FROM THE MOMENT THEY MET IT WAS MURDER!
Double Indemnity came as sort of a relief. After spending a lot of time during my film classes watching the Soviet and Italian classics (which were undeniably an eye-opening experience), I was sort of longing to see something from the place I had fallen in love with as a kid. Hollywood was Hollywood, after all. Then Billy Wilder’s breakthrough film came up on the curriculum, and I was thrilled. I hadn’t actually seen this film noir masterpiece and now I finally got the chance. I wasn’t disappointed – one hour and fortyfive minutes flew by. It’s still hard to think of another American film noir thriller to match it.
Los Angeles, 1938. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is seriously injured but makes his way to the office and starts dictating a confession for one of his colleagues, the claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). We soon learn that Walter is admitting to having committed murder and he begins his story by taking us to his first meeting with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of a client. Walter came to their house on a business errand, but was immediately smitten by Phyllis. She turned out to be trapped in a loveless marriage, but when the conversation turned to getting her husband to sign up for accident protection in case he’s killed, Walter saw through her and told her that he did not want to be part of a scheme that might end with murder.
Phyllis denied this was the case, but Walter left the house. Still, he couldn’t get her out of his mind… and soon she was also in his arms.
Collaborating with another noir writer
The film became the first successful adaptation of one of James M. Cain’s works, but more would follow in the shape of Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). All stories, and the films, are similar in style but ”Double Indemnity” and ”Postman” also share some of the same ingredients; both feature a passionate couple that plot murder.
Wilder collaborated with another terrific noir writer, Raymond Chandler, on the script. They did not get along and Chandler’s alcoholism became a problem, but Wilder reportedly realized after some time that the antagonism actually brought well-needed fuel to their work. Chandler also became invaluable because of the wonderfully tough dialogue he wrote. Those rapid words are spoken by a great cast, including MacMurray and Stanwyck. The latter was afraid the role might hurt her career, and the former was chosen precisely because he usually played nice guys, not a weak, foolish and murder-prone man like Walter Neff. They are extremely effective in their roles, convincing even if we do realize that the move from infatuation to murder happens a little too fast. The single best performance belongs to Robinson, who’s dynamic as the smart claims adjuster who has ”a little man” inside him, telling him whenever there’s something fishy about an insurance claim. Watching him try to figure out the case while the actual murderer is always standing next to him is part of the tension that dominates the film.
This is a very tightly directed thriller that has us by the edge of our seats, regardless if we’re watching Phyllis and Walter plan and execute the murder scheme (which involves a sweaty train ride on a pair of crutches) or following Walter as he’s trying to evade suspicion while Keyes’s investigation sets wheels in motion.
The look of the film is classic noir, with cinematographer John F. Seitz taking advantage of actual Los Angeles locations, making this sunny place look gloomy and filthy. The sets keep its cast, most notably the two leads, in the dark, sometimes more or less behind bars as light streams through the blinds. A nifty idea.
Double Indemnity 1944-U.S. 106 min. B/W. Produced by Joseph Sistrom. Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler. Novella: James M. Cain. Cinematography: John F. Seitz. Music: Miklos Rozsa. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Porter Hall, Tom Power, Fortunio Bonanova.
Trivia: Remade as a TV movie in 1973 and as Body Heat (1981).
Last word: “I said, ‘I love the script and I love you, but I am a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out killer.’ And Mr. Wilder – and rightly so – looked at me and he said, ‘Well, are you a mouse or an actress?’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope I’m an actress.’ He said, ‘Then do the part.’ And I did and I’m very grateful to him.” (Stanwyck, “Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder”)