Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler
DP: John Seitz
Editor: Doane Harrison
Score: Miklós Rózsa
Producer: Joseph Sistrom
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Robinson, Jean Heather
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 47 min.
Film noir perseveres with the paranoia and cynicism of 1930s crime fiction, but combines the old with the new; if the stories of Hammett, Cain, and Chandler spoke to the anxiety of the Great Depression, film noir spoke to the worries of later eras. Take the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, a film that takes a confused, desperate look at futile aggression and fear of nuclear power (both foreign and domestic). These are timely concerns, but addressed with well-worn devices.
That timeliness exists in Double Indemnity: in 1944, the United States was well into a period of unprecedented economic growth, and the film makes that apparent. That said, Double Indemnity stands out among films noir because the timely issue it embodies - recovered American prosperity - doesn't seem like something that should breed pessimistic tension, but the film pursues that anyway.
To this end, it opens in medias res, showing its main character, insurance salesman Walter Neff, injured and making a recording confessing to his crimes of murder and attempted insurance fraud. Because of this, everything in the following flashback comes with the knowledge that all the main character's attempts to fulfill his ambitions will fail. He narrates throughout the film, explaining his thoughts during various situations.
However, even with his narration, it's difficult to tell what motivates him. When he decides to make the shift from ordinary, law-abiding citizen to scheming murderer, he does so abruptly. What's more, he does it with the help of Phyllis Dietrichson, the woman whose idea it was to commit the crime in the first place. He'd rebuffed her when she proposed they become co-conspirators earlier in the film; why the change of heart?
The narration is our only non-speculative window into his mind, and it doesn't tell us his motivation. It does, however, tell us that after his first meeting with Phyllis, Walter couldn't get her out of his mind, so he welcomed her the second time she approached him. If you ask me, the film doesn't bother with a motivation at all. When he initially rejects Phyllis's proposal, MacMurray does not express incredulity or indignation; he has no conviction. The film dispenses with motivation because there needn't be one; if there's no real aversion to killing, then evil doesn't require a motivation, just a spark.
This idea that the potential for evil just casually exists, needing only a little push to set it off, is mirrored by the places Walter and Phyllis choose to plan and commit their crime. They meet in a grocery store, well-stocked with uniformly-branded products. The characters never hide anywhere but in plain sight, or even travel outside their affluent suburban locale. The upswing of America's economy is evident everywhere, but any morality that came with it is shaky and ready to be toppled at any moment.
Even the World War II solidarity of the populace is undermined. Because Double Indemnity adheres to a seemingly desirable, stable environment, it does a better job than most of exposing the historical and political implications of that most famous and potentially problematic of noir elements, the femme fatale. The concept is widely considered a paranoid, reactionary response to the new societal positions women took on during the war, and Phyllis Dietrichson's enterprising scheming and sexual openness stand out against her quiet backdrop more than they would against the menacing urban settings of films like Out of the Past or The Big Clock.
On the opposite side of all this ethical murkiness, we find Barton Keyes, a friend of Walter's who examines insurance claims. His investigative rigor poses the only threat to the success of Walter's and Phyllis's plans. He serves as the film's moral center, but not in a way that's easy on the audience; his morality comes in his uncommon ability to devote himself to an endlessly complicated task. When Keyes offers Walter a job in his department, he describes all the reasons to take pride in working to expose the truth, but Walter remains unconvinced. In any case, Keyes is ultimately powerless to change anything.
After their crime, Walter and Phyllis are less and less frequently portrayed in bright places, consigned instead to places where the light is obstructed, except when they engage in deliberate deception to further their plans; then they're in the light, exposed for all to see - though no one does but the audience. Wilder imprisons them in the frame, placing them behind barriers or against dominating parallel lines. As Walter tells Phyllis, once they've established their plan, they're going "straight down the line"; they have no escape but to see the whole thing through, and the audience already knows that's not going to work out.
If Double Indemnity's narrative framing device takes away some of the thrill, it does help it find pathos in its portrayal of a rotten state of existence. The reality it depicts has bounced back from the Great Depression with remarkable success, but nothing can erase the disillusionment and apprehension it introduced. It portrays morality as a difficult, taxing affair. Many films noir take the American Dream to task, but Double Indemnity does it from an uncomfortably close position. There's no ideal of which Walter Neff deprives himself; nowhere is safe. This would be nihilistic, but noir generally doesn't intellectualize its fears. Rather, it's a form of catharsis.