Film #78 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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Directed by Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
It must first be said that this film noir crime drama is very different from Billy Wilder’s usual writing style which heavily incorporates witty and comedic dialogue in the script. Wilder made a name for himself in Hollywood as a screenwriter for romantic comedies like Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka, as well as debuting as a director in the same genre with The Major and the Minor. Later on, he would give us Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. Even though Wilder’s name became synonymous with comedy and laughs, he also directed some very revered dramas and film noirs. The Lost Weekend, a 1945 film noir about an alcoholic writer, earned Wilder his first Oscar statuettes for Best Director and Best Screenplay. There is also Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 and Witness for the Prosecution; films which boasted incredible big-name talent like William Holden, Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and even Otto Preminger in a rare acting role. With as many diverse and prestigious projects to his name, it is rather surprising that Wilder is not better known for this tremendous range of genius.
Admittedly, I was relatively unimpressed when I first watched Double Indemnity. Having heard much praise about it from the Classic Film community, my curiosity was naturally piqued and so I was happy to obtain a copy in a collection of film noir features. The set included some of the genre’s most famous titles: The Killers, Out of the Past, The Blue Dahlia, The Glass Key & This Gun for Hire, amongst others. Being in such grand company already made a bold statement about the film, thus my expectations were already set very high. It is not that Double Indemnity is a bad or even average film by any means. In fact, watching it again was a very pleasant experience. What I find is that the film does not stand out to me as being a monumentally exceptional piece of work; this being a consistent problem I have faced with many of the films on the AFI 100, which automatically earn a certain reputation just for having made it onto the elite list.
In order to understand why this film is so important and hallmarked, one must look at its impact on the history of cinema. What one will find out is that, very much like in the case of The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity is a film that broke down barriers by showcasing characters and subjects like they had never before been seen on the big screen. As TCM Noir Alley host Eddie Mueller put it, this is a definitive noir because it showed “how and why people commit murder” in defiance of the Hays Production Code. Moreover, these “people” in question were ordinary folks with normal jobs and generally boring personal lives. This was a far cry from the usual high rolling, high stakes gangsters who had henchmen at every corner. No, the characters in this film just happened to have an opportunity fall into their lap in addition to holding a strong belief that they could beat the system. So without further ado, let us get acquainted with the specifics of the story.
“How could I know that murder could smell like honeysuckle?”
It is in the very early hours of the 16th of July 1938 that Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) enters the Pacific Building in downtown Los Angeles. He hastily heads into the offices of Pacific All-Risk Insurance where he works as a salesman in order to record a confession on his Dictaphone. Sweating profusely and visibly wounded, Walter takes us a few months back in time.
One day as Walter is making his rounds in Glendale, he takes the opportunity to visit the residence of Mr. Dietrichson, a client of his for the past three years whose 2-car auto insurance policy is set to soon expire. He is welcomed by Mr. Dietrichson’s much younger wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), who first presents herself to Walter wrapped only in a towel after sunbathing on the roof. This sight stays etched in Walter’s mind, tempting him and provoking him to flirt with Phyllis after she comes downstairs in a more presentable, clothed state. Although she is amused by his attitude, she quickly thwarts his attempts and tells him to come back another time.
Back at the office, Walter talks with his colleague, claims manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) after the interrogation of a man who was caught making a false claim, having committed arson on his vehicle in order to get a payout from Pacific Insurance. Walter is impressed with Keyes’ rate of success in uncovering phony claims, which Keyes owes to an unwavering hunch. Not long after, he gets word that Phyllis wishes to see him again. When he arrives at the house, neither Mr. Dietrichson nor the housekeeper is present. There is not much time for Walter to relish their being alone as Phyllis immediately starts asking about purchasing accident insurance for her husband without his knowledge. She claims that her husband faces workplace dangers and that he would be very angry knowing that she worried about him so much. Despite having a somewhat convincing discourse, Walter immediately suspects her plan of murder and promptly leaves.
At 35, Walter has a good reputation and 11 years of experience in sales that help make him one of the best sellers at Pacific All-Risk. Having grown close to Keyes on both a personal and professional basis has also made it so that he knows all the ins and outs of the insurance business. Walter figures that with all his knowledge, he is one of the only people who could ever beat the house at their own game. So when Phyllis shows up at his apartment later that evening, the image of her in the towel and the certainty that he could carry out a flawless plan makes him cave in. They passionately kiss and soon after, he offers to help her in murdering her husband. To make the deal even sweeter, Walter proposes that they make it look as if Mr. Dietrichson wanted a double indemnity clause which would give them twice the payout due to an accidental death.
After the dirty deed is done, Phyllis and Walter learn that the real obstacle is actually collecting the insurance company’s payout. Even with flawless, unobjectionable circumstances, the big bosses do not like to part with their money. They attempt to put pressure on victims’ families without having a shred of evidence just to have them break-down in their moment of sorrow and effectively forfeit the money. In the Dietrichson case, however, there are no leaks and no weak points to the story. It looks like smooth sailing until Keyes starts getting that inevitable hunch again, knowing deep down that there is more to the story than meets the eye.
Casting the characters of Walter and Phyllis could have been a real challenge but Billy Wilder decided to go another route, picking two people who had built their careers as far away from the film noir genre as one could imagine. Both Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were known for their roles in comedy films (some musicals, too) and had even starred together four years earlier in 1940’s Remember the Night, a Christmas-themed romantic comedy. It took people completely by surprise not only to see them in a film noir but also to have them playing ruthless killers. MacMurray would go on to star in other film noirs during the course of his career though he primarily remained a “laugh and dance” man while Stanwyck’s filmography was thoroughly diversified after this film. She would go on to appear in film noirs like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Sorry, Wrong Number, The File on Thelma Jordan, Clash by Night, Witness to Murder, and more. It so happens that a large majority of modern moviegoers akin Stanwyck to her darker, edgier roles and films rather than her lighter, less serious ones. As for Edward G. Robinson, appearing in this type of film was hardly a stretch for someone whose break-out role was in the 1931 crime noir Little Caesar.
Perhaps most interesting about these wayward lead characters was that they managed to earn a certain amount of sympathy despite being wholly fatale in their actions. As the story went on, I found myself getting nervous about them being caught in their scheme even though there was no doubt about their guilt. Most of this emotion goes toward Walter, who was vulgarly bold in his attraction to Phyllis not to mention in offering to commit homicide over a dame that he hardly knew. Where exactly did he imagine their relationship going? Clearly wanting her husband dead did not quite make her the (re)marrying type. Phyllis was most definitely self-serving and cold-blooded in her intentions. I could see her falseness from a mile away – not in the way that she was dressed or pretended to care about people but from the way she emotionally distanced herself from everything, almost sounding like a robot caring out an order. She had no heart. When it comes to Keyes, you feel bad about him discovering that his good friend had betrayed him right under his nose, even while sharing the burden of the case load.
Even though Double Indemnity is not Wilder’s usual flavour and flare, I appreciated the unique pace of this film. The story rolls along smoothly and without any breaks in the continuity that would distract you. Forsooth, it is presented in such a straightforward fashion that you do not have much of a look back and reflect on events. It is as if you are keeping up with Walter and Phyllis, only looking straight ahead to try desperately to cross the finish line. I will say that although there are many other film noirs I prefer over this, taking the opportunity to write about it has certainly increased my appreciation for it.
- Walter mentions that the Dietrichson house in Glendale was likely purchased 10-15 years ago (between 1923-1928) for $30,000. That equates to around $450,000 in today’s money.
- An alternate ending was filmed showing Keyes witnessing Walter’s execution in the gas chamber. These photos likely go along with this although any and all attempts to recover the missing reel has been unsuccessful.