'I Killed Him for the Money': The American Dream in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity

Adam Thomas

Abstract


‘I killed him for money – and a woman - I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty isn’t it?’ (Wilder 1944). So begins Walter Neff’s (Fred MacMurray) confession in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, a confession that tells how he fell for femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, how he planned and undertook the murder of her husband, and attempted to claim the life insurance he had himself sold to the dead man. The audience also hears that Neff’s actions aroused the suspicions of his boss and mentor, Keyes, and led to a shoot out with Phyllis that proves fatal for both. Hence that famous opening line. More than just an example of Raymond Chandler’s and Wilder’s pithy dialogue, the line encapsulates the film’s criticism of the American ideal. Neff’s future of upward mobility and a loving wife is gone. Furthermore, in the course of pursuing this dream, he has destroyed a family, attempted to cheat his employer and murdered a typical hard-working citizen. With this statement comes the verbal proof of what the plot goes on to demonstrate: the American Dream is dead.

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