This is a movie about trust. Yes, it’s also about murder and scheming and sex and insurance, but it’s mainly about trust. Dissatisfied wife Barbara Stanwyck has to trust insurance salesman Fred MacMurray, right from the time she asks him if she can get an accident policy on her husband without him knowing about it. This is not the kind of question anyone trustworthy would ask, but Stanwyck is the definition of a femme fatale, and we wouldn’t have a movie if MacMurray chose to walk the straight and narrow.
They pretty much spell out their future relationship right at the beginning.
Him: “What a dope you must think I am.”
Her: “I think you’re rotten.”
Him: “I think you’re swell, as long as I’m not your husband.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Everything begins at night, of course, with something very wrong with MacMurray’s Walter Neff. How wrong, and how it got so wrong, is the totally noir tale he’ll tell his Dictaphone.
In flashback, Neff meets Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson on a sales call at her gorgeous Spanish-style LA home. She’s wrapped in a towel, looking at him appraisingly from the top of the stairs. The spark between them is immediate. This is classic noir stuff. She’s bad and he knows it, but he can’t look away. And BTW, he’s no prince himself.
They’re sniffing each other out from the first. Does he handle accident insurance? You bet he does. And that’s not all he’d like to handle. MacMurray is full-on sleazy in his role, which was a departure for him. I wonder if his heavy-handed come-ons and his leering obsession with her ankle bracelet seemed quite as gross in 1944. Or would the sexually-provocative Stanwyck have been ‘asking for it’? I mean, there is that ankle bracelet…
In any case, innuendo gets poured all over everything, and then Neff heads back to his office, where we meet his boss, played by Edward G. Robinson looking so much like my Grandpa John that it’s eerie. Robinson is our only moral actor in this piece, and he has a sixth sense about insurance fraud. This will be significant.
Neff knows full well what Phyllis wants of him. He put it to her in unvarnished tough-guy terms: “Look, baby, you can’t get away with it. You want to knock him off, don’t ya?” She does.
Later, Neff confesses to the Dictaphone. “I knew I had hold of a red hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off.” But knowing and doing are different things. The next time he sees her it gets steamy quick, and then it’s all “I’m crazy about you, baby” and tales of accident policies and widows winding up in jail. The good news is, he’s seen it all so he knows what mistakes to avoid. He has a plan. Oh, Walter.
Back at the office, Robinson sums up the difficulty in trusting a partner in crime. “It’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end of the line, and the last stop is the cemetery.” This is eerily similar to the promise Phyllis repeatedly makes to Walter. “It’s straight down the line for both of us.”
And where will that line lead? I’ll just say that in these matters you should always listen to Edward G. Robinson.
This movie is so full of killer lines! Neff’s voiceover defines the tough-guy 40’s image, everything tossed off with nonchalant swagger. And Phyllis gives us fast-talking dame for the ages.
“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money. For a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”
“You’re not smarter, Walter. You’re just a little taller.”
“We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. I was thinking about that anklet.”
And this has to be the best sexually charged exchange ever between two people who’ve known each other less than five minutes:
Her, knowingly: “There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.”
Him, with a sly grin: “How fast was I going, officer?”
Her: “I’d say around ninety.”
Him: “Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket?”
Her: “Suppose I let you off with a warning this time?”
Him: “Suppose it doesn’t take?”
Her: “Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles?”
Him: “Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder?”
Her, steely: “Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder?”
Him, smiling: “That tears it.”