*** 1\2 (out of ****)
It's murder in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944).
"Double Indemnity" is widely considered one of, if not the greatest, of all the American noir movies. It is difficult to disagree. "Double Indemnity" set the standard for the genre. Anything else to comes along is an imitator. Every story about a couple murdering someone for love owes something to this Billy Wilder classic, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novel by James M. Cain.
Of course, is it love? Does the fast talking dame with the flirty eyes and murder on her mind really love the fast talking guy with lust in his eyes? She may have all the angles figured out but does he know what is going on?
It is a question to ask when watching "Double Indemnity" and a question to ask when watching any noir story. Can you trust women? Do women simply use men to push their own agenda and show their dominance over men, who are too naive and busy looking at a set of pretty legs and a cute smile?
It is a chance meeting for the two of them. They didn't know the other existed. One was unhappy, in a loveless marriage, the other seems content. Has a nice job, makes good money and has no troubles to speak of. When they meet there is sex in the air. The first time he sees her she just got out of a shower and is wrapped in a towel. From that moment he has only one thing on his mind. She sees the look in his eyes and figures she has him just where she wants him. Neither one of them admit it though. To hear them tell the story there was electric in the air. Sparks where flying. It may have been lust or love but whatever it was, it was real. They both felt something in that moment.
"He" is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman. "She" is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of man Walter was meeting about an auto insurance policy renewal. The husband isn't home and so Walter lays on the one-lines and flirty talk while Phyllis plays back. She asks him about accident insurance. Walter tells her he can offer her husband a good policy. He can mention to it him when they discuss the auto policy. But, Phyllis wants to get the policy without her husband knowing it.
At that moment, although no one has said the word "murder" Walter knows what is going on and sees right through Phyllis. Walter tells her as much and storms out of her home. But, Phyllis is just his type. He can't shake her off and he can't shake off their conversation. He's hooked.
Walter is mostly afraid of the insurance claims adjuster, Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He's smart and knows a phony claim when it hits his desk. If Walter and Phyllis are going to murder her husband, after he signs up for an insurance policy, they have to make sure it looks like an accident, in which case Phyllis will get a double payment. And hope Keyes won't suspect the wife of murder.
Walter takes it upon himself to be the brains. He has everything worked on and demands Phyllis follows his instructions to the "tee". Walter is going to try and think like Keyes. Anticipate all the questions Keyes would ask and come up with the answers.
For what was supposed to bring the two together, they are now more apart then ever. They can't be seen together. They can't speak on the phone. Nothing can link them together before or after the murder. And as for the money, they still have to wait for the claim to be approved.
Whenever any two people, who are romantic, don't spend a lot of time together, jealousy will set in. What is the other one doing? Do they still love me? Have they forgotten me? Are they seeing someone else? Paranoia sets in or maybe a cold smack of reality.
Walter has killed Phyllis' husband. She is free of him. She has to wait for the money. But what then? Does Phyllis really love Walter? Does Walter really love Phyllis? Can they trust each other? Will one of them confess and develop a guilty conscience?
Raymond Chandler was a novelist who created Phillip Marlowe, the hard-boiled, tough as nails detective played by Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Sleep" (1946). Cain also would become associated with crime novels. Prior to writing "Double Indemnity", Cain wrote "The Postman Always Rings Twice", which would later be turned into a movie as well, and "Mildred Pierce".
These two men are largely responsible for what makes "Double Indemnity" a classic. They helped establish the romantic, cinematic images audiences associate with tough talking detective and smooth, fast talking guys. The dialogue in "Double Indemnity" has been the source of parody. It is filled with 1940s slang. It has a certain rhythm to it. It is fast and quick-witted. It is full of double-entendres.
While the words do have a rhythm to them the musical score by the Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa should also be noted. To me it sounds as if doom is approaching. It signifies the relationship between the two characters and their fate. The music sounds as if it is passing judgement.
Another memorable trait of the movie is the lighting which gives the impression it is coming through venetian blinds, which makes it appear as if the characters are trapped in prison, as the lines run across them. This is something you will find in multiple noir films to follow.
"Double Indemnity" also establishes the concept of telling its story in flashback. Only the beginning and end of the movie are in the present, as our lead character walks us through everything that has lead up to this event.
What surprises me most about "Double Indemnity" is that Billy Wilder directed it. He was such a versatile talent. I often associate him with comedy. But he directed movies from multiple genres including "Stalag 17" (1953) a WW2 POW story, "The Lost Weekend" (1945), one of the first Hollywood movies to deal with alcoholism and the courtroom drama "Witness of the Prosecution" (1957). That Mr. Wilder was able to direct all these different movies, with their different styles and sensibilities, is a comment on this man's talent.
The casting of Fred MacMurray may seem a little strange to some, depending upon your age. A lot of us may remember Mr. MacMurray from the television show "My Three Sons" as well as his role in Disney comedies like "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961). In the mid-to-late 1930s he was put in lighthearted romantic comedies, like the wonderful "Hands Across the Table" (1935) and "True Confession" (1937) it was not often audiences had the opportunity to see Mr. MacMurray play such a character as Walter, who may not be entirely likable.
Barbara Stanwyck wasn't a stranger to playing a temptress. She appeared in the pre-code movie "Baby Face" (1933) but also poked fun at this persona in the Preston Sturges comedy "The Lady Eve" (1941).
If Walter didn't work in insurance the Keyes character would most definitely have been a detective and that is how Edward G. Robinson plays him but also adds a touch of humor. Keyes complains he is overworked and not paid enough. But Keyes trusts his instincts. He will follow this claim through until the end. This is in contrast to the tough gangsters Mr. Robinson gained fame playing in the 1930s like in "Little Caesar" (1931).
It is difficult to overstate the influence "Double Indemnity" has had on American films and the noir genre in particular. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture, director, screenplay and actress (Stanwyck). It was also selected as one of the best American films of all-time as part of the American Film Institutes (AFI) 100 Years...100 Movies list. "Double Indemnity" is truly a landmark film. All film lovers should see it.