Tuesday, June 30, 2009

1944: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)

Released: September 6, 1944 (U.S.)

Director: Billy Wilder; Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler based on the novel by James M. Cain; Cinematography: John F. Seitz; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producers: Buddy G. DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom

Cast: Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), Fortunio Bonanova (Sam Garlopis), John Philliber (Joe Peters), Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton, Jr.)

- "I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"

Just looking at the notables involved in every facet of this legendary film is enough to make a classic movie fan or noir buff salivate. The cast is superb, combining diverse on-screen personalities that result in maximum tension. With Barbara Stanwyck having already perfected the role of a manipulative, ambitious vixen in earlier pre-Code films, she is the ideal fit as the calculating Phyllis Dietrichson. Fred MacMurray, who until this point had played mostly wholesome, friendly characters, is cast against type as the man who is drawn into Mrs. Dietrichson’s machinations. It is a brilliant casting decision, as although Walter Neff takes an active role in the planning, the persona of MacMurray manages to convey the sneaking suspicion that the insurance agent is in over his head and is being maneuvered. Edward G. Robinson plays Barton Keyes, a claims adjuster who is hell-bent on uncovering any fraudulent claims submitted to the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Co. While not as ruthless as the gangster characters that made Robinson a star, Keyes is every bit as resolute and determined toward his job. The script is based on a novel by one of the godfathers of pulp fiction, James M. Cain. It is adapted for the screen in part by another of the titans of the hardboiled genre, Raymond Chandler, who infuses his trademark snappy dialogue with the dark themes of Cain’s story. The soundtrack is handled by the celebrated Miklós Rózsa. The photography of John Seitz is appropriately dark and shadowy. And the entire affair is overseen by arguably the most versatile director of his era, Billy Wilder.

On paper, it is a can’t-miss experience. On-screen, it manages to be the equal of such impressive credentials.

It is the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who finds himself in the middle of a murderous love triangle after doing something as simple as attempting to renew an automobile insurance policy. While on a call to renew of the policy of Mr. Dietrichson, Neff meets his gorgeous wife Phyllis and immediate chemistry is developed between the two. The sexual tension at this first meeting is palpable. As the two begin an affair, Phyllis sheepishly proposes the idea of purchasing life insurance for her husband, then later progresses to planning to kill him in order to collect on the policy. While he at first resists such an evil idea, Walter eventually comes on board, but decides that if they are to go through with it they are going to go for the gusto. If they can make Mr. Dietrichson’s death appear to be an accident, they will collect twice as much through the double indemnity clause.

When Mr. Dietrichon is found dead on railroad tracks, apparently having fallen off the back of a slow-moving train, police are quick to conclude his death the result of an accident. Unfortunately for the plotting couple, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) and Pacific All-Risk are not as easily convinced. Keyes senses something strange and quickly begins to suspect that Mrs. Dietrichson likely plotted with another man to kill her husband. The relationship between Phyllis and Walter is strained as they try to maintain secrecy and keep Keyes from the truth. Meanwhile, as relations between the couple begin to deteriorate, Walter comes to suspect Phyllis of plotting more than just the murder of her husband.

It may not be my favorite film noir, but Double Indemnity remains one that I would put forth as the quintessential expression of the genre. As I have said previously on this blog, couple this one with Tourneur’s Out of the Past and even a complete neophyte will have a perfect introduction to the elements that have become noir staples. The flashbacks, the shadows, the dark lighting, the femme fatale, the unforgiving determinism – all of these components are on display here. But with Chandler involved in the screenplay and Wilder involved in both the screenplay and direction, there is the unmistakable quality of everything being a bit tongue-in-cheek. This is a story dealing with deadly serious issues, and yet nobody in this film – with the possible exception of the never-tiring Keyes – seems to be taking themselves seriously until it is far too late.

This feeling is due in large part to the sarcastic banter between characters. It is biting, cynical, and at times can feel a bit awkward. Lines like Neff telling Phyllis, “Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket” or “They say all native Californians come from Iowa” at first left me scratching my head wondering where in the heck they came from. I may be in the minority, but I truly do feel like some of the dialogue can be unwieldy. But it does fit with the sarcastic nature of the proceedings for most of the film – at least through the planning stages of the murder – as if there is a joke behind everything.

It is also amazing how tense this film at times can be, when considering that from the opening scenes the audience basically knows the conclusion. Early on we see a wounded Walter Neff stumbling into the insurance office and declaring into Keyes’ Dictaphone that his plan did not work out. Within the opening minutes, the plot that he and Phyllis hatched is outlined and he confesses to committing murder, declaring that he now plans to reveal all to his friend and coworker. Even with all of these details, there are moments in the film that are incredibly suspenseful. Just witness the scene when Keyes unexpectedly barges into Neff’s apartment to discuss the Dietrichson case. Unaware of the visitor, Phyllis pays a visit at the same time. Realizing the potential problem, Neff works to keep the two out of each other’s sight. Because of the opening of the film, we know that Keyes is not going to see Phyllis, and yet there is great tension as Walter tries everything to usher Keyes to an exit. Praise must go directly to Billy Wilder for this, as the direction of scenes such as this reinforces how masterful he could be. He is able to take something as simple as a woman hiding behind an open door and make it thrilling.

The other aspect that I did not initially realize, but that on subsequent viewings came to understand, is the fact that this is a rare example of a film that does not have a single likable character. Phyllis is as devious a character as has ever been committed to celluloid. Although it at times seems as if Walter is being manipulated by Phyllis, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Walter is a willing participant and contributes significantly to the planning of the murder. Even Keyes, the incorruptible claims adjuster, can be irritating. After all, who likes overbearing insurance employees who will do anything to see to it that no money is ever paid out? The only character I ever remotely felt for was Lola (Jean Heather), Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, but she is primarily on the periphery. It is this dearth of heroes or likable personalities that makes Double Indemnity such a grim film. No matter how much sarcasm or snappy dialogue is rattled off throughout, it is never enough to overcome the fact that these are unpleasant people all the way around.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1944: A solid if unspectacular year for me. There are a number of outstanding films, but nothing to seriously challenge Double Indemnity. The story of To Have and Have Not from director Howard Hawks certainly owes a lot to Casablanca, but it’s still a great film on its own. The interplay between Bogart and Bacall, with this being the first film to ever unite them, is just so hip. Plus, Walter Brennan is always golden whenever in a Howard Hawks film. I don’t feel it’s on the same level as Casablanca, but it’s at least worthy companion or follow-up. Preston Sturges released two very good comedies in this year with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. Both star Eddie Bracken, and in my opinion Hail the Conquering Hero is the superior of the two. It is hilarious as Bracken’s Woodrow character tries to convince his hometown that he is _not_ a war hero.

There are also were some very good other noirs released in 1944. Otto Preminger’s mysterious Laura is another noir that is considered to be an essential. I like it, but actually prefer the later Preminger-Dana Andrews film Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), which shares much of the same cast as Laura. Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet has been often parodied, but I still think it’s an entertaining film and that it’s interesting to see Dick Powell’s version of the Philip Marlowe character.


  1. Dave,

    Another excellent post. "Double Indemnity" is also my choice for '44. Close runners up for me would be the ones you mentioned, "To Have and Have Not" and "Laura."

    I enjoyed "Hail the Conquering Hero," but "Miracle at Morgan's Creek" was a movie I could not finish. The Sturges family of supporting actors is a joy to watch, but even they couldn't rescue MAMC for me. Betty Hutton was so over the top, and then add Eddie Bracken's overplaying to the mix, and well, I couldn't finish it. Maybe I'll retry on a day when I'm feeling extra generous.

  2. My Own #1 Film of 1944:

    Henry V (Olivier)


    Double Indemnity (Wilder)
    Meet Me in St. Louis (Minelli)
    Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (Eisenstein)
    A Canterbury Tale (Powell/Pressburger)
    Laura (Preminger)
    Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra)
    The Scarlet Claw (O'Neil)
    Woman in the Window (Lang)
    Since You Went Away (Cromwell)
    To Have or Have Not (Hawks)

    DOUBLE INDEMNITY, an American masterpiece as you rightly note (and indeed, there is not a single likeable character in the film) pushes precariously close to the top spot. It challenges as greatest film noir ever with perennial choices like OUT OF THE PAST and THE MALTESE FALCON, but for me it narrowly falls short of Olivier's film, which ranks with the actor/director's RICHARD III as the greatest Shakespeare adaptation. The opening, showcasing the overhead of the Glove Theatre is one of cinema's most breathtaking sequences. Minelli's seminal musical, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is also a very strong contender for the top spot. THE SCARLET CLAW is the greatest oof the Sherlock Holmes/Basil Rathbone films. The other unners-up all speak for themselves. I didn't add any other Sturges films, as I think I covered his best works in previous years, but the ones you broach here are fine enough, as are the other noirs you bring up.

    Another superlative review that gives DOUBLE INDEMNITY the regal treatment it so rightly deserves. It really is one of the most perfect of all films, and for me a very close second to SUNSET BOULEVARD in the Wilder pantheon.

  3. A great review Dave! “Double Indemnity” is without a doubt my favorite of 1944. When still in high school, I found a copy of a book called Twenty Best Films Plays edited by Gassner and Nichols and listed among the tiles was this dark tale of sex and murder (also included was Wilder’s The Lost Weekend). One of the best screenplay’s I ever read. What fantastic dialogue!
    As you mention, and Sam reiterates, there is not a likeable character in the movie. The film is one of my all time favorites and Stanwyck in that white sweater so sexy despite the horrible wig. For me, an almost perfect film.

    #1 Double Indemnity

    Runner-ups in no order are...
    The Uninvited
    To Have and Have Not
    The Woman in the Window
    Arsenic and Old Lace

    I completely forgot about the S. Holmes film, “The Scarlet Claw” until I saw Sam had it listed and have to agree it is the best of the Rathbone/Holmes film and a worthy addition to the best list.

  4. I have to go with Sam Juliano and put the Olivier Henry V on top, with Ivan Part I following. I've said before that I'm a sucker for period spectacle. On the other hand, Capra's Arsenic & Old Lace is pretty hilarious. As far as noirs go, objectivity tells me to prefer Double Indemnity to Murder My Sweet, but I find myself liking the latter better.

  5. Great review. This is one of my favourites as well even though this isn't my favourite noir either. The likes of The Killers and Out of the Past would outrank this one for me, along with a few others as well. But you're absolutely right in stating that, Double Indemnity, along with Out of the Past, could easily be used as a prototype for this genre.

    Its template sure merits greater study by noir enthusiasts than those noirs which are probably better movies that this, like say In A Lonely Place. It sure has all the iconic types and/or attributes that one thinks of whenever one thinks 'film noir'.

    And to think of the fact that this wan't Billy Wilder's best work either - that would surely have to be Sunset Boulevard, with Ace in the Hole coming a close second (incidentally they're noirs as well!!!). In fact even in the acerbic jibes and cynicism departments, they would outweigh this one. The acting here isn't as great either. Yet whenever one thinks of Wilder, Double Indemnity sure follows!

    By the way, I really liked Laura as well.

  6. I have to admit to not having seen Olivier's Henry V... this is obviously a gaping hole in my viewing experience. I'll set out to remedy this one in the very near future.

  7. For me it's between Henry V, Double Indemnity, Laura, and Meet Me in St. Louis. I've only seen the latter two once, and I think I used to like Henry V more than I do now, though a repeat viewing might boost it again. DI is probably the best pick, but I'll go with Henry simply because, in addition to the brilliance of the adaptation, I just love the metatextual approach.

  8. MovieMan - Thanks to the kindness of Sam, I now have a copy of Olivier's Henry V waiting to be watched. I'm in love with Branagh's later version, so I am really looking forward to seeing Olivier's acclaimed film.