Editor’s Note: Yeah, I already posted a Throwback Thursday piece today, but then I was reminded that Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Double Indemnity, is 70 years old today. As an occasional film scholar and an avid fan of all things noir, I felt I would be remiss if I were to let that milestone pass without acknowledging it in some way. So here’s a piece I wrote in 2006 as a review for the film’s then-most recent reissue on DVD. Keep in mind that this piece is itself almost a decade old now, written while I was still an undergraduate (and it shows). But it’s a decent little piece of juvenilia all the same. I’ve cut it down a bit to remove all references to the specific DVD edition, which means there also won’t be any discussion of the miserable 1973 made-for-TV remake. And that’s just as well; I wouldn’t want to make Mr. Wilder spin in his grave on today of all days. So anyway, happy birthday, Double Indemnity… you cold, bleak son of a bitch. – Z.H.
No discussion of film noir is complete without Billy Wilder’s 1944 masterpiece Double Indemnity. Not because it was the first; the beginnings of the genre go back to John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941, if not even earlier, to a brief mini-tradition of American B-films stemming roughly from the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s. But what does make Double Indemnity so historically significant is its placement as one of the first truly influential films noir, and certainly the most pronounced execution of that style’s essential narrative and visual elements to date. Double Indemnity‘s release in 1944 puts it ahead of the crop of 1945 films that caused French critics to originally coin the phrase “film noir“; its success, netting seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, paved the way for a new period of credibility in the genre, allowing for a brilliant, if short-lived run of similarly-themed films in the post-war era.
The fact that it happens to be a fantastic movie doesn’t hurt, either. Double Indemnity is perhaps the archetypal noir, not least because of its story: a product of not one, but two notable hardboiled fiction writers, with Raymond Chandler helping Wilder to adapt the script from a novella by James M. Cain. Chandler had written The Big Sleep, which would itself be adapted into a classic noir by Howard Hawks in 1946, while Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice would be given the Hollywood treatment the same year, with Lana Turner in the starring role.
The talents of both authors are evident in Double Indemnity‘s sharply honed plot: an oil man’s scheming wife (Barbara Stanwyck) seduces a hardbitten insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray), convincing him to help murder her husband and collect on a fraudulent accident insurance claim: the “double indemnity” clause that provides the film’s title. It’s a scenario one can virtually recite by heart, even without having seen the movie; not only can its themes of betrayal, adultery, lust, guilt, and murder be traced all the way back to Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians, but Indemnity itself has been recycled and parodied ad nauseum in the decades since its release: most bizarrely in a subplot of 1993’s Wayne’s World 2, where Dana Carvey as Garth falls into the sway of a vampish Kim Basinger. Of all these tellings, however, Wilder’s is still the best. Along with Chandler–and, of course, the source material of Cain’s original story–he turns this simple plot into a tautly paced meditation on the potential for evil in the human heart.
And he does it with a truly masterful example of post-Citizen Kane studio filmmaking. Cinematographer and frequent Wilder collaborator John F. Seitz plays the expressionistic, low-key lighting that defines noir to the hilt, wrapping the illicit lovers in moody pitch-darkness, throwing silhouettes of Venetian blinds against the walls like prison bars, and making the shadow of MacMurray’s Walter Neff loom over his actual body like a projection of his sin-blackened soul. Pure and simple, Double Indemnity just looks like a film noir: a true textbook example. It’s a film that oozes attitude from its opening shots to its indelible close, and the way Wilder and Seitz use externalized visuals to illustrate their characters’ warped internal psychology is sublime.
Also sublime is the work by the film’s three principal actors: MacMurray, Stanwyck, and not least, Edward G. Robinson as the pursuing “doctor, bloodhound, cop, judge, jury, and father confessor all in one,” insurance claims agent Barton Keyes. Robinson’s as great a character actor as ever, making up for what his part lacks in nuance with an energetic, wiseass performance that simultaneously sends up his star-making 1930s gangster roles and expands on them. MacMurray is solid, too: his sleazy, cynical, fast-talking Neff a must-see for anyone who knows him only as The Absent-Minded Professor and the pipe-smoking patriarch on My Three Sons. But Stanwyck is the real show-stealer here: as the murderess Phyllis Dietrichson, she defines the term “femme fatale,” alternating between “feminine” romantic and emotional displays of ambiguous authenticity and a kind of vacant inhumanity that’s chilling to behold. Just the shot of her cold-blooded expression as Neff strangles her husband in the car seat beside her would be enough to make this an iconic performance. Add to that her first appearance, wearing nothing but a towel, an anklet and an infamously cheap blonde wig–about as sexy as you could get away with in the days of the Production Code–and is there any surprise that one of those seven Oscar nods went to Miss Stanwyck?
More than anything, though, Double Indemnity succeeds so utterly because it knows how to sell its theme. Like most films noir, Indemnity is about moral ambiguity: the blurring of the lines between those “good guys” and “bad guys” who had even by 1944 long since become grist for the typical crime film’s mill. Unlike most noirs, though, these characters aren’t corrupt cops or antiheroic robbers, but just regular people: insurance salesmen and trophy wives. And while Wilder confessed a stylistic debt to the early thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock in the making of Double Indemnity, the difference between his approach and Hitch’s is also vital: where the antagonizing forces in The Lady Vanishes or The 39 Steps came in the form of vaguely malevolent, seemingly omnipotent syndicates–a clear metaphor for Europe’s wartime paranoia–in Double Indemnity the dangers come, hauntingly, from within the characters themselves. Granted, maybe it’s a little far-fetched that a mere attraction for an anklet-wearing, half-naked Barbara Stanwyck, however fatal, could drive such an average man into a web of murder and deceit. But then again, this film was made at a time when an entire nation of “average people” allowed a horror like the Holocaust to happen.
The great message that Double Indemnity has to share may not be unique–how many other stories, from the Bible on down, have warned of man’s capacity for temptation and evil?–but it’s not one you’re likely to forget. “I killed him for money, for a woman,” Walter Neff confesses at the beginning of the film. Sure, he did. And even now, over a half century later, are there any temptations more valid than those?
Double Indemnity is apparently now available in a special 70th anniversary Blu-ray edition. If you haven’t seen it yet, now is as good a time as any to check it out.