Starring-Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck
Scott’s Review #847
Reviewed December 26, 2018
Double Indemnity (1944) epitomizes the classic film noir genre in perfect fashion. All the necessary elements exist, from intrigue, suspense and unpredictable thrills, to schemes and dastardly deeds by the major players. The on-screen chemistry between leads MacMurray and Stanwyck provide enough romantic flair and provocative moments to entertain all as developments progress when a smitten man meets a femme fatale and a devious plot is hatched.
Director Billy Wilder was one of the most influential directors of his day with this picture being his first effort resulting in fabulous critical acclaim. The accolades put him firmly on the map for years to come culminating in an Oscar win in 1950 for The Apartment. Wilder uses a clever insurance “double indemnity” clause as its title making it one of the best and most influential crime dramas of the 1940’s staking ground for other similarly themed films.
The story is told via flashbacks as a wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) scrambles to record a confession to his colleague and best friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The action rewinds to an average, ordinary day when Neff makes a routine stop to sell insurance and meets flirtatious Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). She brazenly inquires how she ought to go about taking out an insurance policy on her husband’s life without his knowledge. When Neff deduces Phyllis intends to kill her husband he declines any further help but cannot forget the ravishing beauty and her charms. He ultimately succumbs to her whims and aids her in a wicked crime.
The adventure that the audience is taken on is the most fun aspect of the film. We already deduce that Neff is involved in shenanigans but most of the fun occurs after the murder has been committed and Phyllis and Neff’s scheme begins to unravel. The added component of Neff’s colleague and close friend, Keyes, being in the mix as he starts to suspect foul play is equally compelling. Will he finally figure out that Neff is involved in the plot? Will Keyes cover for Neff if discovered? Will Phyllis’s past-history catch up with her and twist events in a different direction? These questions make the film a great picture.
A debate among viewers can ensue as to whether Neff is sympathetic or not as this point continues to cross my mind with each viewing. One can safely say that he is seduced by the charms of an eager and aggressive woman, but if he is to blame for the crimes is she not even more to blame? As events unfold sides can be drawn and defenses of character’s can be more focused particularly after Double Indemnity’s startling conclusion.
Neff is not a strong, heroic character and is rather weak, easily being manipulated by the cagey Phyllis. Interesting is how little time it takes for him to succumb to her plot and willingly do the crime for her. In the final act Neff does show some needed muscle, but this is only because his “goose is cooked” and he finally realizes the dire nature of Phyllis’s character, but shouldn’t he have discovered this sooner?
MacMurray and Stanwyck have smoldering chemistry and this is a major success of the film keeping the audience invested in the plot. The added measure of the murder victim being rather unknown to the audience adds a macabre rooting value to the pair. Wilder never presents the plot as a romantic triangle or Neff and Phyllis having any other romantic entanglements, so the only roadblock is the insurance company and their suspicions surrounding Phyllis.
Wilder adapted the screenplay from James M. Cain’s novella of the same name and spins a potent film noir from these pages. Double Indemnity (1944) is intelligent, sexy, and mysterious mixing in as much sultry poise as witty dialogue. Thanks to the allure of fine actors and a stunning adventure on a train, the film is a measured success and a highly influential cinematic story.