If you are any kind of cinephile, then you should have a passing knowledge of a genre known as film noir. From roughly the 1930s into the 1950s, there was a distinct set of Hollywood productions that critics and scholars gave this moniker. Typified by urban settings, dim lighting, and plots involving crime (usually murder), they displayed the kind of seedy underbelly of society that once had people racing to read newspaper headlines. Nowadays the internet fulfills that role, and very little surprises us. Back then, it was a little more sensational, no matter how uncomfortable it made certain people. Film noir, because of the restrictions then in place governing movie content, kept people coming back to theaters because of the power of suggestion. They could not show all the sex and violence, but they could at least allude to it. These elements can all be found in today’s film, Double Indemnity (1944).
You would not think an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), could get up to too much trouble, but our film begins with his wounded form staggering into building where his bureau is located. Making his way to the office of Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), his boss, he slumps into the chair and begins narrating into the dictaphone how he got into this predicament. It all started when Walter went to the home of the oil man Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) in order to remind him to renew his automobile insurance policy. Quite different than today, huh? Anyway, Walter instead finds Mrs. Dietrichson, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), vivacious and wearing only a towel. Once she is dressed, she comes down but Walter is already smitten. Phyllis clearly can tell. In the course of their interactions, she lets on that she wants to buy accident insurance for her husband. She claims it is because of the dangerous work he does in the oil fields, but Walter suspects that she intends to arrange Mr. Dietrichson’s death for the money. Phyllis draws Walter in further by claiming that her husband is cruel to her. Because Walter wants Phyllis for himself, he agrees to plot Mr. Dietrichson’s demise. Walter arranges to have Mr. Dietrichson sign an accident policy, thinking it is for the car, and with the extra clause about accidental death, hence the title of the film. From there, Walter and Phyllis begin planning how to bump off Mr. Dietrichson. They finally settle on making it look like he fell off the back of a moving train. On the appointed day, Phyllis agrees to drive Mr. Dietrichson to the train station, but is killed by Walter, who is hiding in the backseat of the car. Next, Walter disguises himself as Mr. Dietrichson and gets on the train. Once aboard, Walter makes his way to the back of the locomotive under the pretense of having a smoke. Getting rid of a witness, Walter then jumps from the train at an agreed upon location where Phyllis waits with Mr. Dietrichson’s body. The cadaver is then placed on the tracks and Phyllis and Walter drive calmly away. They appear to have gotten away with murder and are about to have a large windfall of money until Barton starts examining the case more closely. From the start he believes there is something not right. After all, their company would be on the hook for $100,000, no small sum in 1938 when the movie is set. What gets him thinking there is something fishy is the speed of the train. When the supposed mishap occurred, the speed was only fifteen miles an hour, hardly enough velocity to cause a neck to break. This fact is corroborated by the witness Walter had to shoo away on the back of the train, a Mr. Jackson (Porter Hall) of Oregon. There is also the conspicuously short period of time between the signing of the policy and Mr. Dietrichson’s untimely demise. All the while, Barton is sharing these concerns with Walter. Adding to his anxiety is Phyllis’ growing flakiness. They have already decided to lay low so as to arouse less suspicion. Yet, Walter has other reasons to suspect Phyllis is not the loyal co-conspirator he thought. Part of this is due to Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) and her accusation that Phyllis was also behind the death of her mother, who is not Phyllis. Then comes her relating to Walter the fact that her one-time crush had been caught sneaking around with Phyllis. All this leads Walter to go to Phyllis in order to confront her about everything he had heard. Shortly after his arrival, she shoots him in the shoulder, but is unable to finish off Walter. He then takes the gun and kills her. He leaves and now we are back to the beginning of the film. A few hours later, Barton comes to work and finds his wounded employee. Though Barton gives Walter a few moments to leave, he cannot quite make good on his desire to flee to Mexico and instead awaits the police.
The main characters in Double Indemnity, Phyllis and Walter, are not sympathetic characters. They are not carrying out this crime due to any unfortunate circumstance other than their desire to enrich themselves. Phyllis’ story about Mr. Dietrichson’s ill treatment is, of course, a lie. I suppose there is something to be said for Walter’s confession, not only to the crime but in admitting that he is, in fact, rotten. One can hope that by accepting his guilt that it would be the first step in reforming his life. However, we do not get to see any transformation, other than him giving up on his escape plan. Yet, this is more a function of his weakness due to his wound than any apparent desire to do the right thing. This is a key component to the Catholic sacrament of Confession. There are many Catholics who will go to for Absolution occasionally, sporadically, doing so out of some vague sense of obligation to whatever culture it was in which they were raised. My hope is that they are truly sorry for whatever sins they are bringing to the Lord when they go. Do not get me wrong. Simply going is a great first step. The reason for my skepticism is what I see from our culture today. I know at the time the film was made, people thought differently. The Church, for example, was stronger, at least in terms of regular Mass attendance. At the same time, Walter’s actions speak to the sort of lip-service that I sincerely hope Catholics are not giving. I see our society as being too permissive of many of the behaviors you see in the movie. To be clear, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks murder is okay. However, there are those who are perfectly comfortable with getting violent vengeance against those we perceive as abusive. Confession is meant to be a healing balm that can help us at the darkest of times. I hope that is what happened for Walter.
Double Indemnity is a Hollywood classic that is worth watching for that reason alone. It is a great example of film noir as well. It also deals with characters of questionable morality, which is problematic. Because of the time during which it was made, you do not see all the gory details that you might witness if this movie were made today. If you are in the mood for an older film, then you can do worse than this one.