Great Scene: "Double Indemnity"

June 19th, 2009 by

Great dialogue often makes a great scene. And some of the best dialogue in Hwood movie history exists in older movies — like this one Double Indemnity (1944), currently the #47 most popular film on the IMDB.com top 250 list. This scene occurs early in the movie where Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), smooth-talking insurance salesman, first intersects with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), wife of one of Neff’s clients.

When Neff first enters the Dietrichson house, he has a ‘chance’ meeting with Phyllis, he at the bottom of the stairs, she at the top of the stairs — wrapped in nothing but a towel. He proceeds into the living room, waiting for Phyllis to “put something on.” When she enters the room, Neff goes on for a bit about insurance, but then the conversation takes a turn down double entrendre boulevard, one sexy juiced-up line after another:

               
His eyes fall on the anklet again.

                             NEFF
              I wish you'd tell me what's engraved
              on that anklet.

                             PHYLLIS
              Just my name.

                             NEFF
              As for instance?

                             PHYLLIS
              Phyllis.

                             NEFF
              Phyllis. I think I like that.

                             PHYLLIS
              But you're not sure?

                             NEFF
              I'd have to drive it around the block
              a couple of times.

                             PHYLLIS
                    (Standing up again)
              Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by
              tomorrow evening about eight-thirty.
              He'll be in then.

                             NEFF
              Who?

                             PHYLLIS
              My husband. You were anxious to talk
              to him weren't you?

                             NEFF
              Sure, only I'm getting over it a
              little. If you know what I mean.

                             PHYLLIS
              There's a speed limit in this state,
              Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

                             NEFF
              How fast was I going, officer?

                             PHYLLIS
              I'd say about ninety.

                             NEFF
              Suppose you get down off your
              motorcycle and give me a ticket.

                             PHYLLIS
              Suppose I let you off with a warning
              this time.

                             NEFF
              Suppose it doesn't take.

                             PHYLLIS
              Suppose I have to whack you over the
              knuckles.

                             NEFF
              Suppose I bust out crying and put my
              head on your shoulder.

                             PHYLLIS
              Suppose you try putting it on my
              husband's shoulder.

                             NEFF
              That tears it.

Neff takes his hat and briefcase.

                             NEFF
              Eight-thirty tomorrow evening then,
              Mrs. Dietrichson.

                             PHYLLIS
              That's what I suggested.

They both move toward the archway.

HALLWAY - PHYLLIS AND NEFF GOING TOWARDS THE ENTRANCE DOOR

                             NEFF
               Will you be here, too?

                             PHYLLIS
               I guess so. I usually am.

                             NEFF
               Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

                             PHYLLIS
                      (Opening the door)
               I wonder if I know what you mean.

                             NEFF
               I wonder if you wonder.

He walks out.

Great stuff, each character trying to top the other in their little dance of seduction, the dialogue courtesy of screenwriter-director Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler, based on the novel “Three of a Kind” by James M. Cain. Of course, Phyllis has to play hard to get — if she immediately fell into Neff’s arms, he’d be suspicious of her motives. But this is clearly the first step in her efforts to esnare Neff in her plan to have him kill her husband.

One interesting side note: The emergence of subtext in dialogue was hastened by the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. Here is a partial list of some prohibited items:

Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
White slavery;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
Children’s sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:

The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
Arson;
The use of firearms;
Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Third-degree methods;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Sedition;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
First-night scenes;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
Surgical operations;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy.”

The prohibition regarding all things sexual meant that writers were forced to use innuendo and metaphors to suggest sexual themes, something we see in spades in the example here in Double Indemnity.

Here is the scene in the movie:

One thought on “Great Scene: "Double Indemnity"

  1. Überpossum says:

    That's really good. I think I need to rent the movie.

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