“Walter, you’re all washed up”

Programming Note: Today was the scheduled slot for June’s Blindspot entry. Due to a schedule that got slightly out-of-control on me from last week to this week, I’ve decided to push back the post for two days. So if you’re looking for my thoughts on this month’s first-timer – and a round-up of links for everyone else’s posts – come back again on Thursday morning. Apologies for the switch – RM

We all screw up.

We all lose sight of the ball for a moment and stop listening to our brains and our consciences. It happens to the best of us – we start acting on behalf of the lesser parts of our character and do things that we never would have thought we were capable of. Inevitably, the truth comes to light and we feel something somewhere between guilt, stupidity, shame, and remorse. Our hope in that moment is for clemency…from someone…from anyone.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is about a moment of compromised morals. It’s about that all-too-familiar intersection where greed meets lust; the corner where all of the very worst mistakes in life are made. It’s those two vices that drive Walter Neff to betray his company and himself in the way he does. He thinks that he knows the game well enough to cheat it, and that the femme fatale he has just met is trustworthy enough to cheat it with him. In this moment though – the final shot of the film – it has become all too apparent to him that he has screwed up – screwed up bad, and screwed up big.

At this moment of judgement, this moment where most of us are seeing him get what he deserves, he is desperate for a bit of mercy. He knows that he will have to pay a high price for his sins, but until then, he is desperate for someone to look upon him with pity. Any of us would.

In this moment, he has Keyes – his mentor, his friend, his unwitting guardian angel.

It’s Keyes who has the clearer conscience – what he describes as “the little man in his chest”. Keyes happens upon Neff by accident, tipped off by the office custodian. Perhaps because he didn’t figure out for himself what Neff was up to, Keyes feels that boasting in this situation is a bad idea. Or perhaps he just feels merciful.

Neff believes a judgement is coming, he even sets Keys up for it and prompts him to give him “the usual speech filled with two-dollar-words”. That speech doesn’t come – not in the way Neff expects anyway. Again, that could stem back to the way that Keyes discovered what Neff was up to. Or it stem from Keyes feeling pity on his friend, and wanting to be merciful. That’s why he doesn’t give him the speech…why he doesn’t heighten up the confrontation up into something heated…and why he reaches down and lights Neff’s cigarette for him. It’s reciprocity of a gesture Neff has been doing all film long, and it’s the smallest gesture of mercy Keyes can offer.

Neff knows he’s lost sight of the ball, and he knows he will pay a heavy price. The panic on his face even as he takes the light for his cigarette tells us that much. He’s falling through the air, and the ground is getting closer and closer below him. He knows he has to hit it – just as we all do when we inevitably fall – he’s just hoping not to break too many bones when he eventually crashes into it.

And then there’s Keyes, who can see him coming down, and knows he can’t possibly catch him. All he can do is try to cushion the landing just that little bit that allows him to crash and still survive.

We all have our Walter Neff moments in life. If we’re lucky, when we have to account for those moments, there’s a Barton Keyes there to meet those moments with the smallest amount of grace.

Three more from DOUBLE INDEMNITY for the road…


Little Man

Train Ride

This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far