Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Based on the novel by James M. Cain
Double Indemnity is one of those movies that, even if people haven’t seen it, they probably know the name as one of the film noir classics. But this is not noir with trenchcoated detectives and a murder to solve. This is about two people committing a murder.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an average insurance salesman until Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, in an Academy Award-nominated performance) asks him if it’s possible to take out accident insurance on her husband (Tom Powers) without him knowing. Walter is repulsed by the idea at first, but then enters into an affair with Phyllis and they work out the perfect plan to get away with murder.
Part of what makes this movie so interesting is that the two characters are pure villains. There’s an explanation that Mr. Dietrichson abuses her, but ultimately, they are in it for the money, and they are willing to do what it takes to get it, such as setting up the murder on a train to get the double indemnity clause, which pays double for unusual accidents. It provides a perfect reason as to why they have to pull off the murder the way they do, and also shows that Walter is truly the one enjoying being the villain. We watch as he plots and schemes to get around what he knows his friend/insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, who probably should have been nominated) is going to do. And as they pull off the murder, the audience is thrilled. It’s one of those interesting cases. In any other film, Keyes would be the hero for Walter’s villain. Instead, the audience gets attached to both of them succeeding. We want to see Walter and Phyllis get away with murder in the first half, but after the murder, we also want to see them get caught.
The movie also plays up its film noir to an extreme, but instead of coming off as cheesy, it works. Walter has an omnipresent narration throughout, which not only helps us figure out more of Walter’s personality and planning, but is actually justified by the fact that he is recording it for Keyes to find. The suspense of Keyes’ investigation in the second half is also well done. In particular, one iconic scene has Phyllis hiding in the hallway behind Walter’s door as Keyes leaves Walter’s apartment. Doors don’t swing out into hallways, but the scene it creates is such a perfect piece of suspense that facts can be ignored. There are few films that can get away with something like that, and this one of them. And the double crosses near the end twist the film’s plot right when you think you know the whole story, leading to a surprisingly tender final scene.
Double Indemnity is top notch film noir, with interesting characters and a plot that gets the audience attached to what’s going on.