This is the second Billy Wilder film on my Blindspot [first one was The Apartment] and the fourth film of his I’ve seen, which happens to be the fourth film he directed. It’s also the first Barbara Stanwyck movie I saw as well as my first viewing of Fred MacMurray in the lead role. Ok now that we’ve got the stats out of the way, let me tell you that I LOVED it! Some people say it’s one of the best Hollywood noir films and it’s currently ranked #29 Greatest Movie of All Time by AFI. Well, I’d say it lives up to the hype.
The story is quite simple and easy to follow, though there are twists as the story goes on that makes it all the more intriguing, even if it’s a tad predictable. The gist of the story is this: MacMurray is Walter Neff, an insurance agent who upon meeting the sultry wife of his client somehow got himself talked into a murderous insurance fraud scheme. Double Indemnity refers to a life insurance policy clause where the payout doubles when the recipient dies of an accidental death. The film begins with Walter going into his office at night and starts talking into a Dictaphone Machine. In the shadowy B&W lighting, I slowly notice he has been hurt and that he’s making a confession of a crime he’s committed. The story then goes into flashback mode that clues the audience into just what has happened to Walter and why he’s confessing it all.
It’s a By the time Walter Neff realizes he’s been ensnared by her deceitful net, it was all too late. In a way, I too felt like I had been played by Phyllis into thinking she had been wronged by her husband. But of course as the story unfolds, we learn that Phyllis has been planning this scheme all along and it’s not the first time she’s done something like this. I have to say that the romance isn’t particularly gripping, though the flirtatious banter the first time they meet is quite amusing. It’s obvious Walter was lusting after Phyllis the second he saw her during his routine house call.
“I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she had looked at me, and I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us.”
The dialog sounds a bit cheesy and simplistic at times, it made me laugh how Walter kept calling Phyllis baby. But both actors fit the role nicely, and they do look good together even if the chemistry isn’t exactly scorching. What I do enjoy is the dialog between Walter and his claims adjuster colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). I’ve only seen Robinson in The Ten Commandments as Moses’ adversary Dathan, but he’s the kind of scene-stealing character actor who lights up any scene. He reminds me of Claude Rains in Casablanca, one of my fave performances of all time. At first Keyes seems to be on Walter-Phyllis side, unknowingly working in their favor when he insisted that Phyllis’ husband’s death wasn’t a suicide. Little did they know soon he became their biggest *adversary* that puts their evil scheme in jeopardy. I LOVE this part when Keyes laid it out on Walter that he isn’t easily fooled… and once he’s on to something, he wouldn’t ever let it go.
Barton Keyes: Eh? There it is, Walter. It’s beginning to come apart at the seams already. Murder’s never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it’s usually sooner. Now we know the Dietrichson dame is in it *and* a somebody else. Pretty soon, we’ll know who that somebody else is. He’ll show. He’s got to show. Sometime, somewhere, they’ve got to meet. Their emotions are all kicked up. Whether it’s love or hate doesn’t matter; they can’t keep away from each other. They may think it’s twice as safe because there’s two of them [chuckles]
Barton Keyes: but it isn’t twice as safe. It’s ten times twice as dangerous. They’ve committed a *murder*! And it’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery. She put in her claim… I’m gonna throw it right back at her. [Walter hands Keyes a light]
Barton Keyes: Let her sue us if she dares. I’ll be ready for her *and* that somebody else. They’ll be digging their own graves.
I love how quickly the table’s turned on Walter/Phyllis, it’s inevitable yet the film manages to create some suspense thanks to Wilder’s direction. There are many iconic scenes here, the store scenes where Walter & Phyllis secretly meet and the scene at Walter’s apartment when Barton drops by unexpectedly come to mind. They both are laden with tension despite not having much action going on.
The story immediately grabs me, just like The Apartment was. It must be Billy Wilder’s gift to create such a compelling intro. Of course it helps having celebrated crime novelist Raymond Chandler co-writing the screenplay. Though it was only his fourth film, I could see why this was regarded as one of Wilder’s best work. The way the story flows, combined with Miklós Rózsa‘s unsettling score and John F. Seitz‘s stunning cinematography, this film is as captivating as its femme fatale. Barbara Stanwyck‘s Phyllis Dietrichson is beautiful and seductive, but there’s still a certain softness about her that somehow camouflages her wickedness. Stanwyck isn’t over-the-top in her portrayal either, the way some of today’s femme fatale might play someone like her. Think of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct for example, or even Eva Green in the Sin City sequel, Stanwyck’s charm and seduction is a lot more subtle, though definitely not less lethal.
I have to mention the cinematography again here as it really enhances the mood of the film. I read in Wikipedia Seitz used a lighting technique called the “venetian blind” which almost gives the illusion of prison bars trapping the characters. Stanwyck later reflected, “…and for an actress, let me tell you the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter’s apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles – all that helped my performance. The way Billy staged it and John Seitz lit it, it was all one sensational mood.” MacMurray was terrific as well, no wonder my friend Jack D. dedicated a post to him as a superb louse. I love the scenes when his conscience is creeping up on him … “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
I’m impressed once again by Wilder’s work here. It’s amazing that this is his first ever thriller as it’s now been regarded as one of the most important film in its noir genre. Though there is very little action in this film, but it’s far from boring. It’s the quintessential film noir driven by story and character, not laden with violence but lacking in real suspense *cough* Sin City 2 *cough* Apparently Stanwyck’s character set the mold of unforgettable femme fatale, and signals a noir trend centered on women of questionable virtue.
The trifecta of main actors: Stanwyck, MacMurray and Robinson are all superb. Everything about this film just works, so I’m surprised it didn’t win any of the seven Oscar nominations. I even like the small details such as the lighter, how Walter often lights Barton’s cigarette. It sort of becomes a thing between the two of them, and in the finale, it’s Barton who lights Walter’s cigarette in his moment of desperation. Whilst the film’s main focus was on the unholy romance of Walter & Phyllis, there’s also a story of friendship between the two men. In a way, his friendship with Barton might’ve given Walter his conscience back. I also learned from Wiki that the ending is different from James M. Cain‘s novel it’s based on, but the author was actually pleased with it.
I’m glad I finally got to see it. I could see how this film inspires countless imitation, in terms of story and character development. Few could match the brilliance of Wilder’s noir masterpiece.
Check out my previous 2014 Blind Spot reviews
So have you seen Double Indemnity? I’d love to hear what you think!