‘Double Indemnity’ still one of the best film noirs of all time

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity' — Photo courtesy Photofest via Film Forum
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’ — Photo courtesy Photofest via Film Forum

Double Indemnity is easily one of the best film noirs of all time. To celebrate its 70th anniversary, Film Forum in New York City is presenting a special one-week engagement with a new restoration (playing through Thursday, Aug. 7). The Rialto Theatre in Westwood, N.J., where we recently caught the film, is also presenting select screenings through Saturday, Aug. 2.

The movie has many noir staples, including an imperfect male lead who chain smokes and wears a fedora at just the right angle. There’s a femme fatale who plots the overthrow of the men in her life. There’s Billy Wilder, hellbent on casting long shadows down eerie streets, a script co-written by Raymond Chandler that’s heavy on pitch-perfect one-liners that sum up the emotional state of the characters and not a hero or heroine in sight for miles.

Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, an amiable insurance agent who tries selling a policy to Phyllis Dietrichson (the great Barbara Stanwyck) and her husband. When he walks into their Spanish-style Los Angeles home, Walter is immediately stricken by the beauty and sexuality of Phyllis. He comments about her ankles as she walks down a sloping staircase, almost as if she’s been released from heaven. Walter is smitten, and he’d do just about anything to have Phyllis — even murder.

Eventually Walter and Phyllis concoct an elaborate plan to kill Phyllis’ husband and cash in on an insurance plan. He needs to die on a train because then they would open up a “double indemnity” clause worth $100,000. Everything seems perfectly laid out, but what the two lovers don’t see coming is Walter’s boss (Edward G. Robinson), an insurance man with the mind of a detective.

The look and feel of this 1944 classic are positively beautiful. Wilder, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Chandler, has a way of capturing the beautiful eyes of Stanwyck, the prominent chin of MacMurray and the furrowed brow of Robinson. The black-and-white imagery can be stark, especially when Phyllis and Walter decide to go through with the evil deed. Watch as Wilder lets the violence take place just off screen; instead, he decides to focus on Stanwyck’s expressionless face. There’s another great image when Walter is commiserating with Phyllis’ stepdaughter with a backdrop of the Hollywood Bowl.

The acting is never over the top. It actually comes off quite layered and restrained. Stanwyck portrays Phyllis as a strong woman with issues of intimacy. She never seems to say what’s exactly on her mind; she’s playing a game somehow, and Stanwyck knows exactly how to convey this cunning attitude on screen. MacMurray is not simply another would-be victim of a femme fatale. He’s genuinely in love with Phyllis, and his transformation into a conniving killer seems genuine and scary. Robinson has the best lines in the movie, recapping events and putting his humorous spin on the action.

The movie, based on a James M. Cain story, doesn’t amount to anything terribly earth shattering. However, the fine focus on this solitary crime gives a detailed look into these characters’ lives. By the end of the feature film, Phyllis remains a mystery, as all femme fatales must, but the audience has a real portrait of the Walter character. He starts off as a nice 35-year-old bachelor searching for something to break up his mundane life of selling insurance. By the end, after he falls victim to Hurricane Stanwyck, he’s another man, surprised and horrified by his actions and the power of this woman in his life.

Double Indemnity deserves to be celebrated on its 70th anniversary. The acting of these three leads, plus the careful direction of Wilder and the punchy, direct script come together to make Hollywood perfection. There may be no better example of this wonderful genre known as film noir.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Double Indemnity

  • 1944

  • Directed by Billy Wilder

  • Written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler; based on a story by James M. Cain

  • Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson

  • Running time: 107 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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