Double Indemnity, a film noir of 1944 directed by Billy Wilder concerns two sets of doubles. There is the “double indemnity” of the insurance policy: in the case of certain rare forms of death, the accident insurance policy will pay double the face value. In the case of this story, a $50,000 policy will pay $100,000 if the death occurs on a train. There is also a second, psychological and moral doubling of the characters.
Briefly, the story concerns a plot by insurance salesman Walter Neff and discontented second-wife, Phyllis Dietrichson to murder Phyllis’s husband on a train to collect the double indemnity payment. But the real point of the story is the judgment upon Neff.
The story is framed by the wounded Neff struggling into the insurance headquarters in the middle of the night. Neff comes to his office and there dictates a confession to insurance fraud examiner Barton Keyes.
This creates an interesting doubling in the structure of the story. At the primary level, the story concerns the confession and judgment of Neff’s fraud and murder. Keyes suspects fraud and murder, but Keyes has failed to suspect his friend Neff as the criminal. (In fact, Keyes has even invited Neff to join him as a fraud investigator.)
At a secondary level is the play-out of the plot. The story is told from the perspective of Neff. Most of the movie consists of watching the characters play-out Neff’s confession.
The doubling begins prior to the opening of the action. “Mr. Dietrichson” was previously married. Phyllis attended the late wife as the wife’s nurse. After the wife died, the widower married the nurse.
Our story opens with Neff coming to the Dietrichson house (a “$30,000 house” in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles). Neff is there to obtain a renewal on the Dietrichson car insurance policy.
While there, Phyllis asks if Neff sells accident insurance. This starts the plot moving.
The perplexing thing about this plot is how quickly and easily Neff advances on this plot. Phyllis has had the opportunity to develop bitterness toward her admittedly difficult husband. But Neff instantly sees the plot and moves the scheme along even more quickly than Phyllis. Phyllis presents the opportunity to commit the crime, and also draws out Neff’s lust.
The lack of development of Neff’s joining into the plot is curious. In the first meeting with Phyllis, he comes onto her with remarkable aggressiveness. The meeting ends with her telling Neff to come by in the evening, but then leaves him a message at work to come by Thursday afternoon.
At this meeting, Neff accuses her of wanting the accident policy so that she can murder her husband and take the money. The exchange reads as follows:
Who’d you think I was, anyway? A guy
that walks into a good-looking dame’s
front parlor and says “Good afternoon,
I sell accident insurance on husbands.
You got one that’s been around too
long? Somebody you’d like to turn
into a little hard cash? Just give
me a smile and I’ll help you collect.”
Boy, what a dope I must look to you!
I think you’re rotten.
I think you’re swell. So long as I’m
not your husband.
Get out of here.
You bet I will. You bet I’ll get out
of here, baby. But quick.
Shortly thereafter, Phyllis shows up at Neff’s apartment (his address is in the phone book). Just before she arrives, Neff makes the following confession:
“It had begun to rain outside and I watched it get dark and didn’t even turn on the light. That didn’t help me either. I was all twisted up inside, and I was still holding on to that red-hot poker. And right then it came over me that I hadn’t walked out on anything at all, that the hook was too strong, that this wasn’t the end between her and me. It was only the beginning.”
After she enters, they are overcome with passion. Each says to the other, “I’m crazy about you.” And crazy they are.
Neff knows it is wrong. He knows that Keyes will figure it out – and also that he can outsmart Keyes. But what are we to make of this double, Neff and Phyllis?
She seems to be functioning in the story as “The Shadow” of Jungian psychology (one does not need to subscribe to Jungian psychology to see its forms being used in a narrative; many writers deliberately incorporated Jungian forms into their writing; e.g., Star Wars):
The shadow is a moral problems that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance…. Closer examination of the dark characteristics—that is, the inferiorities constituting the shadow—reveals they have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality. Emotion, incidentally, is not an activity of the individual but something that happens to him. (The Portable Jung, Hull, Campbell, Penguin, p. 145)
Neff’s discussions with Phyllis proceed in such a manner as if he already knows all that she wants and is leading her out even as he desires her.
Phyllis and Neff will eventually murder Mr. Dietrichson and throw his body from the train.
The dead husband functions as a sort of double to Neff. He is what Neff should have been (Keyes and Neff even discuss why neither has ever gotten married). Neff disposes of domestic structures when he murders a husband along with a wife who murdered a wife.
Another double comes to the fore after the murder. The daughter of Dietrichson’s first marriage, Lola (a rival of Phyllis) and Neff take up a sort of relationship. This one is not romantic and certainly not lustful. It is more of a father for a daughter. In Jungian terms she is the “anima”. She is a sort of soul, and “possesses all the outstanding characteristics of a feminine being.” (151)
Lola is thus a double to Phyllis, a double of innocence in contrast to the seduction and murder of Phyllis, but also a double to Neff. Lola interestingly discloses two important facts to Neff. First, from Lola Neff learns that Phyllis acted to kill the first wife by leaving the windows open during a storm when the first wife was dying from pneumonia in her bedroom. Second, Lola tells Neff that Phyllis was trying on mourning attire prior to the murder.
And thus, one aspect of Neff’s double informs on the other aspect of Neff’s double.
There is one other double to Neff, Nico. Nico is Lola’s boyfriend. From Keyes, Neff learns that Nico has been visiting Phyllis at her house at night ever since the murder: this is also when Neff had stopped seeing Phyllis so as to avoid suspicion.
Nico is sort of a stunted version of Neff, and also a more naïve Neff.
On the final night of the story, Neff confronts Phyllis in her house. Phyllis shoots Neff but does not kill him. Neff approaches and she says she loves him. Neff takes the gun and kills Phyllis. Outside the house, he waits for Nico. He stops Nico, tells him to leave and go back to Lola
“She’s in love with you. Always has been. Don’t ask me why. I couldn’t even guess.”
And thus, he rescues Nico. It is now, when a wounded shoulder that he returns to the insurance office and there begins to dictate his confession to Keyes.
In Jungian terms, Neff integrates and then dispatches his Shadow by receiving help from his Anima. He also redeems by the whole by presenting his integration to a sort of Father who judges and in a last act then shows mercy to Neff. (In the final scene, Keyes shows up at the office, having been tipped off by the janitor. It is still night. Neff makes his confession. When Neff collapses due to loss of blood, he takes out a cigarette. Neff has repeatedly provided a match for Keyes whenever he smokes a cigar. This time, Keyes in an act of kindness lights Neff’s cigarette.)