Based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, Double Indemnity is a film which uses the basic elements of a classic noir film and uses them with ease to intrigue, surprise, and explore the depths of betrayal and greed, all through an intelligently written screenplay by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder.
The film’s plot follows the narration of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who, through a recorder in his friend Barton Keyes’ (Edward G. Robinson) office, recalls the events leading up to that night. He tells the story of meeting Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a seductive woman who he inevitably falls in love with. He agrees to help her take out accident insurance under her husband’s name without him knowing, and then kill him so she can collect. Walter plans the whole thing out perfectly, wanting to make it seem as though Mr. Dietrichson falls from a train in order to trigger the double indemnity clause so that Phyllis will be able to collect twice the amount. Everything goes as planned until Keyes, a claims adjuster and friend of Walter’s, starts investigating the incident himself, concluding that the wife wanted the husband dead and the only thing he needs now is proof. On top of that, Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), approaches Walter with her theory of why she believes Phyllis is responsible for her father’s death, claiming that it was Phyllis who killed her sick mother while working as her mother’s nurse. Eventually, Walter finds himself backed into a corner, and decides to take matters into his own hands in order to protect himself.
One of the things that makes this movie so great is the performances by the actors. They can foreshadow events to come just by a simple facial expression. For example, there’s a scene where Phyllis and her husband are in the car on the way to train station, and Walter is hiding in the backseat. When Walter comes up behind Mr. Dietrichson and strangles him to death, the camera is focused on Phyllis’ face the whole time, and you can see an evil, self-satisfied look in her eyes. From that point on, you just know that this cold hearted femme fatale is going to be big trouble for Walter. There’s another scene where Walter is feeling the pressure coming down on him after the murder and he begs Phyllis not to sue the insurance company for the money she’s owed, since going to court will open up a bigger can of worms. She refuses to listen to him, saying she will get the money she’s owed and she reminds him that they’re in this together, “straight down the line.” Walter then has this “Oh man, I’m so screwed” look on his face, and you can probably guess that the only way out now is to kill her.
On top of the fine performances by Stanwyck and MacMurray, Robinson holds his own as the sharp claims adjuster. One of the best scenes he’s in is when he puts the company’s chief, Mr. Norton (Richard Gaines), in his place after he shares his belief that Mr. Dietrichson’s accident was actually a suicide. Robinson’s character retorts with numerous statistics and facts about the different kinds of suicides that take place, and then he adds that not one of them was ever by jumping off the back of a train that’s only going 15 miles per hour, basically proving that the smug Mr. Norton’s theory is completely stupid.
There’s a lot of really clever dialogue in this movie which can be attributed to the amazing quality of this screenplay. This was actually nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and in my opinion, should have won. I love a lot of MacMurray’s lines. Especially this one in response to Phyllis wanting to take out accident insurance without her husband knowing– “Who’d you think I was anyway? A guy that walks into a good looking dame’s front parlor and says, ‘Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands. Have you got one that’s been around too long? One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash? Just give me a smile and I’ll help you collect?'” There’s actually a lot of great fast-talking, back and forth dialogue between Walter and Phyllis that really make this movie more fun than you’d expect it to be.
Although, there’s also lines in this movie like, “How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” Delivered in the most serious tone by MacMurray’s character, I can imagine it wasn’t meant to be as silly and humorous as it comes across today. This is typical film noir stuff that is often times parodied over and over again, which is why it’s probably harder now to watch a movie like this and not feel like it is often times over-the-top-poetic.
Aside from the clever, and sometimes, humorous dialogue, this movie succeeds at creating suspense in a situation where the audience already partially knows where the plot ends up. In the beginning, we see that Walter is injured and confessing to this crime, which means that his plans did not work out as well as he’d hoped. The fun part is not finding out who did what, but how these plans went awry, and let me tell you, Walter’s plan was (to me, anyway) incredibly intelligent. Everything was planned to the very last little detail, it’s hard to imagine how it gets so messed up, but it does, and along the way it presents ideas and details you probably wouldn’t have even thought of yourself.
Double Indemnity is the perfect noir film, involving a well written script, engaging performances by some talented actors, and all the essential elements of a film for this genre–dark environments, suspense, murder, intelligent central characters, and a deadly femme fatale. It’s a classic and a must see for film lovers.