Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: Double Indemnity (1944)

WALTER: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you.
Because the guy you were looking for was too close.
Right across the desk from you.
KEYES: Closer than that, Walter.

Double Indemnity is, quite simply, one of my all-time favorite films. It’s also, for whatever reason, the very first thing that came to mind when I sat down to write my first Noiseless Chatter spotlight. I hope this will become a regular feature of this blog, and I’ll devote these posts to discussing great films, songs, video games, television programs, or…well, anything, and I want to provide some actual, useful commentary rather than mere summaries or celebrations. I don’t know what to expect, and that’s probably for the best. Learning the lesson that Walter Neff never survived to put into practice, I won’t try to shape the future to suit me better. It can only end in heartache.

Double Indemnity is Walter’s story…quite literally, as he spends almost the entire film dictating it into a recording device. Walter’s narration is crucial to our understanding of what happened, as he’s the only character present for every important scene, but it’s also a reflection of the dissonance between what he believes about himself, and the reality of his situation.

Walter is an insurance salesman, or was, until he met Phyllis Deitrichson and decided he’d use his inside knowledge to help her take out a fraudulent life insurance policy on her husband, murder him, and then abscond with the money and the girl. If you can read that sentence without guessing how this ends up for him, and without imagining a thousand different details that could possibly go wrong along the way, then you are truly one of God’s special creatures.

Double Indemnity, though, isn’t about the suspense of whether Walter gets away with it. It opens, after all, with Walter stumbling gutshot through the deserted insurance office, letting us know before he even finds the recording device that his will not be a story of triumph. No, Double Indemnity is about something very different. It’s about a punishment we expect, it’s about the universe slapping those back into place who seek to escape their station, and it’s about a man who never realized how easy he was to manipulate.

From the moment Phyllis appears in Walter’s life, wearing nothing but a towel and a souvenier wig from Colonial Williamsburg, the leagues of difference between Walter’s self-assured narrative bravado and the immediate ease with which a dark presence manipulates him becomes apparent, and the film never lets us forget it.

Walter believes he is manipulating Phyllis, or, at least, that he is equally manipulative. But what plays out on screen is quite different, as she sounds his depths, finds his weakness, and appeals to it in such a way that he thinks the power balance is weighed the other way. She senses his loneliness — a loneliness I’m not sure he even senses — and makes herself available to him. If there’s anything Barbara Stanwyck brings to the role that very few other actresses could, it’s how easily she reshapes herself to suit her surroundings. She became what she needed for her husband, and as soon as he starts tightening his purse strings she becomes what Walter needs instead. Another man, another wig.

From the outside, it’s easy to sense her evil. And yet it’s also so very easy to place yourself in Walter’s hopeless shoes, and feel her eyes staring so openly into yours, and deciding on some level to believe her over everything the universe might be telling you to the contrary. Haven’t we all been there before? She’s a despicable human being, but for Walter she’s an escape: an escape from solitude, an escape from justice, and, ultimately, an escape from life.

For an illustration of this, just take a look at the few times we see her husband alive. It’s always in Walter’s presence, and it’s a grotesque delight to watch her try to rile him up in order to “prove” to her patsy of an insurance agent how horrible he is. Mr. Deitrichson comes across as a bit of a grump, but neither time does he rise to her challenges. In fact, the more I’ve watched this film the more I feel for him. Not only was he bumped off for an insurance policy he didn’t know he had, but this is the sort of thing he had to put up with day in and day out: a deceitful woman constantly prodding him and bleeding him dry. This, ladies in gentlemen, is the life Walter is so quick to pursue.

But we’ve made it this far, over 700 words according to WordPress, without mentioning the greatest evidence of Walter’s conflicting narration of all: Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes.

In his recorded confession, Walter addresses Keyes in two ways at different points: as an equal, and as an adversary. (He — equally incorrectly — discusses Phyllis in the same ways.) Sometimes, I suppose, he’s actually addressing him as both…an opponent on the other side of the chess board. (Closer than that, Walter.) A fencing partner who can mirror and anticipate his every move, but who is far from unbeatable. That’s Walter’s perception. In the footage that we see, however, Keyes comes off as far more competent and commanding a presence than Walter ever gives him credit for. In fact, it’s he that Walter probably sees when he looks in the mirror, because from the evidence on display, Keyes isn’t so much Walter’s worthy adversary as he is the wizened expert to Walter’s thick-headed upstart. It’s not a fair fight, and only Walter, delusional Walter, could see it as one.

Keyes is a master of his trade: as claims manager, it is his job to investigate suspicious claims so that the company won’t have to pay out on fraudulent ones. From Walter’s perspective, this makes Keyes the villain of the piece. From the audience’s perspective, Keyes is our most sympathetic character, and the one we keep our eyes on most closely, as we wait for him to prove himself.

It’s important to note that Keyes’s role here is not that of company hardass. He’s not a starched-shirt sourpuss who places hurdle after hurdle in front of those who come in seeking payment on their policies. No, Keyes has a more righteous aim: Keyes is fighting for justice. When the payout is genuine, he is happy to provide it. It is only fraudulence that upsets him, and once it upsets him he can’t eat or sleep until he brings the thieves to justice. After all, fraudsters inflate the premiums for honest folk. Keyes is fighting, indirectly, for the little man (a turn of phrase it would do you well to remember). By toppling conniving giants, he is also speaking up for the unspoken and anonymous honesty in the world around him, somewhere. It comforts him just to know its there, and that he’s doing his part to keep it safe.

Keyes is Edward G. Robinson at his absolute best. He’s more loyal to the truth than to his employer, as evidenced by one of my favorite monologues in all of film, when he stands up to the company president and recites the categorizations and subcategorizations of types of suicide, simply to let his self-important desk jockey of a boss know how much there is to consider before leaping to a single conclusion. It’s a speech consisting of hollow classifications and little more, and yet it’s also a stirring and impassioned plea for the common man, who is all too often the faceless victim of blind conclusions arrived at by rich men in corner offices. It’s delivered in the flat, technical parlance of a man who isn’t comfortable speaking any words that don’t relate directly to his job, but the heart comes through, and his words mean more than they actually say.

Raymond Chandler worked on the screenplay for Double Indemnity, but it’s based on a story by James M. Cain. Had Chandler written the story, Keyes, being a detective figure, would no doubt have been the central figure, and though I love Chandler this alone makes me genuinely glad that he did not write the story. Keyes is a far more imposing presence from the sidelines, and the fleeting moments that we spend with him allow his ghost to drift naturally through scenes in which he is not present, as we search for the clues that he might find, and side ourselves with him as we attempt to unravel the tangles of Walter’s doomed plot.

Keyes describes his sense of justice as being a “little man” inside of him who won’t let him so much as swallow his food as long as there’s a stone left unturned. Pinocchio knew him as a cricket. We know him as a conscience. The Little Man hears of Deitrichson’s claim, and he knows something’s not right. Walter anticipated this. He’s worked closely with Keyes, and he considers himself to have insider knowledge about Keyes’s investigations. He thinks he can outwit him. As things transpire, though, the only one Walter outwits is himself.

When Double Indemnity was released, there was some concern that it would be illustrating for movie-goers how to literally get away with murder. Obviously it ended up getting released anyway, and perhaps that’s because the film board realized that if anyone has to be giving advice on how to murder people, it should be the dimwit Walter Neff.

The more I watch this film, the more obvious the flaws in Walter’s plan become. It’s a passively comic way to view the film; pick apart every instance that Walter’s carefully orchestrated crime actually turns out to succeed not because of his meticulous planning, but because of chance and dumb luck.

I won’t go into it here as there’s already plenty more to say and it wouldn’t be much fun to rob you of these discoveries yourself, but one particularly ridiculous suggestion of Walter’s has to do with his communications with Phyllis.

Obviously they don’t want to be seen together, and they shouldn’t be driving back and forth to each other’s homes if they wish to avoid suspicion, but they do need to remain in communication somehow. Walter suggest meeting regularly in a drug store, which, in theory, isn’t such a bad thing. In practice, though, stock boys are constantly reaching over them to shelve items and shoppers are asking them to pass them the products that they’re standing in front of. They’re the most visible presence in the store, and they serve as an easily identifiable obstacle for those around them. Anyone who was to interview these shoppers or employees would find that these shadowy figures were far from anonymous, and could easily be described and identified on sight. They’re always there, exchanging shifty glances and panicked mumbles in front of the display of baby food. It’s a brilliant illustration of Walter’s terrible planning, and it’s never commented upon during the film. Double Indemnity gives the audience credit. It pays off in spades.

The closest the film comes to acknowledging the foolishness of Walter’s scheme is when we hear a message Keyes recorded on the same device Walter is using now, in which Keyes, who is investigating the claim, tells his boys explicitly not to follow up on their suspicions about Walter. Keyes can vouch for him as a human being (or is that friend?), and that friendship trumps even Keyes’s hard-wired lust for justice. It’s a decision Keyes would, of course, come to regret, and it makes that moment that much sadder; Keyes, for perhaps the only time in his life, allows himself to make a human decision based upon emotion rather than facts…and Walter is going to punish him for it.

Walter’s meticulous planning also gives us our clearest insight into the hollowness of his life, and why he would so quickly trade it for a paper-thin promise of excitement with Phyllis: when taking great pains to establish alibis for the night of the murder, he contacts colleagues and work associates. He does not contact friends. The reason? Walter has none.

Walter’s life is his work. Ditto Keyes. The difference is that Walter is not satisfied with his work, whereas Keyes views it as a noble calling. Having seen this film long after I saw The Man Who Wasn’t There, the noir-ish film by the noir-obsessed Cohen brothers, it’s hard not to see parallels between Walter and that film’s central character: a barber who dreams of becoming a dry cleaner. In both cases a life (literally and metaphorically) is thrown away in favor of pursuing a dream that could never make them happy anyway. Walter doesn’t dream of something bigger…he dreams of something different. Phyllis is another human being, and, in his sad state, that qualifies as something different.

Interestingly, Keyes himself offers Walter something different about halfway through the film: a job as his assistant. Walter declines, because it would require a pay cut, something that Keyes is quick to be honest about. This scene makes two things very clear: Keyes respects Walter so much that he’s offering him the highest praise he can possibly offer anybody by asking him to work closely beside him on the most important thing in his life, and that Keyes is perhaps the one person in Walter’s life who is not trying to manipulate him. If you want Walter on your side, you need to at least pretend to flatter him. Keyes approaches him with honesty, and with honesty Walter is able to decline. Had Phyllis been honest, Walter would have declined that, too. Perhaps Keyes should have worn a more seductive anklet.

There’s one thing I’ve been dancing around here, and it’s the one thing I wrote this post to discuss. It’s been difficult to keep from discussing it: Double Indemnity, in spite of everything I’ve said above or could ever say more, is a film about friendship. Unfortunately for Walter, he doesn’t realize it’s a film about friendship until after he’s switched off his microphone. Poor Walter thought he was in a crime thriller. He thought he was Humphrey Bogart, Dean Martin and Matt Damon. In reality he’s Fred MacMurray, collapsed and bleeding beside a potted plant, while Keyes looks on, disappointed and despondent. Keyes knew exactly what film he was in. He thought Walter did, too.

The quote beneath the film still that opened this article is what ends the film. Walter is still laboring under the misapprehension that he accomplished anything at all, still believing he led Keyes on some kind of wild goose chase that almost — so close — succeeded in letting him get away with murder. Keyes responds with the pained rejoinder that they were never adversaries at all. They were friends.

Walter’s reply, not included above, is the final line in the film: “I love you, too.” But it’s too late. Keyes had his heart broken. He sided with Walter over The Little Man, because that’s what human beings do. They let their emotions guide them and shape their decisions. They push logic to the side and they try not pick at things that they think might hurt them or the people they love. They have hearts that are so much easier to follow than their minds. And, sometimes, they make the wrong choice, and their closest friend ends up dying on the carpet before them. It’s the same choice Walter made earlier, and Walter died. Keyes did not die…but his faith in humanity just might have.

Walter was the last and only person Keyes thought he could trust. He was willing to make him a personal assistant. He was the only one other than Phyllis who dropped by Walter’s apartment, ever, in the course of the entire film. Walter knew, on some level, that he was friendless, but Phyllis wasn’t the escape he needed. It was Keyes who was already there, Keyes who could unlock a new and brighter future. He was a friend, a confidant, a colleague, a mentor and a fan all in one, and, what’s more, Walter already had him.

The twist at the end of Double Indemnity isn’t that Walter gets killed; we already knew that as soon as the film began, and so did Walter. The twist, that we learn along with him, is the central relationship of the film, one that’s always been in the background for Walter, but was always at the forefront for Keyes. That’s another reason it’s best that Keyes was not our main character…we need to discover this too late for it to do any good, just like Walter did.

Double Indemnity is a film about the murder of an innocent man, and the fallout and bloodshed that follows, and yet it’s also one of the most elegant, gorgeously explored illustrations of male friendship in cinema, and it sits right alongside such disparate genre films as Casablanca and Shaun of the Dead as another movie that withholds the secret of that friendship until it’s over. These are not films about insurance fraud or rekindled romance or zombie invasions…these are films about who we are to each other, and what our presence means to the person sitting across the room.

Closer than that, Walter.

Perhaps, maybe, sorta, I’m possibly going to be on TV, in theory.

I realize that this is a pretty bizarre first (proper) post, but timing is never something I’ve had particularly great control over so, here goes: there’s an upcoming television series called Office Life (or OFFICE LIFE if you are as fond of caps as the show’s producers), and my office has been shortlisted to appear.

How short is the list? Well, I’m being interviewed along with several other employees tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll post updates as I hear them, but essentially we’ll be followed around by a camera crew as we go about our daily work days, and the footage will be edited and assembled into half-hour weekly installments. This should sound familiar, as it’s the exact same setup as the heartbreakingly brilliant British comedy The Office. It’s also the same setup as the preposterous live action American cartoon of the same name.

I’m not sure what to think of this, really. Part of me, obviously, is quite excited. When you know you are being considered for television the camera becomes much less intimidating than, say, when you’re sloppily consuming chili dogs at a baseball game. So there’s a bit of excitement, sure. And there’s a lot of flattery, considering the fact that I was picked (alongside several others) to represent the company out of a pool of about seventy. That’s very nice, and some very kind things were said to me by the managers who chose me.

But the casting notice is a bit worrying.

“Of course we are looking for offices that may have some drama,” says Brendon Blincoe, President of Iconic Casting. “Nearly every office has a staff of characters that make it unique, from the ‘office flirt’ to the ‘office know-it-all’ to the ‘office brown noser’. We want all kinds of people and all sorts of businesses, but you must work in a conventional ‘office’ setting with cubicles, suites and be in an office building or office park.”

The grammarian in me is first concerned by his bothersome usage of the term “unique” to describe a situation in which all of those present fit into predetermined archetypes, but mainly it’s that first sentence that worries me.

Drama. Personally, I’m not afraid of drama. I sprinkle it everywhere I go, like Johnny Appleseed. But for the company? I’d hope they’d think twice.

Evidently they spoke to the casting folks, though, and were assured that they weren’t here to rake muck, and we’ve got veto power over this whole shabazz anyway, but part of me still does question the wisdom of this thing.

The other part of me just knows he will become a huge television celebrity and live in a mansion with robot butlers.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted. And since everyone’s bound to wonder, the answers are Malcolm and Toby.