I need to write about Double Indemnity. True, it’s a movie already eloquently written about by the likes of Roger Ebert, among many others. It was selected in 1992 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and ranked in the top 50 of the best American films by the American Film Institute. So, it certainly isn’t in danger of being forgotten.
When I sat down to type, I wondered what I could hope to write that hasn’t already been written about this Oscar nominated classic; one of the most thrilling films noir ever made. I needed to do it because Double Indemnity is a movie that demands to be discussed. I was able to see it in a theatrical exhibition thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ celebration of the film noir genre, called Summer of Darkness. At almost three-quarters of a century old, the film is still gripping. The story of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), the libidinous insurance salesman who gets in over his head when he meets Phyllis Deitrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), is masterfully executed by director Billy Wilder. See it if you care about watching the best cinema has to offer, or if you just love being entertained.
Double Indemnity is one of those movies I like to call “ridiculously good.” That phrase suggests a movie almost perfect in every way. It reaches a level of quality that is so hard to achieve, the artists responsible have no right to expect such an outcome. Think Casablanca, Vertigo, Sunset Boulevard. What shoots Double Indemnity into the rarefied air of “ridiculously good”? Its structure, for starters. The film begins with Neff, weak from a gunshot wound to the shoulder, making a late night confession on his boss’s Dictaphone about his role in the murder of Phyllis Deitrichson’s husband. We’re immediately shown the resolution of a murder mystery. Where most movies end, this one starts, because the real entertainment will not be finding out whodunit, but in discovering how we got here. Double Indemnity uses the film noir staple of flashbacks to investigate why Neff – established in the first flashback scene as a cad who has no qualms about aggressively pursuing a woman he finds attractive – commits murder after being beguiled by the victim’s wife.
The flashback structure even serves as a workaround for a problem that director Wilder and his contemporaries faced due to the strict censorship code of the day – how to get sex between two characters into the story without being able to show it. The hidden sex in Double Indemnity takes place as the film flashes forward to the present, showing Walter narrating his tale into the Dictaphone. When the movie returns from present to past, Neff and Phyllis are fully clothed, as they were before, but Phyllis is reapplying her makeup – it must have somehow gotten ruined while we weren’t looking – and Walter is lying on the couch, really enjoying his freshly lit cigarette. The two talk about loving each other, and the plan to get rid of the controlling, petty Mr. Deitrichson moves quickly forward. Spotting these transitions, and noticing the differences in the way the characters behave towards one another before and after, is like deciphering a hidden code. When you break the code, it feels like you’re in a secret club, taking pleasure in a taboo that doesn’t exist anymore.
Billy Wilder adapted the screenplay from a novella by James M. Cain, with the help of Raymond Chandler, who pops up in a quick cameo appearance. The two writers crafted dialog exchanges that are exemplars of the noir style – staccato and crackling. The scene where Walter and Phyllis meet for the first time could serve as a reference for anyone asking what noir sounds like. In addition to how the characters speak, Wilder’s staging of their actions is also masterful. There is a scene midway through the film when Walter and Phyllis are almost discovered by Walter’s boss that is so suspenseful, Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have done a better job. In fact, the Master of Suspense himself once wrote, “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are 'Billy' and 'Wilder’”.
The film’s cast is also superb, all the more so because several of the stars were initially apprehensive to sign on to the project. Fred MacMurray almost turned down Wilder because he was afraid his career would be ruined playing such a loathsome character as Walter Neff. MacMurray was known for lighter fare and didn’t want to tarnish his image. Thankfully the future father of My Three Sons reconsidered, because the chemistry that he and Barbara Stanwyck share as the murderous lovers is undeniable. Stanwyck is luminous and the magic of classical Hollywood lighting adds to her natural charisma and sex appeal, which conspire to create a hypnotizing performance. Edward G. Robinson plays Walter’s boss, Barton Keyes, with a perfect balance of tenacity and humor. As the claims adjuster for the insurance company, Keyes smells something rotten about Mr. Deitrichson’s untimely demise. In one scene, he hilariously explains the finer points of statistics as they relate to causes of death. Robinson also almost passed on the movie because his role was a supporting one. For fifteen years he was accustomed to top billing, and he was worried taking a supporting role would signal the end of his dominance in Hollywood. Everyone’s fears were dispelled when Double Indemnity became a smash hit.
The movie isn’t entirely perfect, but it’s about as close as they come. There is a change in character motivation for Phyllis in the final minutes that rings false but it’s easy to overlook. As an example of the film noir genre, and the way movies were made under the classical studio system, you can’t do better than Double Indemnity. It stands the test of time after 70 years, and it will stand for 70 more as one of the best films ever made.
Why it got 5 stars:
- The acting, direction, cinematography, dialog, etc. all work together to make a movie that is endlessly watchable and entertaining.
- It’s not perfect, but in a world where nothing is, Double Indemnity is about as close as you can get.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The way Walter compulsively calls Phyllis “baby” in that hard-boiled, 1940s style throughout the whole movie made me want to employ it in my everyday conversation…if I had any hope of sounding even half as cool.
- Whenever Walter and Phyllis must meet in secret, they both go to a neighborhood grocery store to talk as they pretend to shop. The way Barbara Stanwyck pretends to shop for groceries made me giggle. She does it sort of like you’d shop for clothes – I’ve never in my life (nor have I seen anyone else) “browse” groceries. Seriously, have you ever picked up a can of baked beans, checked out the label for a few seconds, then put it back down to see what else you might want? People usually know exactly what they want when grocery shopping, no?
- I love Billy Wilder’s touch of putting the opening credits over a silhouette of a man hobbling along on crutches. If you’re seeing the movie for the first time, you wonder what the significance is, since no crutches are seen until the half-way point. When you finally connect the dots, it’s a nice little “a-ha” moment.