Right there at the beginning of American film noir, Billy Wilder already saw it as nothing much more than a machine. Double Indemnity, released when Wilder was 38, doesn’t really try to make us care about its protagonists, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Hell, the film itself hardly cares about them. We learn the score from the get-go, when Walter recites his confession into a Dictaphone: “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.”
So much for last-act revelations. The twists in Double Indemnity, adapted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler from James M. Cain’s novella, have more to do with the tangled-web convulsions familiar to noir fans. Walter and Phyllis plot to kill her husband (Tom Powers). Walter knows that if the husband has an accidental-death insurance policy with a double-indemnity clause, Phyllis (and, by extension, Walter) stands to get some serious coin. So the film plays out as a sort of how-to manual: here’s how to get a guy to sign on for such a policy without his knowledge; here’s how to stage his death so it looks like he fell from a train, which pays off even more; here’s how to set up plausible-deniability alibis; here’s how the whole rotten thing falls apart.
Wilder sets all this up from a distance. He has no respect or empathy for the couple, and I don’t think he’s just trying on a moralistic stance to get around the Hays Code. He’s interested in how this machine, once set in motion, won’t stop until, as Phyllis puts it, it arrives at the cemetery — “straight down the line.” Wilder and cinematographer John F. Seitz constantly telegraph Walter’s already-telegraphed fate by bathing him in Venetian-blinds shadows; but, whether or not Walter actually sees the inside of a jail cell, he’s doomed. He’s hooked into this thing, and, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, the impetus doesn’t seem to be lust or desperation so much as the intellectual challenge of gaming the system. Walter’s superior, claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in a wonderful rat-a-tat performance), prides himself on spotting phony claims; it’s as if Walter felt bound to hoodwink Barton, thereby proving himself the sharper tack in the office.
Another element is introduced: the husband’s daughter from his previous marriage, Lola (Jean Heather), who doesn’t trust Phyllis farther than she can throw her, and who is involved with a temperamental med student (Byron Barr) her father doesn’t care for. Lola may be smarter than anyone, and although her scenes at first seem superfluous, her presence in the plot eventually confirms that Phyllis is even more rotten than Walter or we could have suspected. (Lola also helps keep the movie from being misogynist, just as Barton saves it from being misanthropic; in the film’s universe, there are good people, but we just happen to spend most of our time with two bad ones.)
Wilder would take noir about as far as it could go six years later in Sunset Boulevard, a twisted tale narrated by a literal corpse, not the figurative one seen here. Wilder was a tough, dark cookie — remember he kicked off his zany crossdressing farce Some Like It Hot with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and it wasn’t played for laughs, either. Coming after a French drama, a Ginger Rogers comedy, and a war picture, Double Indemnity was probably the first Billy Wilder film as we understand Billy Wilder films — smooth, stylized, a little hands-off, showing a bemused familiarity with, to pervert Lincoln, the better devils of our nature.
Not bad for a film that almost wasn’t made because, according to Joseph Breen at the Hays Office, “The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater.” It also made it, in my judgment, the perfect material for Wilder to remake himself as Hollywood’s dark jester for decades.