September Blind Spot: Double Indemnity (1944)

DoubleIndemnity1944

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.
DoubleIndemnityStill3

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.”

DoubleIndemnityStill1

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.

DoubleIndemnityStill2

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.

DoubleIndemnityIconicShots

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.” 

DoubleIndemnityBarLighting

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.

4.5 out of 5 reels


BlindSpotSeriesSidebarCheck out my previous 2014 Blind Spot reviews


So have you seen Double Indemnity? I’d love to hear what you think!

Advertisements

41 thoughts on “September Blind Spot: Double Indemnity (1944)

  1. Dan Heaton

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! This is one of the great film noir movies, and you did a great job pulling the screen shots with it. I love that moment when Keyes returns and Phyllis is right behind the door. It’s so tense and simple, and the actors play it just right. I’ve seen this a bunch of times and still love it.

    1. Hello Dan! I had a high expectation about this one given the praise and it’s from Billy Wilder. Glad to say it lived up to it and then some. Yep, that scene is one of those I mentioned as being quite iconic. It’s suspenseful but in a subtle way, I love that there’s barely any shootouts or car chases but yet the story is so gripping.

  2. Isn’t this a wonderful noir film? Love it. At last April’s TCM Film Fest, got to see this great on the big screen with a packed audience. So glad to hear you caught up with it, Ruth. Fine post! 🙂

  3. Rich

    Your first Stanwyck movie. How I envy you.

    Stany was one of the all-time greats. She could do it all. Next you gotta see her do comedy! Try THE LADY EVE or BALL OF FIRE (co-written by Wilder). You’ll be amazed at how funny she could be.

    Interesting point about the venetian blinds. Didn’t know that. I could see how setting the atmosphere in such a way could enhance a performance.

    1. Oh I can see Stanwyck being great in comedies. Is Ball of Fire the one w/ Gary Cooper? Man I’ve been meaning to see his films too, so that’ll be perfect.

      Yeah that Venetian Blinds lighting thing is very cool, and VERY effective for noir.

  4. This is a great film and man, Stanwyck was gorgeous. It’s an essential film of film noir as well as one of Billy Wilder’s great films as I hope to do more next year.

    1. Yeah I think you could say this is essential classic noir, considering it set off a trend in terms of portraying women of questionable virtue. I can’t wait to see Sunset Boulevard, another Wilder film I’ve been meaning to see.

      1. That was one of my Blind Spots from last year. Great film. The ones I hope to do are Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, and Witness for the Prosecution. I might have to put that in my alternate watchlist for next year.

  5. Okay, so I’ll take a break from working. Yes, yes, your assessment of this perfect film is spot on. I love your insight into Walter lighting Barton’s cigarette by the end of the film. The gesture speaks volumes, a tip of the hat, a bow to friendship. I like the subtle sensuality of Stanwyck. Everything in the 40s sizzled and was implied by body parts but everyone kept their clothes on. I’m not a prude, but there’s something so refreshingly sexy about sex appeal displayed through the power of suggestion. Great post, Ruth. 🙂

    1. Hi Cindy! Thanks for taking the time from work to comment here, you’re awesome! Yes I think the nod to friendship is often missing from ppl’s description about this film. And I’m SO with you about sexuality. Less is more I’d say, the power of suggestion can be far more effective & sexier than full frontal stuff.

  6. Love this movie and your review. It is hard to understand the lack of both Barbara Stanwyk and Edward G. Robinson in your history of films, lucky you. There is so much to look forward to. I liked you comparison of Robinson to Claude Raines in Casablanca, they are different personalities but with the same sense of style.

    1. Ha..ha.. might be hard to understand for lovers of classic films I suppose, but film is such a vast medium that it’s impossible to be familiar w/ everyone and everything. I hope to catch more Billy Wilder’s work though, and also Mr. Robinson’s. Yeah different personalities but both character actors are such scene stealers!

  7. Coincidentally, I just the other day mentioned on another site how this is my absolute favorite film noir and one of my favorite movies, period. All of the things you mention work marvelously. In addition, that dialogue is just amazing, loaded with double entendres and some rather poetically convoluted lines. Take something you quoted from Robinson: “but it isn’t twice as safe. It’s ten times twice as dangerous.” Are there simpler ways of saying that? Sure, but none of them dazzle the ear like this. Great review!

    1. Hi Wendell! I think this could be one of my fave classic noirs too. Robinson’s got the best lines didn’t he? He’s just so great here. I like what you said, dazzle the ear, very true!

  8. Stu

    Nice to read your review Ruth – as you know I’ve not seen this but I’m even more keen to do so now. I will have to seek it out!

  9. I love the old dialogue from the film noir genre. From The Maltese Falcon all the way to Touch of Evil. It’s my favorite genre of B&W films. Great review.

    It was kind of a shock to see MacMurray in this after only knowing him from his Disney films and My Three Sons. It was like when I saw sweet old Angela Landsbury in The Manchurian Candidate. Yikes.

    Chinatown, Body Heat, House of Games, Dark City, The Last Seduction, Bound, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, Devil In A Blue Dress, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Memento and Brick are some of my favorite Neo-noir films made since the mid 70’s.

    1. Hi Dave! Oooh I still need to see The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil, the latter also stars Stanwyck right?

      I’ve seen MacMurray in The Apartment just weeks before. I think he fits this noir genre, I didn’t even know he did Disney movies!

      Body Heat definitely has some similarities w/ this one, but of course far steamier.

      1. Marlene Dietrich, Janet Leigh, Zsa Zsa Gabo and Mercedes McCambridge (who later on went on to be the voice of the devil in The Exorcist) were all in Touch of Evil.

        You haven’t seen either of those? Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Welles’s Touch of Evil are glaring blind spots to say the least. I know Ruth… so many movies, so little time. Watching Bogey spew out all that hard-boilded dialogue in The Maltese Falcon is a pure joy. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet are unforgettable as well. In Touch of Evil Welles went “method” and packed quite a bit of weight to play the sleazy American sheriff Hank Quinlan. Unheard of in its day. Universal re-shot and re-edited the film and butchered it so badly that Orson fired off a 58 page memo detailing how to fix the film. It was not until 1998 that it was re-cut and restored to its intended glory.

        As a kid I saw Fred in The Absent-Minded Professor (aka Flubber), The Son of Flubber, The Shaggy Dog to name a few. He was quite prolific with Disney.

        Since Brick in 2005 there hasn’t been much to speak of lately on the neo-noir front. Hopefully Gone Girl fills that void in spades.

  10. I’m so glad you loved this!!! One of my favorites, for sure, and such chilling performances. I know that the dialog can seem a tad cheesy in parts, but overall I felt that it fit the genre and the time really well, and the actors just SELL SELL SELL all of it!

    1. Hi Drew! I’m glad I love it too! I actually don’t mind the cheesy dialog as everything else just works. I think it’s only in the romantic/seduction parts, but the dialog w/ Robinson & MacMurray are so fun and full of wit.

  11. While it’s not my favorite Wilder film(that would be 1951’s Ace in The Hole), I did really enjoy Double Indemnity which has a well-told intricate story. I cared about the main narrator, even though he is up to no good, he is a cynic, but also a nice guy. Glad you loved it Ruth! The only minor flaw I can find is I feel the same story could have been told with fewer words, this is something I’ve noticed with many films in the pre 1960 era. Or maybe it’s just me 🙂

    1. Yeah I sympathized w/ Walter Neff too though I felt that he was so easily deceived. I think given Chandler was the co-screenwriter, that explains the wordy dialog. Fortunately most of it is quite witty.

  12. I rewatched this film not too long ago over the summer. I’ve never been as big of a fan of it as everyone else, but I still greatly appreciate this film. I especially love Robinson here; he adds an interesting dimension here outside of the somewhat standard doomed romance plot. Wilder’s command of the film noir style is unquestionable, and this would only get better in Sunset Boulevard.

    1. Hi Melissa! Robinson is great indeed, I think he easily outshone MacMurray in some of the scenes. Yeah the romance part is not groundbreaking but maybe at the time it was tho. Can’t wait to see Sunset Blvd!

  13. Pingback: Monthly Roundup & Favorite Movie of SEPTEMBER 2014 |

  14. Woo hoo! Thrilled that you liked this one so much. It’s probably my favorite film noir of all time, and I love Robinson’s performance so much. I can’t believe he didn’t get an Oscar nomination.

  15. Pingback: 2014 Recap: Ranking the 10 Blindspot Movies I saw in 2014 |

  16. Pingback: February 2015 Blind Spot: Sunset Blvd. (1950) |

Join the conversation by leaving a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s