Film Spotlight: Double Indemnity

In 1945, Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler and Double Indemnity was nominated for seven academy awards including Best Picture. For the three principal actors, this American noir was the best decision they made in their careers, especially Edward G. Robinson, who normally insistedΒ  top billing but signed up as supporting actor because the script was so good. Indeed, Barbara Stanwyck may have been nominated for Best Actress and Fred MacMurray played tall-dark-and-handsome perfectly, but it was Robinson’s role that was essential for moving the plot and his acting the best of the bunch. Why he wasn’t nominated for an award, I don’t know.

Shadows, hidden corners, streets after sundown and conversations in garages and halls and trains–even in the bright of day, fatale Phyllis Dietrichson hides behind black shades and most shots are held at night or in the dark.Β It’s a tricky way to begin a film. Fred MacMurray’s character, Walter Neff, stumbles injured into his L.A. office one night and confesses into a dictaphone that he committed a murder. The rest of the film is a flashback where we learn how and why he did it.

Fred-McMurray-Barbara-Stanwyck-Double-Indemnity-1024x744

In the old days, insurance salesmen made house calls. Walter makes a visit to the Dietrichson home and craves the wife when she appears at the top of the stairs wearing no more than a smile and a towel. Her smoldering sexuality instigates Walter Neff’s decision to do whatever it takes to free Phyllis Dietrichson from her boring husband. Film censors had their way in the 1940s. A man or woman who commits adultery will get theirs in the end. Even though we can predict the ending, what holds the film together is the sleuth, the ethical, claims adjuster and friend to Neff, Barton Keyes.

This is the thrilling part of the film. As the narrator and protagonist (?) of the story, Walter Neff’s repentance at the beginning of the film and the unraveling of the story has you admiring his cleverness while forgiving him his mistake. It has you scrutinizing every gesture, every word Phyllis makes. Every “I love you, baby” seems sincere. Is Neff an unreliable narrator? As the story unfolds, do you believe him? After enough plot twists and the depth of descent of Phyllis’s manipulation, you realize you’ve been duped just like Walter Neff.

While one tries to understand these two lovers, there is Barton Keyes, figuring out the mystery while discussing it to Neff at work. If Neff can devise a plan to make the murder of her husband appear as an accident, it will trigger the “double indemnity” clause and pay out twice the policy’s face value. Neff has his jaw set and tries to stay calm. Part of you wants Barton Keyes to figure it out while another part of you hopes the lovers get away. The audience experiences a trifecta of see-sawing of emotions. It’s good old-fashioned dramatic irony and why the film is great.

Maybe you haven’t seen this outstanding classic? Here’s a trailer for you:

 

Thanks, Aurora.

41 thoughts on “Film Spotlight: Double Indemnity

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  1. One of my favourite noir pieces. Beautiful review Cindy.
    I agree silly censorship back then couldn’t ruin this movie (most movies those days, besides the censorship of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s & 60’s turned out really great).
    The Billy Wilder Blogathon is happening on my B’day. I should check it out.

  2. This is my all time favorite Noir film. First, you have Barbara Stanwyck. No Victoria Barkley family matriarch in this film! Nope, she is sleek, sexy, smooth and silky and just a tad vulgar (check out those shoes in one of the photos you posted above – ooh la la!). And then MacMurray – tough, self-motivated, and a patsy. Can’t get much farther from Steve Douglas (dad on My Three Sons) than that, can you? And, as you pointed out, the wonderful Robinson, who almost walks away with the film, and that’s no mean feat considering he was playing against Stanwyck and MacMurray. This is one of the great Noirs; I never tire of it.

    Super review, Cindy!

    1. Hi Kate πŸ™‚ Yes, yes, and yes!
      Walter Neff: You’ll be here too?

      Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.

      Walter Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

      Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.

      Walter Neff: I wonder if you wonder.

      The dialogue exchange was so fast and flirtatious and fun. Yes, those shoes! With Edith Head as costume designer, she made Stanwyck look great.

      1. You bet there was some snappy dialogue in that film, and MacMurray and Stanwyck delivered it with just the right kick. Stanwyck was usually pretty good at this sort of thing. I’m a huge fan of her movies. MacMurray was the real surprise to me in the movie the first time I viewed it. I was used to him as good old Dad in My Three Sons. I never realized he had that dark element in his performances. I later learned he got his start playing less than savory types.

        There are so many great noir films… I know the movies, but the titles go together in my head. But I just love those movies.

  3. I haven’t seen this one Cindy, but from your article I think it’s a safe bet I’d enjoy it.
    I actually blind-bought Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” on Blu-ray a couple of weeks ago and thought it was fantastic. It was my first experience of Wilder, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

    1. Hi Paul πŸ™‚
      Yes! Glad you liked Ace in the Hole. This Wilder Blogathan might be a good place for you to explore his films further. Certainly, Double Indemnity is one of his better ones. You’ve got to see ‘Some Like it Hot’,
      The Apartment’ and ‘Sunset Blvd.’ There’s too many great ones. He was a prolific, excellent director.

    1. Mine as well. It’s dark and thrilling. The Apartment is right up there, too. I must have a thing for Fred MacMurray πŸ˜‰ I can’t think of any “bad” Wilder films.

  4. I can’t wait to see this one! It’s on my BlindSpot this year. I just might bump this up to this month after reading this Cindy πŸ˜‰

  5. No way a Wilder blogathon would work without DOUBLE INDEMNITY in the mix and you’ve done it great justice, Cindy! Love and agree on all you say, particularly the part about HOW IN HELL DIDN’T ROBINSON GET AN OSCAR? Forget about his not even being nominated! MON DIEU!

    Fantastic post on a great film and a wonderful addition to our event.

    Aurora

  6. Great review! I’ve seen this countless times and I always notice something new every time I watch it. I’ve been meaning to read McCain’s original novel for a while now – maybe it’s finally time to stop watching and start reading!

    1. Hi! Welcome, I’m glad you followed me and hope you visit and comment often. That’s how I define art–every time you look at it (listen if it’s music)–there’s something new to see. You can go through decades and revisit it and as you mature you see things you missed before. πŸ™‚

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