The Sound of Murder

double indemnity lobby card

“Do you make your own breakfast, Mr Neff?”

“Well, I squeeze a grapefruit now and again.”

Has it really been seventy years since Double Indemnity? The noir touchstone hit theaters in September of 1944, about the same time the Allies liberated Brussels and Martha Graham put the finishing flourishes on Appalachian Spring. Adapted from a James M. Cain novella by director Billy Wilder and detective fiction ace Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity tells the story of how an unhappy wife and her insurance man paramour do in the husband. This being film noir, double dealing and general faithlessness—plus a suspicious claims adjuster played by Edward G. Robinson—bring the proceedings to various grim ends. Double Indemnity earned seven Academy Award noms, became a classic, influenced the entire noir genre, and even made a lot of dough.

In the new noir-oriented collection Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, essayist Neil Verma explores the multifacted relationship between film noir and radio, the latter still a dominant medium in the 1940s.

Many acts of listening transform readily into pictorial form, but sound experience also always contains an energy that can’t be fully reprocessed into an image without blockage or remainder. Indeed, some of the most indelible pictures of listeners in noir are of audile beings transfixed by a mysterious auditory surplus that the camera cannot quite give us.

Which brings us to Double Indemnity:

Events begin when Walter Neff sneaks into the Dietrichson garage and climbs into the back of the couple’s car. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) enters with her husband (Tom Powers) and mouths a silent greeting to Neff while stuffing bags in the rear. As they drive we see Neff, his hand poised clawlike on the rear of the front seat, listening silently. The car turns down a dark street and Phyllis scans the road from left to right, then honks the horn in a prearranged signal. Neff reaches over the seat and kills Dietrichson. The murder is offscreen, just the span of a frame away. Phyllis bobs slightly as her seat jerks with the scuffle. The script reads: “There are struggling noises and a dull sound of something breaking. Phyllis drives on and never turns her head. She stares straight in front of her. Her teeth are clenched.” Staring forward, yet not really looking, she is in a state of . . . what? Trance? Titillation? The shot of Phyllis recalls Foster Hirsch’s description of her as a “reptilian” figure, a kind of somnambulist. Elisabeth Bronfen sees more complexity in the close-up, identifying three distinct phases to it: “Determination initially turns to sad acceptance of the death she has provoked, then becomes a quiet joy that indicates her own satisfaction and the completion of her plan.”

However we read her complicated expression, the more perplexing issue is why Phyllis elects to listen to something that she may easily observe. She wants to see her husband dead, yet it’s more chilling that, when given the chance to do so, she’d rather hear it instead. And in spite of the fact that we do not face the same choice as Phyllis, her desires are not easily extricated from ours. For the viewer, the events in the next seat are a sound-play whose parameters are spelled out, with specifics left to our imagination. We visualize within semantic bounds shaped by acoustic information–a swell of music, the sound of struggle, a faint choke–picturing an event in a place we cannot see. But our “viewing” is complicated by the fact that we do it as we watch her face and imagine what she imagines, hypnotized. The picture in our mind at once includes and meshes with the picture in her mind as we suppose it to be. In this way, the shot lures us through Phyllis’s otakoustophilia back to our own overactive audile imagination, which is echoed back at us as a perversion. There is something about this moment that indicts the gratuitousness of radiophonic experience, with its fascination with making pictures in the mind, turning them around in our heads, dwelling on them to excess.