The Walls Are Closing In.
American Film Institute Ranking: #38/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for seven, including best picture, director and actress, but losing all seven.
The story goes that this was a hard movie to get approved to make — those in charge felt like the script’s content and story were too maniacal and didn’t pass the Movie Picture Production Code for moral standards. The characters are indeed awful, and there was more than one time that it made my skin crawl. The set up is a a classic reiteration of trying to commit the perfect murder to collect on an insurance policy, but this time it is a scheme between an unhappy spouse (Phyllis Dietrichson) and an insurance agent (Walter Neff) to knock off her husband. Walter Neff knows how other people have gotten caught in fraudulent claims and comes up with the perfect plan: have his death appear as if it happened on the train and collect double on his insurance policy, otherwise known as double indemnity.
[Spoilers] The beginning of this movie is eerily similar to Sunset Boulevard, a movie I had previously reviewed. I thought maybe Sunset Boulevard had intentionally copied this movie until I realized both of them had the same director/writer: Billy Wilder. Thus, the story begins near the ending, as we see the protagonist limping into the office of Barton Keyes (played by Edward Robinson) and starts dictating a confession. The movie then goes into flashback mode and we work our way back to the present.
Walter meets Phyllis by chance: her husband’s auto insurance policy is expiring and he drops by in person in hopes of getting him to resign for another year. From the get go, their relationship burgeons:
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.
This instant chemistry leads to Walter getting toxically close with Phyllis, and even when he finds out her true intentions of murdering her husband, he can’t pull away. Instead, he decides to help. Barton Keyes is Walter’s mentor at the insurance agency. Keyes is in charge of ferreting out all the fraudulent claims and is quite good at getting people to admit to their false deeds. Walter intends to use his experiences with Keyes to craft the perfect murder and to get one past the insurance company.
The relationships between these three main characters is what makes the movie so good. After the deed is committed, the excitement comes from how the Keyes-Walter and Walter-Phyllis dynamics grow. Keyes is relentless in exploring what happened with this incident, and not knowing that Walter is involved, shares his thoughts and hesitations about the case. This allows us to have a first person perspective as things begin to unravel: we feel the walls closing in and the tension building as minor slip-ups stack up. Walter is required to riposte tit-for-tat and uses his position and influence to try and sway his mentor off the trail. This give and back are some of the most meaningful moments of the movie.
This, of course, puts quite a strain on the Walter-Phyllis dynamic. Throughout the entire film, Walter treats Phyllis as if she is going to be the one to crack, barraging her with constant reminders of what to do and how to act. We, too, follow Walter down this line of thinking and assume that Phyllis is the weak link. Come to find out, Phyllis is the most heartless of them all with a debased past and most abhorrent behavior in the movie. She is your classic psychopath who has really been manipulating everyone else in the movie all along.
As Keyes continues to dig, our two protagonists become at odds and try to out maneuver one another when they see the end is near. Without revealing too much, this leaves Walter a broken man after taking a gunshot, losing the girl he was meant to run away with and missing out on the insurance claim to become rich. He returns to his mentor’s office to confess only to have Keyes show and overhear most of it.
And with this, we get the most touching scene of the entire movie. Walter slumps due to loss of blood, completely broken from the night’s events and emotional catharsis of confessing. Keyes follows him out to where he collapses and slowly kneels. All that’s left is him and his mentor, and they say this:
Walter Neff: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.
Barton Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.
Walter Neff: I love you, too.
Walter pulls out a cigar and tries to light it but finds that he is too weak to do it. With roles reversed and a heavy heart, Keyes lights his friend’s cigar. And with that, the credits roll.
A classic film noir.