Friday, June 26, 2015

Double Indemnity in one scene

The "...And Scene!" Blogathon involves close analysis of a single scene from an Old Hollywood film, hosted by Sister Celluloid. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the link at the site.

I've talked about Double Indemnity before, and I think we all agree that it's a terrific movie. (Did you know that it was inspired by a real-life murder that took place here in Queens?) For this blogathon, we're gonna try something different, namely, taking a closer look at one scene in that movie. The scene I've chosen is a pretty important one; it features all three principal actors, albeit in an indirect way for one; and it's a crucial turning point in the story. First, the basic facts:

Double Indemnity (1944)
directed by Billy Wilder
cinematography by John Seitz
editorial supervision by Doane Harrison

For those of you haven't seen the movie (and seriously, if you haven't seen this, don't wait one day more), a quick summary of prior events: insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls hard for desperate housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and together, they plot to murder her husband by secretly getting him to sign an insurance policy in which they'll collect big time on the dough, and them bumping him off as he's about to go on a train trip. The plan seems to work at first. The head man at the insurance company initially believes the husband committed suicide, but Walter's immediate supervisor, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), definitively rules that out as a possibility. That night, Phyllis calls Neff, wanting to come up to his apartment, but before she arrives, Keyes shows up unexpectedly. And that's where we stand as the following scene takes place...

One of the first things one notices right away is the contrast between the two men, Neff and Keyes: the former tall, standing still, appearing relaxed, the other short, moving around, tense both mentally and physically. Keyes notes that his dinner "stuck halfway," and all throughout the scene he keeps pestering Neff for a remedy of some kind, but Walter doesn't have one. It's an additional level of tension in a story jam-packed with tension. 

Robinson is as tenacious as he was in previous scenes, but the added aspect of his upset stomach makes his character more vulnerable. Keyes takes his job very seriously; it seems to take up his life, in fact, and perhaps an upset stomach is the price he pays for being so good at what he does. Robinson is the one we should be rooting against, even though technically he's the good guy, but he brings such humanity and decency to his role that you can't help but be drawn to him as much as the two principals.

MacMurray was not Wilder's first choice for the role of Neff. In fact, Wilder had a bit of a hard time trying to find the right man for the part. At one point, he considered George Raft, but he turned down the role when he discovered there was no "lapel moment" - i.e., the moment when Neff turns his suit lapel outward to reveal his FBI badge. Raft thought Neff was a G-man in disguise, and was appalled when he discovered he wasn't. 

MacMurray, meanwhile, was trepidatious at the prospect of doing "real" acting after years of doing comedy (including, among other films, Remember the Night, also with Stanwyck), but according to Wilder's account in the book Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe, he told MacMurray, "You have now arrived in comedy, you're at a certain point where you either have to stop or you have to jump over the river and start something new." And MacMurray did.

Earlier in the story, Keyes described his intuition for phony insurance claims as a "little man" that sits in his stomach, who acts up whenever he detects duplicity or wrongdoing of some sort. He puts a great deal of faith in him, too, as we see here:
KEYES: Listen, Walter, I've been living with this little man for twenty-six years. He's never failed me yet. There's got to be something wrong. 
NEFF: Maybe Norton was right. Maybe it was suicide, Keyes. 
KEYES: No. Not suicide. (pause) But not an accident either.
Neff is doing a good job of maintaining a stoic facade, but because we, the audience, know the truth - that he is the guilty party Keyes is looking for without being aware of it at this stage - we can detect the suspicion and fear on his face. By throwing out the possibility of murder himself, it's almost a relief for Neff. He figures Keyes already has doubts, so let's get them all out in the open and play them as they lay. He's taking a gamble, but then again, this entire plot was a gamble from day one.

Wilder wrote Double with crime novelist Raymond Chandler, as opposed to his regular collaborator Charles Brackett, because Brackett found James M. Cain's original novel too grim. Cain himself was unavailable, so Wilder turned to Chandler, whom he respected for what Wilder called his facility for dialogue and descriptions. Chandler was no big fan of Cain's work, but he took the job adapting Cain's novel anyway, and though he and Wilder didn't get along well (Wilder claimed Chandler talked behind his back), their script became one of the earliest examples, along with The Maltese Falcon a few years earlier, of what would eventually become film noir.

Right as Keyes questions the integrity of Neff's accomplice, Phyllis, whom he already met in the previous scene, she arrives:
The hallway is empty except for Phyllis who has been standing close to the door of Neff's apartment, listening. The door has just started to open. Phyllis moves away quickly and flattens herself against the wall behind the opening door. Keyes is coming out.
KEYES: Good night, Walter.
Obviously, Phyllis had no way of knowing that Keyes would be here, but now she's trapped - and here we come up against an unusual production quirk that works to the story's advantage. The door to Neff's apartment opens from the inside out, which you almost never see in a real-life apartment. According to Wilder, this was an accident which wasn't noticed until after the scene was shot, but once he saw how it served the story, by having Phyllis hide behind the door so Keyes never sees her as he waits for the elevator, Wilder kept it as is, and it would go on to become one of the most well-known shots of the movie.

Neff, behind him, looks anxiously down the hallway for Phyllis. Suddenly his eye catches a glimpse of her through the crack of the partly opened door. He pushes the door wide so as to hide her from Keyes. 
NEFF: Good night, Keyes. 
KEYES: See you at the office in the morning.
And here's where the camera placement contributes to the storytelling by showing us exactly where everyone is relative to each other in this crucial moment. Wilder prided himself on his tight scripts, which never had camera set-ups or character positions of any kind. He always worked that out afterwards, with the cast and crew.

It was fellow German Fritz Lang who told Wilder, "Look for the good shooters, there are some special ones," and he found one in Seitz, whose career dated all the way back to the silent era. Seitz first worked with Wilder on his second film, Five Graves to Cairo. Before that his resume included such films as This Gun For Hire, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Sullivan's Travels and Another Thin Man, and he would go on to shoot both The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard for Wilder as well. Also, editor Doane Harrison was with Wilder on set, as the director preferred for all his movies, and advised him on shot placement.

Back to the scene: we see Phyllis flat against the wall in the foreground, behind the door, as Keyes walks toward the elevator in the background and Neff peers just outside the door. Then we cut to a two-shot: a frontal view of Neff outside the doorway, feeling the gentle tug of the knob by Phyllis, and that's how he realizes she's there. 

He steals a quick glance in her direction, then looks back at Keyes, who's still prattling about Phyllis. Then there's a cut to a medium-level shot of Keyes by the elevator, another cut returning us to the previous two-shot, where Neff stands further out in the hall to block Phyllis completely from Keyes' view, and a cut to the side angle of Phyllis in the foreground again, clinging to the knob. 

Keyes has turned around and is facing Neff, and one wonders: can he see Phyllis? Will he? He's so eager to get at her, to find out what she really knows:
KEYES: But I'd like to move in on her right now, tonight, if it wasn't for Norton and his stripe-pants ideas about company policy. I'd have the cops after her so quick her head would spin. They'd put her through the wringer, and brother, what they would squeeze out. 
NEFF: Only you haven't got a single thing to go on, Keyes.
The elevator has come up and stopped.
KEYES: Not too much. Twenty-six years experience, all the percentage there is, and this lump of concrete in my stomach.
Keyes gets on the elevator and then Neff quickly ushers Phyllis inside his apartment. Keyes comes tantalizingly close to solving this case which has him so wound up, but misses, and he doesn't even realize he has missed. Not for a second does he realize his co-worker and friend murdered a man and is now trying to cover it up - and why should he?

Wilder knew that Double had to be believable. He strove for realism at all turns, the kind audiences of the day would recognize from a newsreel. In his words, from Conversations: "You look to grab a moment of truth, and exploit it." Double Indemnity has that realism in the sense that the characters act in ways that make sense to them, to who and what they are, and their actions drive the story. And in a time when it seems like modern audiences are less interested in such things, movies like this and directors like Billy Wilder stand tall.


  1. I love this movie, and was glad to see it a few summers ago at an outdoor venue. That type of setting can have its annoyances, but my friend and I were lucky. It was an overcast night and just a little breezy--a great setting for DI.

  2. I think I watched this at Bryant Park one year - another outdoor venue - and I remember some people laughing at lines that weren't supposed to be funny. Kinda annoyed me, but it was worth it to see the movie on a big screen.

  3. When it comes to noir, as my sister Tracey says, "If "Double Indemnity" doesn't work then none of them do".

    I hope Billy Wilder is comfortable on that pedestal. It is where he belongs.

  4. I didn't plan to write about two Wilder movies so close to each other, but it took me a long time to decide what to write about for this, until I realized I had better pick a scene from a movie I know well. I like this blogathon idea, though. Maybe I'll do this on my own again this year...

  5. Beautiful critique of an excellent scene! You really examined it from all angles!

  6. Thanks. There weren't any rules about how to approach this, so I figured the best way was to be as comprehensive as I could.

  7. Great! I can't think of a cooler trio than MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson. This film is so amazing and it's sad sometimes Edward's performance is overlooked.
    But I have to look again for the câmera placement details!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  8. He won't be overlooked if I have anything to say about it!


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