Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson
Despite being only the third out of Billy Wilder’s twenty six features, Double Indemnity is perhaps his most highly regarded work, even beating out future mainstream hits like Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot (it came out six years prior to the former, fifteen for the latter). Set in 1938 Los Angeles, at the pinnacle of the indoor-fedora trend, Double Indemnity begins at its morosely confessional end before the narrator takes it all from the top, recounting in devilish detail every event which led up to the ‘now’. An onslaught of dizzying dialogue combined with the droll, sultry voiceover sets the mood for a trip into a grandiose black and white Hollywood seeped in moral deprivation.
Walter Neff (MacMurray) is the passionate, bourbon drinkin’ protagonist living the dream in a man’s world. He’s so manly that he’s wont to go into a drive-thru and order a single beer, and he has no shame in bowling ‘a few lines’ at the alley on his lonesome. His chivalrous nature, however, is what eventually leads to his downfall. Enter Phillis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), a customer Neff meets while conducting a routine insurance sale. Phillis doesn’t just want to renew her car coverage though, and manages to rope Neff into an insidious plot to kill her neglecting drunk of a husband for his life insurance. Aside from the fact that the whole plot is defunct because a ‘Double Indemnity’ clause cannot apply to a man with a dangerous occupation like Mr Dietrichson’s, their plan to frame his death as an accident goes impeccably well, provided neither of them crack, the money is theirs.
On many occasions the heart-in-mouth suspense reaches fever pitch as Neff and Phyllis’ best laid plans (‘Straight down the line, baby’) threaten to derail. Beneath the bleeding LA sun, Detectives and false claim investigators wade through the sweaty dusk and ever closer to the truth. To add to the intensity, the mutually beneficial partnership begins to show some manipulative cracks; when Phyllis seems unable to start the getaway car, Neff takes over – unbeknownst to him she is effectively handing over the blood drenched baton of guilt, transferring responsibility from the instigator to the participator.
The suspense- driven score is perfectly orchestrated, combining giddy romance and high-strung paranoia, while dreamlike fade –in/fade-out editing lends a seamless dream quality to the narrative. Double Indemnity is full of surprises and great performances, led by the captivating Fred MacMurray as the swaggering, unsuspecting Walter Neff. Barbara Stanwyck is the ultimate femme fatale, luring the lead into danger and death with her sickly, ‘honeysuckle’ affection and tactful displays of feminine vulnerability. Edward G. Robinson as human bloodhound Keyes is the crowning, stogie chomping jewel of the film. Robinson’s speed-talking spiel is enough to put you out of breath; he commands the screen with wide-eyed expression and confounds you with his wizardry of words.
As the final long shot seeps away into the closing credits and Walter resignedly slips a last cig into his mouth, you half-expect his boss and dear friend Keyes to quip, ‘Close, but no cigar…’ Double Indemnity is too good for that though, and instead Keyes looks down without judgement, pain and confusion etched upon his face, as the curtain closes. Double Indemnity is the quintessential movie of the noir genre, and it’s influence can be found in everything from Chinatown to the Mitchell and Webb absurdities of ‘Sir Digby Chicken Caesar’.