Double Indemnity: The crime seen through the dramatist perspective

The trailer for Double Indemnity:


The opening shot is dark city streets illuminated only by the grey lighting of streetlamps, aligned row by row. A car races through an intersection, a stop light, hastily making its way to an office building. In contrast the man walks slowly to the elevator, and then to his office, appearing to have wounded his arm but is covered by his trench coat. He sits down, removing his coat to reveal a bullet wound to his left arm. He lights a cigarette, and pulls up a Dictaphone, with sweat gleaming off his cheeks and forehead. He speaks into the device as if it’s a church confessional and reveals his identity to be “Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, and no visible scars”. What follows is a series of flashbacks while he narrates his confessional. This is the initial sequence of scenes to the film Double Indemnity (1944). The confessional begins with Walter Neff visiting Mr. Dietrichson’s home to renew an automobile insurance policy. Instead Walter comes across Phyllis Dietrichson and the two begin a flirtatious relationship that soon escalates to planning the murder of her husband to gain the rewards of a life insurance policy. With the murder being accidental, the double indemnity clause of the policy would pay the widow double the normal amount (hence the name). However, the operation goes awry when the claims adjustor, Barton Keyes, becomes suspicious of the accident and starts to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of Mr. Dietrichson.

The story, seen through a dramatist perspective, clearly exemplifies the pentad of conventions of human drama and provides a protagonist that absolves guilt through mortification. Although the film reflects the attitude towards crime of that era the film can still be serve a lesson that no crime is perfect and no crime will go unpunished.

The act is made apparent right at the beginning of the confession when Walter confesses to being involved in the murder of Mr Dietrichson. But the act also entails lying to the insurance company to essentially steal money from the insurance claim. The agents involved are Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, with Walter serving as the connection to set up the insurance claim while Phyllis serves as the connection to set up as the collector of the claim of her husband’s death. Without each other, the act couldn’t have been facilitated. Walter’s knowledge as an insurance salesman of all the technical details and loopholes in claims serves as an agency to the act to optimize the crooked couple’s plans to gain the spoils. The plan to murder Mr. Dietrichson, then have Walter board a train posing as an alive Mr. Dietrichson, then dumping the corpse from the moving train also serves as an agency. The train itself was used as a tool to fake the accidental death and is an agency as well. The plan and murder was conducted in Mrs. Dietrichson’s home, which was in Los Angeles while the alibi and the scene of the accident takes place in Oregon. Finally, the purpose for Walter to commit this act was not only to get the money but to get the girl. He was enticed by infatuation with Phyllis and was seduced by love and money to commit to this deed.

As Walter narrates the story forward, viewers start to see that Walter starts to feel guilt. He bears witness to the consequence of his actions through the pain of Mr. Dietrichson’s mourning daughter, and the betrayal of his best friend, insurance claims adjustor Barton Keyes. Thus his absolution of guilt is through mortification as demonstrated by Walter’s confession at the beginning of the film. He’s revealing the sin he has committed through the recording device and prepares himself for a life of constant running, escaping the grasps of authority or prepares for death as his wounds drains away his strength. There is, however, a point in the film where Walter had the chance to place the arrest away from himself and on somebody else, more specifically Phyllis’ other secret lover. This would have led to victimage of his guilt, essentially making a scapegoat of Phyllis’ other lover. But Walter abiding by what morals he had left, couldn’t place the blame on a man innocent of the crime and places it back upon himself, restoring the mortification of guilt.

A thing to note is that the film was made in during the time of the Motion Picture Production Code (1930 to 1968) which censored films to ensure a story with high moral standard or at least an ending that entails one. This censorship prevented nudity, swearing, but also ensured that stories showed the heroes always being good and that villains always gets punished, or if the protagonist is a crook that they also get punished much like a villain would to ensure that a life of crime is not ideal for viewers. Thus the script of the film was changed to adhere to the code, and essentially adhere to the strict moral standards of that era. The lesson conveyed as said by Keyes during the film, “Murder’s never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later“, demonstrates that any crime will always come back to haunt the guilty. Although the film was made almost 70 years ago, the lesson is still somewhat applicable to today. But will the individual viewer take the morals to heart? Not likely. What is most important though is that the film brings to attention that greed and lust can drive a person to commit crimes which he or she will eventually face consequences for.

Double Indemnity demonstrates the pentad of human drama conventions beautifully, as well as plays with the absolution of guilt with its protagonist. The film also conveys a message that portrays acts that encompass circumstances based on morals. It is considered a classic, and the first of a genre of films classified as film noir. Thus, even if it hadn’t had its message delivered to the hearts and minds of viewers, it certainly has made its impact in popular culture.


One thought on “Double Indemnity: The crime seen through the dramatist perspective

  1. This dramatist analysis on Double Indemnity is very well done with the exception of a few grammatical errors (Too many unnecessary commas). The transition from a short and precise summary to a neatly organized study of the movie through the pentad was very effective and obviously had a lot of thought put into it.

    So in short, the story is about how the insurance salesman, Walter Neff, plots and executes the murder of Mr. Dietrichson with his lover and wife of the victim, Phyllis Dietrichson in order to commit insurance fraud. However, Walter isn’t the only affair in Phyllis’ life and they eventually get hounded down by the suspicious claims-adjuster, Barton Keyes, at which point Walter admits to his wrong-doings. Mentioning that Walter absolves his guilt through mortification so early in the analysis makes the rest of the analysis very easy to comprehend. However, although the pentad categorization was very clear and thorough, a little bit more attention could have been placed in diving deeper into some of the motives.

    the strongest part of this analysis is how frequently the motives and justification are mentioned. It’s absolutely intriguing how sex and money can change somebody into something nasty and you did a great job at observing it, “He was enticed by infatuation with Phyllis and was seduced by love and money to commit to this deed.” There are a few other quotes that continue this theme; “Finally, the purpose for Walter to commit this act was not only to get the money but to get the girl. He was enticed by infatuation with Phyllis and was seduced by love and money to commit to this deed,” and closer to the end, “What is most important though is that the film brings to attention that greed and lust can drive a person to commit crimes which he or she will eventually face consequences for.” Also, mentioning the existence of the Motion Picture Production Code provides great insight into the moral weight of crime at that time.

    Although the “purpose” sheds a lot of light onto moral reasoning and its justification, I think the purpose would have made a more powerful impact if these concepts were further explored. For example, a generalized projection of “sex as moral manipulation” could have been made by mentioning other pop culture artefacts that include this theme to highlight the magnitude lust and greed can have.

    Also, a more critical explanation as to why Walter didn’t blame his crime on somebody else could have further developed the potential impacts. His increased guilt towards the end of the movie and his desire to “restore the mortification of guilt” are mentioned as reasons but it would have been interesting to read why he possibly felt guilty about placing the blame on an innocent victim when he heartlessly murdered another one. The motives explored here could have been used to amplify other potential “what if?” factors. Also, it is notable that by denying that opportunity he may also have absolved his guilt through a second-chance transcendence..

    All in all though, this analysis does a fantastic job on its own. The short and descriptive summary combined with a concise and simple pentad makes this analysis a very clear, straight-to-the-point read that quickly highlights the consequences of crime through a dramatist lens.

    By: Nashid Chowdhury

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