Paranoia, Entrapment, And the Corruption of the American Dream
in Double Indemnity and Detour
Film noir can be described as "murder with a psychological twist" (Spicer 1). As a genre that flourished during the 1940s, film noir came to reflect the anxiety, pessimism, and paranoia that pervaded post-war America (20). In Anatomy of Film, Bernard Dick writes, "The world of film noir is one of paranoia and entrapment, of forces bearing down on the individuals that are too overwhelming to resist." Entrapment and paranoia are prominent concepts in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour and help to exploit the dark side of the American Dream.
In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson, a bored housewife, manipulates Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, into securing accident insurance for her husband and helping her kill him. From the moment Phyllis reveals her plan to Walter, he becomes a co-conspirator, not because he refuses to participate in her scheme, but because he does nothing to stop her. After Walter agrees to participate in Phyllis' scheme and becomes further embroiled in her scheme, he becomes more and more trapped. As Walter states, "That was it, Keyes. The machinery had started to move and nothing could stop it" (Double Indemnity; Silver & Ursini 15). Phyllis and Walter realize that they cannot rat each other out without implicating themselves; moreover, Walter also risks betraying Lola Dietrichson with whom he has developed a friendship if she ever finds out he played a role in her father's death. The bond between Phyllis and Walter can only be severed if one or both are dead. The severance of their relationship would also mean an end to entrapment. Phyllis believes that in order for her to succeed, and subsequently be "free," she needs to destroy all evidence linking her to the first Mrs. Dietrichson's death and the death of Mr. Dietrichson. As such, Phyllis also manipulates Nino Zachetti, Lola Dietrichson's on-and-off again boyfriend, into visiting her after Mr. Dietrichson's death, inadvertently entrapping Nino with the intent of using him as a pawn in her scheme. Throughout the film, Phyllis continuously entraps the men she meets -- she seduces Mr. Dietrichson and manipulates him into marriage, seduces Walter and uses him to help murder Mr. Dietrichson, and manipulates/seduces Nino in an attempt to tie up any loose ends. Through this cyclical entrapment of the men in her life, Phyllis unknowingly entraps herself.
The ultimate form of entrapment would be getting caught by the authorities, which leads to the creation of paranoia within Walter. Because Walter knows that his boss, Barton Keyes, has the ability to differentiate between legitimate and false insurance claims, he designs the "perfect" plan to get away with his and Phyllis' plan. It is this paranoia that leads Walter to dictate how and when he and Phyllis will get together to conspire and establish how, when, and where they will kill Mr. Dietrichson (Double Indemnity). Paranoia, or the premise of paranoia, plays a major role in determining how Phyllis is going to go about killing her husband. Phyllis feigns concern for her husband's life due to his dangerous line of work in the oil fields and thus uses his job as an excuse to get an accident insurance policy on him. It is this feigned concern or feigned paranoia that sets Phyllis' and Walter's plan in motion.
Similarly, in Detour, Al Roberts inadvertently becomes entrapped in a criminal conspiracy as he hitchhikes from New York City to Los Angeles to be reunited with his love, Sue Harvey. Unlike Double Indemnity where paranoia is a consequence of entrapment, in Detour, entrapment is a consequence of paranoia. For instance, it is Roberts' paranoia about his appearance that influences him to assume Charles Haskell, Jr.'s identity after Haskell succumb to a heart condition in his sleep as Roberts takes a turn at the wheel en route to Los Angeles. In A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton contend good and evil are intrinsically intertwined and often merge into each other (12). This concept can be seen through Roberts as he transitions from an innocent man into a murderer. Roberts is "convinced that his vagrant status will prejudice the law against him" and as such, he feels he must assume the identity of someone who is not a vagrant (Silver & Ursini 28). As such, Roberts "makes the accident appear to be a crime and takes Haskell's identity, thus guaranteeing a murder charge if he is caught" (28). It is through this first action that Roberts becomes entrapped, however, this entrapment is of his own doing and could have been prevented if he had told the truth as it is likely he would not have been implicated in Haskell's death once the police determined Haskell died from a pre-existing heart condition, an allegation that could be supported by the heart pills Haskell kept in the glove compartment (Detour).
Roberts becomes further entrapped when he picks up Vera, who knew Haskell and thus knows Roberts has assumed his identity. Because Vera knows Roberts is not Haskell, she uses this knowledge to blackmail him into doing what she tells him to. Moreover, Vera secures Roberts' criminal status by forcing him to keep Haskell's identity, even though he had planned on getting rid of Haskell's car and reassuming his real identity upon reaching San Bernardino, or another large city; Vera's blackmailing further secures the entrapment felt by Roberts and he is not able to escape her clutches without revealing his true identity and implicating himself in Haskell's death. Additionally, he cannot turn Vera in without implicating himself in the conspiracy to swindle Charles Haskell, Sr. out of money, a conspiracy first concocted between Haskell, Sr.'s legitimate son and Vera, although Haskell, Jr. had plotted to pose as a Bible salesman to extort money from his father. Tragically, Roberts ends up killing Vera in a paranoid attempt to prevent her from calling the police and turning him in to the authorities. Ironically, through the assumption of Haskell's identity, Roberts became the man he never wanted to be, a vagrant and a criminal. Ultimately, even though Roberts successfully escapes the Vera's clutches, his guilt over killing her and all the events that transpired forever prevent him from ever reaching Sue and Roberts thus becomes entrapped by his guilt. As Roberts continues on his way, he is eventually picked up by the police and the cycle of entrapment continues. The actions taken by Phyllis in Double Indemnity to reach her goal of being financially secure are a corruption of the American Dream. While material prosperity is a facet of the American Dream, and people work hard to achieve this, Phyllis would rather murder her way to financial security. Phyllis's actions are motivated by greed, and she will do anything in order to get what she wants. She does this by first securing a job as the first Mrs. Dietrichson's nurse, subsequently causing her death, then by marrying the widowed Mr. Dietrichson, taking out an accident insurance policy on him before murdering him, and conspiring to kill Lola, to whom Mr. Dietrichson had left everything to; it can be inferred that upon Lola's demise, Phyllis would inherit the Dietrichson fortune as there would be no next of kin to claim the estate. As if it was not enough that she could get $50,000 if Mr. Dietrichson died by a more common method, such as a car crash, she wants the full $100,000 the policy could potentially pay out under the right circumstances. In a way, Double Indemnity is full of McCarthyist undertones as Phyllis seeks to undermine "the fabric of American society and values" by attempting to achieve the American Dream through murder, greed, and deception (Spicer 21).
Detour also features an existentialist subtext that influences the behavior of the male protagonist. Andrew Spicer contends, "Noir's non-heroic protagonists are entrapped, often by mischance, in an alienating, lonely world, usually the night-time city, where they fact the threat of death. The chaotic, random violence of this world gives rise to feelings of persecution and paranoia" (22). In Detour, Roberts fulfills the role of the non-heroic noir protagonist almost to the letter. Roberts' views about the world are highly influenced by his cynicism and how he thinks people perceive him -- a vagrant. Roberts' interactions with Haskell are purely coincidental because he neither targeted Haskell, nor was he targeted by Haskell; Roberts was picked up by chance and did not know Haskell was on his way to Los Angeles to try to swindle his own father. The alienating, lonely world Spicer alludes to is America as a whole as Roberts tries to hitchhike his way from New York City to Los Angeles. Because he does not know how he is going to make it to the next leg of his journey, it is logical to think that Roberts continuously feels lost as he finds himself in a new part of the country on a daily basis.…