Editor Roundtable: Double Indemnity

This week we investigate the claims of Double Indemnity, the 1944 film noir classic about murder and insurance fraud, with screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. Leave a comment below or visit us on Twitter @StoryGridRT to let us know what you think of our analysis.

You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 13).

You can find the movie on iTunes or Amazon.

The Story

Here’s a synopsis of the movie adapted from Wikipedia.

In 1943, Walter Neff, a successful insurance salesman, returns to his office building in downtown Los Angeles late one night with a gunshot wound to his shoulder. He dictates his story through flashbacks to set the record straight for his friend and colleague, Barton Keyes, a gifted claims adjuster, whose gotten it all wrong.

Neff meets the alluring Phyllis Dietrichson during a routine house call to remind her husband to renew his car insurance. They flirt, and Phyllis asks how she can take out an accident policy on her husband’s life without his knowledge. Neff deduces that she is contemplating murder and makes it clear he wants no part of it.

But he can’t get her out of his mind, and when she shows up at his apartment, he can’t resist her. Together they plan to murder her husband and make it look like an accident, which will trigger the double indemnity clause that pays out twice the policy’s face value.

While Phyllis drives her husband to the train station, Neff hides in the back seat, and murders him. He then boards the train posing as the husband and jumps off at a prearranged meeting spot where he and Phyllis drag the husband’s body onto the tracks.

The insurance company head believes the death was suicide, but Neff’s friend Keyes scoffs at the idea. He suspects foul play and continues his investigation.

Keyes concludes that the man aboard the train was not Phyllis’s husband but her accomplice. A witness from the train provides corroboration. Now certain that he can prove murder, Keyes convinces the boss to reject the insurance claim.

Phyllis decides to pursues the claim in court despite the risk to both her and Neff. When Neff learns that there’s another man in Phyllis’s life, he arranges to meet Phyllis at her house, guessing that she is planning to have this other boyfriend kill him.

He tells her that he intends to kill her and blame the boyfriend. She’s prepared, however, and shoots him in the shoulder. He takes her gun and shoots her dead.

We return to the framing story, with Neff speaking into his Dictaphone. Keyes arrives unnoticed and hears enough to learn the truth. Neff tells him that he’s going to Mexico rather than face the gas chamber, but he sags to the floor from blood loss, and the film ends with the two men awaiting the police and an ambulance.

The Six Core Questions

Read about an Editor’s Six Core Questions here.

1. What’s the Global Genre? Crime > Noir

Leslie

Double Indemnity’s Global genre is the external genre: Crime > Murder Mystery > Noir. The Global Value is Justice/Injustice . The typical range of value for this genre is Justice to Unfairness to Injustice to Tyranny. The Morality aspect of the story is “baked in,” just as the Worldview genre is baked into a Love Story. 

Additional Comments 

Kim: I believe there is an internal genre: Morality > Punitive. Neff wasn’t exactly morally upright to begin with—he had no qualms about coming on strong to a married woman. That feels like his first mistake. If he had been more morally sound in his own right, he never would have been sucked in. It reminded me of something Leslie has said before about Status > Tragic: The character’s earlier mistake leads to their destruction. It turns out, this is a convention of Noir: a flawed, morally questionable, self-destructive protagonist who is not a detective but a victim, suspect, or perpetrator.

Valerie: Further to Kim’s point, when Neff agrees to go along with Phyllis’s plan, he says it gave him a chance to carry out a plan that had been percolating in his mind for a long time. So Neff might have been the patsy, but he’s not exactly squeaky clean to start with.

Anne: According to literary critic Norman Friedman, a  Morality > Punitive plot involves an essentially unsympathetic character with repugnant goals, admirable only for strength of will and sophistication (the “Machiavellian” hero-villain). Walter Neff fits the profile in some ways—we admire his clever plan while deploring his moral weakness. But traditionally, the Machiavellian hero ends up victimizing good people and rousing the audience’s pity. We definitely don’t feel pity for the plight of Neff’s victims, both of whom are pretty repugnant too.

Also, there is a secondary Obsession Love story. This subplot starts with desire, moves quickly to deadly obsession, and ends very, very badly for pretty much everyone except maybe the boyfriend (Nino). Without the Love > Obsession subplot, the story wouldn’t have happened.

Check out this post to learn more about Global Content Genres.

2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?

Obligatory Scenes

Valerie

  • An inciting crime: In keeping with the subgenre, the film is told in flashback. It picks up just after the inciting crime (the murder of Phyllis) has happened. The audience doesn’t realize Neff has committed this second murder until the end of the film.
  • Speech in praise of the villain: There are two villains: primarily Phyllis, but also Neff because he’s the one who commits two murders.
    • Phyllis: Neff initially praises the way Phyllis looks and says that she’s “swell, so long as [he’s] not her husband.”  Neff’s real speech in praise of the villain comes at the end of the film when he goes to Phyllis’s house to kill her. He realizes how evil she is and confronts her by outlining her plan. (“Now I believe you because it’s just rotten enough” / “We’re both rotten” / “Yeah, only you’re more rotten.”)  Phyllis’s step daughter also gives a speech in praise of the villain when she tells Neff about the way Phyllis murdered her mother.
    • Neff: Keyes praises Neff as a great insurance salesman and even offers him a promotion. In an office memo, Keyes personally vouches for him, saying he couldn’t be mixed up in the Dietrichson case.
  • Discovering and understanding the antagonist’s MacGuffin: The MacGuffin is the thing the antagonist wants. In this case, Phyllis wants (1) her husband dead and (2) insurance money flowing from his death. This unfolds in three different scenes.
    • Discovering the MacGuffin: About twenty minutes into the film, Phyllis invites Neff back to the house, ostensibly to discuss auto insurance renewal. She says she wants to buy a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowing. Neff puts things together very quickly (“Know what I mean, Walter?” / “Sure, I got good eyesight”).
    • Understanding the MacGuffin: In the next scene, Phyllis goes to Neff’s apartment to plead her case. He’s already told her that he won’t be part of her plan, but she says she’s a victim of domestic violence and will be penniless when her husband dies. This isn’t the whole truth, though.
    • A deeper understanding: After Dietrichson is killed and the insurance payout approved (approximately 1:15), the step daughter talks to Neff and reveals that Phyllis had also killed her mother. At 1:28, the step daughter reveals that her ex-boyfriend and Phyllis are a couple. This is when Neff (and the audience) truly understands Phyllis’s plan.
  • Progressively complicated search for clues: Keyes takes the role of detective in this film. He’s the one following clues and piecing things together.
    • At first Keyes believes that the death of Phyllis’s husband is an accident (coroner’s report, police report, and the slim chance that it is suicide based on actuary reports and his years of experience).
    • In the next scene, Keyes tells Neff that something is wrong with the case (his “little man” tells him so). He wonders why Dietrichson didn’t put in a claim when he broke his leg and questions whether the man knew he was insured. Keyes questions the mathematical probability of the situation (timing and nature of the incident) and begins to suspect murder.
    • Keyes tells Neff he believes Dietrichson was murdered, and outlines how he believes it was done. He realizes that Phyllis must have had an accomplice.
    • Keyes questions a witness from the train, who confirms that it was not Dietrichson who was on the train.
    • Phyllis files suit against the insurance company, and Keyes says that the somebody else (who turns out to be the step daughter’s ex-boyfriend) showed up. Neff listens to Keyes’s office memo and realizes he’s been investigated and that Keyes vouched for him.
  • Exposure of the criminal: In the opening scene of the film, Walter Neff dictates a memo to Keyes to set the record straight about who murdered Dietrichson.
  • Criminal is brought to justice or escapes justice: Neff tries to escape to Mexico to avoid justice (the gas chamber). However, he succumbs to his wound and collapses. Keyes calls the ambulance and police.

Additional Comment

Anne: I like how this movie turns the Hero’s Journey inside out. The Call to Adventure is Phyllis hinting that she’d like some help getting rid of her husband, a call that Walter Neff refuses. The Adventure is murder. It’s a mark of how well the story is structured that we’re hooked from the start and almost root for Walter Neff to get away with his clever crime. Keyes, who is on the side of justice, is seen as an antagonist.

Click here to learn more about Obligatory Scenes and Conventions.

Conventions

Kim

  • A MacGuffin: This is the villain’s object of desire, what the villain wants. It’s either conscious or subconscious.
    • Phyllis is a black widow pulling a long con, and her object of desire is to be free of her husband and independently wealthy. She’s already killed the first Mrs. Dietrichson, taken her place, and has been biding her time for the opportunity to be rid of her husband. She was foiled because his life insurance and property would pass solely to his daughter.
    • Walter explicitly states he did it for money and a woman, but he got neither.
  • Investigative Red Herrings: Seemingly revelatory false clues that mislead the protagonist/investigator.
    • Suicide: Keyes rules this out quickly.
    • Accident: Keyes decides it must be an accident, but then doubts his first assessment.
    • The ex-boyfriend’s involvement: Keyes thinks the ex-boyfriend helped Phyllis because he had no alibi for the night of the murder and he met with Phyllis several nights in a row. Neff comes to believe that Phyllis and ex-boyfriend had set him up from the beginning. He finds out Phyllis sets everyone up.
  • Making it personal: The villain needs the Protagonist to get the MacGuffin and thus must manipulate them to lead them to success. Phyllis is the ultimate villain of this story, looking for an opportunity to get rid of her husband. When she meets Neff, she uses knowledge in insurance and attraction to her to get his help with the murder.
  • Clock: There is a limited time for the protagonist or villain to act. There is a narrow window when they can execute the murder because of the train. The focus shifts to securing the insurance money (filing, claim denied, filing suit, and going to court).
  • Subgenre-specific conventions for Noir:
    • A self-destructive protagonist who is not a detective, but instead is the victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator.
    • The femme fatale: an alluring woman motivated by greed, who manipulates the protagonist and others for her own gain, bringing about their ultimate downfall or death.
    • Legal, political, or other system: The system is as corrupt as the perpetrator, and the protagonist is either victimized by the system or is required to victimize others through the system on a daily basis. This leads to a lose-lose situation.
    • Pessimistic worldview: Before the story opens, the protagonist is already disillusioned as a result of their corrupt world. They act with cynicism and flawed morality, which in turn leads to their doom, reinforcing the cynical worldview.

Check out this post to learn more about the conventions of the Noir Story.

3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?

Leslie

The story is told from the point of view of Walter Neff. The framing story takes place in the present, where we begin and end the story. Neff is “setting [Keyes] right” (rather than confessing) by dictating an office memorandum. Most of the events are revealed through flashback with Neff’s voiceover cutting in to give us his hard-won perspective. Like The Bridges of Madison County, this creates dramatic irony. We know it ends badly, and we can’t look away because we’re curious about why a man might do this and how he came to be in the position.

Conventions for the film (what we might equate with sales category conventions) include venetian blind lighting (reminiscent of prison stripes), dust for filming in the Dietrichson house to make it seem dirty, dissonant music score, photography using shadows. If you’re writing a novel or short story, think about how you could recreate this atmosphere in writing. Think about word choice, pacing, description, and other elements.

Check out these posts to learn more about Point of View and Narrative Devices.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?

Leslie

Wants: Neff wants Phyllis Dietrichson and her ankles. He wants the money, but it seems to be a means to the end of having Phyllis.

Needs: Neff needs to abandon his selfish motives and see justice done, but instead is more interested in appearing clever.

Click here to learn more about Objects of Desire.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?

Leslie

Tyranny reigns when the perpetrator outwits the investigator by rigging or outwitting the system.

Initially and during the episode, I concluded the Controlling Idea/Theme was Justice prevails when the protagonist abandons his selfish motives and outwits the antagonist. (I modified the typical Crime Story Controlling Idea/Theme for this Noir Story to incorporate the Morality aspect.) In subsequent discussions with Anne, I realized that Neff wasn’t pursuing justice. If he had been, he would have turned himself in rather than trying to escape to Mexico. In fact, if he hadn’t been so bent on proving that he’s the smart one, he could have left for Mexico without setting Keyes straight. Justice is done here, but not through the action of the protagonist.

Click here to learn more about Controlling Ideas and Themes.

What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

Jarie

Beginning Hook

  1. Inciting incident: Walter Neff meets Phyllis at her home.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Walter discusses all the ways Dietrichson could die since he has an inkling of what Phyllis wants to do. He confronts her. She denies it. He leaves. She comes by his apartment.
  3. Crisis Question: Does Walter let Phyllis into his apartment?
  4. Climax: Walter lets Phyllis into his apartment. They talk about things. He tells her to leave. They kiss. Walter talks about the ways wives have gotten caught killing their husbands. They talk about how he abuses her, divorce, how broke her husband is, and how mean she is. She tells Neff that her husband is broke, and the current insurance policy would go to her step daughter.
  5. Resolution: Walter tells her to think about it. He agrees, and the film cuts to dictating the memo to Keyes. He confesses that he cares about Phyllis

Middle Build

  1. Inciting incident: Walter tells Phyllis that he’ll help her kill her husband. “It has to be perfect. Straight down the line.” Walter comes to the house gets Dietrichson to sign the form.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Dietrichson breaks his leg, which delays his train trip, but the doctor clears him. Neff encounters someone on the smoking deck, but manages to get rid of him. The car won’t start after they’ve left Dietrichson’s body on the tracks. The insurance company executive believes Dietrichson committed suicide. They offer her a deal.
  3. Crisis Question: Should Phyllis take the deal?
  4. Climax: Phyllis tells the executive that she hates him and can’t believe he would say such a thing about her husband.
  5. Resolution: Phyllis storms out. She will not take the deal. Keyes makes the case against suicide.

Ending Payoff 

  1. Inciting incident: Keyes goes to Neff’s apartment and says he’s suspicious of the claim. Keyes goes over the math and thinks it’s foul play.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Dietrichson’s daughter follows her boyfriend and learns that Phyllis is seeing him. Neff finds the recordings that Keyes made to the president. Neff goes to Phyllis’s house to confront her. She has a plan of her own. He tells her how she planned to use him as a stooge. She gives her speech.
  3. Crisis Question: Does Walter kill Phyllis to keep her quiet?
  4. Climax: They confront each other. Phyllis shoots Walter. He grabs the gun from her. She says she never loved him “until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot.” Neff does not believe her and shoots twice, killing Phyllis.
  5. Resolution: Neff confesses to Keyes through the dictation, who overhears him. Neff can’t make it to the elevator and confesses to Keyes that he loves him, too, that’s why he wants to “set him straight.” Keyes lights Neff’s cigarette.

Additional Comments

Anne: The Point of No Return is at almost exactly the 50 percent mark of the movie, when Walter commits the murder.

Jarie: Anne’s midpoint shift is when the doctor allows the husband to go on the train. There are so many other complications: The trip to Palo Alto has to be on the train to trigger the double indemnity clause in the policy. This will be hard since he normally drives. The step daughter is in Walter’s car. She confesses to him that she is seeing someone. The trip is off! He broke his leg.

Click here to learn more about the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Leslie: James M. Cain’s story was inspired by Ruth Snyder’s murder of her husband for insurance, a crime for which she was executed in 1928. (This case is famous for a few reasons, not the least of which is that a photographer snuck an ankle camera into the execution and managed to get a photo of her dying.) Cain included executions in his story. Wilder and Chandler originally included an execution scene in the screenplay, but after filming the final scene that appears in the movie, decided it wasn’t needed. Wilder and Chandler came up with the dictaphone framing device, which Cain said he would’ve used if he had thought of it.

This is a very early example of Noir film and the first time means, motive, and opportunity were explored in the context of a murder story. This is a necessary element of Noir because the criminal has been exposed, and the reader/audience member needs to be something to keep them intrigued. Exploration of and curiosity about what would cause someone to commit the crime still fascinates audiences. Inspiration for the motive of the inside-guy accomplice came from a printer who allowed an unfortunate misspelling of TUCK to appear on a billboard. His explanation:, “[Y]ou do nothing your whole life but watch for something like that happening, so as to head it off, and then, … you catch yourself watching for chances to do it.”

Jarie: It’s great how Walter always lights Keyes’ cigars and then Keyes lights Walter’s cigarette. Nice way to payoff all those setups, which this movie does great.

The ending payoff resolution actually is what starts the movie off, or at least the starting of the ending payoff resolution with Walter “setting Keyes straight.” Even though you know the ending, you don’t really know the twists and turns. It’s like Titanic, you know it won’t end well but have not idea about the twists and turns to get there.

Anne: Repeated rail motifs: The opening scene shows Walter narrowly missing some workers on the trolley line. Keyes says that two murders working together are on the same trolley, and have to ride it together to the end of the line, which is the cemetery. Phyllis and Neff talk repeatedly about going “straight down the line” together, and of course the murder itself depends on a train. The repeated motif unifies the story visually and thematically. A bit heavy-handed by today’s standards, but it still gives the feeling of a solid core of meaning—the story is on rails and will roll to its inevitable conclusion in the cemetery.

Valerie: A note for Raymond Chandler fans: He makes his one and only film appearance in this movie. A cameo at approximately sixteen minutes. He’s sitting outside Keyes’s office reading a novel when Neff walks by.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

Join us again next time when we put food on the Roundtable as we study the 2015 Big Idea Nonfiction documentary In Defense of Food, by Edward Gray and based on the book by Michael Pollan. Watch it with us and follow along next week. 

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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