In the beginning of Double Indemnity, as insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) waits for the beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson in her living room, the camera follows Neff as he walks around the room describing the sights and smells. Neff, in his narration, mentions the “bowl of those little red goldfish” sitting on a table behind a couch in the room. It would initially appear to be an insignificant detail; however, it is one of only two physical objects described in the room, along with the photographs of Mrs. Dietrichson’s husband and daughter-in-law. These two characters later become central to the plot, making those photographs important foreshadowing pieces of the mise-en-scene. It makes sense, then, that the only other object mentioned, the fishbowl, is important. However, the fishbowl never has an impact on the plot; instead it is important as a symbol for Walter Neff. Neff believes he is in control as he makes the plan for and executes the murder of Mr. Dietrichson, but eventually it is revealed that he is just swimming in Mrs. Dietrichson’s bowl.
In the scene in which the fishbowl first appears, Neff is cocky and cool. He flirts casually with Phyllis while simultaneously giving his sales pitch, revealing a sense of control. Retrospectively, however, this scene is also when Phyllis begins to lure Neff into murdering her husband. Subtly, she mentions accident insurance, then quickly drops the idea. This sets up their next meeting, in the same room a few days later. Phyllis then explicitly asks for the accident insurance, specifically without him knowing. Neff, again exuding a level of control, accuses her of wanting to murder her husband and leaves; however, he later admits that “the hook was too strong,” and that he was unable to put the idea of Phyllis out of his mind. The fishbowl also makes an appearance in this scene. First, while Phyllis is pouring Neff a drink, the camera freezes on the two of them standing next to one another and above the fishbowl. Then Phyllis sits down on the davenport in front of the table, and Neff follows, lowering himself to the level of the fish bowl. It is not until Neff is sitting down that Phyllis springs her trap, and the cinematograph and the blocking (is that the right term?) hint that even though Neff believes he is in control, he is actually swimming in a bowl of Phyllis’s design.
The Fish Bowl as a symbol for a false sense of control is further evidenced by its next appearance, when Neff is selling auto insurance to Mr. Dietrichson. This time it is Mr. Diedrichson who is sitting on the davenport below the fish, because in this scene he is being lured into a false sense of control, even though he is unwittingly signing his life away. Also, when Neff brings the papers to Mr. Dietrichson, he sits next to him and the camera faces them straight on with the fishbowl in between center. The two men, who are both unknowingly swimming in Phyllis’s trap, frame the symbol of their lack of control.
In the final scene in the living room with the bowl—the scene in which Neff kills Mrs. Dietrichson—Neff, who has discovered that Phyllis has been using him the entire time, comes in to accuse Phyllis of her crimes. Before Neff enters, however, Phyllis turns off the lamps on the table with the fishbowl. Once the light is turned off, the fishbowl is not seen again, which symbolizes both Neff’s discovery of Phyllis’s machinations and of Phyllis’s desire to keep Neff from finding out that he is not in control. When Neff does enter, he tellingly sits on the arm of the davenport, refusing to lower himself to the fish bowl’s level. He has finally escaped from Phyllis’s control, and thus is out of the symbolic fishbowl. Of course, once he has broken free he is wounded by Phyllis, and in his final scene he is laying on the ground gasping, like a little red goldfish that jumped out of its bowl.