors only to be led into the gas chamber once he was back on his feet came true in this version. Like nearly all the death house scenes in the movies of this period – like the one we’ll see in next week’s movie – this must have had a powerful effect on audiences if they had been allowed to see it. The moralism of the film noir, even if ironically intended, almost required this kind of reference back to the grim justice wielded by “the system” in response to the ambitions of the hero. But by changing this and instead ending it with a focus on the relationship between the two men, he allows us to hang on to that idea of the heart as big as a house as the context in which we have to see Phyllis’s confession that she is “rotten to the heart.”

That confession bears some looking into if only because the film as a whole takes the form of a confession. That framing device of Walter’s confession to the dictaphone might remind us, in one way at least, of the Western world’s most famous literary confession, that of St. Augustine in the memoir called the Confessions. It’s not a coincidence that this is also the locus classicus of Western individualism: the first real example of a man looking within himself and his heart of hearts for basic truths about the world, truths that he associates with the truths of Christianity such as Original Sin. St Augustine’s famous story to illustrate this particular truth is about having, as a boy, stolen some pears – not for the sake of the pears, which were not very good and not eaten anyway, but only for the sake of the evil in the deed.

Yet, as he sees it, this evil deed depends crucially on the fact that he was with other boys. “Alone, I had not done it,” Augustine insists. And that same idea also makes it, somewhat ironically, perhaps, into The Public Enemy, when Ma Powers comforts the bereaved mother of Limpy Larry by agreeing that he was “a good boy” who “got into bad company.” That’s pretty rich coming from the mother of the worst, though she doesn’t know it herself, of that “company,” Tommy Powers. By the way, for what it’s worth the actor who portrays the doomed Mr Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is named Tom Powers.

In both films, I think, it is ultimately Augustine’s idea of the seductiveness of evil itself that draws us in: not evil for the sake of the American Dream or to redeem in a romantically honorable fashion a hopeless existence at the bottom of the social and economic pile, but evil for the sake of evil. In James M. Cain’s original novel, Barbara Stanwyck’s character is a psychopath whose murder of her husband’s first wife was just one of a number of murders she was able to get away with because of her job as a nurse. But psychopathology, like “bad company,” is more an excuse than a reason for evil, and I think that’s why Billy Wilder did away with all that back-story in the movie. Even her involvement in the death of the first Mrs Dietrichson is left ambiguous, and this must be because Wilder wants to humanize her, rotten heart and all.

Also as in Public Enemy, we see at least a kind of repentance on the part of the heroes in articulo mortis – and are left equally in doubt as to what to make of it. Phyllis says she has finally learned to love when she couldn’t fire the second shot at her former accomplice; Walter aborts his plan to frame the hot tempered Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) for her murder in order to bring him together with sweet, innocent Lola (Jean Heather), who still loves him. The gesture on both parts is tainted, and you’ve got to wonder, especially, how much of a favor he’s doing poor Lola by giving her back Zachetti. Both remind me a bit of the dying Edmund’s words at the end of King Lear, “Some good I mean to do,/Despite of mine own nature.” But “nature,” as St. Augustine recognized, is not so simple, either for good or evil, as we’d like to think. The trick that makes a great work of art, which is an imitation of nature, is never to lose sight of the evil, as Johnny Depp’s Public Enemies does, in making every allowance for the good in human nature – as we hope God Himself will do.

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