Billy Wilder, 1944
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
"I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, is badly injured and begins to relate his tale via Dictaphone in his office late one night. He explains that he met Phyllis Dietrichson while trying to renew her older husband’s insurance policy. She inquires about setting up a life insurance/accident policy without her husband’s knowledge and though Neff has a good idea of what she’s up to, he’s too attracted to her to stay away. They begin to plan her husband’s murder. His leg is broken, so they plan to take advantage of an upcoming train ride. They kill him in the car ride on the way to the train station and Neff poses as Dietrichson long enough to be seen on the train. He jumps off and he and Phyllis throw her husband’s body on the tracks. The insurance policy delivers double indemnity on accidents, meaning twice the policy pay out, so Phyllis will be a rich woman.
Though it seems like the perfect murder at first, there are complications. Keyes, Neff’s coworker at the insurance agency, is sure murder is afoot. Phyllis also begins to double cross Neff, particularly when her stepdaughter, Lola, gets suspicious and reveals that Phyllis has killed before – Lola’s mother and Dietrichson’s first wife died suspiciously when Phyllis was her nurse. What will happen if she and Neff don’t get away with the murder?
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity was a critical and popular success at the time of its release. While there were other noir films that came out before this – Stranger on the Third Floor and I Wake Up Screaming – 1944 was a year of magic for the newly formed genre. Double Indemnity, Laura, and Murder, My Sweet all came out in a period of two or three months that year. So while Double Indemnity is certainly not the first film in the genre, it is one of the first truly successful and influential films in the series. Many classic noir elements are present: an imposing staircase, a criminal protagonist, voice over narration, a femme fatale, murder, a sense of dangerous sexuality, and no hope for a positive resolution. The beautiful, stark cinematography from John F. Seitz, one of Paramount’s head DPs, certainly helped established the feel of noir. Borrowing from German expressionism, the film is flooded with grim, almost grimy shadows, particularly during moments of violence and suspense.
Based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, Cain also wrote the similarly-themed The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce. Both of these were adapted for the screen during the classic noir period. Postman and Double Indemnity are based on the real murder case of Ruth Snyder, a married woman who coerced her lover (a salesman, not an insurance agent) into killing her husband. She first took out an insurance policy on him, one with a double-indemnity clause. They were quickly discovered and both were electrocuted in 1928.
Though Wilder contacted author James M. Cain to work on the script, he wound up with hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye). The two men had a difficult relationship, partly because of Chandler’s alcoholism and inexperience working with a writing partner, but produced one of the best scripts in the history of noir. The script improves upon Cain’s novel in many ways, particularly the ending. Instead of committing double suicide, the ending is far more complex and leaves much more doubt about Neff and Phyllis’s feelings. Originally, the film was supposed to end with Neff in the gas chamber as Keyes watches his execution, but that seems unnecessary. The dialogue and use of double entendre is incredible, but is so fast paced that you practically have to watch the film twice to absorb it all. Wilder explained that he wanted to keep Cain’s dialogue, but Chandler convinced him that it wouldn’t work and wrote most of it himself.
Chandler also has his only film cameo here as a man reading a book. After Double Indemnity, Chandler was taken on as a full time writer by the studio, allowing him and his sick, elderly wife to escape poverty. Wilder’s time with Chandler was actually his inspiration for the film that followed Double Indemnity – The Lost Weekend, about an alcoholic writer on a bender.
The novel nearly wasn’t adapted, because the committee behind the Hays Code considered its subject matter far too inappropriate – murder, sex, infidelity, two love triangles, etc. Sex is never actually shown, discussed, or implicitly suggested on screen. Taken at face value, this is a story about a man who develops an interest in a married woman and suddenly agrees to kill her husband. Of course, because of the time period, it’s understood that a significant amount was removed to keep the Hays Code happy. What makes the affair both plausible and understood is largely the manner of the two leads. Phyllis is not an incredibly beautiful woman. With her cheap wig, thin towel, and ankle bracelet, she’s not the most knockout blonde noir has ever seen. But Stanwyck gives the character an aura of sleaziness, easy sexuality, and a predatory nature. When she flirts with Ness, he could be shocked at her brazenness, but he takes it all in stride, suggesting that he’s been in this situation before.
As with other noir protagonists from the period, there is something likable about Neff, but also something despicable about him. While Phyllis brings out the worst in him, her stepdaughter Lola seems to bring out the best. He is logical, caring, and understanding. His somewhat unexplained relationship with Lola – lover, father figure, or friend – and his close friendship with Keyes are his only redemptive moments. Even though he knows that he is doomed, he wants Lola to have a chance at happiness. Fred MacMurray is perfect for the part, though he was initially reluctant to agree. He was primarily in comedies before this film and was afraid he didn’t have the acting chops to pull it off.
Of course, he is upstaged at nearly every turn by the great Barbara Stanwyck, one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. She is also perfect as Phyllis, though, again, was reluctant to take the role because she didn’t want it to affect her overall career. While there is nothing negative I can say about the film, one reason to watch is surely Stanwyck’s turn as one of noir’s most poisonous, lethal femme fatales.
There are also many other reasons. If you’re new to film noir, this is an ideal place to start. It boasts an excellent use of L.A. sets, all of which are memorable. You really get a sense of what the city was like in the ‘40s and ‘50s and its vibrant flavor comes across despite the griminess of the film. Also keep an ear out for the wonderfully moody score from Miklós Rózsa. Though he had previously collaborated with Chandler, his work here established his career.
Double Indemnity is a must-see and comes with the highest possible recommendation. Pick it up on DVD today and prepare yourself for almost two hours of lust, greed, murder, and an almost total absence of the milk of human kindness.