Double Indemnity

  • Title:  Double Indemnity
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date:  1944
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Film Noir, Drama, Suspense, Classic
  • Cast:  Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • Format:  R1, NTSC, Two-disc Legacy Edition

“I killed him for the money and for a woman.  I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”  Walter Neff

Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies – because it is such a classic noir film. Wilder is a brilliant, brilliant director, especially when he directs dark film noir movies in black and white. The film has it all – a cold, calculating, manipulative femme fatale, an innocent drawn into a web of crime that destroys him, snappy dialogue, brilliant black and white photography, and an intriguing crime that, in the end, falls apart taking it’s participants down with it.

Part of the brilliance of Double Indemnity is it’s choice of lead actor in Fred MacMurray. Yep – the guy from Disney flicks like The Absent-Minded Professor, and Flubber, and the dad in My Three Sons (OK, yes, it’s true, all those roles were from the 1960s, or after this movie, but still) actually plays the bad guy in this film. But, that’s part of  brilliance of the film – MacMurray looks like an average guy, he sounds like an average guy, and we can believe he’s an insurance salesman. I don’t think the film would have been as successful with standard villian type or “baddie” in the role of  Walter Neff.

But MacMurray isn’t the only piece of reverse casting: Edward G. Robinson was famous for playing gangsters, tough guys, and baddies. Yet, in Double Indemnity, he’s practically the good guy. He’s Neff’s boss Keyes, who ends up investigating the husband’s “accident”. There’s also a very close friendship between Neff and Keyes.

Double_Indemnity_Neff-Keyes

As with Wilder’s other brilliant Film Noir picture, Sunset Blvd, Double Indemnity is told back to front, and thus it’s the tale of a man’s slide into destruction and death. The film begins with Neff returning to his office at Pacific All Risk Insurance, and using a dictating machine to record his confession (the line quoted at the beginning of this review is practically the first line he speaks). The film then cuts to scenes showing us what’s happening and winding back to the start. And somehow, the audience almost forgets that Neff is a dying man as they are completely entranced by the story.

Interestingly enough, the actual murder goes off almost perfectly. But as the second half of the film develops, the characters’ own guilt (especially Neff’s) and Keyes own intuition and experience at spotting insurance fraud leads, Tell-a-Tale-Heart-like to the downfall of both Neff and Phyllis.

The filming and cinematography are brilliant – the use of  light and shadow to highlight and conceal detail, and the suggestion, as the film moves along, of characters trapped by their own actions, is highlighted by the black and white photography. It’s a dark film, and only black and white really captures that, especially at the time the film was made.  It’s really only been rather recently that very dark, yet color, films have been possible, previously the amount of light required for the film to properly develop, especially for Technicolor films, made filming in color with the amount of darks in this film, impossible.

There’s also a lot of very fast, very snappy dialogue. The double entendres fly fast and furious, but even the cut and parry of the dialogue between Neff and Phyllis (Stanwyck) works to emphasize their hot and steamy relationship without actually ever showing you anything. (Likewise, one thing that makes the murder in this particular film so effective is that it is off-screen, letting your imagination fill in the blanks).

Overall, if  you want to know what film noir is all about – this film, more so than even The Maltese Falcon, is the one to see.

Recommendation:  See It
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Dracula (1931)

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