Studies in voice-over narration: “Double Indemnity”

February 26th, 2013 by

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the second of five movies using voice-over narration: Double Indemnity, the classic 1944 film noir movie written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, adapting a novella by James M. Cain. The script sets up the voice-over narration through a physical device: A wounded Walter Neff [Fred MacMurray] staggers into his office and records a confession of his crimes on a dictaphone:

Double Indemnity

Here is the first example in the script:

               He interrupts the dictation, lays down the horn on the desk. 
               He takes his lighted cigarette from the ash tray, puffs it 
               two or three times, and kills it. He picks up the horn again.

                              (His voice is now 
                              quiet and contained)
                          It began last May. About the end of 
                         May, it was. I had to run out to 
                         Glendale to deliver a policy on some 
                         dairy trucks. On the way back I 
                         remembered this auto renewal on Los 
                         Feliz. So I decided to run over there. 
                         It was one of those Calif. Spanish 
                         houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 
                         15 years ago. This one must have 
                         cost somebody about 30,000 bucks -- 
                         that is, if he ever finished paying 
                         for it.

               As he goes on speaking, SLOW DISSOLVE TO:


               Palm trees line the street, middle-class houses, mostly in 
               Spanish style. Some kids throwing a baseball back and forth 
               across a couple of front lawns. An ice cream wagon dawdles 
               along the block. Neff's coupe meets and passes the ice cream 
               wagon and stops before one of the Spanish houses. Neff gets 
               out. He carries a briefcase, his hat is a little on the back 
               of his head. His movements are easy and full of ginger. He 
               inspects the house, checks the number, goes up on the front 
               porch and rings the bell.

                                     NEFF'S VOICE
                         It was mid-afternoon, and it's funny, 
                         I can still remember the smell of 
                         honeysuckle all along that block. I 
                         felt like a million. There was no 
                         way in all this world I could have 
                         known that murder sometimes can smell 
                         like honeysuckle...

Neff’s Voice is how they refer to it. The script returns to Neff’s narration frequently. For example, here is what is going on in Neff’s internal world after he first meets Phyllis Dietrichson [Barbara Stanwyck] wearing nothing but a towel:

                                     NEFF'S VOICE
                         The living room was still stuffy 
                         from last night's cigars. The windows 
                         were closed and the sunshine coming 
                         in through the Venetian blinds showed 
                         up the dust in the air. The furniture 
                         was kind of corny and old-fashioned, 
                         but it had a comfortable look, as if 
                         people really sat in it. On the piano, 
                         in couple of fancy frames, were Mr. 
                         Dietrichson and Lola, his daughter 
                         by his first wife They had a bowl of 
                         those little red goldfish on the 
                         table behind the davenport, but, to 
                         tell you the truth, Keyes, I wasn't 
                         a whole lot interested in goldfish 
                         right then, nor in auto renewals, 
                         nor in Mr. Dietrichson and his 
                         daughter Lola. I was thinking about 
                         that dame upstairs, and the way she 
                         had looked at me, and I wanted to 
                         see her again, close, without that 
                         silly staircase between us.

Then after Neff, now fully smitten by Phyllis, realizes she wants to have her husband killed:

                                     NEFF'S VOICE
                         It had begun to rain outside and I 
                         watched it get dark and didn't even 
                         turn on the light. That didn't help 
                         me either. I was all twisted up 
                         inside, and I was still holding on 
                         to that red-hot poker. And right 
                         then it came over me that I hadn't 
                         walked out on anything at all, that 
                         the hook was too strong, that this 
                         wasn't the end between her and me. 
                         It was only the beginning.

               The doorbell rings.

                                     NEFF'S VOICE
                         So at eight o'clock the bell would 
                         ring and I would know who it was 
                         without even having to think, as if 
                         it was the most natural thing in the 

By virtue of the voice-over narration — remember, it’s Neff’s confession — we can track his slide down the slippery slope straight into Phyllis’ arms.

Here is a short, yet terrific documentary on the movie cued up to a discussion about the use of voice-over narration:

The second speaker is author James Ellroy who makes this important point:

“The first person, narrated movie rests on one dynamic: It is the story of the person reciting the one great event of their life, the one big adventure of their life. In Walter Neff’s case, it’s the story of his dissolution and doom. And it’s very powerful.”

Could Double Indemnity have been produced without voice-over narration? Possibly. But would we be able to delve as deeply into the inner contours of the Protagonist’s descent? I doubt it.

In comparing The Shawshank Redemption and Double Indemnity, we see Red and Neff, a pair of men on different paths, one toward hope and salvation, the other toward “dissolution and doom.” Through the use of voice-over narration, we experience both in a more deeply personal way than we could have without the device.

So perhaps another guideline for using voice-over narration: If by using it, we get the most informative and entertaining version of the “one big adventure of their life,” then we can consider the possibility. But as always, the story needs to tell us this is the way it needs to be told.

What do glean about voice-over narration from Double Indemnity? If you have some thoughts, please go to comments and share them.

For the full documentary on Double Indemnity, go here.

For Part 1 of the series on voice-over narration, The Shawshank Redemption, go here.

Tomorrow: Fight Club.

Comment Archive

2 thoughts on “Studies in voice-over narration: “Double Indemnity”

  1. hobbs001 says:

    One of the risks in a no-narration “Double Indemnity” would have been failure to empathise with Neff. After all, it’s pretty nasty stuff he gets involved in. But most of us know the intoxication which can be visited by the opposite sex, and hearing this vividly through Neff’s narration allows us to stay with him as he slides.
    Off topic: what a lovely exchange to end the movie, between two hard-nosed insurance men, as Neff says to Keyes “Guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk.” Keyes replies, uncharacteristically and movingly, “Closer than that, Walter”. Neff replies “I love you too”.

    1. Scott says:

      If you’re a fan of the movie, you probably know that Billy Wilder actually conceived a different ending where Neff goes to the gas chamber. You can read about it here and hear Wilder discussing it here.

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