Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.
I’ve seen people get in trouble for things they didn’t do.
—Janice (Noelle Beck)
In the new noir, If I Didn’t Care, Linus (Roy Scheider) is a police detective who walks his dog along the soothingly grey Southampton shore. To his left lies the sea, to his right a stretch of handsomely weathered wood homes. Here he happens on a neighbor, Davis (Bill Sage), with his basset hound, Flash. While the younger man’s ironic sensibility seems blandly apparent, Linus’ is subtler, in a shrewd-detective sort of way.
Davis is the designated schemer, and Linus observes and unnerves him, offering sage commentary as well. You know this because his dog is named Schopenhauer. On first meeting Davis, Linus queries his knowledge of “universal will,” then deems its pertinence for the ensuing plot: “If you allow it,” he says, “the universal will brings us to pain and suffering, in a world that does not care.” Vaguely taken aback—for everything he does is rather vague—Davis notes the seeming bleakness of such philosophy. Linus reassures him, the world is not evil, “just indifferent.”
It may be fitting then, that Davis is so passive. During most of If I Didn’t Care, he allows more ambitious figures to perform bad acts, while he looks to benefit. Given the film’s take on noir, these figures are tediously female. The beautiful beachfront home with a pool where Davis lives has been purchased by his wife Janice (Noelle Beck), who works during the week in the city as a high-priced attorney. In their first scene together, he sees her off on a Monday morning, announcing, “I’m a little light.” He ignores her rolling eyes and judgmental sighs as she hands him several bills. “Is this enough?” she asks. He nods.
During Janice’s absence, Davis sits in a bar and makes calls. He’s looking for “partners” on an industrial property deal set up by his mistress, determined local real estate agent Hadley (Susan Misner). At its most interesting, the movie breaks up this brief affair into brief, well-composed images, a bit of flirting at the site, some group drinking at the bar, and shots of Hadley’s own scheming: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she purrs. “Besides, I’m feeling like I might get lucky.” So you won’t miss the point that she’s trouble, the soundtrack includes a selection from Ella Fitzgerald: “Delilah was a floozy, / She never gave a damn. / Delilah wasn’t choosy, / She’ll do you no good.” The piano fades out as the couple heads to Davis’ impressive house, where Hadley immediately asks, “How many?”, meaning bedrooms. She estimates it’s a “Call for Price” place, meaning, those who need to know the price beforehand can’t afford it.
Their night leads to complications. Hadley prods Davis for ideas about how to keep the house and set up for their children (who will need properly expensive schooling and costuming in order to “thrive”). It may help that Davis has been wanting to have kids and Janice has been reluctant, but the point seems more incidental than crucial, as does Hadley’s own desire for an ideal Hamptons-style life. Her desire, that is, her will, is selfish, rather like the one Schopenhauer contemplated, but she’s not much given to thinking through consequences.
Then again, neither does Davis. Though the film references Double Indemnity‘s murderous conspiracy a couple of times (as when Janice mocks a client or competitor who means to go “straight down the line” despite various warning signs, and when Davis rides a train, he has to be instructed to get off at “the end of the line”), the point seems more aesthetic than thematic. Davis is terminally uncommitted.
When he suggests, maybe offhandedly, that he can’t be the one who murders his wife (husbands always being the go-to suspects), Hadley takes it upon herself to learn to fire a gun from an older woman whose own experience sounds apposite: “You got a boyfriend?” she asks, “Hold it like you hold his pecker.” Hadley absorbs her lesson conveniently quickly, repeating the mantra as she practices squeezing the trigger. Yes, we get it: the woman is wresting control of this phallus, and generic femme-fatale-ish conventions are thus preserved.
Davis, meanwhile, tends to watch and wait, in a predictably opportunistic and mindless manner (as Linus observes of Schopenhauer’s incessant, self-destructive humping of his doggy-bed, “Even a nutless wonder like him still has that old primal urge”). When the murder plan goes awry—as it must—both Hadley and Janice begin to understand him in new ways.
At last Davis endeavors to take control of his situation, but his carelessness ensures that he’s unredeemable. A local cop finds him looking typically vacant after Davis’ car has smashed into a deer on the road, the animal’s bloody carcass and antlers rammed through his windshield. “Don’t feel too bad,” says the cop, “These things are a fucking menace,” even suggesting a better way to run them down for future reference (“Next time, punch the gas”).
The scene cuts to a second windshield, this one framing the cop and Linus, as they watch a Hamptons house in flames (set on fire by an angry squatter, who has been so advised, carelessly, by the cop in an earlier scene). Observing the hellish image, Linus philosophizes yet again, pondering the necessity of policemen. “To protect people from each other,” he says. That would be people who want things they can’t have, whose will is selfish.
While Davis’ will is generally apathetic, and its results seemingly accidental, the film reinforces Linus’ argument in another, more painfully stereotypical way, when the underclass takes revenge. Not only does the squatter burn down the empty house he can’t have, but a couple of angry Hispanic men take action, not believing the white, Hamptons-propertied “policemen” will pursue justice for their dead loved one. Still, the world remains indifferent.