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I killed him for money, and for a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?—Walter Neff
A 1944 Film Noir, directed by Billy Wilder, written by him and Raymond Chandler, adapted from James M. Cain's earlier novel of the same title. Considered by many to be the definitive Film Noir, and popularizer of many of its tropes.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a successful but bored insurance salesman who encounters Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) when he comes to her house to discuss automobile insurance. After the two have traded some innuendo-laden banter, Phyllis reveals that her marriage is not a particularly happy one and the pair end up conspiring to trick her husband into taking out an accident insurance policy -- and ensure that he then meets a tragic "accidental" end.
Neff, who has eleven years' experience in the insurance business, believes that he has the brains to pull off The Perfect Crime. The only obstacle is his colleague and friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the brilliant claims manager who can spot a phony insurance claim a mile away.
The story is told in flashback and narrated by Neff, who is making a confession into his office Dictaphone.
Provides examples of:
- Adaptation Distillation: Arguably. The film hews very close to the book for the most part, but the ending (though it eliminates some revelations about Phyllis) is both spatially and temporally more compact. Its main differences are in the dialogue (Chandler believed Cain's dialogue wouldn't translate well to the screen) and the use of the Framing Device of Neff recounting the story into the dictaphone.
- Adaptation Name Change: The novel's Walter Huff becomes Walter Neff in the film, for some reason. Mr. and Mrs. Dietrichson were Mr. and Mrs. Nirdlinger in the novel; the latter choice was specifically because Chandler and Wilder thought that Nirdlinger was too silly a name for such a serious story.
- Anti-Hero: Walter Neff.
- Apocalyptic Log: Neff's Dictaphone recording, and his diary entries in the original novel.
- Asshole Victim: Mr. Dietrichson.
- While certainly loudmouthed and obnoxious, it's hinted that a great deal of what Phyllis tells Neff about him is exaggerated or made up in order to get him to go along with her plan.
- Also Phyllis herself.
- Battleaxe Nurse: Three guesses on who was the nurse taking care of the late first Mrs. Dietrichson.
- Better to Die Than Be Killed: Walter and Phyllis commit suicide at the end of the book, rather than face prison and execution for their crime.
- Black and Grey Morality: The one pure character (Dietrichson's daughter) seems to be the story's The Woobie.
- Black Widow: Phyllis, a poster girl.
- Blondes Are Evil: Phyllis.
- Cameo: The film's co-screenwriter, Raymond Chandler (of Philip Marlowe fame), appears briefly in one scene.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Nino.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Phyllis. Dear God, Phyllis.
- Contrived Coincidence: Dietrichson just so happening to injure his leg (and subsequently failing to file a claim under the insurance policy he didn't know he had) is what leads to Keyes Spotting the Thread.
- Deadly Hug: How Phyllis meets her end.
- Dead Person Impersonation: Used as part of the murder scheme.
- Deadpan Snarker: Neff and Keyes both do plenty of snarking.
- Double Entendre: Walter and Phyllis exchange many of these.
- Downer Ending: Obviously.
- Dull Surprise: Fred MacMurray, arguably.
- Establishing Character Moment: Keyes' introductory scene.
- Femme Fatale: Literally; Phyllis not only kills her husband and his first wife, but shoots Walter.
- Framing Device: Neff's recounting of the story into the dictaphone.
- Gory Discretion Shot: When Walter kills Phyllis, he does so in a way that avoids showing any blood (with his back to the camera).
- Also, the camera cuts to Phyllis's face while Neff kills Dietrichson.
- Grand Staircase Entrance: Our first look at Phyllis, wearing nothing but a robe.
- Gut Feeling: Keyes' "little man" who alerts him to any attempted Insurance Fraud.
- Have You Told Anyone Else?: Neff to Lola; an unusual case in that the character who knows something is not immediately killed for it.
- Heel Realization: Walter has one at the end of the film that prompts him to turn himself in.
- Foreshadowed by Phyllis
Phyllis: Because you don't want the money anymore even though you could have it because she's made you feel like a heel all of a sudden?
- Hero Antagonist: Arguably Keyes, depending on whether you see him as more of a force for Lawful Good or Lawful Neutral.
- How Much Did You Hear?: Neff to Keyes when the latter walks in on his confession at the end.
- How We Got Here
- Insurance Fraud: The plot of the film revolves around Phyllis' attempt to arrange her husband's murder and collect his insurance money, which pays double in the event of accidental death (ie. double indemnity).
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Barton Keyes (according to Neff, anyway).
- Lady Macbeth: Phyllis is it not to her husband but to Walter.
- Left the Background Music On: During a dramatic scene, equally dramatic music is played. It is assumed that this is not diegetic, until Neff shouts to the neighbors to turn their music off.
- Long List: Keyes' list of suicide methods.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: A necessary component of the Insurance Fraud scheme.
- Mercy Lead: Subverted at the end, when Neff asks Keyes for a couple of hours to get away and Keyes points out, quite rightly, that with that bullet wound he won't get very far ("You'll never even make the elevator.")
- Morality Pet: Lola, to Walter.
- Murder the Hypotenuse
- My Car Hates Me: One of the most tense scenes is when Walter and Phyllis attempt to make a getaway from the murder scene ... and the car stalls. Apparently this wasn't in the script but left in anyway because it works so well.
- Neck Snap: How Walter kills Dietrichson.
- Never Suicide: Averted - this is Norton's initial theory about Dietrichson's death. Keyes promptly points out the impracticality of the method in question for deliberately killing oneself.
- Never Tell Me the Odds: Keyes is fond of quoting statistics. After all, it's his job.
- Outlaw Couple
- Pet the Dog: Walter's friendliness to Nino and Lola.
- Playing Against Type: Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were both reluctant to accept the roles of Neff and Phyllis respectively: MacMurray was principally a comedic actor, while Stanwyck was worried about what playing such a singularly nasty character would do to her career. Edward G. Robinson was also reluctant to accept a supporting role, until he saw the paycheck.
- Private Eye Monologue
- Revised Ending: One of the main areas in which the film differs from the book.
- Shout-Out: Phyllis Dietrichson's surname is most likely a Shout-Out to classic femme fatale actress Marlene Dietrich.
- "Shut Up" Kiss
Phyllis: We're not the same anymore. We did it so we could be together but instead of that it's pulling us apart, isn't it, Walter?
Walter: What are you talking about?
Phyllis: You don't really care whether we see each other or not!
Walter: Shut up, baby. [kisses her]
- Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Keyes.
- That Makes Me Feel Angry: Neff's monologue has to do a lot of the work in getting across how anxious and guilty he feels, owing to Fred MacMurray's manfully restrained (read: Dull Surprise) acting style.
- Throw It In: The incredibly suspenseful scene in which Phyllis can't get her car to start after dumping Dietrichson's body was a happy accident.
- Title Drop
- The Vamp: Phyllis Dietrichson.
- Villain Protagonist: Neff may be a sap who falls prey to Phyllis' manipulation; but he's also a murderer.
- What Could Have Been: The original script had two possible endings -- the one that ended up in the film, and an alternate ending which continued after that scene to show Neff's execution in the gas chamber. This gas chamber scene was actually filmed, but Wilder ultimately decided not to use it. The Media Watchdogs had objected to the scene as "unduly gruesome"; however, Wilder claimed that his reasons for cutting it were entirely artistic: it was already clear from the preceding scene that Neff was doomed, and actually seeing him die didn't tell the audience anything they didn't already know. The footage of this scene has unfortunately been lost, but some production stills remain.