Double Indemnity (1944)
Release Date: April 24th, 1944 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Billy Wilder Actors: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Heather, Byron Barr
he film begins with the then spectacular (and now frequently overused) narrative of showing the conclusion first, then doubling back to the beginning until it meets up with the end – before it resolves with a few minutes more of poignant discovery. On July 16th, 1938, in Los Angeles, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) staggers into his office at the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company, with a bullet hole in his gut and an interest in confessing his sins to a Dictaphone for his colleague, claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). “It all began last May,” he recalls, filling the audience in on the details of his eleven years of insurance sales and his encounters with the seductress Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck).
While visiting the home of Mr. Dietrichson, with the intent of having the client renew his automobile insurance, Walter meets Phyllis, the lonely, neglected, abused wife, who inquires about an accident policy for her husband. Unsubtly, she requests that it be written up without his knowledge – and Walter picks up right away that she hopes to off her significant other to collect a sum of money. He insultingly throws the notion in her face, dismayed not only from the implication that he could be so easily swayed to aid in a murderous scheme, but also because he’d instantly fallen for her just the same. Soon, she confesses her contempt for Mr. Dietrichson, her mistreatment, and her desperation in devising a way out of the relationship. Walter agrees to help her in killing the contemptible man and setting up his death to look like an accident – by falling from a train, a highly unlikely demise that qualifies for the double indemnity clause, paying out twice the $50,000 entitlement.
The film magnificently portrays the concept of a perfect murder rapidly spiraling into a disastrously clumsy execution. The paranoia is palpable, but so too are the diabolic devilishness and secrecy of Phyllis and clever calculating by chief opponent Keyes, whose 26 years of experience uncovering phony claims and heeding unerring hunches seems destined to solve the case. As each scene progresses, tensions tighten and suspense strengthens; Keyes’ undeterred insistence on revealing a heinous plot derived from the logical, mathematical improbability of a double indemnity fulfillment keeps things moving swiftly and unnervingly. It’s especially fitting that his only incorrect pursuit and unpreparedness for the carefully concealed truth is complemented by Walter’s symbolic, repetitive offering of a lit match, which Keyes always needs but never has. It’s the answers he always possesses that have a detrimental effect on his wellbeing, eating away at his ability to enjoy life and tranquility. Robinson, hesitant to take a supporting role that might diminish his star power, steals the show at every turn, crafting a third billing part into a substantial persona.
“Double Indemnity” is perhaps the greatest film noir ever made, measuring up to “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Third Man” with great ease. It contains the staples of the genre but goes further to set the bar unmistakably high – the femme fatale is more ruthless, the antihero more crafty and remorseful, the music more memorable, the murder more engaging, the emotional wounds more tragic, and the cinematographic shadows more blanketing. It also excels in the scripting (by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler), with each word a purposeful, meaningful barrage of quick-witted resourcefulness. The narration spills miniscule details about random objects (their appearances, tastes, and smells, ingeniously wrapped into the underlying themes of mystery, adultery, and killing), while conversations overflow with morbid poetry, hypothetical scenarios, sports references, contradictory phrases, hilarious innuendo, metaphors, and double entendres – showcasing a superb repertoire for an unforgettable film noir couple and groundbreaking entertainment for a one-of-a-kind thriller.
– Mike Massie