• Onalee McGraw

Double Indemnity: Classic Realism in "Code-Sealed" Hollywood

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

The Definitive Film Noir about Love Gone Wrong

Double Indemnity is famous for becoming the film that defined the Film Noir genre. In Film Noir the choices of the characters almost invariably cause love and other things to go wrong. Among the great films of the 1940s; the artistic excellence of this film is indisputable. New generations have an opportunity to map the geography of good and evil in the human condition.

The film setting is Los Angeles in 1938. The story is told in the first person through a series of flashbacks.

It begins with Fred MacMurray’s character, Walter Neff, dictating his account of the murder he has committed with Phyllis Dietrichson. As he puts it,“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?”

Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis is a brilliant portrait of an evil woman determined to get what she wants.

And nobody's pulling out. We went into it together, and we're coming out at the end together. It's straight down the line for both of us, remember?”

Major scenes in Double Indemnity were filmed in this Southern California Spanish stucco residence that still stands today.

Billy Wilder found the perfect small supermarket location in Los Angeles that would be the scene of all the covert meetings between the two conspirators.

The supermarket scenes created a key cinematic element that defined Film Noir: evil can be present in the most ordinary places where “the business of life” is conducted.

Dialogue, Direction and Performance in Double Indemnity

What distinguishes Double Indemnity from other celebrated “top of the list” films of Hollywood’s Golden Age is that this film illustrates the crucial importance of collaboration in film-making. Had this film followed the original pulp fiction story-line, the characters we see would be lacking in the depth and humanity that screenwriter Raymond Chandler wove into them. Classic movie buffs know of Chandler’s great cultural impact on storytelling in the 1940s. He created detective heroes like Sam Spade, whom Humphrey Bogart brought to life in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

How the Production Code Lent Moral Sensibility to a Work of Pulp Fiction

In the original novel James M. Cain had created sleazy characters that started badly and ended badly. In his introduction to the film on Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne related how it took eight years for a script from the James M. Cain story to get the go-ahead for the production. Osborne also points out that neither Barbara Stanwyck nor Fred MacMurray were anxious to play the unsavory lead characters. In the novel, Phyllis is criminally insane, with multiple murders to her credit. The guiding principles of the Production Code emphasized the importance of film characters using their free-will to make moral choices. The Production Code office insisted to Paramount that the character of Phyllis must be changed from a sociopath to a person who is at least minimally capable of free choice. Chandler and Wilder were able to accomplish through their script the humanizing of Barbara Stanwyck’s character by giving her a last minute, if somewhat implausible, “change of heart” in the film’s final scenes.

Fred MacMurray’s performance as Walter Neff demonstrates how the Code, the script and his own talent all played a role in transforming a naturalistic work of pulp fiction into a masterpiece of classic realism. The crucial moral choices that Walter must make for his redemption take place in the scene when he prevents another man from being set-up for the crimes he has committed. Even though Walter doesn’t like the guy, he makes sure he is not around to be arrested.

“Tough, aren't you? Take the nickel. Take it and call her. She wants you to… She's in love with you. Always has been. Don't ask me why…Now beat it.”

Film art unites us in shared sensory experience. Along with the story’s original author, James M. Cain, we are delighted with the screen translation of his work. Paying tribute to Fred MacMurray's performance, Cain said:

"The way you found tragedy in his shallow, common-place, smart-cracking skull will remain with me for a long time, and indeed, reinforce an aesthetic viewpoint many quarrel with; for if I have any gift, it is to take such people and show that they can suffer as profoundly as anybody else. If harkening to clamor, I ever weaken and begin to pretty my characters up; I shall remember your Walter and be fortified."

We also pay tribute to the brilliance of Raymond Chandler's script and the Production Code Office that would have insisted on Walter Neff having a moral sense, however flawed.

Basic Elements of Classic Film Noir Created in Double Indemnity

The narrative of the screenplay is celebrated for its brilliance by film critics across the decades. The genius of the script lies in the simultaneous depiction of Walter’s subjective state of mind and his account of the evil actions he has committed with Phyllis. This remarkable cinematic achievement is viewed by the audience as it witnesses Walter revealing his very soul to his colleague and close friend, Keyes through a Dictaphone. As Robert Osborne related in his introduction to the film, Edward G. Robinson wisely accepted this supporting role and it turned out to be one of his most celebrated performances.

Billy Wilder brilliantly captures the moment when Walter finally accepts the consequences of his actions. Numerous times in the film, Walter lights Keyes’ cigar. In this final scene, Keyes lights his fallen friend’s cigarette.

Culture and society may change but what it means to be a human person does not change. The lasting appeal of great classic cinema lies in its enduring power to reach the human soul. Cinematic art touches us deeply when, in the words of Edward G. Robinson, the drama is powerful enough for the audience and the performers to be “playing together.” As Robinson explains in his autobiography, All My Yesterdays,

The audience must participate in the play to bring about the true art.”

Edward G. Robinson’s description of the mysterious power of visual art to enter the human soul was confirmed to me in a Southern California video rental store several years ago. The store specialized in classic film and I was stunned at the high level of offerings. I asked the young manager the question, "What do you think is the main difference between classic and contemporary films?" Without hesitation he answered straight from his heart, “With classic films, the audience becomes participants in the drama. With the newer films we are mostly observers being entertained.”

He was on to something profound regarding our human nature and our capacity to perceive realities through our senses. The essential nature of dramatic art is to provide transport through images and dialogue to another world where we encounter realities and truths that we bring back with us to the real world.

From the halls of the universities, the media and the corporate world the philosophy of life often called Expressive Individualism dominates our cultural and political landscape. In this current world, the indisputable moral authority that classic films carry as an art form should be considered as a significant source of evangelization, education and formation by those who affirm the classical worldview of human nature.

"The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us."

- Cardinal John Henry Newman

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