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Film / Double Indemnity

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"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 narrated in flashback by Neff, who is making a confession into his office Dictaphone.

Provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Keyes says repeatedly that Lola "sounds like she drinks straight from the bottle," just like his actor's most famous role, Rico, is seen doing right before the climax of his own film.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: 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. Walter and Phyllis commit suicide at the end of the book, rather than face prison and/or execution for their crime. In the movie, violent confrontation ensues.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Zig-Zagged. When the film was in pre-production, it was Chandler's idea to make Keyes a lovably-passionate Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist, whereas in the novel, he doesn't have nearly as much characterization.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Walter Neff was Walter Huff in the novel, and Mr. and Mrs. Dietrichson were Mr. and Mrs. Nirdlinger; the latter choice was specifically because Chandler and Wilder thought that Nirdlinger was too silly a name for such a serious story.
  • Affably Evil: Walter is a smooth-talking and charismatic insurance salesman and a very likable and sympathetic protagonist who acts like The Everyman. This makes it easy to forget that he's a murderer who killed an innocent man for "money and a woman" and even attempts to frame an innocent person for his crimes. Though he does call it off at the last minute and has a Heel Realization.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Neff may have been a greedy murderer but his pitiful and tragic demise makes you feel so sorry for him. Heck, you might even feel bad for Phyllis as her conscience/love for Neff catches up to her before she dies.
  • Anti-Hero: Walter Neff.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Neff's Dictaphone recording, and his diary entries in the original novel.
  • Arc Words: "Straight down the line."
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Played with in regards to 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, considering how unpleasant her husband is.
  • Battleaxe Nurse: Three guesses on who the nurse was who took care of the late first Mrs. Dietrichson.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The one pure character (Dietrichson's daughter) seems to be the story's The Woobie.
  • Black Widow: Phyllis is discovered to be this when Neff is told about how she was caught unfazed when her last husband had died in bed before marrying into the Dietrichson family.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Nino, who at first appears to be nothing more than an excuse for Walter to interact with Lola.
  • Chiaroscuro: A few scenes of Phyllis and Neff alone together, such as when Phyllis stays at Walter's apartment and when Walter confronts her in the Dietrichson living room.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Phyllis. Dear God, Phyllis. There is no single accomplice that she doesn't plan to eventually turn on.
  • Cigar Chomper: Keyes has a cigar in his mouth by the end of nearly every scene he is in.
  • 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.
  • A Deadly Affair: Walter and Phyllis plan to kill Mr. Dietrichson and run away together.
  • 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 given that it stars a Villain Protagonist during the height of the Hays Code.
  • 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.
  • Evil Stepmother: Phyllis is revealed to have killed Lola's biological mother and then married herself into the Dietrichson family, later axing off her husband (Lola's father) as well.
  • 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:
    • The camera pans to Phyllis's face while Neff kills Dietrichson.
    • When Walter kills Phyllis, he does so in a way that avoids showing any blood (with his back to the camera). In the novel, he begins to describe how he used one of the husband's crutches to kill the man, then adds "I won't tell you what I did then. But in two seconds he was curled down on the seat with a broken neck, and not a mark on him except a crease right over his nose, from the crosspiece of the crutch."
  • 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 also seems to have one right before Walter kills her.
    • Foreshadowed by Phyllis:
      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: Keyes's role as an antagonist comes from a desire to prevent the company from being defrauded (by murder), which, while perhaps not heroic, certainly positions him above Neff.
  • 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).
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Mr. Norton, Neff and Keyes' boss, might be a prick who has never so much as glanced at an actuarial chart in his life, but he is correct in assuming something is fishy about Dietrichson's death. He is also the first to suspect Walter of being involved with his death.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Barton Keyes, according to Neff. While we mostly see Keyes as a rather haughty and brash investigator, it is shown that he cares a great deal about Walter and considers him to be a close friend. He personally vouches for him when he is suspected to be involved with the murder and shows a fair deal of sympathy for him at the end.
  • Lady Macbeth: Phyllis is it not to her husband but to Walter.
  • Long List: Keyes' list of suicide methods.
  • Love Epiphany: The only logical explanation as to why Phyllis doesn't kill Walter.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: A necessary component of the Insurance Fraud scheme.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Phyllis, thanks to her amazing ability to go from Vamp to Woobie at a moment's notice, gets Walter to do exactly what she wants, and it's revealed that she has a history of this as well.
  • Married to the Job: Keyes is a bachelor with almost no personal life, and, in fact, this trope applies quite literally to him. His investigative instincts led him to call off his own wedding.
  • Meaningful Echo: "I love you, too." Said jokingly early in the film, and repeated more seriously at the very end.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Not the First Victim: Walter and Phyllis murder Phyllis's husband, apparently to free her from a loveless marriage. And then Lola reveals that Phyllis caused her mother's death to get at her family money.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: Keyes notes on his dictaphone that he has known Walter for many years and that he trusts him completely and that he couldn't possibly be involved with Dietrichson's death, completely unaware that Neff himself is the murderer. Walter later breaks into his office and listens to the recording, looking deeply guilty as he does so.
  • Oh, Crap!: Clearly what's going through Walter's mind when Mr. Jackson shows up outside Keyes' office.
  • Ominous Legal Phrase Title: Based on a policy in a contract where the company agrees to pay more than expected when the death is accidental.
  • One Last Smoke
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Averted. Neff receives a (visually-downplayed) gunshot wound in the shoulder, and apparently dies from it at the end.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: In the final sequence, Keyes's composed and reserved demeanor is quite a jarring contrast to his wildly passionate and supremely confident attitude throughout the film. It really conveys how emotionally crushed he is upon discovering that his best friend and colleague was the murderer all along.
  • Outlaw Couple: Though a subplot is how Walter and Phyllis were barely a couple to begin with, and, out of necessity, how they gradually have to separate after the murder to avoid attracting suspicion.
  • Pet the Dog: Walter's friendliness to Nino and Lola.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: "Goodbye, baby."
  • Private Eye Monologue: Well, actually a Murderer Monologue, but the effect is the same.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Subverted. Neff is sure that Keyes is going to hit him with one of these, full of "two-dollar words," but Keyes just looks at him with his eyes full of sorrow and betrayal and says:
    "'re all washed up."
  • The Remake: A 1973 ABC Made-for-TV Movie directed by Jack Smight, with a script by Steven Bochco that updates the story to the '70s. Richard Crenna stars as Walter Neff, with Samantha Eggar as Phyllis Dietrichson and Lee J. Cobb as Barton Keyes.
  • Revised Ending: An alternate ending was filmed in which Walter is executed at San Quentin, but the director didn't use it because he felt it was anti climatic. The footage is now lost, except for a few still frames.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Neither Walter nor the audience ever finds out what was the nature of Nino's relationship with Phyllis and to what extent he was involved with her plans.
  • 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.
    • The aforementioned lost ending has an even more heart-crushing payoff: after (per his own request) watching Walter's execution, Keyes instinctively starts patting his pockets, only to slowly remember that Walter won't ever be giving him another light.
  • 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 one 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]
  • Spanner in the Works: Two of them, one for each of our... er, heroes. On Walter's side: small-town yokel Jackson is on the train's observation car with him, and while Walter does succeed in baiting him away before "dying", Jackson remembers enough of the encounter to know that he wasn't Dietrichson. On Phyllis' side: her stepdaughter (Dietrichson's blood daughter) Lola has very vivid memories of her Black Widow tendencies, and is ready to spill it all the instant things go to court.
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Keyes.
  • Tricked into Signing: Walter Neff sells Mr. Dietrichson car insurance, then tricks him into signing an accident insurance contract under the pretence that he needs him to sign two copies of the car insurance contract.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: A 1944 film set in 1938.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Phyllis' husband.
  • 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.
    Neff: I love you, too.