One of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, and a textbook example of how to do a noir so right… and so good.
Dir. Billy Wilder
1944 | USA | Crime/Drama | 107 mins | 1.37:1 | English
PG (passed clean) for some violence and thematic issues
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Plot: An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder-insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator’s suspicions.
Awards: Nom. for 7 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Music
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
First Published: 28 Aug 2013
If Casablanca (1942) is said to be the most quotable Classical Hollywood drama, then Double Indemnity might just be the most quotable Classical Hollywood noir.
This Billy Wilder film is such a breathtaking tale of crime and suspense, marked by an air of witticism and self-absorbed characters, taking the film noir (at least in retrospect) to one of its highest of peaks.
Double Indemnity has stood the test of time, ageing well, and I foresee never ever dying. While Wilder did more noirs, including the masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950), which is arguably his finest achievement, Double Indemnity remains his first great film, and one of the most cited examples when it comes to having water-cooler talk about classical noir.
In the film’s most chilling scene, Fred MacMurray who plays Walter Neff, an insurance sales agent smitten by femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (played by a cold, calculative Barbara Stanwyck), realizes he can’t hear his footsteps. “It was the walk of a dead man,” Walter narrates, a foreshadowing of a potentially calamitous end to his conniving ways.
The intra-diegetic narration by Walter, so effective in opening a window to the dark world of deceit, guilt and violence, reveals his character layer by layer as he struggles to find redemption.
“That’s a honey of an anklet you’re wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson.”
Wilder has allowed us to sympathize and root for a man who has sinned badly, a far cry from the heroic steadfastness that characterized the archetypal male leading role.
Double Indemnity, so competently shot with low-key lighting by John F. Seitz and accompanied by a repetitive yet stirring score by the great Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound, 1945; Ben-Hur, 1959), is based on James M. Cain’s novel.
Yet the film adaptation remains the more enduring of the two. Wilder conjures up unforgettable scenes – the sexy entrance of Phyllis, the hilarious monologue by Edward G. Robinson (who plays Barton Keyes, an insurance fraud checker) about the types of suicides, and the brilliant final shot for you to discover, among many others.
The premise is so simple – a man and a woman devise the perfect plan to claim an insurance payout by killing the latter’s obnoxious husband. But within Wilder’s vision, there is so much complexity, so many grey areas. A film noir literally means “black film”, but a successful one has deep shades of grey.