Based on the notorious Snyder-Gray case of 1927, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is a starkly realistic film noir that is truly remarkable on all levels—performance, script, and direction—a dark masterpiece of murder.
It opens with a car weaving through dim Los Angeles streets. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), bleeding from a bullet wound, staggers from the car and into an office building. He lets himself into an office, slumps in a chair and begins to dictate. In flashback we learn that he is an insurance salesman who is seduced by vamp, Phyillis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), wearing an atrocious blonde wig for the part). Bit by bit, she puts her evil scheme into action, convincing Walter to fraudulently write a double-indemnity life insurance policy on her husband and then enlisting the agent as her accomplice in murdering her spouse, making it appear that Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) has accidentally gone to his death.
Dietrichson has a routine accident, which causes his leg to be put in a cast. The scheming pair then murders the man and drives to a train station where Walter, impersonating Dietrichson, cast and all, boards a train. He goes to the rear platform where he momentarily encounters another passenger, Mr. Jackson (Porter Hall). When Jackson leaves the platform, Walter jumps off it at a prearranged spot. Phyllis is waiting there with Dietrichsons' body, which they place on the railroad tracks.
It's a simple case of accidental death. It appears that Dietrichson has died as a result of the fall, but the insurance company's claims adjuster, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) believes Phyllis has somehow murdered her husband and tells Walter so. He stalls settlement while he accumulates evidence against her. Walter, viewing the investigation from inside, grows increasingly alarmed. The shrewd Keyes finally pieces it all together, but blames Phyllis and her young lover, Nino (Byron Barr/Gig Young), ostensibly Lola's (Jean Heather) paramour whom Phillis has stolen. Lola, who is Deitrichson’s daughter, earlier told Walter how Phillis, a nurse, murdered her ailing mother to marry her father.
Before Keyes can connect Walter to the plot, Neff goes to Phyllis' home. She has a pistol hidden beneath the pillow of her chair, and she shoots him with it. He comes toward her, but, since in her own way she is in love with him, she can't bring herself to fire again. Walter takes the gun from her and kills her, then goes outside where he meets Nino and sends him on his way, telling him to call Lola.
As he finishes his dictation, Keyes comes into his office and hears the confession. Walter asks him, for the sake of their friendship, to delay calling the police "until I can make the border." Keyes squints at him: "The border? You won't make the elevator, Walter." Walter nevertheless gives it a try and collapses at the entrance. Keyes calls the police and kneels next to Walter lighting a cigarette for him which Walter puffs once before dying.
(from Cinebooks Motion Picture Guide review)
A new feature for the GAOH messageboard. Each week someone will select one of the great classics for us all to discuss. You can if you like rewatch the film. As well as your opinions please recall your first viewing of the film, the actors and their performances and the wider themes. Are the actors realistic in their roles ? What makes the movie an all-time classic ? If you haven't seen the film are you likely to view it in future and what has put you off in the past ?
What is there to say? One of the great noirs. and one of Wilder's best(#2 to SUNSET BOULEVARD, IMO, but not by much). First saw this as a teen, and was fascinated for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that, at the time, Barbara Stanwyck was better known for her matriarch of THE BIG VALLEY TV series than for her film work...which, on the main, was far superior. of course. But she rarely got roles this meaty, or as devoid or morality, and filled with such guile and manipulation(even while you're thinking that her character is pretty much making it up as she goes along. She knows what she wants, but getting it is something else, and she almost looks triumphant at times for having reeled in Neff, who one thinks shouldn't have fell in with it all so quickly, but that's the mark of James N. Cain's work, right?)
Of course it helped that the director himself, who was no slouch as a writer, had help from none other than Raymond Chandler; together, they took the basics of Cain's story and modified it to near-perfection(only the now-notorious 'original ending'--with Neff confronting the gas chamber--left out of the finished print, seems pushy, even unnecessary, if perversely fitting). It's a great cast, with Eddie G. particularly perfect as the investigator who figures out who did what, and it's only a matter of time until he gets his proof.
This is a great B&W film, obviously; and it was an early example of L.A. as a sleazy kind of place with all manner of dark goings-on, people willing to kill for a little money...and the kind of thing the PERRY MASON TV series would exploit quite well...and of course, a central theme of noir all along: 2nd-rate robberies and other low-rate crimes perpetrated by people who had a lot more to lose.
Interestingly, over the years the main complaints about this movie have been that a)Fred MacMurray isn't really a convincing villain...and I suspect those who have said so remember him in Disney films and the MY THREE SONS TV series, his later kindly persona--not the one he developed in the '40s & '50s as an actor capable of both good guy and villain roles(he is the rotter in THE CAINE MUTINY, and quite effective); and b)the dialogue seems sometimes stilted and even a little ridiculous. Fair enough, except that we could isolate dialogue from some of the greatest movies and some of it would sound odd, forced, mannered, contrived, etc....and yet in context it works, just as Cagney's way of talking always worked, or Bogie's sneer was always welcome.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY was a noir summit. One can debate whether or not its dark tone has ever been surpassed(I would maintain it was, if only by the likes of KISS ME DEADLY and THE BIG HEAT, to name just two examples from the '50s). But whatever its flaws, it is remains riveting entertainment, and career peaks for Stanwyck and MacMurray(though both had more to come).
As for the director, he went on to the even bleaker THE LOST WEEKEND(which for me is not nearly as impressive, well done as it was)and of course many others, SUNSET BOULEVARD being a summit of sorts(a summit of cynicism, anyway...:D)
Its my fave Wilder and while yes the dark tone might have been surpassed a film noir has never had me as rivetted to every twist in the plot as this one does. The dialogue has never felt stilted to me but is quotable like many great movies. You shouldn't really care about anyone in this film : there is a lack of any kind of emotion or love, the only character almost completely innocent is Lola Dietrichson, yet you do care. Its the acting that does it, you couldn't imagine anyone but MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson in those roles. Even though MacMurray is a villain he's also really an anti-hero, Stanwyck smoulders with more sexuality than later scantily clad women while Robinson was never better for me than as the dogged investigator with the little man wrestling at his conscience. Maybe the previously planned ending of Neff going to the gas chamber was too much.