As I mentioned in a previous post, Double Indemnity is the first film noir I have watched in my survey of the genre. There is much to say, but I offer you this for now:
The story's narration takes the form of a confession, and the narrator - Fred MacMurray's character, Walter Neff - uses that term himself, calling it a "kind of confession." That qualification is significant since Neff's confession is made into a dictation machine, and not to a living person.
This is interesting because there is a sense in which Neff is making his confession to a living person. Neff begins his tale by specifying that this is an office memorandum addressed to one Barton Keyes. Because we know nothing about Keyes, we're wondering, "Who is he? Why does he matter? Why tell Keyes the whole story?" And further, we begin the film by seeing something stand between Neff and Keyes: an apparatus for office convenience, an impersonal formality of business .
The film ends with the idea of something between these two men. Neff, as he is dying, tells Keyes that Keyes was unable to discover his crime because Keyes was "too close to him...right across the desk." Keyes replies: "Closer than that."
Why do I think this matters? Because it reveals the different characters of these two men. Keyes, it turns out, had thought of their relationship as some kind of friendship; Neff, on the other hand, had conceived of it merely as business - there was a desk between them. As his end approaches, Neff doesn't go to Keyes's house to make a confession face to face (as Keyes had gone to Neff's apartment in order to discuss his disquiet about discrepancies in the case that pointed to fraud); he goes bleeding into the office to explain his crimes on a recording.
All of this takes place in the unreal world of Double Indemnity, a world of business and commerce - dangerous business and unhealthy commerce. Neff is able to commit murder under the pretense of selling life insurance to an oilman, an occupation fraught with peril. He and Phyllis Dietrichson, Stanwyck's character, discuss the details and consequences of their crime at a large grocery store, confident that consumers won't be distracted from their shopping.
I'm tempted, then, to see in Keyes a counterbalancing element of health, a sound sense of moral reality in this disorded universe. But that interpretation is complicated by the form that Keyes's conscience takes, his "little man" who alerts him when insurance fraud is afoot. His awareness of moral disorder and attempted deceipt expresses itself as indigestion - that is, as unhealthiness. When Keyes is discussing with Neff the seemingly accidental death of Mr. Dietrichson, he complains of severe stomach problems and asks for antacid. His moral insight makes him a sick man. (We also learn that Keyes almost married once, but that he investigated his future bride - just as he would investigate any other claim submitted to him - and learned that things weren't as they seemed. Again, Keyes would be an odd paragon of healthiness.)
At one point, unaware of Neff's crime, Keyes invites Neff to leave sales and come work as his assistant and, ultimately, as his replacement. Neff points out that there would be a pay cut; Keyes counters by pointing to the solidity and satisfaction of this work as opposed to sales. He suggests that there's something stupid and immoral about sales or, at the very least, that it's unworthy of Neff's character and capabilities. But sales, Neff says, is where he wants to be.
I see in that a kind of parable, and a way to understand Keyes. He recognizes that the way the younger men make their money is low and slightly dishonest. Yet he cannot persuade the brighest and apparently best of them to pursue something higher. In fact, his kind of work seems to Neff rather repugnant - sitting behind a desk and crunching numbers, rather than working people and making sales. Keyes asks Neff if that is all he can see in what Keyes does, and nothing Keyes says is able to make him see more.
Double Indemnity, then, shows me a sad degeneration. There is no place in that insurance office for truly personal conscience or a fully human confession of the truth. While Keyes with his "little man" and mastery of the actuarial tables (and the scene in which he rattles of the statistics for various kinds of suicide is my favorite) might sustain a certain level of morality and honesty, it isn't enough to keep a Walter Neff from exploiting the system and committing a murder.
Film noir, indeed.