A key element in film noir is the femme fatale, and most film critics put Barbara Stanywick's Phyllis Dietrichson at the top of the fatale heap. The chemistry between her and Fred MacMurray still has that crackle these many years later. But there's another story in "Double Indemnity," and it really is a love story. Insurance salesman Walter Neff and his boss Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, have a friendship and affection that gives this story its moral dimension. Yes, Phyllis Dietrichson double-crosses Walter Neff, but far worse is Walter's betrayal of Keyes. Director Billy Wilder and writer Raymond Chandler realized early on that the inherent drama in "Double Indemnity" is not the murder of Mr. Dietrichson and the subsequent downfall of his killers, but rather how Neff's sexual desire for Phyllis separates him from the person who cares the most for him.
Neff first sees Phyllis Dietrichson wrapped in a towel on the upstairs landing of her house (1). He makes his insurance pitch looking up at this dazzler who tells him to wait in the living room. A few minutes later she descends the stairs modestly dressed, an ankle bracelet her only jewelry. As Neff gives her his insurance pitch, she sits almost girlishly, snuggled in the corner of a large seat looking rather vulnerable (2). Neff is above her and she has to look up at him. The worldly Neff knows his way around women and figures this dame is an easy mark. She might also be available. The fact that during this first visit she puts him down doesn't mean much, not for either of them.
In their second meeting (she has him come over to the house) Phyllis is made up, more jewelry, a bigger smile. She sits on a love chair so that Neff can sit alongside her (3). She wants an insurance policy for her husband, one that covers accidents. But he's not to know that. Neff is no dope. "Look, baby, you can't get away with it. You wanna knock him off, don't you?" He gets out of the house fast.
But Neff is hooked and he knows it. Their third meeting takes place in Neff's apartment. Phyllis is wearing a provocative white sweater (4), and though there isn't anything too demonstrative (the code would see to that) it's obvious Phyllis is reeling the guy in while letting him think he's in control. It's about sex all right--and male ego. He'll help her get her husband to sign the double indemnity insurance papers. And help her cash in on the double indemnity payment. (In the movie's last scene with Phyllis and Walter, she is seated in that same living room with Walter hovering over her (6). There is none of the sexual tension we felt in those earlier scenes.)
Their plan to see that her husband has a fatal accident has to be perfect, so there'll be no more lovers' trysts. Their rendezvous take place in grocery stores, Phyllis looking like the proper housewife (5). Even before the "accident" we begin to feel that their relationship is cooling, maybe Neff is no longer getting sex; maybe he sees another side to Phyllis: she's not the pliable woman he thought.
Walter Neff knows (perhaps unconsciously at first) that as he becomes entangled in Phyllis's web he is drawing further away from Keyes, not simply because he's defrauding the insurance company Keyes has given his life to, but he is betraying a deep friendship which will lead to their ultimate separation. Keyes has taken Neff under his wing, tries to advance his career. Their heart-to heart talks (7) don't take--Neff prefers glad-handing and meeting women like Phyllis Dietrichson. Keyes pretends he's giving up on Walter, after offering him a job as his assistant. "Now look, Walter, the job I'm offering takes brains and integrity." But Neff doesn't want a desk job. Keyes shakes his head, "You're not smarter, Walter, you're just a little taller."
Throughout the movie we see this little game they've obviously played for years: Keyes takes out a cigarette or a cigar and then searches for a match. Walter always obliges by striking a match with a fingernail and handing it to Keyes (8) (10). This bit of trifling has its payoff in the movie's final scene when Walter has come to his end and gets out a cigarette, only this time it's Keyes who supplies the light (12).
Whenever there's an insurance claim that could spell trouble Keyes confides in Walter, tells him what he's thinking, alerts him when things don't seem just right. He has this "little man" in his chest (9) who ties knots in his stomach. He pretends to hide his clear affection for Walter behind gruffness and put downs. They both know it's a facade. Keyes: "Now get out of here before I throw my desk at you." "I love you too," Neff says, handing him a lighted match. In the voice-over that follows this admission, he adds, "I really did too...I always knew that behind those cigar ashes on your vest you had a heart as big as a house." No, Keyes has Walter's best interest at heart and Walter knows it.
Are we making too strong a claim when we talk of love between these two? No, not a homosexual love, not even a father-son love. This was an appreciative relationship, probably stronger on Keyes's side (11). We could say that Neff got distracted by Phyllis Dietrichson, and only came back to Keyes when all was lost. We have to remember that Neff's account of the Dietrichson case is told in flashback; he's returned to the offices of Pacific All Risk Insurance Company, Keyes's real home, to confess to Keyes, and for no other reason. The entire flashback--virtually the whole movie--is Neff's account of the Dietrichson case. The voice-over throughout is just that, Walter confessing everything to Keyes, the only one who could understand him. As he speaks into the recording machine we get the distinct feeling he's waiting for Keyes, and when the old man does arrive Neff isn't at all surprised.
The last words of the movie are some of the best closing lines in all of cinema:
"You know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell you. Because the guy you were looking for was too close...he was right across the desk from you."
"Closer than that, Walter?"
"I love you, too."