In the 1944 film noir Double Indemnity, insurance agent Walter Neff is seduced by the wife of a potential client and ultimately helps her commit murder.
Neff’s voice-over narration seems to be a confession, but it often reveals itself to be a boastful recitation of his ingenious criminal planning. Significantly, he never expresses much remorse or asks for forgiveness. Instead, his matter-of-fact retelling appears to transform the murder into a logical and perhaps even inevitable progression of events largely removed from any moral questions. This tell-all narration is juxtaposed to an accusatory style of cinematography employed in the flashbacks after the murder has been committed. Although Neff attempts to keep his secret hidden from the other characters, he is constantly betrayed by the filmic discourse (the camera angles, staging and editing) which overtly signals his guilt to the audience. The insistent inscription of Neff’s guilty status at the levels of both voice-over and filmic language reflects the inescapable nature of criminal responsibility. In addition, it conveys Neff’s simultaneous contradictory desire for and fear of recognition of his criminal actions.
In the opening scene, a mortally wounded Neff drags himself into Keyes’ office in order to record his confession on Keyes’ dictation machine. Neff’s choice of communication medium is significant. He could have called Keyes on the telephone or even visited Keyes’ apartment and confessed in person. However, Neff has chosen a much more indirect method of revealing his involvement in the Dietrichson murder. Although Neff explicitly addresses Keyes in his monologue, he is actually speaking to a machine that is incapable of judging him or reacting to his story. Neff takes advantage of the one-sidedness of this technology and the temporal distance it necessitates between the act of recording and the act of playback in order to spare himself the guilt of a more direct, real-time confrontation with the friend that he has betrayed. This lack of actual human connection immediately raises the question of whether Neff’s narration can be considered a genuine confession. This issue is compounded by the fact that the dictation machine is an instrument of business, normally used to record banal everyday office messages rather than matters of life and death.
Yet, Neff insists upon situating his monologue within the familiar and professional framework of office protocol. He begins his narration, “Office memorandum. Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager, Los Angeles, July 16, 1938” as if he is about to recount another ordinary business transaction. His professional, detached language contrasts sharply to the information that he is about to reveal—he has committed two murders and attempted to defraud the insurance company. In fact, at the crucial moment in which he admits his guilt, he simply says, “I killed Dietrichson – me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars… until a while ago, that is. Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” Neff’s machine-like narration style bypasses any questions of morality tied to the murder and buries them under copious amounts of irrelevant data. The calm retelling is almost completely emotionless and Neff does not seem to have any remorse for the killing. He seems to only a bit disappointed that the transaction was incomplete—he did not get the money or the woman in return for his deeds. The dissonance between the detached style of storytelling and the explosive content of that story suggests that Neff is not fully taking responsibility for his actions. In fact, Neff’s inscription of his criminal actions in the verbal and literal machinery of business suggests that murder may actually be intimately intertwined with the workings of the insurance company itself, whose accident insurance policies incentivize murder by creating conditions under which it can become a quick money-maker.
Furthermore, Neff makes it clear from the very beginning that he does not consider his narration to be a confession. He says into the Dictaphone:
Dear Keyes: I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it. Well, I don’t like the word ‘confession.’ I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose. You think you’re such a hot potato as a Claims Manager; such a wolf on a phony claim. Maybe you are. But let’s take a look at that Dietrichson claim, Accident and Double Indemnity.
The word “confession” has obvious religious connotations. In Christianity, a great emphasis is placed on the need to confess one’s sins to a priest before death. The act of confession is a type of exchange—the criminal surrenders his guilt in return for forgiveness. In doing so, the criminal reaffirms the validity of the social and moral order, which he had previous violated. However, for a confession to be genuine, the criminal must feel actual guilt and remorse. Neff rejects the word “confession” because he is not looking for forgiveness and its associated alleviation of conscience. Although he is guilty, he does not feel guilt. Instead, Neff’s half-smile and patronizing tone towards Keyes suggest that he is proud of himself and actually desires recognition of his criminal talents. He cannot bear the thought of dying without Keyes knowing how he has been outsmarted and wants Keyes to marvel at the intelligence, cunning, and daring involved in nearly getting away with such a sophisticated murder scheme. For Neff, the brilliance of this scheme is a direct reflection of his superiority as an insurance man, since he had to draw upon his expertise in order to fool Keyes, who usually has no trouble exposing the truth behind phony claims. Neff’s desire for recognition is ultimately a self-destructive impulse since, by revealing his criminal activities, he traps himself in the mechanism of the law. This idea is reflected in the cinematography of the scene. Neff delivers his opening monologue in a single long take, framed in a claustrophobic medium close-up on Neff in an office chair. The framing forces the viewer to focus his/her attention exclusively on Neff, but this scrutiny also appears to trap Neff in the frame. Furthermore, his immobile sitting position emphasizes his inability to escape the dire consequences of his actions.
Neff’s voice-over narration meticulously chronicles his pre- and post-murder actions. Before the murder, he narrates, “I drove home about seven and drove right into the garage. This was another item to establish my alibi….Up in my apartment I called Lou Schwarts….I changed into a navy blue suit like Dietrichson was going to wear. Lou Schwartz called me back and gave me a lot of figures…” The exhaustive list of events continues to grow as Neff overexplains every aspect of his preparation. The language emphasizes Neff’s agency in the scene through the insistent repetition of the pronoun “I” followed by an action verb. All of these actions are part of his deliberate and meticulously constructed plan, and he wants to show off his artistry and intelligence to Keyes.
A similar style of narration appears after the murder as well, as Neff cleans up and reestablishes his alibi. However, it is somewhat surprising that Neff’s voice-over narration is conspicuously absent from the actual murder itself. Here, we are denied Neff’s narrative guidance and we do not know how he is describing the murder to Keyes. Instead, the soundtrack becomes less important and an alternate narrative voice appears to emerge through the visuals. Directly after the voice-over ends, before Phyllis invites her husband into the car, she opens the car door and sees Neff hidden on the floor. They exchange a silent but intense glance shown in shot/reverse shot that binds them to each other as complicit in Dietrichson’s murder. A few moments later, when Neff finally kills Dietrichson, the murder actually takes place off camera. We hear sounds of a struggle over a close up on Phyllis as a slight smile creeps across her face. This moment suggests that Phyllis is perhaps even more responsible for the killing than Neff, despite the fact that it is Neff who actually executes the deed. This idea calls into question Neff’s egocentric voice-over narration in which he tries to reframe the murder as a reflection of his own intelligence.
Although Neff often admits in his voice-over to being tempted by Phyllis, he resists the idea that he has been duped into performing her will. In fact, earlier in the film he had explicitly redefined his motive, originally stated as a desire for “the money and the woman”, as a desire to “crook the house” and prove his intelligence. Phyllis merely supplied the opportunity for him to act on his subversive desires. The murder scene represents a critical shift in the film’s dominant method of ascribing guilt to the characters. From this moment on, the silent accusatory gaze of the characters and of the camera at the characters reveals a much more terrified form of guilt that continues to undermine Neff’s boastful voice-over “confessions”.
Neff’s desire for recognition expressed in his voice-overs contrasts to his fear of recognition in the investigative scenes in which he is confronted by his guilt and singled out by the camera. This occurs for the first time in the scene in which Keyes, Neff, and Phyllis are in Mr. Norton’s office. Norton, expressing doubts about the Dietrichson claim, says, “We’re not entirely satisfied, Mrs. Dietrichson. In fact, we’re not satisfied at all.” Norton is talking to Phyllis, so we expect the next shot to be a POV showing Phyllis’ reaction. However, the camera instead cuts to a medium close up on Neff, who is nervously leaning against the far wall and staring in Norton’s direction. He is afraid that Norton may have figured out the truth and he appears to be hanging on Norton’s every word in tense expectation. No one is looking at Neff in the sequence and so the shot cannot be any character’s point of view. Instead, it is a form of accusatory camera work that marks Neff as guilty by making him the subject of the audience’s gaze. Furthermore, the shadow of venetian blinds covers Neff in a pattern that resembles the bars of a jail cell and serves as yet another visual reminder of his inescapable criminal responsibility. In addition, Neff’s positioning of himself against the wall, as far away from Phyllis as possible, suggests that he is afraid of her as well. He is terrified that she might slip up in her responses to Norton’s questioning because she is the only person in the room who could expose his guilt. In fact, Neff and Phyllis refuse to even look at one another for fear of giving themselves away.
When Neff finally crosses the room and hands Phyllis a cup of water, they share a silent but meaningful glance. This glance is similar to the earlier pre-murder glance exchanged between Phyllis and Neff when Neff was hiding on the floor of the car. In both of these moments of non-verbal communication they reaffirm their commitment to one another and their shared complicity in the murder. In this instance, Neff’s cold stare appears to be warning Phyllis to be careful while Phyllis’ reciprocal stare shows Neff that she is in control. Thus, although Neff is silent throughout most of this sequence and never verbally reveals his thoughts, he is betrayed by the apparatus of cinema, which isolates him in the frame and calls attention to his guilty body language and facial expressions.
These accusatory cinematic codes appear again in the scene in which Keyes calls the witness, Jackson, into his office. Jackson is the last person on the train who saw Neff dressed as Mr. Dietrichson in the observation car. Although Neff had kept his back to Jackson on the train, he still fears that Jackson may recognize him in the office and expose his guilt to Keyes. As Keyes leaves the frame to bring Jackson into the office, the camera stays on Neff. Just like in the scene with Phyllis in Norton’s office, Neff responds by backing up against the wall into the jail bar-like shadow of the venetian blinds. This staging suggests Neff’s feelings of entrapment in both the room and in his criminal actions. Next, Jackson looks through photos of the real Mr. Dietrichson and tells Keyes that they do not match the appearance of the man that he saw on the train. The shot is composed with Keyes and Jackson in the foreground and Neff up against the wall in the background in the exact middle of the frame between the two men. Although Keyes and Jackson are the only characters speaking, Neff’s central position in the frame and his light-colored suit direct the viewer’s accusatory gaze onto him. As Jackson describes the Dietrichson imposter, the viewer knows that he is describing Neff and looks directly at him to see how he will react. However, Keyes and Jackson do not suspect him and therefore do not look at him. Eventually, Jackson recognizes Neff, but cannot remember where he has seen him before. It does not seem to even cross his mind that Neff could be the same man that he saw on the train.
Significantly, in both this scene and the scene in Mr. Norton’s office, the camera work, staging, and non-verbal acting replace Neff’s voice-over as the principle entry point into Neff’s subjective experience. Although we are denied the direct access to Neff’s thoughts via voice-over or dialogue, we can infer his feelings through the images, which silently scream his guilty status. Neff is terrified that his guilt is obvious despite the fact that the other characters never seem to suspect him. The fear of exposure implied by these cinematic codes contradicts the haughty, bragging tone of Neff’s voice-over and reinforces the idea that he simultaneously fears and desires recognition for his crimes. If the truth is discovered by someone else, it would invalidate Neff’s claims to his superior intelligence in addition to sending him to jail. He does not want to be robbed of the opportunity to reveal the truth to Keyes at his own chosen moment.
Thus, guilt is inscribed in multiple, contradictory layers in Double Indemnity. Neff’s voice-over narration articulates guilt as a boastful sense of criminal responsibility intimately connected to the professional workplace and Neff’s desire for recognition of his talent and intelligence. However, this boastful guilt coexists with a condemnatory guilt inscribed in the accusatory gaze of the camera and of the characters in the diegesis. This condemnatory guilt is not under Neff’s control and is always in danger of erupting spontaneously out of the cinematic apparatus, despite Neff’s desperate attempts to keep it hidden. Ultimately, these two competing forms of guilt reflect Neff’s contradictory feelings about murder and confession which simultaneously expose his cunning and guarantee his downfall.
Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/double_indemnity/