Ten Great Lessons From “Double Indemnity”

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Criterion Collection, fount of classic cinema for home entertainment, has restored and reissued, in Blu-ray 4K Ultra-High Definition, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” the seminal film noir based upon James M. Cain’s bestselling novella of illicit love, insurance fraud and brutal murder.

Novelist Cain, an insurance salesman who never sold a policy, joined a flock of reporters attending the sensational 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, New York’s infamous adulterous lovers who, in a frenzy of lust, liquor and greed, cruelly murdered Ruth’s abusive husband, Albert, staging a home burglary to trigger the “double indemnity” provision of an insurance policy Ruth fraudulently procured for the unfortunate Albert.

This true crime story became the tabloid sensation of the year, as the once impassioned duo clumsily betrayed each other at trial.

All to no avail:  Snyder and Gray were convicted of murder in the first degree and died, serially, in Sing Sing’s electric chair.

Ruth’s death throes were famously and illicitly captured by hidden camera, strapped to a reporter’s leg, producing a grainy snuff photo promptly shot ‘round the world.  (No link here, folks.)

From this dark plot Cain distilled two bestselling novellas: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.” Both immorality tales were long deemed “unfilmable” under the Hayes Code, the self-imposed film industry standard introduced in 1934 to stem the increasingly flagrant portrayal of sin and crime in American motion pictures.

Ten years later Billy Wilder, undeterred, teamed with famed pulp fiction writer Raymond Chandler and, through sly dialogue and clever scene-building, granted viewers full license to imagine what could not be filmed in his 1944 production of “Double Indemnity.”

Eight decades have not diminished “Double Indemnity’s” impact: the gritty plot and credible characters offer timeless lessons in human nature and, as Billy Wilder said of his years in the hotel trade, “none of them favorable.”

Spoiler alerts apply!

1) “Insurance Companies Do Not Grow Rich By Paying Claims” – Torts Class, Law School, Day 1

In every casino and corner store in America a mathematically-challenged public busily places bad bets.

Sucker bets.

Bets they’re almost bound to lose.

Not so insurance companies: their actuaries and executives choose bets with care and caution, wary of fraudsters, adverse odds and sly gamblers.

As “Double Indemnity” opens, wounded, blood-soaked Fred MacMurray, as Walter Neff, veteran insurance salesman, hobbles into the shuttered offices of his employer, Pacific All-Risk, where a lonesome, aged night watchman proffers the first insurance lesson of “Double Indemnity:”

“They wouldn’t ever sell me any [insurance].  They say there’s something loose in my heart.  I say it’s rheumatism.”

Insurers shun bad bets, like good health in old age.

So in 1965 Congress passed Medicare.

2) Fred MacMurray, Vocals & Tenor Sax

Fred MacMurray, “Double Indemnity’s” ever-engaging antihero, began his entertainment career as saxophonist and “boy singer” for Gus Arnheim and his Coconut Grove Orchestra, whose featured vocalist was none other than Bing Crosby.

Catch Fred, circa 1929:

MacMurray’s mellifluous voice and warm tone carried over into his more successful stint as light comic film actor, alongside such greats as Bing’s soon-to-be-“Road Picture” partner, Bob Hope.

So it was typical daring for Billy Wilder to cast MacMurray against type as a glad-handing insurance salesman turned all-too-eager dupe and accomplice of a femme fatale, a role MacMurray at first resisted but later admitted was his finest, enshrining him as an eternal icon of film noir.

3) Barbara Stanwyck, Brooklyn Orphan

Like Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, one of classic Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, initially resisted Billy Wilder’s invitation to portray Phyllis Dietrichson, murderous private duty nurse in plush early retirement, scheming to eliminate her cranky husband in an insurance scam, after first disposing of her previous sickly charge, his late wife.

Wilder bluntly asked wary Stanwyck : “Are you an actress or a mouse?”  Stanwyck took the challenge and, in a Mona Lisa-worthy close-up, savors her husband’s slow murder, becoming a noir icon herself.

But this was not Stanwyck’s first outing as femme fatale.

Barbara Stanwyck came up hard.

Orphaned at 4, abandoned by her widowed father and raised by siblings, she dropped out of high school and worked odd jobs until becoming a Ziegfield girl at 16.

Stanwyck rose to fame on Broadway, then on to Hollywood where she was featured in tough girl roles culminating in “Baby Face” (1933), starring as an impoverished beauty, cruelly pimped out from age fourteen by a brutal father, whom she watches die in a fire, wearing the same chilling poker face she would don in “Double Indemnity.” 

Under the tutelage of the only man she trusts, an elderly German cobbler who quotes Nietszche, Baby Face hops a freight to New York to ply her erotic skills, rising quickly from beta to alpha males, in a corpse-strewn hike up the corporate ladder. 

When her devoted husband nearly joins her growing list of love-sick suicides she is awkwardly redeemed, cradling him in an ambulance as the movie closes.

This pre-Code Zanuck sizzler, which all but begged the Hayes Code into being, can be viewed complete at the Internet Archive.

Less well-known is another grim pre-code Stanwyck star turn, “Night Nurse” (1931).  Here, in her first portrayal of a fetching RN, she struggles heroically to save two innocent children from medical murder by an unholy trio, including Clark Gable as a sociopathic chauffeur, eying the youngsters’ trust fund.

Stanwyck’s performance is strong but the film forgettable.

Like Mae West, when Stanwyck is bad, she’s better.

And best when good and bad, as in the hilarious Preston Sturges screwball comedy, “The Lady Eve:”

3) Sociopaths Are Sexy

“A lot of people are wearing signs: ‘Danger!  Danger!  Do Not Touch!’  And people just charge right ahead.”

– Charlie Munger

Disinhibition, the relaxation of inhibitions through elevated mood, licit or illicit pharmacology, or flat-out sociopathy, is exciting, disturbingly attractive, romantic, even erotic.

We are drawn to disinhibited people and they feature prominently in media, politics and entertainment.

Also in sales, entrepreneurship and, notably, crime.

When insurance salesman Walter Neff first encounters his widowed client’s young second wife, Phyllis Dietrichson, wearing nothing but a towel, a tan and an anklet, the sensation-seeking bachelor is entranced.  Walter excitedly overplays his hand: Phyllis slaps it and Walter promptly exits, chastened.

But Phyllis lures Walter back, ostensibly concerned for her husband’s safety working in the California oil fields.  She would have less “worry” if he carried accident insurance, albeit purchased without his knowledge and against his wishes.

Now it is Phyllis who has overplayed her hand, as Walter bridles:

“Who’d you think I was, anyway?  A guy that walks into a good-looking dame’s front parlor and says ‘Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands.  You got one that’s been around too long?  Somebody you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?  Just give me a smile and I’ll help you collect.’  Boy, what a dope you must think I am!”

Like a true sociopath Phyllis blames Walter for the “misunderstanding” and orders him out.

But Phyllis is not done with Walter.  She will offer more than a “smile,” an offer he cannot refuse.

5) Lust Buries Wisdom – Yiddish Maxim

(Hayes Code compliant)

That night Phyllis arrives unannounced at Walter’s bachelor flat.  They share drinks and Walter recounts how murderous would-be merry widows receive their comeuppance from watchful insurers—not disinterested police—and end up in Tehachapi, then a women’s prison.  “Perhaps it was worth it to her,” muses Phyllis.

They retire to the couch and embrace.  A telling time lapse bypasses Code restrictions and Walter enjoys a now-vanishing act, the post-coital cigarette, while Phyllis applies fresh lipstick.

Thus through an unseen erotic epiphany, Walter has, like a prospective cult follower, “snapped,” spellbound by a femme fatale.

And Phyllis arises from the couch wearing a satisfied smile, not of eros but conquest.  For Walter will now do her bidding: an unimpeachable but fraudulent accident insurance policy on Mr. Dietrichson, now a marked man.

6) “Whenever You Can, Count” – Francis Galton

Long before “The Odd Couple’s” Felix Unger and Oscar Madison there were Barton Keyes and Walter Neff.

Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), Pacific All-Risk’s oddly engaging obsessive-compulsive Claims Manager, “a wolf on a phony claim,” is so careful he has never married, having investigated “the dame,” his bride-to-be, and found her to be the bottle-blonde divorcee of a professional pool player.

So childless Keyes sees in his beloved fellow bachelor, Walter, an heir to his throne as Claims Manager.  For Keyes loves Walter like a son, a love that blinds him, like any proud parent, to Walter’s true character.

Though Walter is as intelligent as Keyes believes, unlike Keyes, staunch guardian of Pacific All-Risk, Walter is hedonistic and amoral, and would gladly game the company, biting the hand that has fed him over many bleak years of The Great Depression.

So Walter and Phyllis proceed to tag-team and snooker the eminently dislikable Dietrichson into completing a policy application he thinks covers his autos but actually insures his life: Dietrichson has unknowingly signed his own death warrant.

After two short weeks the ever more gruesome twosome murder Dietrichson and dump his body on railroad tracks, faking a fall from the observation deck of a train, engaging the double indemnity provision of the bogus policy. 

The actuarial unlikelihood of accidental death on a train, promptly upon policy purchase, and without a train accident, puts Keyes on alert.  Not for the suicide which Mr. Norton, the Fredo-esque scion of Pacific All Risk, suggests to an outraged Phyllis, who balks and walks, but for an as yet undiscovered reason, the search for which will soon plague Keyes gastrointestinally.

Norton’s fumbled attempt to void the policy also grants Keyes the priceless opportunity to skewer his befuddled boss with a breathtaking display of forensic wisdom, but also betrays the depths of Keyes’ narcissistic overconfidence that will yet undo him:

(Nota bene: foolish Norton is later redeemed, see #10 below.)

7) “Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted” – attributed to Albert Einstein

Keyes knows the odds are too long, the fact pattern too bizarre to be true: “Something has been worked on us.”  His troubled gut finally intuits “Murder!  And murders don’t come any neater!

With an accomplice.  But Keyes’ blind spot for Walter, his unshakeable trust in his metaphorical son, persistently stalls his progress in locating “the somebody else.”

Mistakes are borne of blind spots: eliminate blind spots and eliminate mistakes.

Keyes will only gain an unobstructed view of the Dietrichson claim as his beloved Walter lies dying before him.  But Keyes’ narcissism—“Walter, I’m a very great man!”—bars Keyes, even at movie’s climax, from acknowledging poor judgment: “You can’t figure them all, Walter.”

8)  “The Police Are Boring.” – Alfred Hitchcock

As with Snyder and Gray, in real life solid police work would swiftly conclude Dietrichson was strangled in a struggle; any contusions from the “fall” onto the tracks clearly post-mortem.  But that is not the boring story Wilder wishes to tell.

Likewise the cinematic murder strains credibility: Dietrichson would surely spot or sense physically formidable Neff hiding behind the “death seat.”  Even if, arguendo, Dietrichson were totally preoccupied with his alumni meeting, as a former college football guard, he would doubtless have fought longer and harder for his life.  

Walter, no made-man a la Peter Clemenza, murders too facilely to be true.  Indeed, amateurs Snyder and Gray had a long and terrible time murdering poor Albert.

But like a trained magician, Wilder turns our attention away from the ghoulish event to Walter’s “lovely assistant:” Phyllis, in full-face close-up, as she savors revenge, newfound freedom and a payday: $100,000 tax-free, two million dollars in today’s money.

Thus “Double Indemnity” never challenges the true purpose of the Hayes Code: to shutter nascent cinema’s school for scoundrels.

And, to be sure, Wilder keeps Hitchcock’s “boring” police from mucking up the plot.  As Keyes, past master of incentive-based fraud, assures, “They’re satisfied.  It’s not their dough.”

9) Obsessives Repel as Sociopaths Attract

Movie and TV obsessive-compulsives, like Barton Keyes and Felix Unger, rise to lovability through clever writing and bravura performance: Edward G. Robinson and Tony Randall are a joy to behold.

But real-life obsessive-compulsives are typically off-putting: demanding and sometimes maddeningly self-obsessed.  With no insight into their behavior they can be imperious and self-justifying.  As with the Algonquinesque critic obsessed with beautiful Gene Tierney, star of “Laura” (1944).

Conscientiousness, like intelligence, often yields life success, but obsessiveness, with its profound loss of perspective—not seeing the forest for the trees—may delimit success, prevent or, worse, destroy it.

10) Three Blind Spots: Love, Pride and Prejudice

“The greatest lesson in life to learn is that fools are right sometimes.”—Winston Churchill

“No man is wise at all times or without his blind side.”—Erasmus

In true noir fashion the most grievously harmed in “Double Indemnity” are not the wronged dead but the pained living, bearing the never-healing wounds of misencounters with the bad and beautiful.

In “Double Indemnity” there is none so traumatized as little Lola Dietrichson, only child twice orphaned, who still loves would-be patsy, Italian-American Nino Zachetti, whom her parents’ murderer, Phyllis, is grooming to take the fall.  Or worse yet, commit the passion-killing of Lola, eliminating a dangerous witness.

Lola is so undone by grief she confesses to Walter, whom she so innocently trusts, that she believes Nino and Phyllis murdered her father.  Her crie de coeur is unforgettable: “I still love him!”

Neff, for his part, is grateful to see clouds of suspicion gathering around this born suspect, hot-headed child of immigrants, easily rigged for the part.

Yet for all her innocence and blindness it is Lola who unlocks the Dietrichson case for us as she reveals to a stunned Neff that Phyllis is, in reality, a serial killer.  (Indeed, in the original novella, Nurse Phyllis has murdered-for-hire disabled children in a clinic owned and operated by Nino’s physician father, destroying the elder Zachetti’s good name and reputation.)

And for all his bluster and stupidity it is Norton whose highly practical proposal to have Walter investigated is thwarted by ever-faithful Keyes.  Foolish Norton would have “busted” the Dietrichson case “wide open” but for Keyes’ blind spot for Neff.

In scenes scripted and shot but wisely deleted from the final film, a grieving Keyes attends Walter’s execution in San Quentin’s gas chamber.

As described in the script, the movie closes as Keyes leaves the infamous prison “a forlorn and lonely man.”

For not unlike the lord he imagined himself to be, Keyes must endure the cruel sacrifice of his one beloved son.