Double Indemnity Plot Summary (Spoilers):
Double Indemnity begins with a man on crutches walking towards the camera. The scene shifts to a car speeding through traffic. The car arrives at an office building, after hours, and a man, named Walter Neff, gets out and gingerly approaches the door. He taps on the glass and the janitor lets him in the building.
Walter arrives at his office at the insurance company he works for and takes off his coat, revealing what appears to be a gunshot wound in his left shoulder. He proceeds to record a confession for the claims manager, named Barton Keyes, that he was the man who killed the victim in a claim that was under investigation as fraudulent. Walter says he committed the crime for money and a woman, but ended up with neither. The scene then shifts to a flashback that follows Walter’s account of his crime.
Walter meets Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, on a house call to one of his clients. Walter is immediately attracted to Phyllis. He goes on to give her his spiel about renewing her husband’s auto policies and Phyllis inquires whether his company also handles accident insurance, which Walter affirms. Walter flirts with Phyllis, but she shuts him down, telling him to come back tomorrow around 8:30 when her husband will be home.
Walter returns to his office to find that Phyllis has left him a message, asking him to meet her at 3:30 Thursday afternoon, instead of 8:30 Wednesday evening. Walter meets with Phyllis and conveniently, both her husband and the maid are not home. Phyllis tells Walter that her husband has decided to renew the auto-policies, but that she is also interested in purchasing accident insurance for her husband, because she fears he may be injured on the job. However, she also wants to purchase the policy without her husband knowing about it, because she claims he is superstitious about it. Walter accuses Phyllis of wanting to bump her husband off to collect the insurance money and she feigns outrage. Walter tells her that she’d never get away with it. Walter refuses to assist Phyllis with her scheme and leaves her house.
Later that evening, Phyllis shows up at Walter’s house, saying he forgot his hat. She assures him that he has the wrong impression about her. She flirts with Walter and implies that her husband doesn’t treat her very well. Walter tries to play it cool, but then gives in and kisses her.
Walter tells Phyllis about several cases where a wife tried to kill her husband and collect the insurance money, but ended up in prison instead. Phyllis tells Walter her husband is mean to her and cares about his daughter more than her. She adds that even his life insurance money goes entirely to his daughter. She claims she doesn’t want to kill her husband, even when he gets drunk and slaps her around, but admits that sometimes she wishes he was dead. Walter reiterates that if she tries to kill her husband and collect the insurance, the insurance company will see right through her and she’ll end up getting caught. However, by the time Phyllis is ready to leave, Walter has talked himself into helping her pull of the scheme and tells her so.
Walter tricks Mr. Dietrichson into signing an application for an accident policy, by telling him he’s signing an application for renewal on his auto policy. Walter learns that Mr. Dietrichson is planning a trip to attend his class reunion. He tells Phyllis to make sure her husband takes the train instead of driving, because if he were to die on the train, the double indemnity clause of his policy would kick in and she’d collect $100,000 instead of just $50,000.
Walter begins meeting Phyllis at the local grocery, so they can discuss their plans without being seen or heard by anyone who might suspect them. Their plans hit a snag when Phyllis reveals that her husband fell and broke his leg and as a result, no longer plans to make the trip to his class reunion. Phyllis is getting antsy to end things sooner, rather than later, but Walter insists that she should wait until they can do it right.
Phyllis calls Walter at his office, while Mr. Keyes is trying to convince Walter to give up sales and become his assistant in the claims office. Phyllis tells Walter that her husband will be getting on the train after all and confirms their plans to initiate her husband’s “accident.” Walter turns down Keyes’ job offer.
Walter proceeds with his plans, setting up his alibi and then dressing in a suit similar to the one Mr. Dietrichson would be wearing. He walks over to the Dietrichson’s house and then hides in the backseat of the car Phyllis plans to drive her husband to the train station in. Phyllis loads her husband into the front seat of the car and then as planned, turns down a dark alley and signals to Walter. Walter kills Phyllis’ husband.
Walter impersonates Phyllis’ husband and boards the train. Walter tells the porter that he’s going out to the observation car to smoke. When Walter arrives, he discovers another passenger already seated on the deck. He claims to have forgotten his cigar case and the passenger offers to go back into the train to get it for him. Once the other passenger is gone, Walter hops off the train. Phyllis is waiting for him in her car. Walter tells her to take her husband’s hat and go collect the crutches Walter was using off the train tracks. He then grabs Mr. Dietrichson’s body out of the car and hauls it out to the tracks. He tosses the hat and crutches by the body and the pair leave in Phyllis’ car.
In the days following the murder, Walter becomes increasingly convinced that he is going to be caught. His problems compound when Mr. Norton, the big boss man at the insurance company, is determined that even though the police and the coroner have ruled Mr. Dietrichson’s death accidental, that it was not an accident. Mr. Norton calls Phyllis in to his meeting with Keyes and Walter and tells her that they suspect her husband’s death was a suicide. Mr. Norton takes a very combative stance with Phyllis and closes with an offer to settle for an agreed upon amount, rather than going to court. Phyllis shuts him down and storms out of the office.
After Phyllis leaves, Keyes jumps all over Mr. Norton for his suicide accusations, saying he had already considered that possibility and discarded it. He points out that the train was only going 15 miles per hour and it’s highly unlikely anyone would think jumping off the back of a slow-moving train would result in their own death. Keyes’ take down of Norton’s suicide theory eases Walter’s mind, since Keyes was the person he was most afraid would uncover the truth of Dietrichson’s death.
Later that evening, Phyllis calls Walter from the drug store and arranges to meet him at his apartment. Walter tells her not to let anyone see her. Shortly after he gets off the phone with Phyllis, Mr. Keyes rings his bell. Keyes is wondering why Dietrichson didn’t file a claim when he broke his leg. He suspects that Dietrichson didn’t know he was insured. However, he discards this notion, since Walter claims to have delivered the policy to him, himself. However, Keyes is still convinced something is wrong. Phyllis arrives and listens at the door, just as Keyes and Walter begin discussing the possibility that Phyllis arranged to have her husband murdered. Keyes leaves and Phyllis hides behind the door. Walter tells Phyllis that Keyes will be watching her every move, so they can’t see each other again until things die down. Phyllis accuses Walter of not caring whether they see each other or not.
Dietrichson’s daughter Lola comes to see Walter at his office and tells him that she feels something is wrong concerning her father’s death. She tells Walter she’d had this same bad feeling before, when her mother died. Lola suspects that Phyllis, who was her mother’s nurse, had something to do with her death, but she was unable to convince her father. Lola is convinced that Phyllis killed her father for the money and vows she isn’t going to let her get away with it this time. Walter tries to convince her that she’s just imagining things because she doesn’t like Phyllis. When that doesn’t work, he decides to try and cheer her up, in the hopes that will stop her from telling anyone else her suspicions about Phyllis.
Keyes calls Walter into his office and tells him that he has the Dietrichson case all figured out. He has determined that Dietrichson was never on the train, after all, you can’t count on throwing a man off a train going 15 miles an hour resulting in death. Keyes is convinced that Phyllis and an accomplice killed Dietrichson somewhere off the train and then an impersonator boarded the train and jumped off and then placed the body on the tracks. Keyes has called Mr. Jackson, the passenger who was on the observation deck with Walter, in to question him, as he was the only person who got a good look at the Dietrichson impersonator.
Mr. Jackson has studied the photos of the late Mr. Dietrichson and tells Keyes that he is willing to swear that the man on the train was not Dietrichson. He doesn’t appear to recognize Walter, however before he leaves the office, he becomes convinced that he knows Walter from somewhere.
Walter arranges to meet Phyllis at the market and tells her that Keyes is rejecting her claim. Walter urges her not to sue, because he thinks Keyes has too much evidence against her. When Walter brings up Lola’s suspicions about Phyllis killing her mother, Phyllis becomes convinced that Walter wants to back off because he feels bad about killing Lola’s father. Walter tries to convince her that he is worried about the two of them getting caught, but Phyllis doesn’t buy it. Phyllis insists that they have to see things through to the end and that nobody is pulling out, because after all, it was Walter who came up with the plan to kill her husband, not Phyllis.
Walter continues to see Lola and on one of their excursions she tells him that she’s convinced her ex-boyfriend Nino conspired with Phyllis to kill her father. She tells Walter that Nino has been meeting Phyllis at her house and that he claimed to be sick the night of the murder as an excuse for standing her up that night. Walter wonders why Nino has been meeting Phyllis, but can’t come up with an explanation.
Keyes tells Walter that he has discovered who Phyllis’ accomplice was and that she has filed suit against the insurance company and Keyes intends to tear them apart. Walter worries that Keyes is playing cat and mouse with him. Walter snoops in Keyes’ office and finds a recording that indicates that Keyes did investigate Walter, but has ruled him out as a suspect. Instead, Keyes is convinced that it was Nino who helped Phyllis murder her husband.
Walter arranges to meet Phyllis at 11 that night, at her home. He tells her that Keyes is no longer watching her house, but to turn the lights off, so the neighbors won’t see them. Walter tells Phyllis that he plans to murder her and pin it on Nino, who Keyes is convinced was her accomplice in the murder of her husband. He claims he has already arranged for Nino to show up in 15 minutes, with the police right behind him. Phyllis tells Walter that she’s been meeting Nino, because she’s been trying to send him into one of his jealous rages, by convincing him that Lola has been seeing another man, in the hopes that Nino would eliminate Lola before she had a chance to talk. Walter responds that Phyllis probably intended to have Nino take him out too and then she’d have someone else take out Nino, so she could have the money all to herself.
Walter goes to close the window and while his back is turned, Phyllis draws the gun she has hidden under the cushion of her chair and shoots him in the shoulder when he turns around. Walter taunts Phyllis, but she doesn’t fire a second shot, claiming that she has realized that she loved Walter after all. Walter takes the gun from Phyllis and shoots Phyllis dead.
As Walter is leaving the house, he hears Nino approaching and hides in the bushes. However, before Nino can enter the house, Walter calls out to him. He gives Nino a nickel and tells him to go call Lola, explaining that Lola still loves him and that Phyllis was lying to him.
Back in the present, Walter finishes his recording by asking Keyes to look after Lola and Nino. Keyes walks in the door and discovers Walter sitting in his office. Keyes explains the janitor summoned him, after discovering some of Walter’s blood. Keyes starts to call a doctor for Walter, but Walter stops him and asks him to pretend he never found him, so that Walter can continue with his plan to cross the border, before the recordings are discovered. Keyes tells Walter he’ll never make the border and he’s right, as Walter collapses before he even gets out of the office. Keyes calls for an ambulance. Walter tells Keyes that he was unable to solve the case because he was right across the desk from the man involved. Keyes says he was “closer than that,” and Walter responds, “I love you too.” Keyes helps Walter light a cigarette and the end credits roll.
Double Indemnity Commentary (Spoilers):
I enjoyed this film, but didn’t find the story to be very plausible. First of all, it seems unlikely that a woman who has potentially already gotten away with one murder, would just randomly hatch a plan with an insurance salesman who just happened by her door, no matter how smitten he seemed with her. Second, while I can see how someone who worked in the insurance industry might find themselves tempted to try and beat the system and file a fraudulent claim, it’s a long way from willing to defraud the insurance company to willing to murder two people in cold blood. Maybe Walter’s past is a bit more checkered than we are made aware, but it seems odd that he would go so quickly from mild-mannered insurance salesman to murderer, just because he’d been pondering trying to rip of the company he worked for and found himself in lust with a woman who just, so happened, wanted to hatch a scheme to kill her husband and collect the money.
I used to be a claims adjuster, so that part of the film was interesting to me. I don’t think the world of claims is quite so dramatic as the film made it out to be, but parts of the movie rang true, particularly the part where the suit tries to settle the claim, because he knows he can’t actually prove it was a suicide, but he thinks he can intimidate Phyllis into settling for a lesser amount by threatening court. The courts have cracked down on unfair claims practices since this film was shot and I don’t think insurance companies are quite as shady as they once were, but I’ve known a few execs who would probably try something like that.
Insurance companies do investigate fraud, but most would take more of Keyes’ approach. Gut feelings that a claim is a fraud isn’t enough. If you can’t prove something is fraud in court, you have to pay the claim, no matter how fishy it smells. This is why Keyes needed to find hard evidence, like the witness who was willing to testify that the man on the train was not the victim, in order to actually deny the claim. This is even more the case in today’s environment, because there are serious penalties involved if a court decides a company unfairly denied a claim.
Both Phyllis and Walter were pretty scuzzy people, but I still found myself rooting for her to kill him in the end. I found both her sudden case of the feels and his decision to confess and his concern for Lola and Nino to be a bit disingenuous, but I suppose even bad people can have a change of heart. The whole, let me explain my evil plan to you, before I kill you bit was kind of silly as well. I also found it interesting that Keyes still seemed to have affection for Walter, even after finding out he was twice a murderer. I’m assuming we were meant to see their declaration of love for each other as the love between good friends, but they did make a point of Keyes never having gotten married, so who knows.