I bring you the following remorseless critique of Double Indemnity as an exercise in contrarianism, to gripe because it’s unavailable on Netflix or YouTube, and at the encouragement of SisterCelluloid…
First, let’s get the applause out of the way. I love Barbara Stanwyck and her offbeat good looks and her deadpan voice and how she handles character roles. Edward G. Robinson is in it and he is one of the best actors Hollywood’s ever had. Few things are as entertaining as noir one-liner dialogue and the appellation “baby” (topped only by Sam Spade’s “sweetheart” in my book). The plot is tidy and straightforward, and the noir elements are textbook sharp. And Billy Wilder is a great director. But that’s where the buck stops, angel.
To my mind, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in Double Indemnity is that the characters have no life to them, no inner fire.
Take Fred MacMurray, please. But seriously, he has no (sex) appeal. I get the idea of casting an actor against type, and I admit that when I first saw the flick, I had already watched My Three Sons and rested my knowledge of MacMurray in that dull dad in a cardigan persona. So I enjoyed the shock value of seeing him as Walter Neff (“two f’s—like in Philadelphia”). But I neither loved nor loathed him, fell for him or had to fight him off. He’s neither hero nor anti-hero, and he’s not villain either. He’s dull when we’re told by his dialogue that he’s sharp. And I don’t see why Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) has fondness for him at all.
(Keyes himself functions mostly as a foil, and a pretty feeble one. There’s so much more and better Edward G. has to offer, and does, in film noir and beyond. From gangster (Little Caesar, Key Largo) to dupe (Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window), he’s an actor to write with and through, and Double Indemnity just doesn’t have much for him to own.
Chemistry between actors can do much, and I don’t deny that I enjoy seeing Neff sweat when he fears Keyes is onto him. But their father-son bond isn’t much developed, and gets lost once the femme fatale takes center stage. Frankly, Stanwyck and MacMurray don’t have charisma. Like Bogart when he’s with Bacall or Astaire with Rogers, the right woman can make a less-than-riveting male into a heartthrob, or at least show us why he might be desirable. Stanwyck doesn’t do it for MacMurray, though she’s a pro with others (I especially love her with Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.)
Now let’s say this is the point of the film. We’re not supposed to like these two. Let’s say Double Indemnity is about people without real appeal or even true repulsiveness. Wilder presents us with a glimpse of the world as a dull, boring place where lost people try to sharpen themselves through extremes: from the platinum wig and anklet that paste a big neon “femme fatale” label onto Stanwyck to the desire for something more than a stereotypical insurance man’s life for MacMurray. They don’t exactly know what they want, but they have to act as if they do if they have any hope of figuring it out.
Perhaps the key is that they both want to be wanted, need escape from the lives they’ve chosen, and they find it in one another and their criminal plan that will make them better than all the other suckers out there, from Dietrichson’s grumpy husband and virgin daughter to Neff’s father figure Keyes. Money is part of it, but not particularly vital. They scheme, but neither seems deeply invested in actually being wealthy. There’s a pointed pointlessness to their endeavors, we might say, in this futile world: even crafty criminal schemes are ultimately futile. Yet, that can only grip me as a viewer if I have a place to put my energies, to feel something. I’m more annoyed by Neff than alienated by him, especially when he’s falling for Dietrichson’s daughter.
As for Phyllis herself, she’s where perhaps I should find the heart of the story, but as in many films centered on woman as the object of the gaze, even the oddly tempting Stanwyck can’t seem to get inside this character. We know how she’ll work from the minute we meet her, and she never varies. That’s the purpose, this male fantasy, but it fails to grip us unless we long to see her punished. I can’t even muster that much because her husband’s a schmuck. Phyllis lies and schemes, cares only about herself (if that), and deserves the ill fate she eventually gets. Because the film is told from Neff’s point-of-view, however, we never get inside Phyllis Dietrichson to see how what got her here. What does she truly want and why? The question is ultimately unanswerable. As Jessica Rabbit wisely observed, such women are just “drawn that way.” The reason, of course, is because she was written by white, privileged, heterosexual men in a Hollywood genre that makes its loathing of women particularly visible, even as it gives them more central roles than any genre other than the woman’s film (a.k.a. melodrama or chick flick).
In the end, Double Indemnity is often praised as the “perfect” noir thriller, but it seems to be playing with the pieces, an exercise rather than an epic of the genre. (I prefer the overkill of The Big Combo, frankly, where all the noir elements are heightened to the point of excess, but you actually feel something for the characters, from the sadistic gangster to the murdered burlesque girl that the cop has casual sex with but never truly cares enough about.) If I had to pick a film to illustrate the tropes of the genre, Double Indemnity would come high on the list. But, if I have to pick a film that I want to watch again and again, to luxuriate in discomfort, to cringe and to hope and to feel all that is wrong in the world and perhaps even a desire to rescue a tattered everyman or femme fatale with a hint of humanity, Billy Wilder’s tale of an insurance salesman gone bad and the dame who brought him down would be nowhere to be seen.
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