Double Indemnity is a 1944 film noir directed by Barry Wilder and starring Fred McMurray, Barbara Stanwick, and Edward G. Robinson. While probably not a movie that most people of my generation have sat down to watch, it is one of the most important films of all time and a personal favorite of mine for many reasons. I was introduced to the movie in my “Intro to Film” class in college and I credit this movie for sparking my interest in older films that I would have largely ignored. This is an interest that has allowed me to bond with people of entirely different generations through our mutual love of cinema. My DVD copy of this movie was actually a gift to me from an elderly gentleman who I met at my work, and is something I will always cherish.
Outside of my own sentimental value towards the film, Double Indemnity is one of the first and perhaps the most defining film noirs ever created. Many tropes of the genre are on full display here; the black and white is obvious, but the use of shadows and lighting to set the mood and convey the feelings of the characters are also key. A common lighting effect throughout the film is the use of Venetian blinds to create the effect seen above, reminiscent of prison bars.
The film’s story has a similarly dark tone; the most simplistic way to explain the plot is that two adulterers commit a murder and plan to make a lot of money doing it. Walter Neff (McMurray) is an insurance salesman who falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwick), the wife of a wealthy but cruel man. Though he is initially put off by her requests about knowledge about accident insurance, believing she intends to kill her husband, his fancy turns to an obsession that sets him on the road to committing the perfect crime. They will have Mr. Dietrichson sign up for accident insurance, then Walter will murder him on a train, making it seem like an accident and cashing in on the “double indemnity”, getting the woman of his dreams and a cozy $10 million.
This plot showcases two common themes of film noir. First is that the protagonist is a criminal who manages to earn our sympathy, and the audience almost finds itself rooting for Walter Neff to literally get away with murder. Phyllis is the “femme fatale”, a woman with evil intentions who tempts Neff’s darker emotions and leads him on a path of destruction. And make no mistake; this film does not have a happy ending for the two criminals. Another signature of film noir is that bad decisions have consequences. In this case, a web of lies and uncertain loyalties force Walter to constantly commit more crimes to save his own skin until he is trapped and doomed. As he tells us at the beginning, he “didn’t get the money and (he) didn’t get the woman.”
While these two are the films central characters, perhaps the best performance in the movie is that of Robinson, who plays claims adjuster Barton Keyes. Keyes is a close friend of Neff’s and has an unflinching moral compass; his job is to catch people in lies to make sure they do not unjustly get paid insurance. Talk about a thankless job. Neff finds himself in a chess match with Keyes as Keyes tries to prove that the death of Mr. Dietrichson was in fact murder; Walter’s actions cost him a very close friendship. Keyes is the moral center of the film and it is because of his actions that Walter is unable to get away with his crime. Watching Robinson go on long diatribes without missing a beat is truly a joy to watch.
Double Indemnity was a product of its time. Before World War II, Hollywood films tended to be more idealistic and censored. The plot of sex and murder would never have been approved in the decade before, but American audiences knew the world was a horrible place and were ready for films that tackled more adult films. This film was a commercial and critical success, being nominated for seven Oscars and sparking an endless parade of film noirs that were inspired or just flat out ripping off this original classic.
While it may not be as flashy as modern movies, Double Indemnity is proof of several things. Good acting is still good acting, a good script is always a good script, and good filmmaking will always be good. It is timeless and deserves just as much attention today as it did in 1944.