This truly is a wonderful film that I can’t recommend highly enough. It is the prototypical Film noir, and many film historians rate it among the greatest of all Film noir. For storytelling and screenwriting aficionados this is an expertly crafted story, the development of which shows that the best stories in film are told in four acts rather than three. Double Indemnity has perhaps the greatest of all femme fatales in Phyllis Dietrichson, played brilliantly in an Oscar-nominated performance by Barbara Stanwyck. Fred MacMurray played one of his signature roles as the doomed insurance salesman Walter Neff, and Edward G. Robinson added to the pantheon of his great roles by playing the tenacious claims adjuster Barton Keyes. This is a story about an almost-perfect murder and is filled with drama so that you find yourself actually rooting for the murderers to get away with it. However, watching the plan unravel is incredibly entertaining, and the creation of the story is textbook storytelling and screenwriting. Double Indemnity is a film buff’s film that anyone can appreciate.
Why it’s essential
As great as the performances of the actors are in this, the screenplay for Double Indemnity would certainly rank in my personal top ten screenplays of all time. It’s as close to a perfect screenplay as I think you can get with a solid structure, a perfect Hero’s Journey, and enough symbolism and subtext to fill two films. Director Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler developed a story where just enough is revealed to us at just the right moments. We find out what’s really happening as Walter does. We watch as Walter puts the pieces together and we root for him as he tries in vain to save himself. An interesting motif that they used in this film, and one that Wilder would use to similar effect a few years later in Sunset Boulevard was to give away the ending right at the beginning of the story. A haggard-looking Walter walks into the building of the insurance company he works for and makes his way to an office. He starts talking into a recording device and mentions he’s talking to Keyes and that this might be a confession. He guesses that Keyes is probably wondering why he did it. “I killed him for money, for a woman. I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.” We’re less then seven minutes into the film when he says that, and then the rest of the film is told in flashback with Walter narrating. The point is that we know right from the beginning that he doesn’t get away with it. We know right from the beginning that the hero is not going to win and yet we’re still compelled to watch it all happen, because the story ends up not being about pulling off the plan but how it unraveled.
I think the reason that we’re compelled to continue watching is that Wilder and Chandler did a superb job of building the drama and the relationships in the story that prohibited us from looking away. Not only is the relationship between Walter and Phyllis dripping with unmentioned sexual tension, but the relationship between Walter and Keyes goes way beyond the typical mentor/protege relationship. It really is almost a paternal bond between the two of them. There are even a couple of times after Keyes has gone on a rant where Walter quips, “I love you, too.” Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment comes at the very end of the film when Walter tells Keyes that he couldn’t see what was going on because Walter was too close to him, right across the desk, as matter of fact, to which Keyes replies, “Closer than that, Walter.”
That’s another great thing about this film is that it’s loaded with contradictions. Walter is an anti-hero and the protagonist. And yet, he starts the story out as an honest salesman, pointing out to Phyllis that he never criticizes the merchandise of another company. Keyes, the only honest man in this whole picture, is the antagonist for most of the film, and the one who mostly stands in the way of Walter getting what he wants. Phyllis, the femme fatale of the picture, starts out as a sympathetic character, but we eventually come to realize that she’s manipulating everyone. The husband that she want’s killed, while not terribly sympathetic, isn’t a bad person at all. We have no reason to root for him to die, other than his death is the locomotion that propels the story forward. The only truly good character is Lola, Deitrichson’s daughter, and her boyfriend, Nino Zachetti, comes off as being a huge jerk until the last moment he’s on screen. The good characters are bad, and the bad ones are good, so that we find ourselves actually rooting for murderers and connivers and against honesty and integrity.
All of this is possible, of course, because of the excellent structure, the foundation if you will, that the story is built upon. It is clearly broken up in to four acts with the adventure beginning and moving from the first act to the second when Walter puts the plan in motion to kill Dietrichson. The stakes are raised half way through the film when Walter goes through with killing Dietrichson. The crisis occurs at between Acts 3 and 4 when Walter finds out from Keyes that Keyes knows it’s murder and that Phyllis had a male accomplice. This structure is hung on the skeleton of a Hero’s Journey that hits all of the right notes. I can’t emphasize enough how the strength of the story’s structure along with the Hero’s Journey contribute to the overall quality of this film. By effectively laying that foundation, Wilder and Chandler opened up opportunities for themselves to create scenes that were loaded with drama, wit, humor, and pathos that engaged and entertained the audience at a level that would have been impossible without that foundation and structure.
Walter’s Ordinary World is that of a door-to-door insurance salesman. He stops at the home of a customer named Dietrichson to check on a renewal. Mr. Dietrichson isn’t home, but his wife Phyllis is. There is some initial flirting, and one of the great subtext conversations of all time (Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour. Walter: How fast was I going, Officer? Phyllis: I’d say about 90.) In the next scene we meet the mentor, Keyes, the claims adjuster for the company Walter works for. We learn right away that he’s very good at his job and can see a scam coming from a mile away. He refers to his “little man” that lives inside his chest and gives him heartburn every time someone tries to get a phony claim by him. Then a couple of scenes later, Phyllis provides Walter with his Call to Adventure by asking for an Accident Insurance policy to be taken out on her husband without him knowing about it. Seeing what Phyllis wants to do, Walter Refuses the Call and leaves the house. Phyllis comes to see him later that night, and the both profess to be crazy about each other. As they sit on the couch, Walter Crosses the First Threshold by coming up with an idea to kill Dietrichson. That’s the end of Act 1.
Act 2A begins with the Tests, Allies and Enemies section of the Hero’s Journey, and in it we see Walter and Phyllis meticulously plan the murder and the cover-up, as well as getting Dietrichson to unknowingly sign the fateful insurance policy with the double indemnity clause that pays double for dying on a train. That’s when Walter tells Phyllis that her husband’s pending trip to Palo Alto needs to be taken on the train. That’s also where we meet Dietrichson for the first time, as well as his daughter Lola and her boyfriend Zachetti. All of these characters will have serious impacts on the rest of the story moving forward. The biggest test occurs when Phyllis informs Walter that her husband broke his leg, so he won’t be going on the trip, and Walter has to press he to make him go. The Approach shows the final preparations that put the plan in motion. Walter takes us step by step through his movements on that fateful night all the way until he gets to the Dietrichsons’ house and hides in the back seat of their car. The Ordeal is the actual murder of Dietrichson at the hands of Walter, in what is one of the most interesting murder scenes ever shot. Due to the constraints of the Production Code, Wilder couldn’t show the actual murder, so instead he focused the camera on Phyllis and her very subtle reaction to the killing. It’s disturbing, and it lets us into Phyllis’ head and gives us a sense of her frame of mind moving forward. The Ordeal continues as Walter takes Dietrichson’s place on the train, and has to jump off at the point where they’ll leave Dietrichson’s body on the tracks. Unfortunately a man named Jackson is sitting on the observation deck, and Walter has to come up with a ruse to get rid of him before he can jump off.
That’s the end of Act 2A. Up to that point the story had been about killing Dietrichson. Well, now Dietrichson is dead, and the focus and the direction of the story shift to getting the insurance money.
Act 2B begins with the Reward, and that section of the script involves the inquiry in which Norton, the president of the insurance company calls Phyllis in and tells her that the company believes that her husband committed suicide, and he offers her a settlement. Pretending to be beside herself with grief, Phyllis berates Norton and storms out. That’s when Keyes appears to save the day for Walter when he further berates Norton by telling him that in all of the actuary tables they have there is no mention of anyone attempting suicide by jumping from a slow moving train, and they’re going to have to pay through the nose. It’s one of the great monologues in cinema, and can be viewed here. That gets Walter feeling good about himself, until The Road Back happens, and Keyes starts to become suspicious when he realizes that Dietrichson never put in an insurance claim in for his broken leg. The more he digs, the more the signs point to Phyllis and the more he realizes that someone else is involved as well, although he doesn’t suspect Walter. What’s worse for Walter is that Lola comes to see him and gives him some information that convinces him that Lola suspects Phyllis killed her father. Walter then tries to convince Phyllis that it’s over and it’s not going to work out, but Phyllis is having none of it. “Straight down the line” she says to him.
That’s the end of Act 2B. The focus of the story at that point shifts from being about getting the insurance money to keep from getting caught.
Act 3 starts out with the Resurrection, and that section in Double Indemnity shows the old Walter become resurrected. The Walter who lived on the right side of the law, the Walter who was an honest salesman. That Walter returns as he tries to make amends. However, he realizes that it’s going to take killing Phyllis and framing Zachetti in order to completely get off the hook. But after Lola says that she still loves Zachetti, it becomes clear to Walter what he has to do. He confronts Phyllis, who shoots him, though not fatally, and something is preventing her from finishing him off. He then shoots her, and he sees Zachetti coming up the drive way. Knowing the police are on the way, he tells Zachetti to go to Lola, because she loves him and can make him happy. Once everything is done, we go back to Walter in the present time, and Keyes has arrived and is listening in. The Return with the Elixir has Walter trying to escape, but he’s too weak from the gun shot. Keyes tells him he’s all washed up, and Walter’s days as a free man are now over.
That’s the story of Double Indemnity in four acts. Not only is the structure of this story close to perfect, but the details with which its told are also spot on. Wilder and Chandler did a great job of giving Walter challenges, and of revealing information to him and to the audience at just the right intervals in order to maximize their dramatic effect. What we’re left with is a film that is more than satisfying. It’s pure entertainment, and it exemplifies what dramatic film making can be. In fact, film makers of all levels, be they writers, directors, or especially development executives, could learn a thing or two about how well this story is crafted and how dramatic it is. This is a timeless story that should be seen by anyone who loves great film making.