Double Indemnity, 1944, Paramount Pictures. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Billy Wilder. B&W, 107 minutes.
Told in flashback by a man who knows he is doomed, Double Indemnity is a dark, sordid and altogether fascinating tale that pulls you in with its disturbing mix of familiar and untouchable human emotions.
Top insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is well-liked and respected by his peers, in particular, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the chief claims adjuster for the company. Keyes seeks to ensure no money is paid if criminal activity is behind the claim, and no one is better at deducing the elements of a crime than he.
One evening Neff is following up on some files, including a policy for one Mr. Dietrichson. The client isn’t home, but Neff is greeted by his provocative and scantily clad wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), and an intense flirtation begins.
When Phyllis nonchalantly inquires about tricking her husband into purchasing an accident policy without him knowing it, Neff is startled by her clear murderous intentions. Initially, he wants no part of the scheme, but he’s rapidly seduced by all her ploys.
Their sinister plot unfolds in chilling fashion, and Neff is left to deal with the aftermath.
The screenplay was written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novella by James M. Cain. Wilder’s longtime writing collaborator, Charles Brackett, had turned down the opportunity to work on the script because it was “too grim.”
Although Wilder and Chandler famously didn’t get along, Wilder greatly admired Chandler’s ability with dialogue, in particular, the exchange in the final scene. The original ending, a very different, dramatic scene, was shot at great expense, but never used. Wilder recognized the power of what became the final confrontation between the two men, and chose to end the film there.
In 1944 Barbara Stanwyck was Hollywood’s biggest female star, and according to government records, the highest paid woman in America. She was initially reluctant to play a woman intent on murdering her husband, fearing it could end her career, but ultimately took on the challenge. She was keenly cast and played the unflappable, calculating wife with seeming effortless skill.
While Stanwyck was Wilder’s first choice from the beginning, casting the male lead proved to be a challenge. No one wanted the role of a character so weak and reprehensible. When it came to Fred MacMurray, an actor whose career had been built on playing happy-go-lucky good guys, Wilder later said “he was wonderful because it [was] odd casting.”
MacMurray had his doubts he was good enough an actor for the role, but Wilder pushed him, and the result was one of the finest parts of MacMurray’s career. In fact, it’s almost unnerving how good he is, especially if you’re primarily familiar with his lighter roles. He moves easily from the fool with the silly grin captivated by the cheap blonde to the hard-edged killer coldly covering his crime before the man he most admires.
Edward G. Robinson accepted a co-star role after playing leading man parts for the better part of his career, recognizing his status in Hollywood was changing. Still, this could hardly be called a step down for him, as he played this pivotal part like the star he always had been.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but won none, losing the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay awards to Going My Way, the musical starring Bing Crosby. It was also nominated for Best Actress for Stanwyck, Best Cinematography, Best Score and Best Sound, Recording.
Today Double Indemnity is listed by many as one of the best films of all time for its top-notch performances, stark cinematography, sharp dialogue and a finely maintained level of suspense. It is another of the film noir style classics that set a rarely-matched standard for movies that followed, and is a must-see for classic film fans.