Double Indemnity (1944)
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Babara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson
Directed By: Billy Wilder
In a way, in doing these 1001 Movies You Must See features, I’m learning as I act as a guide through each film. It’s very enjoyable for me to say the least. The genre of film-noir, though if it’s actually it’s own genre is still debated, is something rather new to me. Sure, I’ve seen some more “contemporary” examples such as LA Confidential and Se7en, but I’m talking about the classics from 1940s and 1950s. Double Indemnity certainly falls into the classic category.
As the film opens, a man (MacMurray’s Walter Neff) arrives at an office building after recklessly driving through the dark night streets of Los Angeles. He wearily enters a room and sits down. He’s been shot and begins to record the story of how he ended up in this position to his friend and colleague Barton Keyes (Robinson). This is the end of the story and the rest is told through a flashback which Neff narrates for Keyes and for us.
Walter is an insurance salesman and a very good one at that. He goes to one particular house to meet with a Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) to discuss auto insurance. He soon finds that Mr. Dietrichson isn’t home, but his wife Phyllis (Stanwyck) is. Walter is immediately attracted to Phyllis (well, she IS wearing only a towel when he first sees her). However, when she starts to ask about “accident insurance” coverage for her husband, Walter sees what Phyllis is really up to and promptly leaves. It’s too late, though, she has him wrapped around her finger.
Together they begin to plot her husband’s demise. Walter, who is head over heels for Phyllis, plans the entire thing. He knows the insurance business inside out, you see. He knows how to go about things as to not make things look suspicious. He even plans it out so the double indemnity clause (where they would get double the money should an accidental death happen unlikely ways) would be evoked. Everything goes off without a hitch (except for when the getaway car doesn’t want to start), until Keyes and Phyllis’ stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather) begin to piece things together. How does Walter get shot? I’ll let you watch the movie to find out.
So, I kinda gave away the plot. I apologize. Yes, they do end up killing Mr. Dietrichson. That’s not the point. The most interesting elements are the build up to the murder and the aftermath that follows. Do they get away with it? How does Walter end up in Keyes’ office bleeding to death? What happens to Phyllis? What happens to Walter once Keyes find the recording? There are still plenty of surprises left in store for everyone involved.
Billy Wilder’s directing and writing (along with Raymond Chandler’s help) is superb. The cinematography of John Seitz follows suit. There is a lot of darkness and shadows in the film which builds up the tension perfectly (with the outstanding score helping out tremendously). I particularly like how the end is placed at the start of the movie (this is something Wilder does even more effectively in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard). The dialogue is well written and the rapid fire delivery of it is something we sadly don’t see anymore these days.
I know I often sound like a broken record, but the acting here is really well done. MacMurray plays Walter as an every day sort of man and is obviously the type to fall into this kind of mess. He has blistering chemistry with Stanwyck, who’s Phyllis is a classic sort of femme fatale. She is beautiful and extremely seductive (first appearing in a towel, wearing an anklet to get Walter to look at her always exposed legs, etc). Walter is a complete sucker and never stood a chance (something Phyllis understands quickly). I was most impressed with Robinson’s Keyes. He is blunt, intelligent and is a bit of a father figure to Walter. Their final scene together is as heartfelt as it is sad.
Bottom Line: Double Indemnity is a terrific film. It explores the notions of greed and lust in a very intelligent manner. The leads (MacMurray, Robinson, and Stanwyck) are all fantastic and play well against each other expertly. It has a plot that draws you in and never lets you go until it reaches it’s conclusion. I’m shocked that this failed to bring home an Oscar (and especially that Robinson never won one in his entire career). This deserves to be mentioned among the greatest films of all-time.
10/10 (Highly Recommended).