Double Indemnity Review


Everyone knows film noir. Film fans have enjoyed (or been subjected to, depending on your tastes) its conventions for decades. From Humphrey Bogart’s famous line, “It’s the stuff dreams are made of” in The Maltese Falcon through the present day’s machinations of film noir, like the twisted noir-comedy Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, we’ve found great pleasure watching shady characters in shady situations doing shady things. Because the genre has been such a Hollywood staple over the years, it’s undergone a number of changes, like the pulpy comic-book noir Sin City and Steven Soderbergh’s experimental, old-fashioned war noir The Good German. But never have the conventions of film noir been put to better use than in Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity.

The plot is shockingly dark for 1944. The protagonist is not a dashing, heroic individual, but rather a selfish, scheming murderer. There’s no epic romance, but rather a slimy bond of necessity between the protagonist and a truly wicked woman. The hero, instead, is an insurance claimsman who follows the advice of the “little man” inside him.

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman. We first meet him as he leaves a voice memo for Keyes, the claimsman, admitting to the murder of a Mr. Dietrichson. After saying he did it for money and for love, we jump back to the day he met Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), the woman who would drive him to commit the heinous deed. Phyllis is stuck in a terrible marriage to her husband, the very same Mr. Dietrichson whose murder is discussed in the prologue. When she first meets Walter, she feigns concern for her husband, wishing to take out an accident insurance policy so they are covered if he gets injured at work. But Walter sees right through her. He’s been in the business a long time and tells her there’s no way she’ll get away with it. He leaves but he can’t get Phyllis out of his mind. So after another encounter, he agrees to help her. He will plan the perfect murder, and they will run away together with the money. All Phyllis has to do is follow the plan “straight down the line.”

But like most plans of this nature, there are holes. At first, Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) believes this is just a matter of bad luck for the company. But after thinking about it a little longer, he realizes it can’t be a simple accident. He follows the clues, and the advice of his little man, and the closer he gets to the truth, the more paranoid Walter and Phyllis get.

Double Indemnity does absolutely everything right. The pacing is brisk. The dialogue crackles with energy. And the direction is great without calling attention to itself. It’s the performances, however, that elevate the film above great film noir to cinematic masterpiece. Barbara Stanwyck is brilliant as the manipulative Phyllis, and Fred MacMurray is dead on as the sly Walter. It would’ve been a mistake to make Walter an unwilling victim of Phyllis’s. Instead, we have a hard time deciding which one of them is more despicable. And Edward G. Robinson, while not your typical 1940s film hero, is great fun to watch as Keyes. Phyllis and Walter may be at the heart of the action in Double Indemnity, but Keyes is the film’s heart, making sure we have someone to root for.

Every moment in this film drips with atmosphere. Light is used in magnificent ways, and the soundtrack brings a sense of urgency to every scene. The dialogue is pure noir with lines like “The honeysuckle smelled like murder.” And it comes at you furiously. Lose your attention for just a moment and you risk getting lost in the proceedings.

It is the simply perfect way everything comes together that makes Double Indemnity such a classic. It stands above other noir landmarks of the time, such as The Maltese Falcon and The Third Man. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite films of all time, as it’s endlessly watchable, incredibly entertaining, and impossible to shake.

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