Noir Nook: Favorite Noir Gents
Whenever I think and talk and write about film noir, I have a tendency to focus on the distaff characters: the Phyllis Dietrichsons, the Kathie Moffats, the Gildas and the Lauras and the Mildreds.
Since Double Indemnity is my favorite film noir, it stands to reason that I would be especially fond of its characters – and insurance salesman Walter is no exception. On the surface, Walter appears to be a good guy – a little smart-alecky, perhaps, with an eye for the ladies, and maybe just a little bit bored. But it may just be his boredom, his desire for a little excitement in his humdrum life, that not only led Walter into an affair with one of his very married clients, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) but also to conspire with her to murder her spouse and collect a cool ten grand from a double indemnity accident insurance policy.
From the very start, Walter proves himself to be shrewd, intelligent, and unflappable. When, shortly after their second meeting, Phyllis none-too-subtly reveals her desire to get rid of her husband, Walter quickly sees through her artifice. He even wisely makes a rapid exit, after asking her, “Who’d you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good looking dame’s front parlor and says, ‘Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands. You got one that’s been around too long? One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?’ Boy, what a dope you must think I am.”
But Walter was no dope. Although he later allowed himself to be wooed by Phyllis’s considerable wiles, it was Walter who took control – planning every step of the intricately designed crime, from secretly securing Mr. Dietrichson’s signature on the insurance policy, to making the murder appear as an accident, to set himself up with an airtight alibi once the deadly deed was done. Even when his best-laid plans started to unravel, Walter didn’t lose his cool. He first cozied up to Phyllis’s stepdaughter, Lola (Jean Heather), in an effort to allay her justifiable suspicions. Then, after realizing that Phyllis was stepping out on him with Lola’s ex-boyfriend, Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr), Walter simply amended his original plan to include a new twist: kill Phyllis and pin the crime on the new guy.
Walter did manage to take one brief detour before resuming his irreversible descent into criminality and malevolence – instead of allowing Nino to take the fall for Phyllis’s murder, Walter had a change of heart and let the would-be sucker off by giving him a nickel and suggesting that he give Lola a call: “She’s in love with you,” Walter tells him. “Always has been. Don’t ask me why. I couldn’t even guess.” After that last good deed, though, all bets were off.
Outwardly upright, with an undeniable immoral bent, Walter Neff was a fascinating, unforgettable noir character. Unlike the experience of many a noir everyman who was led astray by a scheming woman, Walter’s relationship with Phyllis simply turned out to be the key that unleashed the inner villain that was lurking deep inside him all the time.
And how can you not love a guy like that?
Stay tuned for future Noir Nook posts that shine the spotlight on those deserving noir gents!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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