There’s a particularly fiendish bit of Hitchcockian screw-tightening in the middle of Double Indemnity: when insurance salesman Walter Neff climbs into the getaway car and his accomplice, Phyllis Dietrichson, can’t get it started for a minute. In typical no-fuss Billy Wilder style, the camera simply holds the shot of the two people’s mounting dread. Walter reaches over to try the key himself, and the engine roars to life. The film is filled with moments like these, the kind of suspense that appeals to the audience’s transgressive side. With this story, Wilder and his co-writer Raymond Chandler explore a concept that was a career-long fascination for Hitchcock: the “perfect murder.” Half of the film sets up just such a scheme, while the other half tears it apart. It’s all done with a meticulous sense of procedure. This is a murder plot with all the complexity of a heist. Call it “The Morgue Job.”
The film opens with sarcastic exposition delivered by a man slowly bleeding out in an empty office in the middle of the night. Walter (Fred MacMurray) records a confession into a Dictaphone. He lists two reasons why he killed a man named Dietrichson: “money” and “a woman.” A little later he’ll add a third reason, certainly more interesting than the other two. After eleven years of vigilance making sure his insurance company doesn’t get cheated out of its money by so-called accidents, he begins to wonder if he knows enough to cheat the company himself. To put it starkly, his problem isn’t so much greed or lust, but pride. What lights the fire of his imagination isn’t a prize of some kind, but the conviction that he can “do it smart” — murder Dietrichson, pass it off as an accident, and never get caught. Quite explicitly, he’s out to commit the perfect murder.
Then again, the woman he’s after is a lot more than a carrot on the end of a stick. Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) already plans to buy accident insurance for her husband so that she can kill him, get away with it, and even collect some money out of the deal. Realizing that this kind of plot requires some expertise, she enlists Walter’s aid, taking advantage of his obvious desire for her. One thing that comes across almost incidentally in this film is the dullness of Walter’s bachelor existence. Bowling alone, eating at a drugstore, working, sitting in his apartment — that’s his life before meeting Phyllis. His alibi the night of the crime is that he was home all evening. I love the insert shots of Walter’s hand (presumably not MacMurray’s hand, but whatever stand-in was used did a beautiful job) placing a card on the telephone bell and the doorbell. When he returns, he finds that the cards haven’t been disturbed. Walter has no friends. It’s no wonder that Phyllis, who offers him erotic danger like nothing he’s ever experienced, proves intoxicating.
Pulling off this murder-heist will be tricky, however, because the Bonnie and Clyde wannabes are being tailed by a brilliant detective. Not a police officer or a private eye, but a claims manager from the insurance company, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The deep cynicism of this film can be found in the fact that the police are not nearly as concerned with finding the truth as the insurance company is, because money is involved. There’s something amazing about Barton Keyes, though. Even though he represents the company’s interests, he doesn’t seem to be motivated by money. As played by Robinson, he simply loves his job. That job just happens to involve solving a mystery, determining whether a certain man’s neck was broken by accident or design. The institution may be corrupt, but there are still individuals within it whose motives are pure.
Walter and Phyllis stage an unlikely accident: Mr. Dietrichson will, allegedly, fall off the back of a moving train and break his neck on the tracks. The idea of securing a “double indemnity” payoff by orchestrating such a rare event proves a fatal overreach. As Keyes explains, a perfect murder is an impossibility because the perpetrators always “slip up” at some point. Their theory may be sound, but the execution (excuse the pun) will inevitably be found wanting. In this case, the downfall doesn’t come about because of some logistical error, however. The real problem is that the attraction between Walter and Phyllis can’t withstand the strain of keeping their crime a secret. Each slowly comes to understand the power of one to incriminate the other. They’ve already lied, cheated, and killed, so how can either one of them be trusted?
Billy Wilder’s film is lacerating in its depiction of upper class crime. The writing is by turns razor sharp and amusingly florid, the cinematography by John Seitz crisp and glowering, the score by Miklós Rózsa sinister and tempestuous. Stanwyck is mesmerizing, the glimmer in her eyes expressing pent-up rage and cold determination. MacMurray gives Walter the air of a man hiding the emptiness of his life behind a smirk and some witty alpha-male bravado. Robinson, one of the original gangsters of the talkie era, has matured into a streetwise father figure with “a heart as big as a house.” The pivotal moment in the film occurs when Keyes offers Walter a job as the claims manager’s assistant. As he tries to sell Walter on the importance of what he does, the phone rings. It’s Phyllis, announcing that the plot, previously stalled, is back on. Walter has a clear choice laid in front of him. He can take a desk job (and a cut in salary), or he can run off with $100,000 and a beautiful woman. He makes a regrettable choice. Who wouldn’t?
Everything culminates in a confrontation between the two killers. As the noose tightens around them, both are determined to save their own necks. And we get the shot pictured above, an image that, for me, perfectly encapsulates the spirit of film noir. In the background, the man’s shadow, projected through the doorway, enters the house before he does, both menacing and somehow sad. In the foreground, the femme fatale waits for him comfortably, legs crossed, smoke curling upward from her cigarette. The room is bathed in shadow, with the light from a window pierced diagonally by its blinds. This shot tells you practically everything you need to know about the crime dramas of the 1940s that French critics a decade later elevated to legendary status. Sleazy. Nocturnal. Violent. Glorious.