US (1944) Dir. Billy Wilder
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an LA insurance salesman arrives back at his office late at night, clearly injured, sweating and pale faced. He makes his way to an office and sets up a Dictaphone for he has a confession to make for his colleague, claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). While out on his rounds Neff arrives at the house Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) to discuss the renewal of his car insurance. Instead Neff meets Dietrichson’s glamorous wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), who sets Neff’s heart racing. Phyllis broaches the idea of a secret accidental insurance policy for her husband but Neff is quick to read between the lines and refuses. However his attraction to Phyllis is too strong and soon the pair are concocting a plan to get rid of Dietrichson and claim the money, doubling the windfall due to a “double indemnity” clause. The plan works but there is one thing Neff doesn’t count on – the acute investigative mind of Keyes, who can sniff out a fraud from a mile away.
Film Noir in American cinema may have entered the mainstream with films such as The Maltese Falcon but it wasn’t until the versatile and prolific Billy Wilder teamed up with legendary crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler to adapt the novella James M. Cain that the recognisable template for the genre first came into play. All the clichés if you will – the heavy use of shadows and light, the voice over narration, the femme fatale, fast paced dialogue and the unthinkable move of revealing the killer at the start of the film – were either originated or brought together to great effect in Double Indemnity, refining the conventions while setting the standard at the same time.
That last point of revealing the killer at the beginning was just as shocking for audiences in 1944 as the content of the film itself, a tightly woven ball of intrigue that unravels with each passing scene until the last strand dangles limply in the final frame. Many found the immoral live affair and the subsequent murder plot offensive and long forgotten and by this time, washed up radio star of the era Kate Smith tried to encourage a boycott on moral grounds – instead her campaign boosted profits! By today’s standards this nefarious scheme – based on a true incident from 1927 – is tame and the execution too ridiculously simple to work but Wilder and Chandler make it work and make it believable to boot.
As a salesman Walter Neff has the gift of the gab and the confidence to back it up, so his immediate hitting on Phyllis initially comes across as typical sales patter to win the little lady over. Unfortunately for Neff, the devious Phyllis is cut from a similar cloth and vamps it up big time, turning the fast talker hawker into a giddy little boy. He may have devised the entire plan and ensured its flawless execution right down to the minutiae while Phyllis frets and panics at every turn, assuring him its for the best, but once the wheels comes off the trolley, he is the first to crumble while Phyllis remains ice cool. As ever there is a spanner in the works only this time there are three: Phyllis’s stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather) who hates her stepmother, her quick to temper Italian boyfriend Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) and of course the aforementioned Keyes, the proverbial shark just waiting to feast on the source of the blood dripping before him.
For the audience the wonder is watching the story unfold and seeing each of the elements of the plot fall into place then be slowly dismantled by Keyes dogged pursuit of the truth. Initially he believes the story of the circumstances of Dietrichson’s death, boldly rebuking his boss Edward S. Norton, Jr. (Richard Gaines) for suggesting it was suicide. But something troubles Keyes and he sets about working out what it is and why, unaware that the answer is right under his nose.
Here is where Wilder subtly cranks up the tension, depicting the pressure and strain on the two leads through their own body language rather than relying on blatant contrivances to add to their woes. Certainly a shock revelation from Lola late in the film may fall into the latter category but she is telling someone she thinks she trusts and not the right person, adding further to the paranoid downward spiral Neff is headed for.
While the story neatly twists and turns, bringing many surprises with it even though we know the outcome, the visual style of the film is as much a contributing factor the various moods, especially the final act which is conducted largely in a darkened room with only the faces lit up. As the villainess of the piece Phyllis is dressed in white, in complete contrast to her darkened soul, a wardrobe decision that will be duplicated on numerous occasions forever after.
Given a peculiarly awful looking wig to wear (to illustrate Phyllis’s fake nature) Barbara Stanwyck creates possibly the archetypal femme fatale by defining yet somehow avoiding many of the clichés associated with the character. Considered her greatest role this understated performance works well in tandem with the fast talking salesman turned lovesick puppy Neff, a studied and against type role for Fred MacMurray. But the show is stolen by Edward G. Robinson, none for his gangster roles, as the sharp minded and equally sharp tongued Keyes. It’s his energy and unwitting steps closer to the precipice by which Neff hangs by his fingernails that is the driving force of the film’s second half.
The passing of time might make Double Indemnity look like a catalogue of every familiar film noir facet for the modern film viewer but the truth is that this is the film that created this template. Billy Wilder has many great films to his credit it is almost unfair – and this is one of them.