Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, from the James M. Cain novella Double Indemnity
Starring: Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, Jean Heather as Lola Dietrichson, Byron Bar as Nino Zachetti, and Tom Powers as Mr. Dietrichson
Does one have to do spoiler alerts for a summary of a 73-year-old movie?
Walter Neff returns to his office sometime after business hours. He slumps down in a chair and, while panting and bleeding from a gunshot wound in his shoulder, proceeds to recount his perpetration of two murders to a colleague via dictaphone. During a routine house call to remind Mr. Dietrichson that his auto policy will soon be up for renewal, Neff meets Dietrichson’s wife Phyllis. In typical genre fashion, Neff is immediately ensorcelled by her. The two flirt until Phyllis inquires as to how she would go about taking out an accidental death policy on her husband without his knowledge. Suspecting that she is plotting murder, Neff leaves. However, again in typical genre fashion, he can’t get her out of his mind. When Phyllis shows up at his apartment, he agrees to help her trick her husband into buying an accident policy. They then plan to stage his death in such a way that will trigger the double indemnity clause in the policy, resulting in double the financial payout. When Phyllis driver her husband to the train station, Neff hides in the back seat. When the car turns onto a darkened side street, Neff kills Mr. Dietrichson. Neff boards the train posing as Dietrichson and jumps from the back of the slow moving train when it passes by he and Phyllis’ designated meeting point. They drag Dietrichson’s body onto the tracks and leave. From here, things begin to go bad for the pair. While Neff’s boss, Mr. Norton, believes that Dietrichson’s death was accidental, Barton Keyes suspects something is amiss. Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola, visits Neff at his office and informs him that she suspects Phyllis is responsible for Dietrichson’s death and that she was likely responsible for the death of the former Mrs. Dietrichson as well. As Keyes gets closer and closer to the truth, Neff learns that Keyes suspects Lola’s boyfriend, Nino Zachetti, is Phyllis’ accomplice. Neff informs Phyllis that he knows that she is planning to goad Nino into killing him. She shoots Neff in the shoulder. When she refuses to shoot him a second time, he takes the gun from her. As they embrace, he tells her “goodbye, baby” and shoots her twice, killing her. Neff waits for Nino to arrive and tells him to leave and go find Lola. Neff then goes to his office to record his confession. When the flashback ends, Keyes enters the office and informs the visibly weakening Walter Neff that he has heard enough to know the truth and that Walter is “all washed up.” Walter announces to Keyes that he intends to flee to Mexico rather than face the gas chamber, but he collapses from blood loss before he can reach the elevator.
Double Indemnity is the result of a tumultuous collaboration between director Billy Wilder and pulp crime fiction purveyor Raymond Chandler. The working relationship between the two was apparently so contentious that at one point Chandler quit and refused to work with Wilder any longer. The lead role of Walter Neff was turned down by many of the top actors of the era before Wilder finally offered it to Fred MacMurray. MacMurray, at the time the highest paid actor in Hollywood, was accustomed to playing nice guy roles in light comedies and initially turned down the role apparently on the basis that he was lacking the chops for it. Thankfully, Wilder wouldn’t take no for an answer and pestered him until he did sign on to play the part. MacMurray’s performance is great as he goes from average joe insurance salesman to confident criminal and ultimately to doomed pawn. Similarly, Barbara Stanwyck (the highest paid actress at the time) had some trepidation about taking the role of Phyllis Dietrichson, fearing that playing the role of a cold blooded killer would damage her career. This obviously proved not to be the case because she continued to get roles in numerous films afterward, until her career decline sometime in the 1950s. Stanwyck turns in a great performance as possibly one of the most nakedly evil femme fatales in the film noir genre. On top of the acting, the film just looks great. There is no ridiculous shaky camera, every shot is well framed, and, because it is in black and white, none of that god awful Christopher Nolan/Denis Villeneuve artificial colour saturation trash.
If you’re unfamiliar with film noir and have an interest in exploring the genre, Double Indemnity is an excellent place to start. At 107 minutes, it’s not overlong and the story is eminently entertaining. It is also refreshingly free of the fast talking detectives and down on their luck dames that colour many people’s perception of the genre. It’s a slick and heavily stylized crime story adapted, as quite a few films in the genre are, from the old pulp stories of the 20s and 30s. In this regard (along with the sheer glut of them that Hollywood pumped out between 1940 and 1959), noir can be seen as sort of an early precursor to modern comic book movies. Sort of comic book films before superheroes and with clever, shall we say “non whedonized” dialogue (no doubt owing much to the strictures of the “Hays Code” that was in full effect during the genre’s heyday).
A quick note: 1946’s Orson Welles directed The Stranger, starring Welles as a fugitive Nazi war criminal and Edward G. Robinson as the UN War Crimes Commission officer hunting him, is another good film in the genre and is now public domain. It can be found on Youtube.