‘Double Indemnity’ is an interesting title, and perhaps that is the best place for us to start any analysis of a movie that has become something of a genre template for Film Noir.
As a novice to Film Noir something I inferred early on in my study of this form was the importance of a dualistic play on themes, a complex juxtaposition of ideas and character and morality.
Double indemnity is – by definition – a twice over ‘protection or security against damage or loss’. Where this becomes an interesting concept in itself is when one looks a little more widely at the world which surrounded the creation of this particular narrative and that of Film Noir itself.
To me, Film Noir can be said to be a double indemnity against the idealised outlook of the world that Hollywood portrayed prior to the war (and something of an antidote to the escapist film entertainment of the wartime period itself). In short, Film Noir was protection against the naive optimistic and idealised attitude with which America went into the Second World War.
By 1944, when Double Indemnity was made, there was – it seems to me – something of a war weariness in the public. This can be exemplified by the subtle change in the propaganda of the time where one of the most popular by-lines used in posters was ‘Let’s Finish the Job!’ This rather more down to earth and almost fatalist attitude to getting the war over is in stark contrast to the highly jingoistic and morally naive proclamations made in propaganda at the start of the war. (It is perhaps interesting to note that a common theme through the movie is the idea of seeing the job through to the end and this is wholly commensurate with the wider public feeling that the war was now a unstoppable train on a one way journey – if you will forgive my somewhat poetic take.)
In the podcast analysis it is very interesting to contemplate the comparison – in the use of language – to Shakespeare. For if we perceive Film Noir as a form of morality play it is likewise telling of the time that Film Noir is perhaps the antithesis of the great Hollywood pre-war morality play of the Western. Again we can see how realism has modified peoples’ expectations of a moral tale – no longer is it enough that the forces of good and bad be represented by the ‘good guy’ wearing a white hat and the ‘bad guy’ wearing a black one!
Likewise, the war also brought a change in our attitudes to women. Again this is very astutely highlighted in the podcast when it is commented that the Barbara Stanwyck character – Phyllis Dietrichson – ‘wears the pants’. In actual fact the 1940s were a time when many women did indeed – literally – wear trousers as they took over the roles of men who had left to fight the war.
If we once again make comparisons to the pre-war Western we can see just how much the leading female character had changed to meet the circumstances of a very different world. No longer was the female a fragile and wholesome ideal that needed the protection of a man, as they so often did in Westerns. Film Noir generated a new archetype that was perhaps a reflection of the new found independence and power of women in American society at the time.
Personally, I think the most chilling representation of this change in the power base between men and women between pre-war and wartime film genres is the sequence in which Neff carries out the deed into which he has been manipulated by the diabolical Mrs. Dietrichson.
In a rather gruesome scene the camera focuses on the face of Barbara Stanwyck as she is driving, while – we must imagine – Walter Neff breaks the neck of their victim from the back seat of the car. The impassive look on the face of Mrs. Dietrichson during this short scene is one of terrifying malevolence (and one that put me in mind of those scary china dolls one sees).
In this moment we see illustrated the new found change of positions between male and female on the home front, the idea that women are – excuse the pun – in the driving seat.
To conclude, one has to mention the part played – so wonderfully – by Edward G. Robinson. In a film which is – in the use of Neffs narrative – a confession, the character played by Robinson is not only, in the end, the father confessor but also a sophisticated caricature of Neff’s conscience made flesh and blood.
Neff himself is superbly played by Fred MacMurray, which from my point of view was a revelation. I have never been a fan of MacMurray and see him as something of a ‘light weight’, but I cannot conceive of any other actor that could have brought off Neff’s over-confident smarminess with such aplomb as MacMurry did. Neither could we perhaps conceive of any other hard boiled actor as having fallen for Mrs. Dietrichson’s Machiavellian plot with quite such enthusiastic ease.
Double Indemnity - to finish where I started – protects the audience against damage or loss twice over in that it builds in us a realization that in reality ‘the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley’ and that – in the real world – appearances are often deceptive. As Neff admits himself - which seems the epitomy of what we might expect of a movie which so ably counters the morals of the Western movie - 'Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?'.
(Once again, thank you for bearing with my ramblings.)