Framed as an episodic flashback narrated by insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), the story begins with an encounter between Neff and housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) during a sales call. She incites him to dream up a plot to murder her husband in order to collect a ‘double indemnity’ insurance policy. Initially, the pair commit the crime without being detected, but an investigation by Barton Keyes (Edgar G. Robinson), a claims adjuster who is also Neff’s good friend at the company, slowly reveals the deception. Adapted from a James M. Cain novella, Double Indemnity is recognised as one of the signal achievements of film noir, a type of film that forms a dark countercurrent to Hollywood’s tendency toward positive characters and happy endings.
Increasingly critics and scholars have ranked Double Indemnity as one of the greatest films noir, describing it as ‘the gold standard of 40s noir’ or ‘archetypical noir’. 1 But what is film noir? One answer to this question points to specific aspects of the film, such as Barbara Stanwyck’s performance as a femme fatale, the film’s fatalism, its first-person approach that emphasises psychological interiority, John Seitz’s low-key cinematography, etc. A more general definition might say that Double Indemnity is a film noir because it inverts certain Hollywood conventions, such as a happy ending where the protagonist triumphs over the forces that oppose him. Instead, this film tells a story that is a dark reflection of the conventional Hollywood narrative; we can sum it up in an oft-quoted bit of Walter’s dialogue, ‘I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?’
Defining noir is tricky, however; it has been called ‘one of the most amorphous categories in film history’ (Naremore 1998: 11). So while it is impossible today not to celebrate Double Indemnity as a quintessential film noir, this designation should only be a first step in approaching the film and not a destination. After all, none of the people who worked on Double Indemnity would have had any idea what film noir meant. Bosley Crowther in his review for the New York Times, for instance, called the film a ‘tough melodrama’. Unlike ‘western’ or ‘historical drama’, noir was not a term that filmmakers of the 1940s would have used; rather, it emerged retroactively from the vocabulary of critics.2 So while some writing on Double Indemnity concentrates on identifying how the film fits into a predetermined category of noir, this essay will present readings that enrich that concept by complicating and expanding our understanding of it.
One prominent method of approaching the film uses the insights of feminist psychoanalysis. Claire Johnston emphasises how a male point of view tends to dominate the film, making the woman into an object of the masculine gaze. The way that Walter’s voice-over narration structures the story, providing his perspective on the events, is a good example of this tendency. The repeated close-ups from Walter’s point of view of Phyllis’s ankle as she descends the stairs in her house are another way the film emphasises the male position. In both instances, there is a marked disparity in power – it is the man who speaks/looks, and the woman who is the object of the story/look.
Johnston’s point is not simply that the film is sexist, however. Instead, she argues that the film ‘traces the precariousness of the patriarchal order and its internal contradictions’ (1978: 103). By ‘contradictions’ she refers to the notion that the woman occupies a peculiar position in a patriarchal (i.e. male-dominated) society. In such a system, the woman signifies lack; she is without the phallus, without power, which makes her both fascinating and terrifying.
According to the psychoanalytic view, Double Indemnity enacts the fundamental scenario of Oedipal struggle. Walter wants to beat the system, which is another way of saying that he wants to test the authority of the Law, as symbolised by Keyes. Phyllis represents a way to achieve that desire; she embodies a kind of desire that exists outside of the sanctioned order, outside of the bounds of the family and the patriarchal law that designates woman as (sexual) property. The film attempts to contain the dangerous desire and to restore the status quo, both by introducing another, ‘good’ woman (Lola) and by (somewhat implausibly) dispatching the ‘bad’ woman (Phyllis). The question remains open, however, whether this attempted containment actually eradicates the interesting possibilities raised by the dangerous woman.
Another insight offered by a psychoanalytic approach to the film concerns the relationship between Walter and Keyes. Johnston raises the point, which other writers have pursued as well, that although Keyes may represent the Law of patriarchy, he also harbours a maternal side (‘a heart as big as a house’). The upshot of this observation is to prompt us to think about the relationship between Walter and Keyes as harbouring the possibility of an alternative affective bond, which finds expression in the ritualised exchange of matches and the film’s final line, ‘I love you, too’. Whether this bond between Walter and Keyes can be characterised as homosexual in a contemporary sense is debatable. Some people insist that the relationship is a paternal one, but we can ask whether such an emphasis rules out the possibility of an erotic dimension.3
Psychoanalytic readings tend to construe films as closed systems, resulting in readings that rarely pursue questions related to the film’s cultural contexts. Many readings, however, do consider how the world outside of the film has shaped what appears on the screen. The examples of a contextual approach that we will consider here focus on the film’s relation to its source materials.
There are two accounts of the inspiration for the James M. Cain novella on which the film was based that can serve as entry points for contextual readings. When asked about the genesis of the story for Double Indemnity, Cain mentioned an anecdote he heard from H. L. Mencken about a newspaper typesetter who, after years of faithful service, purposely let a dirty typo in a headline slip through. The outline of this situation, where a faithful employee runs amok, is present in the film in a somewhat modified form when in Walter’s voice-over narration he talks about ‘the guy behind the roulette-wheel’. Regardless of the specific form this common thread takes, the basic germ of the story concerns someone trying to beat a system.
James Naremore picks up on this aspect of the film, arguing that a modernist critique of mass culture undergirds the film. He points out that a significant similarity in temperament that unites the three major creative contributors – Cain, Chandler and Wilder – is an outsider’s mentality (Cain came from the East Coast and Wilder from Austria and Berlin, Chandler grew up in England). This outsider’s mentality manifests itself in a critique of life in an age of industrial capitalism that is encapsulated in the phrase ‘straight down the line’. This phrase first occurs during Walter’s initial sales patter, then gets picked up by Walter and Phyllis, who use it as a way to refer to their commitment to one another, and finally gets used by Keyes, who turns it into an image of a trolley ride whose final stop is the cemetery.
This metaphor signals a critique of what Naremore calls, referencing a Weimar intellectual tradition, ‘Fordist Amerika’, a view of American society that sees an assembly-line logic having permeated all aspects of material and mental life, turning people into alienated, robotic slaves, à la Metropolis. This line of argument leads to Naremore’s provocative claim that the ending that Wilder originally envisioned for the film – a long, predominately silent sequence in which Walter is executed in the San Quentin gas chamber with Keyes as a witness – represents a better version of the film. This argument reverses the conventional wisdom about the gas chamber ending, which critics, following Wilder’s own statements, have discounted as excessive and unnecessary. For Naremore, the gas chamber ending is the necessarily grim culmination of the film’s engagement with the logic of ‘straight down the line’.
Another contextual reading relies on the more frequently identified source for Double Indemnity, the trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. Snyder, a Long Island housewife, and Gray, a corset salesman who became Snyder’s lover, murdered Snyder’s husband. The trial was a major media event from March 1927 to January 1928. James M. Cain, whom critic Edmund Wilson called one of the ‘poets of the tabloid murder’, was working for The New York World during the trial and certainly would have been immersed in the coverage.
Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy West connect the coverage of the case in prominent New York City tabloids to its echoes first in the Cain novella and then in the film. This context allows Pelizzon and West to propose different readings of such textual features as the ‘straight down the line’ metaphor. They read this motif as Cain’s adaptation of an insight in H. L. Mencken’s review of Judd Gray’s confession/book, where Mencken analyses Gray’s thinking as an example of the notion of Presbyterian predetermination, which stipulates that some people are predestined to be sinners. This reading provides an interesting colouring to observations about this film’s ‘fatalism’.
A detail of the film’s mise en scène that the Snyder–Gray context also illuminates is Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde wig. This costume choice often has been seen as anomalous or dissident; it was famously singled out for ridicule at the time of production when Paramount production head Buddy De Sylva reportedly commented, ‘We hire Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington’. Wilder claimed that he realised the wig was a mistake after it was too late to make a change, but he also justified his choice by saying that he wanted Phyllis to have a ‘sleazy’ look. This adjective suggests how the wig can be connected to the Snyder–Gray trial; the tabloids frequently commented on Ruth Snyder’s hairstyle, dubbing her ‘the burning blonde’ or ‘the synthetic blonde murderess’.
The tabloid context also places the gas chamber ending in a different light. One of the most famous moments in the Snyder–Gray media coverage occurred during the executions when Thomas Howard, an enterprising photojournalist for the New York Daily News, strapped a miniature camera to his ankle and took a photograph at the moment the executioner threw the switch on Ruth Snyder. This sensational photograph took up the entire front page underneath the gigantic headline ‘DEAD!’ Pelizzon and West suggest that the cut ending, for which Wilder had an exact replica of the San Quentin gas chamber built, registers the power of the execution snapshot, ‘those familiar with the photo might be tempted to see it as a palimpsest beneath Wilder’s death chamber, as if the latter image were superimposed onto the earlier one’ (2005: 212).
The connotations of tabloid journalism provide an important context for the film’s initial reception as well. When Double Indemnity premiered, it was seen as ‘provocative’, which is to say sordid and trashy. Wilder’s usual screenwriting partner, the urbane Charles Brackett, refused to participate in the project, which he considered in bad taste. Wilder, who consistently pushed the boundaries of censorship, tested the Hayes code with Double Indemnity by taking on a literary property that was supposedly unfilmable; at the time of its making he described Double Indemnity as a film ‘to set Hollywood back on its heels’. 4
When Walter drives away from the Dietrichson household, he muses in voice-over, ‘How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?’ This striking juxtaposition of the foul and the sweet is not a bad emblem for noir more generally. Even though noir is difficult to define precisely, we could do worse than to call it a beautiful mode of filmmaking about ugliness, an aesthetic approach to darkness, violence, and corruption, of which Double Indemnity is an extraordinary example.
1. Capsule review of Double Indemnity in Time Out London, issue 1838, 9–16 November 2005 (accessed 19 June 2008) at www.timeout.com/ film/reviews/65700/double_indemnity.html; and Philip Kemp, ‘Billy Wilder’, in Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast (eds), The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Vol. 2, ‘Directors’, 4th ed., Detroit, St. James Press, 2001, p. 1079, accessed via the Gale Virtual Reference Library.
2. For an excellent genealogy of the concept of film noir, see James Naremore, ‘The History of an Idea’ in More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (pp. 9–39).
3. For a theorisation of how homosocial desire operates at the expense of women, see Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Homosocial Desire, New York, Columbia University Press, 1985.
4. Wilder in the L. A. Times, quoted in Sikov 1998: 194. For a perceptive chapter on Double Indemnity that, among other things, builds on Naremore’s insights and pursues Wilder’s connections to the field of journalism, see Gerd Gemünden, ‘The Insurance Man Always Rings Twice: Double Indemnity’, chapter two of A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Paramount Pictures. Director: Billy Wilder. Producer: Joseph Sistrom. Screenwriters: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chander (based on the novella by James M. Cain). Cinematographer: John F. Seitz. Editor: Doane Harrison. Music: Miklos Rozsa. Cast: Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Porter Hall (Mr Jackson), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Richard Gaines (Mr Norton).]
James M. Cain, Double Indemnity (1936), New York, Knopf/Everyman’s Library, 2003.
Gerd Gemünden, A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films, New York, Berghahn Books, 2008.
Claire Johnston, ‘Double Indemnity’, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir, London, BFI, 1978, pp. 100–11. James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1998.
V. Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy M. West, ‘Multiple Indemnity: Film Noir, James M. Cain, and Adaptations of a Tabloid Case’, Narrative, Vol. 13, No. 3, October 2005, pp. 211–37.
Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, New York, Hyperion, 1998.
Neil Sinyard and Adrian Turner, Journey down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Billy Wilder, Ryde, Isle of Wight, BCW Publishing, 1979.
Billy Wilder, with Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder, New York, Random House, 1999.
Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity (1944), Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.