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A Scene Analysis from Billy Wilder’s 'Double Indemnity' (1944)

Three’s A Crowd: A Scene Analysis from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)

by Randy Krinsky

This month I am in the frame of mind for film noir, those moody, dark films from the 1940s and 1950s.   If you are not familiar with this genre of film, they are aptly named for their dark subject matter, shadowy settings, use of anti-heroes and femme fatales.  These films have long captivated me, with their clever editing techniques and frequent flashback narratives, they are thrilling to watch.  Recently, when I think of this shadowy genre, my mind settles on one term, Stimmung.

Contemporary film scholar Robert Sinnerbrink, when referring to the expressive aspects of film noir, cites classic film historians Lotte H. Eisner and Béla Balázs in using the term Stimmung.  This is a German term which refers to a deeper, more intricate understanding of what most would call a film’s mood, which is, for example, aroused by the expressionistic uses of bleak lighting and angular shadows of film noir; taking an atypical visual style, and adding ambiguous characters and disconcerting narrative themes.  Stimmung encompasses all varieties of moods, found in a multitude of cinematic worlds; however, Film noir plays profoundly in the realm of Stimmung, where the aesthetics of mood weigh heavy.  To paraphrase Sinnerbrink, Stimmung embraces the harmony that is created between the expressiveness of a film and the affective receptiveness of the spectator.  This is film noir, with dark, moody aesthetics, offering up a flow of emotional cues; cues represented in rhythm, colors, textures, sounds, lighting and shadows.  Film spectators can easily recognize and accept these cues, with noir eliciting dark emotional responses, including those of isolation and discomfort.  So when I think of film noir, I think of Stimmung in action.   I then always harken back to one of my favorite films, 1944’s Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder.

Double Indemnity, based on the novel of the same name, is a classic example of film noir.  This is an exceptional film about an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), drawn into a plot by a manipulative woman, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), to murder her husband and run away together with the insurance money.  The film is told through flashbacks framed within a narrative with Walter using a narrating-“I” voice-over.  Walter is an experienced salesman, supposedly beyond suspicion, and believes together, they can get away with it.  However, Walter’s good friend and co-worker, Claims Manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is apprehensive and knows fraud and foul play is somehow involved.  Keyes dogged investigation forces Walter and Phyllis to go on the defensive.  Walter is too far gone to get out clean; he knows he has to get rid of Phyllis before she gets rid of him.  Unfortunately, Phyllis is thinking the same thing.  In the end, Walter didn’t get the girl, didn’t get the money, and meets his demise with his only real friend, Keyes, by his side.

Halfway through the film, after the murder has been committed and Phyllis has made the insurance claim, questions are being raised about the circumstances of the death of Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers).  The insurance company president, Edward S. Norton, Jr. (Richard Gaines), has called a meeting with Walter and Keyes, as well as Phyllis.  Norton believes there is something obviously suspicious about the claim.  Keyes’ encyclopedic knowledge of claim statistics leads Norton to believe that maybe this claim is legitimate.  Phyllis has left and soon Keyes and Walter leave as well.  The next sequence of the film, in my opinion, contains a scene that is the most symbolic of the overall somber and bleak tone of the film. The mise-en-scène sets it up as the perfect snapshot for the tone of the whole film.

The sequence begins with a dissolve from Walter having just left the meeting to a shot of him entering the corridor of his apartment building.  In voice-over, Walter lets us know that his nerves have eased off.  He believes it should be easy going from here on out.  The $100,000 is as good as theirs.  Walter has entered his apartment, switched the lights on, and closed the door when the phone rings; it is Phyllis.  She wants to come over; she believes they have gotten away with murder and fraud.  Walter tells her to come on over.  Commentative string music plays; it is light and elevates the mood.  Did they actually get away with it?  The music ends abruptly as the door bell rings.  It can’t be Phyllis; she couldn’t have arrived that quickly.  Suddenly the extra-diagetic string music is heard again; it’s ominous in mood.  Walter is motionless for a moment then opens the door.  In the doorway stands Keyes.  He has been thinking; he knows there is something suspicious about the Dietrichson case.  Walter is starting to worry; he knows Keyes is relentless once he’s on the trail of suspected fraud.

This is the part of the sequence where the key scene takes place.  I call it the “Three’s A Crowd” scene, and it involves eleven cuts lasting approximately two minutes.  We see a medium two-shot of Walter and Keyes in his apartment.  What Walter fears most at this moment happens; Phyllis arrives.  There is a parallel cut to Phyllis as she exits the elevator at the far right of the frame.  It’s a full shot, with Phyllis in the center of the frame.  Walter’s apartment door is in the foreground, at frame left; other apartment doors are visible in the background.  The hallway is shadowy as it is naturally lit by two sets of sconces on the wall.  String music plays extra-diagetically throughout the scene, alluding to worry as the audience wonders if Phyllis is going to be caught by Keyes.  Phyllis walks down the hall towards Walter’s apartment.  The whole shot is in deep focus.  As Phyllis draws near to Walter’s door, she reaches out with her right hand to ring the doorbell.  The audience continues to hear Walter and Keyes’ conversation in voice-over, and now so does Phyllis.  She doesn’t ring the bell.  Keyes suspects her as being involved somehow.  She gets closer and puts her head to the door in order to hear the conversation more clearly.  The camera intercuts back to a tight medium two-shot of Walter and Keyes; it is an over-the-shoulder view from Keyes.  Walter’s eyes flicker as he tries to maintain his composure.  He steadies himself with a drink from a glass in his right hand, a cigarette in his left.  His inflection and actions suggest that he is nervous.  A shot-reverse shot to an over-the-shoulder view from Walter as Keyes explains that he doesn’t know how it was done or by whom, but he knows everything isn’t as it appears.  The camera pans right as it tracks Keyes as he is preparing to leave.  Both backs are to the camera as they remain in focus in a tight medium two-shot while they walk to the door.  The camera parallel cuts back to Phyllis.  She hears them at the door.  The door starts to open.  Phyllis steps behind it quickly and places herself flat against the wall.  The door opens concealing her presence and Keyes steps out.  Keyes walks away from Walter toward the elevator.  The camera shows us a long three-shot.  Phyllis is in the foreground, along left frame, shown from the knees up.  She is wearing what looks to be a grayish suit with black gloves, which brings to mind an impression of ambiguity; in her mind she’s neither good nor evil.  It was Walter’s plan; she just went along with it.  Walter is center frame, partly obscured by the open door.  He is wearing a light-colored, possibly tan, suit.  This is symbolic of Walter’s role as the good guy.  Is he the good guy?  He committed murder and is trying to commit fraud, but for love.  Does Walter consider himself the good guy?  Does he even know anymore?  The social convention of white is right, and black is bad, as relates to the costumes, is played with here in the mise-en-scène.  Keyes is walking into the background, along right frame, wearing a very black suit and hat.  Keyes, in his black attire, is the embodiment of Walter and Phyllis’ antagonist; the guy out to get them.  In reality, Keyes is the good guy.  The audience is meant to understand everything unfolding from Walter’s point of view.  He is the film’s protagonist, even if he is the real bad guy.  The audience is aligning themselves with Walter and trying to overlook the fact that he’s actually a criminal.  This is classic film noir.  The viewing audience has much to think about already as the camera intercuts to a medium two-shot of Phyllis in the shadowy background, behind the door, as Walter is in the foreground, center frame, standing in the doorway looking off-frame to his left at Keyes.  He has a concerned look on his face; where’s Phyllis?  His right hand is holding the door knob.  His body side lit from the hallway sconce lights, bringing to mind the duality of his nature.  As Keyes continues speaking of how he would like to have Phyllis picked up for questioning, Phyllis slowly tugs at the door knob to let Walter know she’s there with him. Walter quickly shifts his eyes right for a moment; he understands.  Intercut to a medium shot of Keyes as he’s pressed the elevator call button and turns towards Walter.  Quick intercut back to the medium two-shot of Phyllis and Walter; might Keyes come back to discover Phyllis?  Walter has opened the door a bit wider to be sure to conceal Phyllis’ presence from Keyes, pushing her farther back into the shadows, suggesting that this is, of course, where evil belongs.  Walter then releases the door knob and switches his glass to that hand.  Intercut to another long three-shot of Phyllis, in foreground, Walter, center frame, and Keyes in the background.  The shrill of the strings in the commentative music arouses panic as Keyes begins to walk back toward Walter; he needs a light for his cigar.  Walter takes two steps in and cuts off Keyes, keeping him away from the doorway.  Intercut to a close shot of Phyllis in the shadows, a look of worry across her deep focused face.  Intercut back to the long three-shot as Walter and Keyes say their goodnights.  Keyes enters the elevator as the shot transitions into a long two-shot.  Walter turns back around as Keyes leaves and places his right hand along the door frame.  Walter and Phyllis stand frozen for a moment before Walter motions with his right hand for Phyllis to come from behind the door.  She quickly crosses in front of him and enters the apartment.  Walter comes in backwards after her, closing the door as he does.  Intercut to the interior of Walter’s apartment, the ominous commentative string music ends.  Phyllis takes a few steps into the room as Walter follows in a medium two-shot.  Then the camera pans left as we track Walter passing Phyllis standing against the wall.  The apartment is still shadowy, Phyllis in shallow focus, her features softened and Walter is in deep focus, the look of concern apparent on his face.  Walter looks downward slightly as he takes a drag off his cigarette, the low-key lighting appearing almost as bottom lighting as Walter’s eye sockets, upper lip and neck are dark in shadow, giving off a sinister effect as he contemplates what to do next.  Phyllis wants to know how much Keyes knows.  Walter replies that he doesn’t know anything but he has a hunch.  Walter looks worried; he knows how Keyes is about his hunches.  He’ll relentlessly pursue it to the end.  Walter puts his cigarette out; he thinks that maybe the two of them shouldn’t see each other for a while, at least until the attention dies down.  Phyllis walks into focus towards Walter.  The camera does a slow zoom in to a tight two-shot, as Walter describes Keyes tenacity to her; His face gloomily bathed in alternating side and bottom lighting.  Walter takes another drink and then puts his glass down as Phyllis says that they committed the murder and fraud to be together, but it is tearing them apart.  She grabs his coat and swings him around so that they are in profile facing each other.  The scene concludes as Walter looks into Phyllis’ eyes, and says, “Shut up baby”; the camera fades out to black.

The mise-en-scène of this scene is brilliantly worked out.  The costuming, the blocking, the lighting, and the music are melded together to make this scene the perfect encapsulation for the struggle that unfolds between the main characters throughout the film.  The colors used in the costumes of the main characters, as I explained above, allude to roles they play in the film.  Walter as the protagonist, a good man who has done bad things, and Keyes as the antagonist, a good man who has to catch the bad guy, whomever it may be.  Phyllis, interestingly enough, as her grey suited clothing would suggest, is the middle ground between the light and the dark.  The viewer would paint her as the obstruction between Walter and Keyes; the interruption that blocks Walter’s view of the light, drowning him in the shadows, even though in the scene physically it is Walter that appears to block Phyllis from Keyes.

Another aspect of the mise-en-scène that should be analyzed is the music that is heard throughout the scene.  This soundtrack is extradiagetic, commentative, and suggests, initially, an upbeat mood and a feeling of optimism as Walter and Phyllis believe they might have really gotten away with their crime.  Then the violins turn ominous as Keyes arrives.  The music leads the audience to a mood of hopelessness; this scheme isn’t going to work.  The music heard is contrapuntal and adds another layer to the film assigning the emotion of worry and builds tension; it sets the mood and makes the viewer invest in the drama unfolding in the scene.

The blocking is brilliantly staged to portray the film’s conflict between our main characters.  In this scene, in the hallway, we find Phyllis in the foreground, shielded by Walter in center frame, hiding her from Keyes standing in the background.  Keyes and Walter are friends and co-workers; honest, hard-working men.  Phyllis, in the shadows, has influence over Walter pulling him away from Keyes and into a conspiracy to get away with murder.  Even the editing of the scene is suggestive of Walter’s turn from his honesty and integrity:  in the beginning it is Walter and Keyes in his apartment; then Phyllis is in the scene, the source of conflict in Walter’s life, pulling him away from the good influence of Keyes, and then ending ultimately with Keyes leaving Walter to his demise with Phyllis, unbeknownst to Keyes of course.

The natural lighting, very low key and shadowy, is provided by sconce lamps in the hallway and table lamps in the apartment.  This type of lighting evokes imagery of oneirism, almost a dream-like state.  High-key lighting would’ve been symbolic of realism, but this story is a cautionary tale, not a real one; a ‘what if’ story.  Sure, the hallway, the apartment doors, and the elevator are real world objects.  But those items, by themselves, are without life, without story, just props on a set.  What is oneiric is how these objects and the other elements of the mise-en-scène are combined to give the viewer a sense of mood and emotion, foreboding the interaction with Keyes, fear of discovery of Phyllis, desperation by Walter.  This also goes to explain the important use of shadows in this scene as well.  Phyllis is kept in the shadows while Keyes is present, as if symbolically she is the embodiment of evil and evil is kept in the dark.  Walter is side-lit, shadowing part of his face, signaling the viewer that his persona has changed from the good, honest insurance salesman to the cold-blooded killer.  Even in his apartment while his face is bathed in side-shadow, Phyllis’ face is still fully lit, as if proclaiming her innocence.  She has transferred her darkness to Walter.

An interesting note is that Walter’s apartment door opens outwards.  This is unusual as most doors open inwards.  This allows for greater security, as it’s easier to prevent a door from opening in on you than to keep it from opening out away from you.  Walter’s door opens outward shielding Phyllis in the shadows, away from Keyes’ eyes.  Additionally, Walter is seen wearing what can only be a wedding ring on his left hand.  The audience can construe this as a deliberate tactic by Walter, a single, unmarried man, to make himself appear more wholesome in his job as an insurance salesman.  After all, what decent woman would let a bachelor she doesn’t know into her house to supposedly discuss insurance?  Could this have been Walter’s first dive into the pool of dishonesty?  The wearing of the ring could very well have been a clever ruse to gain the trust of cautious housewives.

These dynamically framed shots also play with focus so that pertinent information is always pushed to the forefront.  The shots usually kept our characters in deep focus, as is the trademark of mise-en-scène.  However, while in Walter’s apartment, Phyllis is kept in shallow focus for a while to show distance, but to also soften her features, adding to the romantic feeling of the encounter, and indeed her erotic hold on Walter.

It is for these reasons that I believe this scene, these eleven shots, are a perfect snapshot for the entire conflict that the main characters must struggle with in this film.  The concept of Stimmung is evoked as the dark mood of this cinematic world falls over us; inviting us to watch Walter descend into the pit of malevolence, pulled down by the influence of Phyllis, while never reaching out for help from his lifeline, Keyes.  Could it have been Walter was always an immoral man and just no one knew it?  Maybe Phyllis saw it in him.  Maybe Keyes saw hope for him and that was why he tried to maintain a friendship, or possibly to just keep an eye on him.  We’ll never know for sure; these are questions left for the viewing audience to decide.  That is Stimmung; that is film noir.

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