Double Indemnity: A Must-See Film for Crime Writers
"I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.”
You can almost feel sorry for Walter Neff, played to perfection by Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity (1944), my favorite movie of all time. After all, if you go to all the trouble of murdering your lover’s husband, shouldn’t you reap some of the benefits?
Double Indemnity is the ultimate film noir—it’s dark, steamy, loaded with atmosphere, and the characters are sleazy as all get out. In this story originally penned by James M. Cain and adapted for the silver screen by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, discontented housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) bewitches insurance salesman Walter Neff into killing her husband. Together, she promises, they will collect on a double indemnity insurance clause.
Phyllis is film noir’s classic conniving woman who lures a man whose brain went on hiatus the moment he laid eyes on her. Walter seems like a good guy, but he’s no match for the lovely and smoldering Phyllis. She doesn’t even seem good—she’s evil to the core. Since he’s only marginally good it’s child’s play for her to ensnare him in her web.
Double Indemnity is a must-see film for crime writers. The superb dialog with its emphasis on double entendres and provocative banter not only entertain but it moves the plot along. The use of light and shadow create a virtual underworld that emphasizes the unsavoriness of the characters and plot.
Writers are frequently advised to show, not tell. When it comes to sex scenes, the censorship of the day forced writers to follow this advice, allowing them to achieve higher levels of creativity. As in other movies of the time sex was left to the imagination using the suggestive dialog and longing looks.
But the film’s best lesson for writers is showing how easily someone can be led astray by promises of a lifetime of riches and passion.
After the murder, things go downhill. For one thing, Walter’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is highly suspicious of Phyllis’s double indemnity claim and investigates it like a dog with ten bones. And Walter and Phyllis grow to distrust each other (big surprise there). By the time Walter realizes that murdering Mr. Dietrichson wasn’t such a good idea, it’s too late. But is he sorry that he killed the man? Or does he only regret that he’s left with nothing to show for his efforts beyond a bullet hole in his shoulder? Again, he says in his confession to Barton Keyes: “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.”
That’s Double Indemnity in a nutshell.
For photos of Double Indemnity’s film locations:
For more info on Double Indemnity: http://www.thecityreview.com/doubleindem.html
Maggie King's debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, is
published by Simon and Schuster. She contributed the short story, "A Not
So Genteel Murder," to the Sisters in Crime anthology Virginia is for
Mysteries, published by Koehler Books.
Maggie is a member of
Sisters in Crime and the American Association of University Women. She
has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer
service supervisor. She did a stint as an administrator at the
Kent-Valentine House in Richmond, Virginia, the setting for "A Not So
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