Director: Billy Wilder
The year is 1944. The world is engulfed in the fires of the Second World War. Some of the most heinous of crimes in military history are being carried out across Europe and the Pacific, while allied forces were massing to overcome them and those behind them.
The darkness and the horrors, and the ways in which the public were forced to accept the reality of them, inevitably made its way into the hearts and minds of writers and directors. It is largely thanks to this darkness and disillusionment that gave rise to what has subsequently become known as film noir. Combining the horrors and evils of the world with the type of story previously provided for in pulp magazines, film noir captured a feeling and attitude unique in cinematic history.
Although it was not necessarily the first film in the noir genre (arguably 1941’s The Maltese Falcon defends that title the most convincingly), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is perhaps the first to truly hone the style and feature all of the classic elements that have now become synonymous with the genre. Dark (really dark) lighting, flashback narratives, the archetypal femme fatale, corruption, lust, it’s all here and all on show. Not only that, but it showed what artistic and commercial heights this style of film cold truly reach.
It was a film of modest backgrounds. Based on a James M. Cain serialised story published in 1936 (and later in 1943 as a full novella), it tells the story of a happy-go-lucky insurance salesman by the name of Walter Neff (updated from Nuff in Cain’s original story), who becomes infatuated by the wife of a client and finds himself lured into a plan to fool the client into getting a life insurance policy, then killing him and making away with the proceeds. To a contemporary audience, it may not seem like the most original of schemes. But the film carries the story so masterfully, it’s impossible not to find yourself also lured into its charms.
Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a role which many actors were reluctant to take on. MacMurray, whilst a well-respected actor, was known for lighter, more comedic roles. Perhaps his relative inexperience in the type of role required by Double Indemnity worked in his favour. MacMurray’s descent into a new, dark kind of role mirrors the change in his character from happy-go-lucky insurance salesman into a man who quickly discovers what dark and terrible things he can pull off. MacMurray plays the role perfectly. His gentle flirtations with Phyllis and friendly sparring with Barton Keyes presents a character who is likeable and almost the kind of person that the audience would like to get to know. It’s the kind of performance that makes the character’s subsequent descent into murder all the more terrible.
Barbara Stanwyck gives a both career-defining and genre-defining performance of Phyllis, the ultimate femme fatale and the woman responsible for instigating the events that take place. The film is a complex study into the relationship of these two powerful characters and their joint downward spiral. Neff’s character kids himself that he is the true brains. He sells the life insurance policy. He comes up with the idea to take a chance at the double indemnity clause, he plans the murder, he carries out that murder, he plays along with Keyes as best he can. But it’s Dietrichson who is pulling the strings of his heart throughout it all. The story is a fine example of the overpowering effects that lust can have on a person, and the depths to which it can drag them down.
Meanwhile, Edward G. Robinson stars of Barton Keyes, a claims manager and close friend of Neff, who works hard and fast to uncover the truth about phoney insurance claims. He is probably the closest thing to a moral compass that the film has (even in spite of his monologue about having the woman he once planned to marry thoroughly investigates before deciding she was a tramp and best to cut his losses), in his unrelenting efforts to establish the truth in an environment where, as the ending of the film shows, even your nearest friends can’t be trusted. Robinson’s portrayal is both serious and at times injects a sense of fun into an otherwise moral abyss of a movie. We enjoy his quips and speeches (being a claims handler myself in another life, I find myself beaming with joy every time I see the ‘claims man’ speech), and it is hard not to laugh along with him as he is tearing into the insurance company’s director to dismiss his claims of suicide. But it is never over the top or distracting to the rest of the events, and the final scene with him and Neff clearly shows the anguish being felt by the character as he sees his best friend falling apart in face of what he had done. It is for this reason that this author truly wishes the original ending of the film, where Keyes stands watching as Neff is executed in a gas chamber, still exists. All we have left to go on is extracts from the screenplay (made available in the booklet for the recent UK Blu-Ray re-release in the Masters of Cinema series), along with a few stills showing Neff being prepared in the chamber in front of a visibly distraught Keyes.
It is a haunting image. It is led entirely by body language – neither Neff or Keyes’ eyes can be seen, where only black shadows remain. Keyes’ grip on the bar, Neff’s sunken smile, the inability to see exactly what is in that room with Neff… (amazingly, that image of Neff was used in the Spanish promotional posters for the film), it is a real shame that the footage of it has been lost, meaning a true comparison with the finished version cannot be made. That said, there are many who believe that the film’s ending is perfect in itself. And it is hard to disagree – the ending in place shows the end of the relationship between the two men, and the ultimate ending for Neff is already inevitably imprinted in the minds of the audience thanks to Keyes’ earlier monologue about the murderers being on a one-way ride to the cemetery.
However, perhaps excising the gas chamber ending was a sensible move when considered in the context of the overall movie. It is a film where a lot of events are implied or occur off-camera. To have visibly shown Neff’s death, rather than imply it in the way it is now with the final cut of the movie, would have perhaps been an inconsistent (if still suitably bleak) way to finish the movie off.
It should also be pointed out that it is those implied events in the movie which make it all the more effective. The film was made during the reign of the Hayes Code, which greatly censored what films could and couldn’t get away with (which, unfortunately, was more often the latter). No sex, restrained violence, and an insistence that the bad guys must always pay the price. It was like the questionable intentions that gave rise to prohibition in America turned their attention to the film industry once their previous project had fallen flat on its face.
But it is within these restrictions that Double Indemnity flourishes. It single-handedly shows that less really can be more. When Neff murders Dietrichson’s husband, many directors might have wanted to go with showing a struggle going on, perhaps some dramatic external shots of the car as it sways back and forth over the road whilst the driver is being slowly strangled to death. Then it stopping shortly before it forces its way over a cliff or some other inconvenient obstacle. Instead, the car is stopped, and we are left with a looming shot over Barbara Stanwyck’s face, staring fixatedly into the camera in front of her as she sits next to her husband being brutally killed off-screen. How brutal that murder is is in fact left entirely up the viewer. But you don’t even have time to think about it, too fixed we are on Stanwyck’s gaze.
Then there is the subtle intricacies of the dialogue, which again managed to circumvent the Hayes Code whilst not losing any of its significance or underlying intent on the audience. Raymond Chandler’s contribution to the movie in this regard cannot be understated. At the time, he was one of the leading lights in the world of hard boiled fiction. At the same time he was working on the script, Hollywood was taking serious interest in his own particular works. Murder, My Sweet (an adaption of Chandler’s second Philip Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely) was released in the same year as Double Indemnity, and two years later saw the release of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. On paper (no pun intended), it read like a dream set-up. One renowned hard-boiled author adapting the work of another renowned hard-boiled author (James M. Cain’s previous novella, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the crime genre) sounds like a dream ticket. But at first, it didn’t quite go to plan. Chandler himself was new to movies and had a notably different approach to the whole affair than Wilder. The fact that he originally intended to turn around the entire screenplay within a week goes to show what Chandler had in mind. As a result, he had a rather fraught relationship with Billy Wilder (with whom he co-wrote the script). Heated exchanges and walk-outs followed, but the results of this volatile relationship were none the less electric, even if the experience did have the effect of leaving Chandler disillusioned with Hollywood and its treatment of writers. Chandler did persevere however, and went on to write an original screenplay The Blue Dahlia (released in 1946 starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake) and also contributing to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train (although the Chandler’s actual contributions to the final screenplay are not entirely known, owing to the pair’s extreme dislike of each other which, by all accounts, makes the Chandler-Wilder collaboration seem like a summer romance).
Interestingly, both Chandler and Wilder went on to produce works which appear to stem from their experiences together on Double Indemnity. Wilder’s The Lost Weekend chronicles a drunk writer (which Wilder made to ‘explain Chandler to himself’), whilst Chandler’s next Philip Marlowe novel was The Little Sister, which featured a number of shady movie stars and critiques of the studio system.
But all that is secondary. At its core, Double Indemnity is a sinister, unforgiving and completely wonderful film that holds its place firmly as the early pinnacle of the noir format.