Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Double Indemnity, with good reason, is often used as a perfect example of film noir. While it certainly succeeds there, this classification marginalizes the fact that it is simply a great film. Billy Wilder creates a bleak landscape where tenderness exists only to ensure the tragedy of its reach falling short.
Fred MacMurray is an inspired choice as Walter Neff. A competent insurance salesman who is used to being the smartest man in the room, a quality which he uses on charm and creating likeability, rather than proving his own worth to anyone else. It is Neff's knowledge of his own competence that dooms him. Neff is capable of anything, provided he has the motivation. That's where Phyliss Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) comes in. The innuendo laced patter between the two of them when first getting acquainted is worth the price of admission. The dialogue is great, (Thanks to Raymond Chandler) but it's the delivery that makes it perfect:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren't you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Neither of them bats an eye in this exchange.It becomes clear very quickly that they are both master manipulators playing off each other. Once lust comes into play, Neff is at a disadvantage. By regarding women as emotionally handicapped creatures, he underestimates the calculation that is second nature to Phyliss. I think it's the challenge that engages Neff, the idea that he can accomplish this impossible task (first the conquest of Phyliss, later getting away with Mr. Dietrich's murder.) that most men wouldn't even consider. His desire for Phyliss while certainly real physically, is mostly a device, he uses to sell himself the illegal and immoral elements of the action.
It's no accident that Neff is a salesman (and a good one.) He is well versed in reading people and playing the part that gets results. His only authentic interactions with anyone are those with Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson)the insurance company's investigator. The two have a deep mutual respect and even affection for each other, perhaps based on each other's marked difference from the "average" surrounding them.
The Neff and Keyes relationship is the real heart of the movie. The warmth between them a great contrast to the cold scheming between Neff and Phyliss. Their moment at the end is simply beautiful in it's futility. Keyes finds Neff bleeding with the cops on the way and they have this exchange:
Walter Neff: Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. 'Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.
Barton Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.
Walter Neff: I love you, too.
It would be tough to get this across in a modern movie, the idea of this deep and real non-sexual affection between two men, with buzzwords like "bromance" floating around to diminish the idea. It doesn't need a name it just exists, and while it won't do either character any good, it does provide the only moment of real connection.