Honeysuckle Murder: (A Memorandum on) Death in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (and the Futility of Writing About It)

Double Indemnity | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Before the cynic-sweet and bloodspilt ending that loops back to the film’s beginning like a noose woven with now-familiar braids—the dogged investigator, the fuckstruck sap of a killer, the slush-blooded femme fatale, and the perfect murder that binds this fate-twined ouroboros with a hangman’s knot—there is an opening credits sequence that is at once elementary in its execution and complex in its implications. Against a sullen gray backdrop, a dark figure marches inexorably forward, some four-legged horror of a man, two fleshed feet flanked by two wooden crutches, lumbering directly toward us. Beneath a tilted fedora and above an endless railroad line—the music rumbling into a queasy throb of slowstomp doom—this shadowy silhouette approaches, growing larger, consuming more and more of the light around it, like some kind of black hole of a man. 

Now, it could be this figure is just the film’s fate-cursed husband with the broken leg, lurching towards a twist-neck death beside his hungrily scheming wife. Or it could be that this is the murderous insurance salesman who later disguises himself as the dead husband in order to steal both his wife and his life. Could be. Maybe.

Or maybe it’s Something Else. Maybe it’s the thing that touches them both. The thing that so defines the shape of both men’s lives that it eventually mirrors them just as it consumes them. The big sleep. The long goodbye. That which renders all efforts to surpass it pointless. Death, barreling down the train tracks like some hellmotored locomotive to the end of the line, the place where we see that all our lives and efforts are “a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”

Before a word is uttered, a single joke is cracked, or a single body is screwed or shot—or both—Double Indemnity suggests that death renders nearly every action a futile one. How can any decision matter if they all lead the decision-maker to the same grave?

It’s a curious way to start a film. But then, it’s a curious film: A crackerjack pulp thriller that alternately smirked and shocked its way into defining both an expanding cinematic genre and a director’s burgeoning career with its gallows vantage, all while maybe letting slip the secret of life as it nuzzled up against (and made a joke, seduction, and parable out of) death itself. 

~ ~ ~ 

To: Chad Perman

From: Travis Woods

Subject: The Double Indemnity piece for Bright Wall/Dark Room’s Billy Wilder Issue

Dear Chad—

Suppose you’ll call this a cop-out when you read it. Well, I don’t like the term “cop-out.” I just wanted to set you right about something concerning the Billy Wilder issue that you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose. You think you’re such a hot potato as editor-in-chief; such a wolf about sniffing out a hot pitch. Maybe you are. But let’s take another look at what I pitched for Bright Wall’s Wilder issue…the Double Indemnity piece.

I was doing pretty good there for a minute, Chad. I’m a film noir man and I know my way around the crooked-cracked moral sidewalks of the genre, the toxic masculinity and suppressed sexuality and the bourbon and the bullets and the broads. So you figured I had this piece all wrapped up in tissue paper with pink ribbons around it. It was pretty perfect—except it wasn’t, because you made one mistake. Just one little mistake. When it came to picking a film to close out the Wilder issue, you picked the wrong one. Hold tight to that e-cig of yours, Chad: I can’t write about Double Indemnity. Nobody can. Not anymore. I get as far as the end of the opening credits and it all dries up. A 76-year-old film with reviews, thinkpieces, explications, and exegeses explaining it, decoding it, reevaluating it, decrying it, and otherwise lionizing it for each of those 76 years, multiple times over, as it lies there cold on the slab, all the typewriter- and laptop-coroners of the last almost-century crammed sardine-tight into the room, hoping for a fresh view:

–   Essays canonizing it not as the movie that created film noir (for that, you’d turn to mugs like They Drive by Night or Stranger on the Third Floor), but the one that defined film noir by containing every single element the genre requires (from a European émigré director to narrated flashbacks to a script based on American pulp fiction)? Check.

–   Examinations of the suppressed homoeroticism that aches between the killer salesman Neff and his claims adjustor mentor, Keyes (“I love you, too”), all sublimated into an unspoken, cigarette-manifested phallicism that could still throb and thrust beneath the cocked eyebrows of the Hays Code? Check.

–   How about a few hundred or so inquiries into the nature of the femme fatale and her ambiguous positioning in Double Indemnity—from money-lusting monster to death-obsessed metaphor to a woman with no other means than sex, violence, and manipulation to assert her agency in a culture somehow even more repressive and misogynist than our own current stretch? Check.

–   Maybe a little number on how James Cain’s original 1936 novella (itself a pretty crass cash-in on Cain’s 1934 smash hit, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Double doubles with yet another tale of a patsy fuckgrifted by an icy blonde into killing a clueless husband) had sex and murder to spare but none of the ginned-up prose needed to snap on the big screen—so the Austrian-born Wilder, a director with only two minor American films of apprentice work under his belt and tasked with adapting the thing, hired the prickly, alcoholic hardboiled author Raymond Chandler to hack out a better script…and in doing so, their hate-hate union (you’ll remember, Wilder was a fast-talking bon vivant who chased skirts almost as fast as the prude, moralistic Chandler chased lacerating, witty one-liners) created a tone never seen before in American film? Check…but if that hot dog’s a little too dry for you, put a little mustard on it: How about the fact that the fizzy fusion of opposites that Wilder and Chandler brought to bear in Double Indemnity not only came to define film noir for the next half-century, but its alchemical mélange of the sweetness and the sour of life created the tonal magnetic north that defined Wilder’s indelible work for the rest of his life? That’s a check, alright.

It’s all been done, and the inevitability of that realization makes any path I choose as futile as firefighting in Hell. On and on it goes, Chad, and then some. Spin the roulette wheel of topics and you’re sure to hit a numbered pocket that’s been scratched and dented to death by that goddamned ball, making just about any roll a pointless one. Pretty, isn’t it?

~ ~ ~ 

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money—and a woman—and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”

As blood oozes from his body in an oil-black monochrome, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) mutters a memorandum of murder into a dictaphone as he slowly dies inside the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company—the final, fatal irony to a misspent life, coming as it is to an end within a building dedicating to insuring against death. It’s a pre-dawn confession to his coworker, mentor, and single-minded claims investigator, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson)—a man who, in James Cain’s novella, is a barely-there plot device goosing the plot forward with his investigation into the murder, but who, in the film, becomes the avatar of director/co-writer Billy Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler’s joint humanity—a man by turns caustically cynical in his observations of the human condition and almost romantically beholden to defending humanity at all costs. As such, Neff thus delivers his memorandum not just to Keyes, but also to Wilder/Chandler: a man confessing to his literal maker(s), laying bare how he tried to cheat life at death’s game.

And as the life pumps out of him, so does his story…or rather, the end of his story—beginning with the day in which his inevitable death finally took shape, cohering around him with each successive decision he made, while also making any further decisions increasingly futile and senseless in the shadow-face of the death he has attracted. For if the world of film noir is one mostly backboned by a philosophy of determinism—the ethos that precludes free will and holds that all events and choices are determined by external forces, negating any human agency1—then the world of Double Indemnity is shaded beneath a strange cataract of bastardized determinism that’s been a little roughhoused by free will, in which the self still applies. All events in Double Indemnity are indeed pre-determined, in that they all lead to inexorable entropy and death, but here human beings are able to choose—often inadvertently—the form of that inevitable end through a free will motored more often than not by blind selfishness. All are still extraordinarily and inflexibly fucked, and yet our own free will and the urges that drive it thread the individual noose that hangs above each of our heads.

Neff ties his own noose-knot the day he meets the sultry and sullen housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), an unhappily married woman he encounters on a suncrushed LA afternoon when calling on her husband to renew his car insurance. After a hot-cold-hot back and forth of machine-gunned flirtation over a series of one-on-one house calls in which Neff is increasingly hypnotized by her lip-sneered sexuality, it becomes clear: Phyllis intends to take a secret policy out on Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) and then murder him for the payout. And Neff is disgusted—not because Phyllis plans to murder her husband, but because she thinks he’s clueless enough an insurance salesman to be talked into selling her the secret policy and then be summarily dismissed from this story entirely. It’s not the murder he frowns on, it’s the lack of recognition.

Brash and arrogant (having worked in the insurance biz for over a decade, he’s cloaked in the blithe overconfidence of a man who knows everything about his job and nothing about anything else), Neff feels the world is his for the taking, but has long lacked the motivation to grab at anything worthwhile, secretly seething for an opportunity to prove his supremacy over life. His existence is an empty one in which he feels trapped by his work,2 and was never handed the silver platter opportunity to prove he’s smarter than the very system he represents. Despite Keyes’ repeated requests to partner with him as a claims investigator and make something of himself, Neff isn’t interested in settling for a good life—he wants to show his supremacy by stealing a greater life than he’s entitled to. And Phyllis Dietrichson’s haphazard murder plot offers up exactly what he’s been waiting all this time to demonstrate:

It was all tied up with something I’d been thinking about for years. Since long before I ever ran into Phyllis Dietrichson. Because, you know how it is Keyes, in this business you can’t sleep for trying to figure out all the tricks they could pull on you. You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don’t crook the house. And then one night, you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself. And do it smart. Because you’ve got that wheel right under your hands. You know every notch in it by heart. And you figure all you need is a plant out front, a shill to put down the bet.

Neff takes charge of the plan not because he loves Phyllis,3 but because a plant has finally stepped out of the crowd and placed a bet on the wheel he’s been looking to crook his whole life. And as he drifts into the Dietrichson home for the first time, the now-familiar genre trope of slats of Venetian-sliced sun fall upon him like bars enmeshing him in a trap, because in a way, they are—as he notes later, in his memorandum, “the machinery had started to move and nothing could stop it.” His every choice has led him here, to this house of death on Los Feliz Boulevard and the shape of the consequences to come.

Or, as he notes to Keyes about the night of the murder, “nothing had slipped, nothing had been overlooked, there was nothing to give us away. And yet, Keyes, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

~ ~ ~

I was so sure I could crack this walnut, but I realized with greater and greater surety, each time the film sped along to its predestined ending, bullet-hard and bullet-fast, that I was a goner. I should have taken your warning to skip this one, Chad—“We need a Double Indemnity piece for this issue,” you’d said, “so only take this if you’re sure you can get it to the finish line.” And I’m at the finish line, Chad, just not the way you meant it—I’m finished for sure. It was stupid to think I could tackle a jewel this high in The Canon’s crown, and yet here I am, smudging the thing dull with my dirty pretender’s fingerprints, all the while the Deadline looms over my shoulder, smirking. The Deadline I set upon myself by taking this job in the first place, in my arrogance and my foolish, prideful need to prove I could pull it off. “This’ll be a waltz,” I’d told you that day. And I’m waltzing, all right. Dancing atop my very own grave.

When I took the offer, I felt a little like those kids in Double Indemnity’s first flashback. You know the ones—the three kids, maybe 14 or 15 years old, playing stickball in the street just outside of the Dietrichson house when Walter Neff pulls up to it for the first and fateful time. Those kids had not a worry in the world and only the joy of the game and no idea something was coming round the corner…Probably that sounds funny to you. But there was more coming round the corner than just Neff’s sleek Dodge Business Coupe. 

You ever wonder, Chad, given Wilder’s personal history—born to Polish Jews, with his mother, stepfather, and grandmother murdered in the Nazi death camps years later—why he set Indemnity in 1938 instead of its release year of 1944, or even 1936, the year the novella first appeared in serial form? Well, I’ve got a honey of an idea as to why—and I’ll tell you. Indemnity is set in 1938, just one year before the start of World War II in 1939. You see it? Death on a scale never imagined is looming just around the corner for damn near every character in this film…and that includes those kids, Chad. Like Neff and Phyllis and Mr. Dietrichson, they are making decisions—maybe not in that very scene, but soon, all right—that will place them in a position to be or not be drafted into a war machine that left over 70 million dead. And it’s all right around the corner and not a one of them can see it. It had to be ’38: the last chance anyone had to make a choice before Death’s grip took hold. 

In a film like Double Indemnity, it’s that kind of mean, smirking logic of Wilder’s that holds sway over all. 

~ ~ ~ 

“He’s so mean to me. Every time I buy a dress or a pair of shoes, he yells his head off. He never lets me go anywhere. He keeps me shut up. He’s always been mean to me.”

So Phyllis spits out about the soon-to-be-late Mr. Dietrichson, not so much to Neff (who’s sitting beside her), but directly into the void of the middle distance that her eyes have locked into with more hate and passion and fury than Neff has the good sense to recognize. Like Neff, Phyllis has been waiting a long time for her own shill to step up to the roulette wheel and lay down a bet in the game she means to cheat. And while her reasoning for doing so might be different, her choices, like Walter’s, engender the same ending: Death by murder. For Mr. Dietrichson, for Neff, and for herself. A death she begins to inadvertently weave the second she sizes her patsy up and mutters “you’re a smart insurance man, aren’t you, Mr. Neff?” 

She’ll later contend that “we’re both rotten,” but what drives her and Neff to their deaths are wildly different impulses. Neff means to prove himself smarter that the system that has (in his mind) shackled him, while Phyllis means to be shackled—by avarice. There’s a hollow acquisitiveness to her, slicked over by a veneer of cheap beauty. And it’s that veneer that Walter can’t see beyond (at first), a veneer he even finds attractive, which draws him into the pocket of the roulette wheel that goddamns them both. He senses it, though, in his own clever-stupid way, the second he pulls past children playing in the street and rolls into the Dietrichson driveway for the first time—noting the house to be “one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago” with a towering condescension towards its empty aesthetics, his nose working overtime. “It was a hot afternoon and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all around that street,” he muses in his confession. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

It’s here, in the beginning of the end of their tale, that Neff is able to suss out the soursweet menace that radiates off of Phyllis like radio waves and into the air around her, a smog of honeysuckle resting atop the decadent rot corroding her world to the bone beneath that perfumed air. Yet in his arrogance, in his pursuit of that which he feels will make his life justified in living, he’s blind to that dormant putrefaction beneath. Even when he notices the garish “honey of an anklet” that cuffs Phyllis’ ankle and the atrociously ludicrous hairstyle4 that crowns her skull, Neff allows himself to be drawn into this world of betrayal and murder, ignoring all the warning signs that lurk beneath her empty masks, pulling him towards an early end. And just as Neff follows the hollow path to his end, so too does Phyllis.

Phyllis is driven by an insatiable greed, a need for wealth and for comfort and for things; originally the nurse for the first Mrs. Dietrichson, Phyllis made Mr. Dietrichson a widow before marrying into his money and his mansion. Now there, she plots to kill him and pocket the insurance payout. Phyllis is a vortex of consumption; while Neff’s entombment was built by the venetian bars of light forming around him as he let himself consider Phyllis’ murderous plan, the lifetrap Phyllis builds for herself is constructed of walls and walls of things. The place where she and Neff meet daily to plot out the murder is a convenience store, in which Phyllis is constantly hemmed in by towering stacks of faceless brand products to be purchased. Both killers are motivated by the systems that govern their lives and passions—Walter wishes to rebel against his like an existential terrorist, while Phyllis craves the ability to buy into hers. Both see their plans as the only way to give their lives meaning in the time they have before certain death takes them, and both make their deaths certain by spinning the wheel of murder.

“Nobody’s pulling out,” Phyllis coolly purrs to Neff when they realize Keyes and All Risk are beginning to sniff past the honeysuckle of their murder plot and link them to the dead Mr. Dietrichson. “We went into this together and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us. Remember?” 

~ ~ ~

So that’s where we stand, Chad; or rather, it’s where you stand and I fall. It seems any path I take to get my arms around this thing is going to leave both extremities in slings big enough to hold up either end of the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s the thing about this racket, the thing they don’t tell you going in—be careful of the movie you chase after. Sure, you may be crazy about the thing; hell, you may even have yourself convinced that you love it a little. But sometimes you think you love something, and then you reach out to grab hold of it—poof. There’s nothing there. At least, nothing to say, nothing to write home about. You can love some of these movies so damn much, but when the moment of truth comes, you find you have nothing to say about them beyond just that: You love it. But by that point it’s too late, and that Deadline is right there, because you called it on yourself. Called it like a Yellow Cab in the rain, frantic and waving, and now it’s dropping you off and the cabbie watches as you pull out two dirty pockets where you thought you had fare. All the while that Deadline just sits there, smiling at the futility of it all, and you can’t do anything but let it take you. 

So I guess that’s the lesson learned today. Fitting, I guess, that it took a movie I love as much as Double Indemnity to do it to me—after all, that’s the tone of the whole film, isn’t it? That classic Wilder blend of sweet and sour. Only a movie that good could make me feel this bad. But that Wilder dichotomy is built into the thing from the ground up. Hell, even the film’s structure is assembled around that idea. Here, drive this around the block a few times, see how it fits you:

For the first time in American cinema, here’s a film whose first hour is dedicated to allowing its audience to vicariously experience the thrill of murder. Sure, some of the old crime pictures of the ’30s had killers for main characters, but always—as the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller puts it—“professional criminals in morality tales about social forces driving people to become criminals.” Indemnity is different. Walter and Phyllis were average Joe and Jane Americans like you or me. Normal folks turning bad against the system for the pure selfish thrill of it all. And for the first time, Wilder gave audiences a taste of that, let us thrill and revel in it the way Walter and Phyllis do as they try to cheat life by dealing death to another—and end up calling down their own. And that’s where the sour comes in, the film’s second hour when Chandler’s morality rears up and takes the reins, and we see how doomed these lovers are for chasing their own grim fairy tales instead of seeing what was smack up against their noses. But that’s just it, isn’t it—sometimes what’s smack against your nose is the hardest damned thing to see.

~ ~ ~

“Those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They’re alive. They’re packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claims man, Walter, is a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor all in one. And you want to tell me you’re not interested. You don’t want to work with your brains. All you want to do is work with your finger on the doorbell for a few bucks more a week.”

So Barton Keyes rants to Neff just before Double Indemnity’s halfway point as he struggles to convince Neff to work by his side as his partner. Just before Neff breaks Mr. Dietrichson’s neck that night and boards a train in his name, so that the dead man’s broken body, laid atop nearby railroad tracks, will appear to have fallen from the train’s rear lounge car. Just before the film metamorphs from breathlessly entertaining and illicit thriller to deathbound march. Unbeknownst to both men, Keyes is laying out the trajectory of both men’s fates. Keyes can’t see it’s already too late for Neff—not only has the machinery of the murder plot started to move like clockwork to its inescapable conclusion for Mr. Dietrichson, it has also created the circumstances of Neff and Phyllis’ self-determinist doom, in which their growing paranoia following the murder will twist them both against one another, and each partner will put a bullet in the other. Neff can’t see it’s an offer like this, an offer which he glibly ignores and has likely been ignoring for years, that would have saved his life.

And it’s here that—amidst all the crackling dialogue and shocking delights and grim horrors—Double Indemnity reveals itself as something other than a brilliantly whip-smart crime film. In the second half of the film, Barton Keyes’ voice and morality becomes clearest; this avatar of a conjoined Wilder and Chandler at times shouts his (and their) message right at the screen, a message easy for the other characters (and their viewers) to miss, because it’s right smack up against all of our noses:

In a life that will eventually be cut short by death, what we already have might be more than enough. It might be everything.

Time and again, the characters of Double Indemnity doom themselves to an early death because they are incapable of appreciating the privileges and opportunities available to them. Given the film’s wildly racy and modernist bent, it’s a surprisingly conservative point of view, but it’s one that tracks: If only Neff had recognized the value of Keyes’ offer instead of chasing his egoist need to beat the system, he’d have opened the door to a life of friendship and the dignity of work. And Phyllis, already a murderer, could have lived a long and comfortable life as the Mrs. Dietrichson she killed to become, instead of killing again to score a $100,000 payout. Indeed, right up until the end, Neff is blind to what’s before his very nose—when Phyllis surprises him with a gunshot to the shoulder, she can’t finish the job, admitting that while she never really loved him before, she can’t put another bullet in him, and realizes it’s because she loves him now. Literally nose to nose, Neff hardly hears her as he puts a bullet of his own in her heart, dispatching the one person who could truly love him despite his monstrousness. 

So often, the answer to all our questions, the solution to our lives, is just before us as we chase after some arbitrary goal, some gold anklet, some roulette wheel score that will open every door and grant every wish. And in the end, the chase results in futility, and the real treasure—be it a job or a friend or a love—is lost, and all that is left is the same shadow-figure that awaits us all.

Or so Keyes (and Chandler, and Wilder) surely thinks as he discovers Neff bleeding his life’s blood all over the floors of the All Risk Insurance Company, recording his memorandum-confession about everything lost and nothing gained. Nothing, that is, aside from a simple truth that might just be the secret to life itself—the one thing to clutch tight in the face of futile death. If only we weren’t so bitterly blind to all until it’s far too late, our life’s movie playing out its final reel.

“Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you,” Neff murmurs after falling to the floor in a bloodied and fedora’d heap. “’Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from you.” 

Keyes, armed with all the knowledge in the world and now no one to share it with, can only answer, “Closer than that, Walter.”

~ ~ ~

It’s a funny thing, Chad—well, maybe not the kind of funny that makes you laugh, more the kind that makes you cry in the fuzzy pre-dawn hours as the morning cold sets into your bones no matter how hot the LA around me gets—I suppose there was enough here, in all these complaints of mine, to string together some kind piece on the damn movie after all, something about life and death and futility and all that…But it’s too late for that now, isn’t it? The Deadline’s here, come for me like I always knew it would from the second I set eyes on this issue and made my pitch for it. I called it down on myself, and in all my bellyaching I never saw that the words and ideas were smack up against my nose the whole time.

So much right there in front me—so many ideas and laughs and thrills, and here I suckered myself into this loser’s spin of a confession. But hey—that’s Double Indemnity for you, isn’t it? Remember what Keyes said? How these are stories that are alive, packed with drama and twisted hopes and crooked dreams? Well, he was right. That’s Double Indemnity for you. That’s life. That’s death. And that’s Billy Wilder.

  1. Or, as hardboiled author James Ellroy has defined it, the philosophy of noir films “exposited one great theme, and that theme is: You’re fucked.”
  2. Note how in the film’s opening sequence, in which the bloodied Neff stumbles into the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company, he takes a long and lonely moment while bleeding to death to disdainfully stare at the rows and rows of desks and typewriters that spread out across the office in the level below—his life’s work, which he views as quite literally beneath him.
  3. Indeed, it could just as easily be lust; either way, both feelings disappear the second Walter breaks Mr. Dietrichson’s neck with his own crutch.
  4. A wig worn by Stanwyck, and one Wilder would come to regret. Later in life, though, he would jokingly justify the choice. “Fortunately it did not hurt the picture. But it was too thick, we were not very clever about wig-making. But when people say, ‘My god, that wig. It looked phony,’ I answer ‘You noticed that? That was my intention. I wanted the phoniness in the girl, bad taste, phony wig.’ That is how I get out of it.”