Double Indemnity (United States, 1944)

January 26, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Double Indemnity Poster

Spoilers! (Not sure if such a warning is needed – the movie is 75 years old.)

In concert with 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity was at the forefront of a stylistic innovation that would become known as “film noir.” Directors John Huston and Billy Wilder independently recognized that the specific use of light and shadow could enhance both the themes and atmospherics of their crime thrillers. Drawing on inspiration from German Expressionism (a common style in the silent era), Wilder and his cinematographer, John F. Seitz, played with lighting techniques to find the perfect balance of blacks and grays to enhance the sense of dread that permeates Double Indemnity. Along with The Maltese Falcon, which achieved something similar, this became a template for two decade’s worth of movies that varied in quality from classic milestones of the genre to B-grade throw-aways.

Double Indemnity was nominated for six Oscars but won none since its distributor, Paramount Pictures, was backing Going My Way, which rampaged through the 1945 awards ceremony. (The passage of time would argue that the wrong film won Best Picture, but that’s not a unique assessment.) For Billy Wilder, this was his third unsuccessful dance with the golden statuette. He would break through the following year (in the Director and Writing categories) with The Lost Weekend and would finally hit the Best Picture jackpot in 1961 for The Apartment. Over the course of his career, Wilder became one of Hollywood’s most revered filmmakers, being involved with 13 films that received some sort of Academy Awards recognition.

Although Double Indemnity is loosely based on the novel by James M. Cain (whose novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce were also successfully adapted in the same general time period), many details, including the ending, were changed in the screenplay (partially to allay the concerns of censors, who were applying the Hays Code to the letter). Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with noted author Raymond Chandler, who supplied most of the deliciously pointed, literate dialogue. By all accounts, there was considerable friction between Wilder and Chandler during the writing process, although it seems to have been smoothed over in the end: Double Indemnity features a Chandler cameo – the only one he ever made. Today, Double Indemnity is remembered for its dialogue as much as for its style and more than for its storyline.

The year is 1938. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman, embarks on an affair with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is hatching a plot to kill her husband and reap the benefits of an “accident” policy Walter is trying to convince him to buy. Walter ultimately provides the means to pair with Phyllis’ motive. Once these two have joined forces, poor Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) doesn’t stand a chance. His corpse is found on the train tracks; he apparently fell off the moving train – or at least that’s what the coroner assumes. (Death on a train triggers a “double indemnity” clause in the policy, meaning that it pays out double in certain specific cases.) Walter’s boss at Pacific All Risk Insurance Co., Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), isn’t so sure – he’s determined to prove that Dietrichson was never on the train. Learning that they may not only miss their payday but might also be at risk in a murder investigation, Walter and Phyllis have a violent falling out. This leads to a second homicide and a confession from a soon-to-be Dead Man Walking. (Wilder filmed a concluding scene in which Walter is taken into the gas chamber but elected to cut it from the final print in part because he didn’t think it worked and in part because the censors had problems with it.)

Double Indemnity, like one of Wilder’s later films noir, Sunset Blvd., is presented in flashback with the main character narrating. Although the narrator is speaking from beyond the grave in the later movie, Walter is still alive – if barely – in Double Indemnity, but we know from the beginning that things aren’t going to go well for him. The Hays Code mandated that criminals be punished for their misdeeds so the opening scenes let us know that Walter isn’t a good guy and he isn’t headed for a happy ending. That foreknowledge enhances the gloom perpetuated by Wilder and Seitz’s stylistic choices.

Chandler’s dialogue gives Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson plenty to chew on. It’s the kind of smart, hard-bitten material that filled the pages of Chandler’s novels and Humphrey Bogart made his own in The Big Sleep (which was released a couple of years after Double Indemnity). Listening to the characters’ repartee represents the chief pleasure of Double Indemnity. Chandler may have felt uncomfortable working with a co-writer but it didn’t impact his output.

The casting of MacMurray was deemed to be unconventional. Although he was an established actor, having worked in films since the mid-1930s, he was seen as a lightweight, better suited for comedies than something this dark and demanding. The strength of MacMurray’s performance as the morally bankrupt, easily manipulated Walter resulted in the actor getting a wider variety of parts during the late ‘40s and ‘50s, although he is almost certainly best known today as the patriarch in the long-running TV sitcom, My Three Sons (which aired an astounding 380 episodes from 1960 until 1972).

Paired with the cast-against-type MacMurray was Barbara Stanwyk (in an awful blonde wig), one of Hollywood’s biggest female stars at the time. With her classic femme fatale performance, she helped to ensure Double Indemnity’s popularity. For Edward G. Robinson, the third member of the main acting trio, this represented the beginning of a new phase of his career where he moved away from playing the lead. His strength of presence is such, however, that he steals every scene in which he appears (often at MacMurray’s expense).

75 years after its release, Double Indemnity has lost much of its potency as a thriller through no fault of its own. Many of its plot points and twists have been co-opted by countless imitators over the years, ironically making the original seem derivative to modern audiences. The noir style and Chandler’s dialogue allow the film to arrest the attention of viewers who were born long after the movie startled audiences in the midst of World War II. Double Indemnity is quintessential film noir; anyone wondering what that means need only watch the movie to understand its impact and importance during the heart of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Double Indemnity (United States, 1944)

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers
Home Release Date: 2020-01-26
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Music: Miklos Rozsa
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1