Life and Death in L.A.: Two Couples Who Murder: “Double Indemnity” Faces Off Against “Body Heat” — And It’s Not Even Close

Friday, January 12, 2024

Two Couples Who Murder: “Double Indemnity” Faces Off Against “Body Heat” — And It’s Not Even Close

Left, Kathleen Turner, William Hurt, "Body Heat" (1981).
Right, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, "Double Indemnity" (1944).

Warning: Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

After I moved to L.A. in 2008, I got together with a Meetup group that was going to see a screening of “Double Indemnity” (1944) at the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood. I was chomping at the bit in anticipation of watching one of my all-time favorite films with a group of cinema enthusiasts. I pictured us moving enmasse to the theater’s cafe after the screening and having a long discussion about the film, going over its finer points, savoring the subtlety of Billy Wilder’s direction, analyzing the screenplay co-written by Wilder and consummate grouch Raymond Chandler. Then there were the performances — Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson — how great was that cast?!

My fellow viewers were younger than me — let’s face it, almost everyone is these days — ranging from early 20s to around 30 or so. After the movie unreeled we drifted into the cafe. I was set for a stimulating, caffeine fueled conversation about classic film, old Hollywood and the like. But the banter took a dark turn. Not dark, as in noir-like shadows of venetian blinds on the wall. Dark as in, “Who the hell saw this coming?” The general reaction, saturated in Millenial social-media-ingrained ennui, was, “So, like, why is that supposed to be so great?” 

MacMurray as Walter Neff, spilling the details of his crimes.

The film’s opening scenes follow the mortally wounded insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray), who makes his way to the office of his boss, claims adjustor Barton Keyes (Robinson) and records a voice memo on a Dictaphone machine in which he confesses to two murders, that of his paramour Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) and her husband (Tom Powers). It’s an emotional sequence that draws us into the story leading up to the confession, but the discussion went off the rails from the get-go. 

One young woman in the cinema group in her early 20s opined with incredulity, “Somebody shot him and he goes to make a recording? Nobody’s going to do that!”

Another noticed that MacMurray was wearing a wedding ring and the character he plays was unmarried. “Yeah, I noticed that, too!” another added. (MacMurray refused to remove the ring, and it was visible in that scene).

The conversation went on like that for a number of depressing minutes. I didn’t say a thing. Finally, someone noticed I was keeping it shut and asked me what I thought of the film, and I said I think it’s a masterpiece. That got their attention, but not in the way you’d hope. They looked at me with a mixture of pity, curiosity and annoyance, with annoyance being the dominant reaction. 

Explaining myself, I said that the film is witty, dramatic and character driven. It contains dialog that is the very definition of smart noir repartee. I called the script a marvel and, borrowing Barton Keyes’s description of the insurance scam Neff masterminds, noted that it “all fits together like a watch.”

Most of them paused for a nano-second to consider this, then silently dismissed my insightful, cleverly worded summary and began talking amongst themselves. 

A hellish red glow is the backdrop for Hurt and Turner in "Body Heat."

The 30ish guy hadn’t fully bailed on the discussion just yet, and he said he’d seen “Body Heat,” with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner and noticed the similarity between the two movies — “Body Heat” is based on “Double Indemnity.” 

In “Body Heat,” hack attorney Ned Racine (Hurt) kills Matty Walker’s (Turner) husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna), much like MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.” There’s a snag in both killers’ plans, however. In each movie an eyewitness is brought forward for questioning. Both Neff and Racine are present in the same room as their respective witnesses. 

For Neff, a man who saw him at the scene of the crime, and for Racine, a little girl who saw him in a passionate encounter with Matty. The tension has both perps on tinder hooks, but somehow they escape a close scrape with the law, temporarily, at least.

The 30ish guy in the cafe said that “Body Heat” did a better job of depicting that spine tingling encounter with justice, and the “Double Indemnity” version just wasn’t as good. 

Quelling my mounting apoplectic rage, I strongly disagreed, but it was pointless. He joined the discussion with the others about a current super hero film. Case closed.

I resisted the temptation to launch into a heated defense of “Double Indemnity,” realizing that I'd probably sound a lot like the old codger who shouts, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” But the encounter also made me think about those two movies.

I’d be the first to admit that Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” (1981) is a fine film. William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Richard Crenna, as the unfortunate husband, all put in terrific performances. The script is a tightly modulated work of emotional tension and release, and the twist at the denouement sews up the loose ends ably. 

But better than “Double Indemnity”? I think not.

Ruth Snyder, Henry J. Gray, murderers who inspired James M. Cain's novella.

The film “Double Indemnity” is adapted from James M. Cain’s 1943 novella of the same title. The book is based on a real-life 1927 murder perpetrated by Ruth Snyder, a married woman from Queens, N.Y., and her lover, Henry Judd Gray. They conspired to kill her husband, Albert, and both went to the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.

Wilder and Chandler crafted a script rich in detail with finely realized characters, including the murderous couple. 

Kasdan crafted the “Body Heat” screenplay, which is rich in twists and turns and includes an erotic encounter between Ned and Matty that could only be hinted at in “Double Indemnity.” But there are big differences between the two that in my not so humble opinion demonstrate why “Double Indemnity” is by far the superior film:

 D.I. — Phyllis and Walter meet by chance; she seems to begin plotting the murder only after their second meeting, when she asks Walter about accident insurance.

Matty has long-range plans in mind.

B.H. — Matty has been playing the long game. She steals and assumes her best friend’s identity, and begins searching for a sloppy, careless attorney with questionable morals. Ned’s name comes up, and she figures out a way to meet him that will seem like a randon encounter — quite a far fetched turn of the plot.

Phyllis and Walter’s meeting is more plausible than that of Matty and Ned. Plausibility is not necessarily the most critical element in a film, but chance and character are all important in "Double Indemnity.” In “Body Heat,” Matty merely fabricates the illusion of a chance encounter to attract Ned into her web of deceit and murder. 

Fate is the big kahuna of film noir, and “Double Indemnity” wins points for its adherence to this existential tenet.

D.I. — “Double Indemnity” has a far greater emotional range than does “Body Heat,” especially in a scene between Walter and Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), that takes place after the murder. Neff’s conscience — yes, we learn that he does actually have one — begins to get the better of him. This is an element that’s crucial to the film’s ending, by the way, but more about that later. 

Phyllis, savoring the moment as her husband is strangled.

Phyllis, however, may as well have Freon coursing through her veins. The depths of her sociopathic personality is beautifully revealed in the gruesome scene in which Neff strangles her husband while she sits inches away from him. The camera cuts away from the film’s most disturbing scene, which government censor would surely demand, to a closeup of Phyllis’s face. She’s not cringing, as any normal person would. Instead, she’s barely able to suppress a smile. 

Wilder’s brilliance shows through here. Rather than waste the cutaway shot, he uses it to give us more information. We see Phyllis’s insanely calm reaction to her husband’s horrible death, but Walter doesn’t see it — he’s busy attending to business. This is the first time in the film in which we have more information than does Neff. His ignorance of Phyllis’s true demeanor allows him to continue on with their plan without reflecting on her abnormal behavior. Later, in voiceover, he says he expected Phyllis might fall to pieces, but is relieved that she’s managed to keep her composure.

Neff and Phyllis, a chance encounter.

Getting back to the disappointing discussion at the ArcLight, I’d answer that young woman’s disbelief that the wounded Neff — Phyllis plugs him before he returns the favor — would take the time to leave a confessional recording, with a clear and simple explanation — the kind that never seems to occur to me in the heat of a discussion:

The reason why Neff returns to record a confession despite the fact that Phyllis popped a cap in his chest, is two-fold.

First, he needs to explain himself to his father confessor, Keyes, who’s about the only one in the film who genuinely cares about him.

Second, he needs to save Nino Zachetti’s (Byron Barr) life. Who is Nino Zachetti? He’s the abusive jerk who’s secretly dating Lola. Neff realizes that Zachetti is the perfect dupe to frame for both murders. Keyes believes Zachetti might be guilty of killing Mr. Dietrichson and that gives Neff the perfect opportunity to keep his trap shut and let Nino go to the chair. 

But he can’t. 

Lola (Jean Heather) makes an unwelcome office visit to Neff (MacMurray)
and his stoic facade begins to crack.

Unlike Phyllis, Neff has a conscience. He’s been fighting off feelings of guilt for killing Lola’s father ever since the day she came to see him in his office. Her appearance throws a monkey wrench into his plan to keep his head down and remain stolid. 

But Neff can’t bear to send Lola’s boyfriend to the chair after all of the pain he’s caused her by killing her father. Instead, he plans to tell the whole truth to Keyes by leaving him a voice recording he’ll hear the following day. By then, Neff plans to be a free man in Mexico. He can’t explain himself to the cops, for obvious reasons, but Keyes is the perfect recipient of the message. There’s as much apology as confession in Neff’s memo to Keyes. He’s finally contrite for his deceptions and horrible behavior. 

So, the reason why Neff drives like a madman to the office and pours his heart out into a Dictaphone machine is because he feels that he must. It’s the final decent act he can perform in his foolishly wasted life. His confession will prevent Zachetti, whom Neff passionately dislikes, from paying for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a moral judgment that shows us that, in the end, Neff does have a suppressed sense of morality that finally comes to light. But it’s too late to save him from the debt he must pay for his evil deeds.

We don’t see anything close to Neff’s moral journey in “Body Heat,” which is a clever story with a clever ending. But where’s the emotional and moral conflict? Both Matty and Ned are cold and calculating, with no visible remorse. 

Christian Bale is the killer Yuppie in "American Psycho" (2000).

In a sense it’s the perfect adaptation for its time, the early 1980s, when materialism and consumerism were at full dudgeon. Matty and Ned are like remorseless Yuppies who kill, maybe with a greater affinity to murderous investment banker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in “American Psycho” (2000) than to Walter Neff. 

“Body Heat” is still fun to watch now and then, but I don’t rewatch it like I do “Double Indemnity,” which I’ve seen innumerable times and will probably continue to do so. 

I wish I’d had all of this stuff in mind when I encountered the “Double Indemnity” doubters at the ArcLight. But if any of them are reading this — highly doubtful — I’ve laid out what I should have said. Not a quick answer, but better late than never. 

Fortunately, there’s always the option to rewatch “Double Indemnity” and give it another chance. I hope that they do.


1 comment:

  1. I'm on FB a lot and I'm struck by the parallels between your (attempted) discussion over these movies and how political discussions fail on FB.

    Have we lost the ability to respect Other Americans when the have Opinions that aren't like our own?