32 WALTER NEFF
Double Indemnity, 1949, USA, Director Billy Wilder
Listen, it was not my dumb idea to go and see Walter die in the gas chamber. That was another one of those bright notions my boss Norton just had to have. He somehow wangled the invite from someone and then, when it came to the big day and seeing a man be killed, Norton chickened out. I reckon he was worried about what Neff would have said to him before he died. Norton had nothing to worry about. All Walter was thinking about when they gassed him was the damned fool he’d made of himself. The last thing on the mind of Walter Neff was the future prospects of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. But when Norton had an attack of nerves who was left to pick up the pieces? That’s right, old Barton Keyes. It wasn’t by much, a couple of years, but at least I retired before that holy fool Norton. I enjoyed those two years, knowing that I was at home while boss Norton was still coming out with his stupid ideas.
Walter Neff didn’t have any next of kin at the gas chamber which didn’t surprise me because I never once heard him talk about his folks. My own people died not too long after we arrived in the States from Romania. Coming to this country was good for me but it proved to be one journey too much for my mother and father. My mother struggled to settle into the new ways of this country, and the more she struggled the more my father felt he was entitled to drink and carouse. Both died before their time but whatever their problems they made sure I had what my old man called a good schooling. Of course when I saw the likes of Norton lording it over the rest of us from his swanky office I realised the limits of my own education. But at least I finished up with an office of my own, and the shame is that my mother and father never got to see it. Walter told me his folks were from this place in Illinois that had a dumb name. What was it? Kankakee. An Indian thing although Walter never mentioned seeing any Indians in Kankakee. But we all know that story, name the place after the Indians and then kill them all off.
Walter and me were close but we argued about politics. Not all the time because most of the time we had work to worry about. I always felt that was the difference between us. I have no time for chisellers, rich or poor, and I think the government should do something about it, whereas Walt felt all was fair in love and making a fortune. But he was a salesman, and those guys believe in the hustle and the reward. Walter was thirty eight years old when he met Phyllis and all he had ever done was sell something. He was selling vacuum cleaners before he joined the insurance business. Norton had his doubts about recruiting Neff but Norton was no judge of people or anything for that matter. I remember sitting in his fancy office and Norton pulling a face when I lit my cigar. That guy Neff can sell anything, I said.
The problem for Walter was that he met a woman who not only could sell as well as him but had a product that any man would want to buy. Phyllis Dietrichson was not the most beautiful woman I ever saw. She was no Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth but the woman looked like she could be fun, and she had an expression in her eyes that told you she’d got the idea first. You know what I mean? I bet if we’d asked Walter and Phylis who sold to whom the idea of bumping off old man Deitrichson neither would have known. That’s what sales people are like, one step ahead of everyone including themselves.
Maybe that was why I offered Walter the claims job and the opportunity to get out of sales. I was giving the guy a chance to save himself. Listen, I still have nightmares about that day in the gas chamber. I wake up seeing the face of poor Walter, nothing but confusion and disappointment in his eyes. I think he was confused about himself more than anything which I reckon must be the worst way to go. But if anyone gives a number to the people who feel like that and we tell Walter, it might put a smile on his face wherever he is, because I reckon there are a lot more than Walter that leave confused and disappointed. I know one thing. I thought a lot about offering him that job in claims. The idea kept bouncing around in my head, back and forth.
That is why I blame myself a little for what happened. Maybe if I had offered him the job sooner, and perhaps if I had leaned on Walter more, then I wouldn’t have had to go through that day in the gas chamber. You see, my thinking about Walter and him working in claims wasn’t simple. True, I thought he would be good at it and, listen, there wasn’t much alternative potential amongst the dopes that Norton liked to recruit. And there was also his politics which I didn’t think did Walter any favours. I thought if he saw the bigger picture he might stop reducing everything to this one guy against the other guy. You understand me? More than that, though, I worried about Walter. He was our best salesman. Not only did he get the customers to bite he added in extra clauses to the contracts which of course was why I knew he would be good in claims. But selling is a young man’s game and Walter couldn’t see beyond it. The truth is that I wanted Walter to have a future. Okay, we were different because we disagreed on what was right and wrong for the country but deep down I’m not sure Walter wanted a future like I did. I suppose I got that from my parents pushing me when I was at school. And, remember, I also had to witness two decent people destroy themselves. Little did I think it would happen again on the other side of the corridor to my office. It’s like Walter just didn’t want to get old. And I don’t think he did but that day in the gas chamber one thing was obvious to me. Walter Neff realised all too well the price of getting what he wanted.
Listen to this, it’s odd. Ever since that day at the gas chamber I’ve never once suffered with heartburn. It could be a coincidence but the pain in my chest disappeared that very day. And it’s not as if I don’t worry. You’d think the nightmares would have made the heartburn worse but I figure there’s a difference between brooding and being anxious. I worried about poor Walter but I stopped being anxious in work. You win some and lose some is how I saw the insurance business in the end. I did my job but I no longer had the heart for it. Once I stopped being anxious about the claims I didn’t enjoy the job the same. I came back from that gas chamber knowing I would have a future and not be like poor Walter. But that was nothing for me to be proud of, I thought. Whatever was going on inside my head the damned heartburn disappeared.
Every day since that trip to the gas chamber I’ve thought about Walter, and apart from what happened to the poor guy there are two things that haunt me. Walter had an eye for detail. He would have planned everything meticulously. So what I don’t understand is what happened on the platform at the back of the train. Walter had to pretend to be Dietrichson and make it look like the husband had fallen off the train. But this guy Jackson is there. And Walter persuades this guy Jackson to go back to his compartment, the one booked by Dietrichson, and to bring back the cigars which Walter said he had left there. Jackson agrees because Walter is on crutches and faking a leg injury. Makes sense, you think, except Dietrichson didn’t smoke cigars. Jackson never mentioned not finding any cigars until much later and then it was to some press guy long after Walter had swallowed the gas. But what if Jackson had told me about there being no cigars? I would have known right away that the accident was a fake. That’s not like Walter. He could figure the angles. Walter wouldn’t have taken that risk.
And remember how I found Walter injured with a bullet wound in his shoulder. Walter knew the score. He had to get to Mexico, and that was his plan. So why waste time hanging around leaving a confession on the Dictaphone? Walter may not have wanted Phyllis’ latest boyfriend to take the fall for something he didn’t do but that wasn’t going to happen. Not with the lawyers we have in Los Angeles. Maybe Walter wanted to set it straight with me. I like to think so because I was close to the man but I struggle with what happened that morning in the office. I’ll never forget that morning, one of the darkest LA skies that I remember. Either the smog had refused to leave the night before or it had got up early. I think I have more of a conscience than Walter but I know one thing. If it had been me walking out of the Dietrichson home and carrying a bullet from Mrs Dietrichson in my shoulder, believe me, I wouldn’t have come back to the office to waste time spilling a confession into a Dictaphone. I’d have headed to Mexico and the future and the rest of my life. But something spooked Walter enough to want to forget about his future and to gamble away the days ahead. Poor Walter Neff and poor Phyllis Dietrichson. Sometimes it’s the smart guys that are the real suckers.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Go Break Bad is available here.