double indemnity: can you watch the very movie you’re in?

I watched Double Indemnity in a few sessions over the past couple of weeks. I’ll admit, I don’t get the love shown for it. To explain, I’ll have to get into some spoilers, so if you’ve been meaning to see it since 1944, but just haven’t gotten around to it, now’s the time.

Chewing over what I find generally unsatisfying about the movie, I come back to what separates the film from the other film noir stuff I know — a limited bunch, sure, but it includes some of the classics. I think I’ve figured it out: I like noir’s cynicism and how it suggests that people in general, and the powerful in particular, tend to exploit others almost as a matter of habit. That is, I like it when the films agree with my gut feeling that people just tend to do what’s best for them and what they can get away with. I like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, at least mostly, because they are sympathetic tour guides to a fairly unsympathetic view of humanity as a whole.

Whether it’s accurate or not, this is a view that doesn’t seem shared by Double Indemnity. Walter Neff is not our tour guide here, even if he does the voiceover; he and Phyllis are the rot that needs to be excised. The film isn’t an expression of how bad people are, just how bad these two people are. If it’s not a sociology lesson about American society, why do we care about Double Indemnity? Roger Ebert proposes a theory about Neff and Phyllis that I’m tempted to agree with:

Standing back from the film and what it expects us to think, I see them engaged not in romance or theft, but in behavior. They’re intoxicated by their personal styles. Styles learned in the movies, and from radio and the detective magazines.

This almost perfectly encapsulates how I felt about another film, Bonnie and Clyde, but not Double Indemnity. I don’t see how DI undermines the idea that Neff and Phyllis are to be taken at face value as the characters they (presumably) take themselves to be: hardened souls, but not confused souls. Neff actually narrates the movie, so to say that he doesn’t understand the significance of what’s happening — to say he’s just play-acting images he’s only seen at the movies — is to seriously turn over the meaning of the whole thing.

Take the scene where Neff first sees Phyllis and flirts with her, in what Glenn Kenny fondly describes as “the justly-famous speed limit banter.” Apparently, Kenny is just as intoxicated as Neff, and I think he’s supposed to be. Now, eroticism being notoriously subjective, I find the dialogue painfully hammy, but that’s just a matter of opinion, and other than completely disagreeing with it, I find nothing wrong with Kenny’s interpretation. I at least agree that if I found the speed-limit metaphor the least bit enticing, I’d be a hell of a lot closer to understanding the lengths Neff goes to for Phyllis.

In brief, neither Kenny nor Ebert’s vision of what this film is about matches mine. I guess another way to watch Double Indemnity is to see Walter Neff as some kind of tragic figure (presumably how he sees himself to some degree) and forget for the moment the dialogue I don’t like.

But that doesn’t stick very well. Some of the commentary I’ve read suggests that a key tragedy is Neff’s exploitation of Barton Keyes, his friend and colleague. That’s a non-starter for me, though. To begin with, Keyes himself is a hard character to like, since his greatest inspiration is the possibility of catching people in insurance fraud. Frustrated in this pursuit, a lot of the film has him mugging comically. Anyway, as a story point, Neff’s “betrayal” of Keyes is somewhere between un- to under-developed, and at least underfelt by yours truly, and, yours truly suspects, by most spectators. I mean, are you really trying to sell this movie on the basis of the Neff-Keyes relationship?

I could float a couple of other theories about Neff’s fatal flaw, but I don’t think the movie “knows” what that is, or at least doesn’t communicate it. Maybe the lesson is that the woman you’re planning a murder with might have done this before and, in fact, you’re not as special as you thought you were, murder-accomplice-wise, so, uh, don’t take that for granted.

(I’ll be honest, the double meaning of “this isn’t the first time she’s done this” only just occurred to me, and I’ll admit there are lots of issues surrounding the femme fatale more generally and Phyllis in particular that I’m not going to get to today. As a humorous side note: The reveal that Phyllis has been down this homicidal road before is delivered by the her step-daughter, Lola. An ambiguous, unlikely sort of relationship develops between Neff and Lola mid-way through the movie that I found inexplicable. Lola’s father, remember, has just been murdered. Lola might tell him about her suspicions, sure, but why not the police? And then they start hanging out — because, you know, a young woman often turns to her father’s insurance agent for friendship and understanding in her grieving, of course. I mean, that’s a thing, right?)

So, having rejected other readings, I have a completely different idea of what this movie is about: Double Indemnity is the film version of the fears embodied by the Hays Code. I don’t mean the movie is the epitome of those fears, but I mean the movie is the Code’s idea of what would happen if the Hays Code weren’t followed. To explain, I’ll crib a little background from Gaylyn Studlar, in her piece on DI in Norton’s Film Analysis reader. Studlar explains that the Production Code Administration in the years that Double Indemnity was made was Hollywood’s method of policing itself in the values it was transmitting to the public via the movies it made. Studlar points out

One of the two general principles of the Code made the basic standards of representation clear: “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should ever be thrown to the side of the crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”

(Studlar is here quoting Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons’s quote of the Code, which seems to be correct.)

So on the one hand, you have a production code that apparently fears that viewers, presumably unassuming people not normally tending to criminal activity, are going to be corrupted by visions of evil deeds. And then, on the other hand, you have a film where an average Joe with apparently little experience or natural inclination toward murder agrees to and in fact executes a murder. Ebert puts it this way:

But why did they do it? Phyllis was bored and her husband had lost a lot of money in the oil business, so she had a motive. But it’s as if the idea of murder materialized only because Neff did — right there in her living room, talking about insurance. . . .

Is Neff blinded by lust and greed? That’s the traditional reading of the film: weak man, strong woman. But he’s aloof, cold, hard, terse. He always calls her “baby,” as if she’s a brand, not a woman. His eyes are guarded and his posture reserved. He’s not moonstruck.

Which only leads me to the question: Is Walter Neff’s fatal flaw that he saw an uncensored movie that didn’t sufficiently condemn criminals, leading to his moral corruption?

And, in some sort of incredible meta-textual twist, could this movie have been Double Indemnity?

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