Director Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir classic, Double Indemnity is often cited as being one of the finest (if not the finest) example of its genre in film history. And it’s certainly easy to see why. It was after all nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Picture. Many of the genre’s eventual cliches are shown front and center in this early film noir: the bourbon drinking, the voice over narrating protagonist, the double crossing femme fatale, and of course that awesome low-key lighting are all prevalent in Indemnity. However, as ground breaking and wonderful as the film maybe among the dedicated cinephiles there are some elements of the film that just do not stand up to close examination.
In my opinion the film starts out pretty shaky when the protagonist, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) goes to the house of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyk) to sell insurance to her husband. The opening scene between the two main characters plays like the first scene in a porno film. Walter asks Phyllis where her husband is, and when she reveals that he is not home Walter starts hitting on her quicker than a bat out of hell. And that is where many of the problems with the first act of the movie stem from. Immediately, the film steamrolls into the relationship between the two leads, with them already plotting the her husband’s murder just a couple of scenes into the film. And yet the plan seems to take forever to get off the ground. In a similar way Hitchcock’s film Strangers on a Train thrusts the audience into a murder plot, and his later film Psycho has lovers post-coital just as quickly. Each are prime examples of “in medias res” or in-the-midst-of-things where the audience is introduced to the characters and their conflicts just as they happen. This may not have been what Wilder wanted (and I believe it would not have suited this film very well), but in that case we as an audience need more time with Walter and Phyllis to show their relationship ripen at a pace that did not jump out as unbelievably quick.
However, as soon as Walter actually begins to plan the murder it is nonstop suspense from there to the very last frame. It is thrilling watching Walter take every possible variable into consideration as he covers his steps, and then almost having the perfect plan foiled by bad luck - TWICE! - had me tight faced, leaning in close to the screen. Then there’s the pulpy dialogue spoken throughout, especially by Walter (“It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet”) that elevates the film to an odd heightened reality that sounds like what Quentin Tarantino imagines people actually talk like. Of course, the femme fatale was pretty pulpy herself (“You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead”), which helped Stanwyck earn that Oscar nod, despite the horrible wig. But it is “Little Caesar” himself, Edward G. Robinson who gives the film’s most memorable performance as Walter’s boss and father figure. Robinson provides the moral center of the film, and is trying to figure out how Phyllis’ husband was killed, creating a tension that pulls both ways: causing the audience to hope that he can figure it out and bring some justice to the film, AND hoping he fails so that our protagonist can succeed.
The tension that Robinson’s investigation brings to the latter part of the movie cements the feeling of dread that permeates the film and adds to the uncertainty the audience has toward the plot. Even though the film opens with Walter injured, confessing the crime to his boss, somehow it is never entirely clear as to what will happen from scene to scene. And after that initial road bump (and awful wig) the film’s strengths really do shine through quite brightly. There is no doubt that Double Indemnity is a fine film, heck, even a good one, but the legacy it holds (in my opinion) outshines the movie itself, ultimately becoming something of a disappointment.