The following is my first of two entries in the second annual “Billy Wilder Blogathon,” being hosted on June 22, 2015 by the blogs Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Click on the banner above, and read blogs devoted to Wilder’s huge catalog of film, TV, and written work!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
“Nobody knows anything.”
Screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote this epigram to summarize the Hollywood bigwigs who pretend they have the formula for box-office success when in fact they’re just fumbling around and hoping for the next big hit. But Goldman could just as easily have been describing the characters in Billy Wilder’s film-noir classic Double Indemnity.
Ostensibly, the story of Double Indemnity is that an unhappy married woman uses her wiles to con an insurance salesman into helping her kill her husband, make it look like an accident, and collect on the husband’s insurance policy. But the subtext of this movie is how its main characters puff their chests with pride at the thought that they are somehow smarter than the mere mortals with whom they must deal on a daily basis.
All of the characters speak in highly stylized dialogue (adapted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler from James M. Cain’s original novel) in an effort to show how superior they are. Yet in the end, it is exposed as a sad facade, symbolized by once-smug Walter Neff literally bleeding his confession into cylinder after cylinder of a cold, mechanical office dictaphone.
Let’s explore each of the characters and their varying levels of self-delusion.
Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) – Phyllis’ very aura oozes cheapness, from her platinum blonde wig to her showy ankle bracelet. Paradoxically, it is that very cheapness that she uses to lure in an insurance salesman with her plan to get rid of her older, layabout husband, of whom she has grown very tired.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) – An insurance salesman of 11 years, and smooth with a sales pitch. When he first meets Phyllis, he intends only to remind her husband that his automobile insurance policy is up for renewal. But Phyllis starts thinking out loud and, after trading notes with Neff, she realizes that she could conceivably have her husband sign up for a policy of which he was not aware, and then bump him off on the basis of the injury covered by the policy.
At first, Neff wants nothing to do with the scheme, but he is so taken in by Phyllis’ allure that he convinces himself that he has the insider know-how to help Phyllis pull off the plan.
Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) – Neff’s co-worker at the insurance office, and a top-notch claims adjuster. After a quarter-century on the job, Keyes can instantly spot a phony claim with the help of his “little man” — a sort of conscience-in-reverse that ties his stomach in knots until he resolves the bogus claim.
When Phyllis and Walter murder Phyllis’ husband, and then Phyllis submits the claim, Keyes is at first convinced by Phyllis’ sorrowful-widow routine. But soon enough, his “little man” takes over, Keyes concludes that Phyllis is working a scam with a partner, and he smugly assumes that the duo will have to reveal themselves sooner or later.
Lola Dietrichson (Jean Heather) – The daughter of Mr. Dietrichson, but not of Phyllis. Phyllis was Mr. Dietrichson’s second wife. Lola’s mother also died under mysterious circumstances — when Phyllis was her nurse. And before Mrs. Dietrichson died, Lola happened to see Phyllis trying on a black widow’s cap, as though she was practicing for Mrs. Dietrichson’s funeral.
Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) – Lola’s hot-headed boyfriend, whom Lola finds out has been seeing Phyllis behind her and Neff’s backs. In the movie’s climax, Neff plans to set things up so that Neff will kill Phyllis and have Nino framed for the murder.
Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) – Well, it’s obvious from the get-go that this guy doesn’t know diddly-squat.
Other than Mr. Dietrichson, it turns out that all of the key characters know just enough to have their respective rugs pulled out from under them. Let’s review their ultimate outcomes.
Phyllis – She thought all she had to do was turn on her cheap charm to get anything she wanted. When Neff started getting cold feet after the murder, Phyllis could feel him slipping away, so she cuckolded two people for the price of one by shtupping Nino. It didn’t much help her in the end.
Neff – Like Jiminy Cricket serving as the conscience of Pinocchio, Barton Keyes was the voice inside Neff’s head that wouldn’t stop talking. In the end, Keyes’ assessment of Neff (in a different context) was succinct and accurate: “You’re not smarter [than your peers], Walter — you’re just a little taller.”
Keyes – In the film’s final scene, Neff’s only small smidgeon of satisfaction is that, for all of Keyes’ brilliant deductions, he never recognized that the culprit he was looking for was right across the desk from him. (“Closer than that,” Keyes tells Neff sorrowfully.)
Lola – The youngest of the bunch was wiser than her elders. She just didn’t have quite enough information to save her parents’ lives.
Nino – The smug punk never realized how close he got to an undue prison term. He’ll probably dump Lola for some older broad again.
Countless film historians have (quite rightfully) cited Wilder’s use of lighting, shadows, and unusual camera angles to heighten the story’s suspense and portend the characters’ fates. But Wilder knew that the dialogue was just as important an element of the story as the visuals. (Wilder scoffed when Raymond Chandler was initially left to write on his own for a week and came back with 80 pages of “useless camera instruction.”)
Talk is important to these characters. It’s as if it was their barrier, their smokescreen separating them from the rest of the world. But in the end, the smoke dissipates, and they still have to suffer the consequences of their sordid actions.
(If you enjoyed reading this, I hope you’ll click here to read my second “Wilder Blogathon” entry, about the movie that Wilder almost made with the Marx Brothers.)