Double Indemnity (1944)

doubleindemnity_6Starring 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.

doubleindemnity_1I 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.

doubleindemnity_3An 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!

14 comments to Double Indemnity (1944)

  • Phil

    Nice write up. Double Indemnity is great and a favorite of mine. Everyone from MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson, despite a smaller role excelled in this film. Stanwyck and MacMurray had great chemistry, having starred in a few films together.

    Stanwyck is my all time favorite actress like Jimmy Stewart, she consistently had a great performance (even in flawed films) in all of her films to go with her diverse ability of playing any role.

    Ive noticed a few Wilder movies have the narration in the beginning or the beginning is really the end start (ie. Sunset Blvd) and Wilder uses this tactic very effectively in the films I’ve seen of his. Many other films have used it before and after but few were as engaging as Wilder’s films

    • Thanks, Phil! I’m going to have to dig into those MacMurray/Stanwyck films you mention one of these days, as they are so great together in this. Nice comparison to Jimmy Stewart, I’m not overly familiar with Stanwyck’s filmography, but she’s definitely an actress capable of delivering a wide range of performances.

      Yeah, you’re right about Sunset Blvd also having a similar structure. It’d been so long since I saw it, I had kind of forgotten that! I guess that means I should re-watch it. Wilder is an excellent director with so many amazing films to his credit. I think he’d be a fun director to do a review series on. Perhaps one of these days I’ll do that!

      • Phil

        They (MacMurray/Stanwyck) were in a couple other films together the most notable would be Douglas Sirk’s melodrama “There’s Always Tomorrow.”
        Yeah, I’ve been digging deeper into more of Stanwyck’s filmography of late; its a shame she gets forgotten or overlooked.

        Billy Wilder would make more for a interesting ongoing series. In addition to Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd, I really enjoyed Ace in the Hole. Stalag 17 was entertaining as well.
        Of the others Ive seen, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and Spirit of St Louis, were alright. They are all better suited as a good one time viewing.

        The Lost Weekend and Sabrina are the two ‘big’ ones left Ive yet to get around to.

        • Douglas Sirk is one of those directors that I’ve heard a lot about, but I haven’t seen any of his films. It’s always been on the to-do list, and I’ll definitely have to look into There’s Always Tomorrow.

          Billy Wilder was one of my favorite directors when I first got into classic films, so I’ve seen a majority of his movies. I never did see Sabrina, though, for reasons I don’t remember. Have you seen One, Two, Three with James Cagney? That was always one of my favorites of his. I reviewed Ace in the Hole as the first entry in my Blind Spot series this year. I loved it! I remember The Lost Weekend being great, but I don’t remember much else about it. I did read while researching Double Indemnity that Wilder made The Lost Weekend as a reaction to his working relationship with Raymond Chandler (who was an alcoholic) on Double Indemnity, and I thought that was an interesting factoid.

          • Phil

            I haven’t seen One, Two, Three but Ive heard it mentioned as a good film. I really need to see The Lost Weekend, I will track that down and watch it in the coming weeks. Yeah I do recall reading that it is based on Wilder’s relationship on a prior movie. Interesting.

            I havent seen Sirk’s most notable movies, such as Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, or All that Heaven Allows. I saw half of Magnificent Obsession on TCM a couple weeks ago but missed the 2nd half. It was okay, not really a big Rock Hudson fan.

            There’s Always Tomorrow and All I Desire were good, both with Stanwyck. And I enjoyed the Fuller written, Shockproof a lot as well. Very Fuller -esque story.

            • I’ve heard some great stuff about those “big” movies from Sirk, and one of these days I’ll actually get around to watching them. Good candidates for next year’s Blind Spot list, I’d say. Or whenever I clear out some of these many series I have overburdened myself with. Not a bad problem to have, I suppose.

              I am going to crack into those Fuller-written films come November, and Shockproof is probably the one I’m most excited for. I think they will largely be disappointing, especially coming at it from a Fuller angle, but I hope to find some fun films in the haystack.

  • Goddam, another classic film to add to the list. I’ve just watched The African Queen and thoroghly enjoyed it, and now I guess I have to check out Double Indemnity – especially since you’re praised it so highly. I’m not normally a huge fan of Old Hollywood, but the push to get me there is definitely on!!

    • I would say even if you don’t generally like the classics, this is one of the ones to see. It’s so good, and it easily transcends the year it was made. A great movie for all time.

      I grew up watching The African Queen, so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! I’ll look forward to a review, if you have one coming.

      • “if”?

        My review of African Queen will surface sometime in January 2014. 🙂

        • Well, I didn’t want to be presumptuous that you reviewed everything you saw. I also wanted to avoid a joke about not holding my breath until the review came out because it’d be in a few months, but you’ve forced my hand!

          • Ha ha, yeah, don’t hold your breath!! You’ll be a nice shade of blue, purple or red by the time you can let go!!

            Typically, I review 99% of every film I watch (the last film I saw that I didn’t review was End Of Watch, which I’m kicking myself for because it was a brilliant film) so yeah, if I see it, you can almost guarantee I’ll review it.

            • Good to know. As a general rule I also review everything I see, although that wasn’t always true. I found that if I didn’t review something it bothered me later, so now I just try to do everything.

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