DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

  • Director: Billy Wilder
  • Writers: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain
  • Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Tom Powers, Jean Heather, Byron Barr, and Richard Gaines
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#29), 7 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Billy Wilder, Best Actress – Barbara Stanwyck, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

When you see pastiches of Film Noir today, with their heavy, window-blind shadows and hard-boiled dialogue, Double Indemnity is the movie they’re imitating, whether they know it or not. It crystallized the tropes of the genre by taking away that semi-moral center, the private eye or cynical hero. Its hero, an insurance salesman played by Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), is at best a sap, at worst a murderer who thinks he’s smarter than he is. The movie starts with him stumbling into a dark, cavernous office, wounded and apparently dying. He proceeds to narrate the rest of the movie via dictaphone. Under the Production Code of this era, Neff had to suffer the consequences of his actions. There was never a chance he would escape alive.

At the time of the filming of this movie, at the height of World War II (interestingly, the war is never actually mentioned, though if you pay attention to some of the backgrounds, especially when the two leads secretly meet at a grocery store, you can tell that things are different), Barbara Stanwyck was not only one of the biggest female stars in Hollywood, she may have been the single highest-paid woman in America. Coming off her role in the Preston Sturges romantic comedy The Lady Eve (in which she plays a woman so sexy she could “straighten a boa constrictor”), she plays perhaps the ultimate femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson. She first appears in the movie at the top of the stairs, wearing only a towel (a scene that had to be re-shot to appease the minimum requirements of the censors). Walter’s narration insists he always knows what he’s doing, but from that moment he never stands a chance. 

Double Indemnity is not a mystery, but a story of two people who come up with a plan to commit what they think is a perfect crime, commit that crime, and then have the whole thing unravel around them, not least because of their own paranoia. Phyllis seduces Walter, then gets him to take out a “double indemnity” policy on her husband without her husband’s knowledge (i.e. if he dies in certain ways the policy pays out double). Then Neff kills her husband (Tom Powers), gets on a train, then jumps off the train at a pre-arranged spot where the pair then leave the husband’s body. The point is to convince the insurance company this guy died from jumping off the train, that nothing suspicious happened. But it turns out to be very much not a good plan, especially because of the dogged investigation of Neff’s mentor and boss at the insurance company, played by the great Edward G. Robinson. In the end, Walter and Phyllis shoot each other, and Robinson finds him bleeding out in the hallway after his confession.

“Noir” is of course the French word for Black, and in movies like Double Indemnity, one can see where the genre gets its name. In many scenes, most of the screen is in shadow, with a single light on part of the characters face. What lighting that there is seems to be shown through window blinds, leading to dramatic, stark shadows. Today, we tend to think of these kinds of movies solely as genre exercises, cut off from reality. But at the time these were seen as the more “realistic” movies, there wasn’t a genre for them to conform to. Director Billy Wilder later said he had never heard the term “Film Noir” when he made Double Indemnity, and was just trying to make a great movie about an interesting crime story. 

In this he certainly succeeded after buying the rights to a novel by James M. Cain, one of the great crime novelists of the early 20th Century, and then bringing on the even more famous Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe) to co-write the screenplay. Chandler had never written a screenplay before, and after he did an initial draft Wilder found completely unfilmable the two of them holed up in a hotel room for weeks to re-write the thing. They famously hated each other so much that Chandler wrote a lengthy memo to the studio detailing why he had to quit the project. Wilder admitted that he basically caused Chandler to relapse into alcoholism over the course of the project. On the plus side, I suppose, Chandler’s affliction likely directly inspired Wilder’s next film, The Lost Weekend, which would win a Best Picture Oscar

Without Chandler’s input, it seems unlikely we’d have much of this movie’s great dialogue. You might think you know this kind of dialogue, but this movie takes it further above and beyond than you probably would have thought possible. I’m just going to copy here the conversation that Phyllis and Walter have the first time he comes to her house to try and sell insurance:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He’ll be in then.

Walter: Who?

Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?

Walter: Yes, I was. But I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.

Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

Walter: How fast was I going, officer?

Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.

Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.

Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.

Walter: That tears it. 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.

Phyllis: That’s what I suggested.

Walter: You’ll be here too?

Phyllis: I guess so. I usually am.

Walter: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.

Walter: I wonder if you wonder.

The whole thing is like that. It makes me feel delirious. Yet the movie is also deeply aware that, in talking like that, these aren’t two cool people, to use a modern phrase. They are two people desperately trying to put on the appearance of being cool, when neither actually is. Her wig was derided at the time as being fake-looking, but Wilder said this was on purpose: she was the sort of girl who would wear a fake-looking blonde wig, thinking it made her look sophisticated. For his part, MacMurray, who up until this point had always played nice-guy heroes, thinks he has a handle on the situation right up until the end, when it’s very clear to the viewers that he doesn’t. This is a Fred MacMurray character who only thinks he’s one of those nice-guy heroes. Later in the movie, he starts sleeping with Phyllis’ step-daughter Lola (Jean Heather), who is of course way younger than him. He justifies some of his actions as protecting Lola, when in fact he’s the one taking advantage. Phyllis and Walter were never going to get away with this. 

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