How Did Walter Neff Change His Mind in Double Indemnity?

Few people in the golden age of the silver screen had screen-writing so neatly nailed as did Billy Wilder.  

A great example crossed my mind the other day when I was considering Double Indemnity (1944).  I recalled that when Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson first approaches Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, and she suggests that they get involved in a murder plot, he rejects her suggestion out of hand.  

And yet, only one and a half minutes of screen time passes, before he has changed his mind.

How did Billy Wilder achieve this, and to any convincing degree?  

I loaded the film to find out, and so began a masterclass in screenwriting economy.

Before I show you how it goes, I should warn you budding scriptwriters not to try this at home.  Such miraculous and tight storytelling is only safe in the hands of the masters of the 1940s and 1950s.  Films are generally an hour longer today than they were then anyway, so you maybe don't need these object lessons in brevity and control.



THE SCENE: Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) about 20 minutes in.

"You bet I'll get outta here, baby.  I'll get outta here but quick!"

After a flirtatious scene with Phyllis Dietrichson that turns sour on the sofa, Walter Neff leaves the house with the words, "You bet I'll get outta here, baby.  I'll get outta here but quick!"  She has suggested murder, but he won't have any of it.

Walter Neff leaves the Dietrichson place, daylight.

Then voice-over commences as Walter Neff leaves the Dietrichson place: "So I let her have it staright between the eyes.  She didn't fool me for a minute, not this time. I knew I had hold of a red-hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off."

"Only I wanted it worse now."

The voice-over continues: "I stopped at a drive-in for a bottle of beer, the one I had wanted all along.  Only I wanted it worse now, to get rid of the sour taste of her iced tea, and everything that went with it."

Cut to: "I didn't want to go back to the office so I dropped by a bowling alley on Third and Western and rolled a few lines, to get my mind thinking about something else for a while."

"I didn't feel like eating dinner."
After the next cut it's dark and Walter Neff's car arrives home as the voice-over continues: "I didn't feel like eating dinner when I left, and I didn't feel like a show, so I drove home, put the car away, and went up to my apartment."

"I was all twisted up inside and I was still holding on to that red-hot poker."
Then Walter Neff is inside his apartment.  The voice-over continues in classic film noir style: "It began to rain outside and I watched it get dark. I 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."
Amazingly only 70 seconds of screen time have passed and Walter Neff has convincingly converted from morally outraged insurance agent to complicit murderer.  And the scene continues:
"So at eight o'clock the bell would ring and I'd know who it was without even having to think, as if it was the most natural thing in the world."  

As Neff answers the door, the voice-over quits and the dialogue begins again, with Phyllis Dietrichson saying: "Hello."


There can only be two further notes of significance.  The first is that the bottle of beer in the second cut represents Phyllis Dietrichson's body, which as Walter Neff says, he wants.  

Slightly more curious is the question as to why does Walter Neff say that he watched it get dark, when night had already fallen?

This is for the same reason that Neff says that it is raining outside.  Of course it never rains anywhere else other than outside, and so the implication is placed in the viewer's mind, that it is not only raining inside Walter Neff, but also that is where the darkness is falling.

Deep! But effective.

Fait accompli, and scriptwriting capacity at its height.  And that is ladies and gentlemen, how Billy Wilder had Walter Neff change his mind, in under 90 seconds of screen time.

Double Indemnity at Wikipedia

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