Double Indemnity was based on a novella of the same name by James M. Cain (no stranger to this line of work as his previous novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, can attest. Apparently Hollywood liked him in the genre so much that they later turned his novel Mildred Pierce into noir as well–despite not being written that way in the book) and adapted for the screen by the director, Billy Wilder, and writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler created the Philip Marlowe detective (played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep) and, along with Cain and Dashiell Hammett, considered the founders of the detective/crime novel. It's thanks to these here wise heads that we got some of the most amazing dialogue to ever come out of an actor's trap.
Take for instance this exchange at the first meeting between Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray (the guy that invented Flubber! I know! Who knew?) as the insurance salesman, Walter Neff. Neff has come to the Dietrichson house to have Mr. Dietrichson renew his insurance policy, but gets more than he bargained for...
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about 8:30. He'll be in then.
Phyllis: My Husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But, I'm sorta getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Neff: That tears it...
Genius. It just comes so fast and furious. Their responses are right on top of each other, but at the same time you can tell they're still listening to each other. And even though it's full of smart little quips, the intelligence of the two actors and their characters still make the stylized exchange believable. But, it really was of its time and definitely a style. I'm sure Regular Joe's weren't able to come up with stuff this quickly in real life, but that's what elevates it. If only Hollywood screenwriters today would try to write dialogue this sharp. Although, I shudder to think what it would sound like coming out of the mouths of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Alba.
With such brilliant words and performances, the visuals have to fall flat than, right? Whatya talk! Didn't you hear that this here is Hit Me With Your Best Shot. And kablamo-here's mine.
Phyllis, in an unhappy marriage, has convinced Neff to take out accident insurance on her husband without him knowing it. There's a double indemnity clause which gives the beneficiary twice the amount of insurance money if the death is accidental. Only, the two murder her husband and make it look like an accident so they can collect the money. But, the plot doesn't exactly go as smoothly as intended and is actually driving the two apart and the claim is being rejected. The two haven't seen each other in weeks (and Neff has been seeing her stepdaughter in the meantime), but finally meet at the grocery store where they first finalized the murder plot. Neff wants to give up, but Phyllis–Lady Macbeth in the canned food aisle–taking off her cat-eye sunglasses reveals her stone-cold stare, chillingly tells him how it's going down:
Phyllis: I loved you, Walter, and I hated him. But, I wasn't gonna do anything about it, not til I met
you. You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead.
Neff: I'm the one who fixed it so we was dead. Is that what you're telling me?
Phyllis: And nobody's pulling out. We went into this together–We're coming out at the end together.
It's straight down the line for both of us. Remember...
If only the other shoppers knew the messy bit of business going on in Aisle 3.
The mundane setting is wonderfully juxtaposed with the far-from-normal discussion they're having. As is Phyllis, herself, with her perfectly styled peroxide hair and designer glasses, amid the everyday food items. They go here to be inconspicuous, but who would ever buy that this woman has ever gone grocery shopping a day in her life?
What I love about Stanwyck's performance in this shot is all the power she can convey with doing almost nothing. Typically the norm would have been for her to get melodramatic (one need only look to the actress playing her stepdaughter to see an example). But everything about her Phyllis is calculated, with an economy of movement . Every move she makes is for a purpose. She's not even going to blink (I actually don't think she blinks the whole film) because any good femme fatale knows that when you stare a man down, you can get him to do anything...