Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber
Directed by Billy Wilder
Expectations: Very high. I love this one.
Double Indemnity is the film noir genre at the top of its game. Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, and the film opens as he staggers into his office in the middle of the night. He sits down at his desk, grabs the Dictaphone mic and begins to record his tale for the benefit of his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). This “opening at the ending” trick is always a good one, and the framing bits in Double Indemnity are among the best that cinema has to offer. As Neff’s story begins, he’s out on a routine policy renewal for the auto insurance of a Mr. Dietrichson. But he’s not home, so Neff deals with Dietrichson’s wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). After some quick banter and a ton of sexual energy centered around Phyllis’s anklet, the film is off to a juicy start, unfolding its engaging plot at a flawless, even pace that never dulls.
Adapted from a James M. Cain novel, Double Indemnity‘s script is a thing of beauty. Written by Billy Wilder and detective novelist Raymond Chandler, the dialogue zings off the page at a 100 mph. This isn’t quite the rapid-fire of His Girl Friday, but the sleazy, double-crossing characters knock witty lines back and forth as effortlessly as a couple of tennis pros. There are moments when the dialogue does feel a bit overwritten, but when the acting is as superb as it is here, little things like that just fall by the wayside.
I grew up watching MacMurray in his tame Disney film roles, such as The Absent Minded Professor, so his stone cold turn in Double Indemnity blew my young mind when I first saw it. Even knowing what to expect it still packs a wallop, although this time I was more taken by how subtly Barbara Stanwyck was able to exude massive amounts of sex appeal while just sitting in a chair and talking to MacMurray. Phyllis Dietrichson is quite possibly the ultimate femme fatale.
But my favorite actor in the film is Edward G. Robinson. His character is so well-written that it would be a gift to any actor, but Robinson owns the role through his sharp, effortless delivery. Keyes not only entertains in every scene he’s in, he also feels like a real person. He harbors an affection for Walter Neff, like a father loves his son, and it’s this unspoken respect that makes the final scene of the film so heartbreaking. Classic acting has a tendency to be overplayed and too broad, but Robinson gives his character an undeniable, subtle believability while also being the larger-than-life character that the film needs.
An equal star of the film is Billy Wilder’s incredible camera work, coupled with the genre-defining cinematography of John F. Seitz. Wilder had an incredible eye for framing, making each image crisp, iconic and stunning. His camera work is fluid and always in service of the story, delivering vibrant, intoxicating images throughout. Seitz’s cinematography casts harsh shadows across the film’s locations, crafting a thick, mysterious mood that perfectly complements the equally thick and pulpy story. Seitz and Wilder also make fantastic usage of lighting their characters and sets through venetian blinds, throwing dark lines across them that echo prison bars. I’m sure it’s films like this — if not this one in particular — that inspired the Coen Brothers to use venetian blinds symbolically in certain shots of Fargo.
Double Indemnity is without a doubt one of the best films of all time. It is a film of such quality that it could easily be used as an introductory film for those unfamiliar with classic movies. At times, it still feels fresh and almost modern; the film has definitely aged, but it has aged in the best way possible, like cheese or wine. It is a pure joy to watch, absolutely effortless to enjoy. If you’ve never seen Double Indemnity, you’re truly missing out.
Double Indemnity is the Movie of the Month at the Large Association of Movie Blogs (the LAMB)! Head over to the LAMB site for more reviews of Double Indemnity, as well as the LAMBCast podcast discussing the film!