Barbara Stanwyck, Billy Wilder, Crime, Drama, Edward G. Robinson, Favourite movie, Film noir, Fred MacMurray, Literary adaptation, Murder, Review, Thriller
D: Billy Wilder / 107m
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber
When insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), there’s an immediate attraction on his part, and one that doesn’t go away even when she hints at murdering her husband for a sizeable insurance payout. At first, Neff wants no part of any plan she might have, but when she comes to see him at his apartment, his attraction towards her proves too much to overcome. Knowing the tricks of the trade, Neff comes up with the idea of having Phyllis’s husband appear to fall from a moving train and be killed; this will invoke a “double indemnity” clause in the insurance policy which will mean twice the payout. Together, Neff and Phyllis carry out the murder, but the nature of her husband’s death causes Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Robinson), to question its provenance. Matters become complicated further when Phyllis’s step-daughter, Lola (Heather), tells Neff that she suspects Phyllis of murdering her mother in order to marry her father. And when it’s revealed that Dietrichson had his own suspicions, and changed his will so that Phyllis couldn’t inherit any of his money, Neff begins to realise that he cannot trust her at all…
Like all the best films noir, Double Indemnity tells a twisted story of lust and greed and casual immorality, and it does so without apology or due consideration for the feelings of its audience. With its weak-willed “hero” and sleazy femme fatale working at opposite ends of the moral spectrum while at the same time being in tandem with each other, the movie playfully and deliberately explores the darker side of human aspirations, and paints a vivid portrait of what happens when someone reaches too far for something they shouldn’t have. Told in flashback in a similar style to the one used later by Wilder in Sunset Blvd. (1950), its story unfolds perhaps a little too slowly as it sets up the relationship between Neff and Phyllis. But as we get to know them, and what motivates them, it’s no surprise that their affair is as quick to unravel as the murderous plot they’ve committed to. When duplicity is this exciting, everything else seems so dull and trivial, and by making Phyllis glamorous in an obviously phoney way, it speaks volumes for Neff’s own state of mind and moral malleability. It’s psychodrama at its darkest and most nuanced.
Both MacMurray and Stanwyck are playing against the type they were known for, but it’s Wilder’s belief in them that holds firm, and as a result, both actors give career best performances. As the balance of power shifts between them, and both characters act more and more out of self-preservation, Wilder tightens the screws on both of them, but MacMurray and Stanwyck are more than equal to the task, circling each other and just waiting for the slightest mistake to be made and taken advantage of. Complemented by Robinson’s turn as the investigator whose moral compass is as clearly defined as Phyllis’s is fatally corroded, the movie is a cat and mouse game with Los Angeles as a glamorous, enticing backdrop (much like Phyllis herself), and John F. Seitz’s luminous black and white cinematography, with its sharp angles and “venetian blind” lighting. Paving the way for dozens of pale imitations in the years that followed, the movie stands as a prime example of remaining true to the spirit of a story while adapting it for the big screen. James M. Cain’s novella is given a brusque workover by Raymond Chandler, but survives the encounter to provide audiences with a tough, chilly, emotionally austere thriller that is also both tawdry and exciting.
Rating: 9/10 – a movie that features a number of “firsts”, from its point of view being provided by a criminal, to the characters’ emotions being expressed through the lighting in a scene, Double Indemnity is a bona fide classic that still holds up today; increasingly tense because of its main characters’ inevitable downfall and how it plays out, and with a cruel sense of irony to spur it on, this is a terrific movie from a director, and a cast and crew, that were at the height of their powers.