#503) Double Indemnity (1944)

#503) Double Indemnity (1944)

OR “You’re in Good Hands with…Murder!”

Directed by Billy Wilder

Written by Wilder & Raymond Chandler. Based on the novel by James M. Cain.

Class of 1992 

The Plot: While making a routine house call, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the seductive wife of Neff’s client (Tom Powers). During their conversation/flirtation, Phyllis asks about taking out a policy on Mr. Dietrichson without his knowledge, which Walter knows means murder. Initially reluctant, Walter eventually helps Phyllis devise the perfect murder, including an activation of the “double indemnity” clause: double the payout if Dietrichson dies under unlikely circumstances (such as falling off a train). The plan works perfectly, but Walter’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) isn’t convinced it was an accident. What follows is some prime film noir.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises this movie to the hilt, citing Wilder’s “cynical sensibility” and “snappy dialogue”, the performances of Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Robinson (“some of their best”), and John Seitz’s “hard-edged” cinematography. An essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz (no relation to John) continues the love-fest.

But Does It Really?: “Indemnity” takes a while to crack its very ’40s outer shell, but once you get past the jargon and fast-talking, there’s a wonderfully structured piece of film noir at its core. Perhaps it’s my love of Wilder’s later fare like “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment” that cloud my judgment on “Indemnity”: I enjoyed it, but I still think Wilder’s best work was ahead of him. Regardless, “Double Indemnity” may be filmdom’s quintessential film noir entry, with a strong enough legacy to be an NFR no-brainer.

Everybody Gets One: After reading “The Big Sleep“, “Indemnity” producer Joseph Sistrom recommended that author Raymond Chandler collaborate with Billy Wilder on the “Indemnity” screenplay, after Wilder’s usual partner Charles Brackett dropped out due to his dislike of the subject matter. Although Chandler and Wilder did not get along, Wilder admits that most of the film’s best lines were written by Chandler. And shout out to silent film star Tom Powers as Mr. Dietrichson, aka “the vic”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Umm, everything? This plot hinges on such antiquated things as door-to-door insurance salesmen, dictaphones, and trains as a common mode of transportation. Also that $50,000 insurance claim would be over $900,000 today! Don’t give me any ideas, modern inflation.

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit with audiences and most critics, “Double Indemnity” received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Unfortunately, “Indemnity” was the only Best Picture nominee to go home empty-handed, losing in most categories to future NFR entry (and fellow Paramount release) “Going My Way”. Billy Wilder was especially irked by these losses, but rallied the next year when he took home two Oscars for “The Lost Weekend“.

Other notes 

  • If this blog has taught me anything, it’s that the insurance business in the ’40s was the most exciting and dangerous business ever. Sabotage! Passion! Murder!
  • Full disclosure: Years ago, I tried and failed to watch “Double Indemnity”, giving up about 10 minutes in. I think what was throwing me was Fred MacMurray’s delivery. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good in this, but he is coming in hot with the ’40s jargon and Wilder one-liners. Once you get used to it, however, the plot kicks in and the tempo slows to a more comprehensible speed.
  • Also not helping this film: the fact that every film noir element of this movie has been spoofed to death over the last 75 years.
  • Whoa, the chemistry between MacMurray and Stanwyck is palpable. I can still feel it, and they’ve both been dead for 30 years!
  • Oh Edward G. Robinson, what a fun, reliable supporting actor you became. Robinson was initially reluctant to play the third lead, but came around once he realized he was at the age to “start thinking of character roles”. It also helped that Robinson was getting paid the same amount as MacMurray and Stanwyck for less work.
  • This is another movie that would need a major overhaul if a modern remake was attempted. Walter’s plan to pose as Mr. Dietrichson would immediately fall apart if photo ID was required. Plus he’d have to deal with smart phones and security cameras. Side Note: Would it be ironic if Walter had broken his leg from jumping off the train?
  • The first half of the movie is watching Walter and Phyllis form this airtight murder plot and pull it off. The second half is seeing them try to get away with it, with Keyes serving as an accidental ’40s-style Columbo. Keyes’ monologue about suicide rates in America is a wonderful moment of him not only standing up to his boss about his work, but also inadvertently letting Phyllis off the hook.
  • The scene where Phyllis is hiding behind Walter’s door is suspenseful to be sure, except for the fact that no apartment door would ever open outward towards a hallway. Speaking of massive oversights, how did no one notice that Fred MacMurray is wearing his wedding ring during most of the movie?
  • As the plot starts to unravel in the third act, I really started to appreciate Barbara Stanwyck’s performance. Phyllis starts out as cold and calculating, and as the film progresses you see lovely shades of vulnerability and just plain evil. Typical of the era, the Oscars opted to give Best Actress to someone playing a victim (Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight”) rather than to flawed, dimensional character.
  • [Spoilers] MacMurray gets the Clark Gable prize for best reaction to being shot: “You can do better than that, baby.”
  • The novel’s ending involved Walter and Phyllis committing suicide on a steamship bound for Mexico. The Code prohibited suicide as a plot resolution, so Wilder and Chandler completely rewrote the ending. Amazingly, the new one works; quite the feat considering Wilder cut the last part of this new ending after previews. Even James Cain preferred the new ending to the one he had written!

Legacy 

  • Looking back on his career, Billy Wilder called “Double Indemnity” one of his best films. Author James Cain was quite pleased with the film as well, watching it six times in its initial run!
  • Although Wilder never worked with Raymond Chandler again, he used Chandler’s alcoholism and writer’s block as inspiration to tackle his next movie: “The Lost Weekend”.
  • “Double Indemnity” has been officially remade twice. A 1954 episode of “Lux Video Theatre” earned Frank Lovejoy an Emmy nomination for playing Walter. A 1973 TV movie saw Richard Crenna, Samantha Eggar, and Lee J. Cobb in the leads. After its initial airing, Billy Wilder called Barbara Stanwyck at home and sighed “they just didn’t get it right”.
  • As for unofficial remakes, see “Body Heat”.
  • James Cain would see two more of his novels become classic movies in the next two years: “Mildred Pierce” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”.
  • “Double Indemnity” is featured extensively in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, with Steve Martin filling in for Barbara Stanwyck.
  • And finally, “Double Indemnity” is considered by some to be the template for all film noir that came after it, though Wilder always stated that he was not consciously trying to emulate any genre, and hadn’t even heard the term “film noir” until after the film’s release.

7 thoughts on “#503) Double Indemnity (1944)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s