“Double Indemnity” a fiendishly clever masterpiece
They simply do not make movies like “Double Indemnity” (1944) anymore, and that’s not just nostalgic lamentation. (I didn’t grow up in the ’40s, so I don’t have anything to be nostalgic about.)
In its direction, script and performances, “Double Indemnity” is not only one of the great “classic” movies, but one of the greatest movies period. Woody Allen wasn’t exaggerating much when he called “Double Indemnity” the greatest film ever made.
“Double Indemnity” is exemplary of film noir, a genre of the 1940s and ’50s that blended elements from gangster films and hard-boiled detective novels to create a revolutionary style of filmmaking, which featured shadows, murder, femme fatales, scumbag villains and heroes who epitomized the term “morally ambiguous.”
The film’s protagonist is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who connives with bored housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband and then collect big from an accident insurance policy.
Neff is a decent, affable guy, but he is intoxicated by Dietrichson, a dangerous beauty and the ultimate femme fatale, and it is this infatuation with her that leads him to orchestrate murder and insurance fraud.
Careful and ingenious planning allow Neff and Dietrichson to pull off the murder with nary a hitch. (I’m not giving anything away because the murder is revealed at the beginning of the film.) But Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), Neff’s highly intelligent and cantankerous boss, believes there is something amiss with the whole Dietrichson case, and he becomes obsessed with proving that Mr. Dietrichson was murdered.
One of the many revolutionary aspects of “Double Indemnity,” and of film noir in general, is that the film’s protagonists, the people we’re supposedly rooting for, are moral reprobates.
Neff certainly has second thoughts about the murder, but it is only when Keyes begins to unravel his carefully orchestrated plot that he truly starts to have regrets. Neff is unnerved not by the murder itself, but by getting caught for the murder.
And Phyllis Dietrichson has no qualms at all with murdering her husband. In fact, she seems to get off on it; the look on her face as Neff strangles her husband is a portrait of agonized delight.
What allows director Billy Wilder to get away with all this is the palpable chemistry between MacMurray and Stanwyck’s characters, who trade witty and suggestive dialogue like a pair of tennis players trade volleys at a championship match.
I’ve not even addressed Robinson’s scene-stealing performance, or the seemingly effortless direction by Wilder, or the film’s fiendishly clever script, which Wilder co-wrote with hard-boiled detective writer Raymond Chandler.
But if you can, just take my word for it that every aspect of “Double Indemnity” is incredible, and that self-respecting movie fans everywhere owe it to themselves to see this film.
Movie reviewer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the individual author and not necessarily those of the Collegian.