Double Indemnity (1944) dir. Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred McMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
By Alan Bacchus
Billy Wilder’s noir classic has one of the best movie titles of all time - it’s razor sharp, like the efficient tone of the script and its execution, it also hints at the coiling and twisting narrative as well as the literal story plot point which is key to the motivation of its nefarious characters. Literally, it refers to the term in the insurance business of a double payout on a claim of accident death.
And it’s the insurance business in which this very cynical and seedy investigative plotter is set. It’s a terrific environment in which to set a crime film, one in which, as a claims officer, as Edward G. Robinson’s character puts it, “you’re a doctor, a bloodhound, a cop, a judge, a jury and a father confessor all in one.”
Walter Neff couldn’t possibly be categorized as the ‘hero’ of the picture, but as a film noir everyman who falls victim to his own lust and greed he‘s a prototypical antagonist. In the opening, he’s an innocent but smarmy insurance salesman, unmarried, no kids, living a Spartan existence. But when he goes to the renew the automobile claims of one his clients, he falls deeply in love with the man’s wife, Phyllis Dietrichson, played with maximum allure by Barbara Sandwyck (her large but trendy forehead curl not withstanding).
After some teasing double entendres and sexually subliminal dialogue Mrs. Dietrichson and Neff hatch a plan to set up her deadbeat husband for murder and claim a life insurance policy, and of course, with a double indemnity clause. As an insurance man who knows the business, Neff is like a surgeon with details, especially setting up his and her alibis. The husband is killed and everything goes as planned until Neff’s equally fastidious boss and claim officer Barton Keyes (Robinson) scratches the itch of his hunch and layer by layer strips away the cover stories causing Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson to unravel.
Wilder and his co-writer ahem.. Raymond Chandler!!..make terrific use of Neff’s voiceover into Keyes old fashioned Dictaphone to tell the whole movie as a flashback. Fred McMurray’s deep voice guides us through Neff’s journey from innocent nave to cold blooded murderer, through nerve racking fits of jealousy, betrayal and ultimately, however small, redemption. The apparent twist or femme fatale double cross doesn’t really come as a surprise, but it’s the very end, the reconciliation of Neff and Keyes, two old friends and colleagues whose broken paternal bond becomes a surprising moment of regret and the first real heartfelt emotion in the picture.
The effectiveneness of this moment reinforces how important Edward G. Robinson’s performance is to the picture. As always, he’s a marvel, a machine gun with words, able to spit out Chandler/Wilder’s dense dialogue with lightning quick rhythm. Just listen to his cadence and manner of his speech and you’ll see the influence on the Coen bros anachronistic films like The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There. Even his name, Barton, perhaps, was an influence on them.
If we’re to define film noir as a genre devoted to exploring the darker side of human nature, and the capacity of the common everyday man to get into crime, Double Idemnity does noir better than anything before or since.