“I killed him for money, and for a woman. And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.”
So says Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which is for many the quintessential film noir. In many respects, it is typical of the film noir genre. Visually, John F. Seitz’s photography emphasises chiaroscuro shadows and obscure angles in homage to German Expressionism. Thematically, it embodies all the cynicism that characterises the noir genre, a genre that emerged amidst the trauma and depletion of World War II and its immediate aftermath. Structurally, it is the story of one disillusioned man who becomes embroiled in a world of crime, and is seduced and corrupted by a ‘femme fatale’. And it is all wrapped up in the seedy world of wealth that is Los Angeles, depicting the details of LA in a beautifully subtle manner. But Double Indemnity is more than just a ‘typical’ film noir; it is also the best films noir ever made.
Other classic films noir like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon are excellent, but many of them lack the qualities that make Double Indemnity unique: simplicity and relatability. As archetypal as Double Indemnity is, our hero (or anti-hero) is not a hard-boiled detective as he would be in other films noir. He is an insurance salesman, and is the epitome of an ‘everyman’. While the plot of The Big Sleep becomes disorienting in its complexity, the plot of Double Indemnity is rather straightforward, allowing the characters to become the focus of the drama (even though Raymond Chandler, the author of The Big Sleep, co-wrote the script for Double Indemnity). There is a depth to the characters that is missing in the one-note characterisations amongst lesser films noir, and their motivations are not clear-cut. The protagonist Walter Neff is not only characterised by his world-weariness, and the ‘femme fatale’ Phyllis Dietrichson is not merely characterised by her allure – she is motivated by sadism, not money or sex.
Walter encounters Phyllis, played with sublime intent by Barbara Stanwyck, when he routinely goes to her house to renew her husband’s car insurance. The suggestible Walter eventually concocts a scheme with Phyllis to murder her husband and make it look like he died in an accident, therefore reaping twice as much money from his life insurance due to the ‘double indemnity’ clause on his policy. Though Walter and Phyllis kill Mr. Dietrichson and their plan seems to have succeeded, Walter’s cluey boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) gradually becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Dietrichson’s death.
Double Indemnity holds a special place in my education as a cinephile. The first time I watched it was at a reasonably young age, probably around 10, and as a budding pretentious film-lover, I already had an inbuilt scepticism of genre. Much of the material I remember reading about genre from then was condescending, reducing genre to a marker of stale conventions and predictability. However, I knew I had to watch Double Indemnity, it being the quintessential film noir. And I was floored by what I saw. The leads are certainly built on the archetypes of the disillusioned anti-hero and the persuasive femme fatale, but the characters go beyond that. Its dislocating, shadowy visual style has indeed become a staple of the genre, but for good reason – because it works so perfectly with the dark subject matter displayed on screen. It made me realise that genre is not the bane of the existence of righteous filmmakers. It is not a limitation. It is a platform. It is a stimulus that can be used to explore the same ideas that are explored in ‘normal’, non-genre films. Many genre films are boring, stodgy and predictable, but Double Indemnity is certainly not.
I did not see Double Indemnity again until around four years later, as I first saw it in the six or so years when I was trying to see as many movies as possible and revisited few of them. I was around 14 in a high school film studies class, and we were studying Double Indemnity and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report as exemplars of film noir. The majority of the class preferred Minority Report, but I much preferred Double Indemnity. As elitist and snobbish as this undoubtedly sounds, that was when I realised that I was something of a cineaste. The second time I saw Double Indemnity, I was reminded of just how simple, clever, intricate and entertaining it is, and it has since become one of my absolute favourite movies of all time.
What makes Double Indemnity so entertaining is how its story slowly and carefully unravels. What makes this movie so engrossing and compelling is how it moves from A to B. The film begins with Walter confessing to Keyes over the phone that he killed Dietrichson. Walter’s voice-over continues throughout the film, and it is in my opinion the best use of voice-over in any film ever made. The voice-over isn’t used to tell the story; instead, it is used to show the motivations and emotions of the protagonist – his confusion, his susceptibility, his awareness and his obfuscation. All the dialogue sizzles, in fact. It is sharp, stylised, and beautiful to listen to.
But my point is that we know how the film ends. In the opening minutes, Walter reveals that “I killed him [Dietrichson] for money, and for a woman. And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman”. But Double Indemnity is not an ordinary film, as the fun of watching it isn’t in seeing how it ends; the fun is seeing how it came to end that way. We are swept up in the film’s kinetic pace and the simple minutiae of the story, as we watch the intricacies of Phyllis and Walter’s plan come to life, and then disintegrate.
Double Indemnity strips down filmmaking to its bare essentials – a crackling story, acerbic dialogue, an impeccable cast, taut editing and pacing, and a consistent visual flair – and shows just how essential these essentials are to making a great film. It is a flawless film, but it is so highly regarded by me because it made me realise many things about filmmaking. Even though you might think you know what a film is about – whether that has been built within you through genre conventions, or even knowing a film’s overarching storyline before seeing the movie – you not always do.