"I killed him for money, and for a woman. Well, I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"
— Walter Neff
A 1944 Film Noir
, directed by Billy Wilder
, written by him and Raymond Chandler
, adapted from James M. Cain
's earlier novel of the same title. Considered by many to be the
definitive Film Noir
, and popularizer of many of its tropes.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a successful but bored insurance salesman who encounters Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck
) when he comes to her house to discuss automobile insurance. After the two have traded some innuendo-laden banter, Phyllis reveals that her marriage is not a particularly happy one and the pair end up conspiring to trick her husband into taking out an accident insurance policy — and ensure that he then meets a tragic "accidental" end.
Neff, who has eleven years' experience in the insurance business, believes that he has the brains to pull off The Perfect Crime
. The only obstacle is his colleague and friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson
), the brilliant claims manager who can spot a phony insurance claim a mile away.
The story is told in flashback and narrated by Neff, who is making a confession into his office Dictaphone
Provides examples of:
- Adaptation Distillation: Mildly. The film hews very close to the book for the most part (though it eliminates some revelations about Phyllis), but the ending is both spatially and temporally more compact. Its main differences are in the dialogue (Chandler believed Cain's dialogue wouldn't translate well to the screen) and the use of the Framing Device of Neff recounting the story into the dictaphone.
- Adaptational Heroism: Sort of. Basically, it was Chandler's idea to make Keyes the lovably passionate Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist he is in the film. He doesn't have nearly as much characterization in the book.
- Adaptation Name Change: The novel's Walter Huff becomes Walter Neff in the film, for some reason. Mr. and Mrs. Dietrichson were Mr. and Mrs. Nordlinger in the novel; the latter choice was specifically because Chandler and Wilder thought that Nordlinger was too silly a name for such a serious story.
- Anti-Hero: Walter Neff.
- Apocalyptic Log: Neff's Dictaphone recording, and his diary entries in the original novel.
- Asshole Victim:
- Played with Mr. Dietrichson. While certainly loudmouthed and obnoxious, it's hinted that a great deal of what Phyllis tells Neff about him is exaggerated or made up in order to get him to go along with her plan.
- Also Phyllis herself.
- Battleaxe Nurse: Three guesses on who was the nurse taking care of the late first Mrs. Dietrichson.
- Better to Die Than Be Killed: Walter and Phyllis commit suicide at the end of the book, rather than face prison and execution for their crime.
- Black and Grey Morality: The one pure character (Dietrichson's daughter) seems to be the story's The Woobie.
- Black Widow: Phyllis, a poster girl.
- Blondes Are Evil: Phyllis.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Nino.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Phyllis. Dear God, Phyllis.
- Cigar Chomper: Keyes
- Contrived Coincidence: Dietrichson just so happening to injure his leg (and subsequently failing to file a claim under the insurance policy he didn't know he had) is what leads to Keyes Spotting the Thread.
- Creator Cameo: The film's co-screenwriter, Raymond Chandler, appears briefly in one scene.
- Danger Takes a Backseat: Justified in that Phyllis, the driver, is part of the murder plot and Walter is hiding back there to kill the passenger.
- Deadly Hug: How Phyllis meets her end.
- Dead Person Impersonation: Used as part of the murder scheme.
- Deadpan Snarker: Neff and Keyes both do plenty of snarking.
- Double Entendre: Walter and Phyllis exchange many of these.
- Downer Ending: Obviously.
- Establishing Character Moment: Keyes' introductory scene, in which he tears apart a guy trying to claim insurance on his truck by revealing that the man had set fire to it himself. The scene is irrelevant to the plot, but it serves to thoroughly introduce Keyes, his methods, his quirks, and his relationship to Neff
- Femme Fatale: Literally; Phyllis not only kills her husband and his first wife, but shoots Walter.
- Framing Device: Neff's recounting of the story into the dictaphone.
- Gory Discretion Shot: When Walter kills Phyllis, he does so in a way that avoids showing any blood (with his back to the camera).
- Also, the camera pans to Phyllis's face while Neff kills Dietrichson.
- Grand Staircase Entrance: Our first look at Phyllis, wearing nothing but a towel.
- Gut Feeling: Keyes' "little man" who alerts him to any attempted Insurance Fraud.
- Have You Told Anyone Else?: Neff to Lola; an unusual case in that the character who knows something is not immediately killed for it.
- Heel Realization: Walter has one at the end of the film that prompts him to turn himself in.
Phyllis: Because you don't want the money anymore even though you could have it because she's made you feel like a heel all of a sudden?
- Hero Antagonist: Arguably Keyes, depending on whether you see him as more of a force for Lawful Good or Lawful Neutral.
- How Much Did You Hear?: Neff to Keyes when the latter walks in on his confession at the end.
- How We Got Here:The narrator gets shot prior to the movie's start, and retells everything before dying. In other words, he slowly bleeds to death for the whole movie, not kicking it until the end. The book begins with him on a ship, also suffering from a gunshot wound, shortly before his Suicide Pact with Phyllis.
- Insurance Fraud: The plot of the film revolves around Phyllis' attempt to arrange her husband's murder and collect his insurance money, which pays double in the event of accidental death (i.e. double indemnity).
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Barton Keyes (according to Neff, anyway).
- Lady Macbeth: Phyllis is it not to her husband but to Walter.
- Left the Background Music On: During a dramatic scene, equally dramatic music is played. It is assumed that this is not diegetic, until Neff closes a window and the music cuts off.
- Long List: Keyes' list of suicide methods.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: A necessary component of the Insurance Fraud scheme.
- Mercy Lead: Subverted at the end, when Neff asks Keyes for a couple of hours to get away and Keyes points out, quite rightly, that with that bullet wound he won't get very far ("You'll never make the border, you'll never even make the elevator.")
- Morality Pet: Lola, to Walter.
- Murder the Hypotenuse
- My Car Hates Me: One of the most tense scenes is when Walter and Phyllis attempt to make a getaway from the murder scene ... and the car stalls. Apparently this wasn't in the script but left in anyway because it works so well.
- Neck Snap: How Walter kills Dietrichson.
- Never Suicide: Averted - this is Norton's initial theory about Dietrichson's death. Keyes promptly points out the impracticality of the method in question for deliberately killing oneself.
- Never Tell Me the Odds: Keyes is fond of quoting statistics. After all, it's his job.
- Outlaw Couple
- Pet the Dog: Walter's friendliness to Nino and Lola.
- Private Eye Monologue
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Subverted. Neff is sure that Keyes is going to hit him with one of these, full of "twenty-dollar words," but Keyes just looks at him with his eyes full of sorrow and betrayal and says:
"Walter, you're all washed up."
- Revised Ending: One of the main areas in which the film differs from the book.
- Running Gag: Keyes ends all his conversations by pulling out a cigar and patting all his pockets for a light. He never has one at hand, so Neff has to come to his rescue with a quickly-lit match. In the last scene, their roles are reversed: Neff, dying from his bullet wound, is too weak to light a match for his own cigarette; Keyes has to light it for him.
- Schmuck Bait: The titular Double Indemnity clauses are clearly described as this by Walter. They go for it anyway.
- Seriously Scruffy: Keyes, with his rolled up sleeves, overflowing pockets and his tie worn over his waistcoat is shorthand for how obsessive and overworked he is.
- Shout-Out: Phyllis Dietrichson's surname is most likely a Shout-Out to classic femme fatale actress Marlene Dietrich.
- "Shut Up" Kiss
Phyllis: We're not the same anymore. We did it so we could be together but instead of that it's pulling us apart, isn't it, Walter?
Walter: What are you talking about?
Phyllis: You don't really care whether we see each other or not!
Walter: Shut up, baby. [kisses her]
- Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Keyes.
- Title Drop: As Neff explains the clause in accident insurance policies that would result in even more money, if it's "the kind that almost never happens": "Little thing called 'double indemnity'...."
- The Vamp: Phyllis Dietrichson.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Based on the 1927 Snyder-Gray murder, which also inspired Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice
- Villain Protagonist: Neff may be a sap who falls prey to Phyllis' manipulation; but he's also a murderer.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Keyes and Neff have shades of this... and sometimes a bit more than this.
Keyes: Now that's enough out of you, Walter. Now get outta here before I throw my desk at you.