PARAMOUNT PICTURES (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, John Philliber
“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”
Good question. It could also begin to smell like money, lots of it. Especially if you can snare your husband into signing a lucrative life insurance contract…one with a double indemnity clause.
Therein lies your plot for this brooding film noir. Walter Neff (MacMurray) is a hotshot insurance salesman who falls into the crosshairs of Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), a scheming and alluring housewife, as he calls to her residence in order to renew her husband’s automobile insurance.
Her beauty takes Walter and like any good salesman, he begins to trot out the charm. Phyllis, however has other ideas for Walter. She wants her cold, uncaring husband dead and of course wants to cash in on his demise, so begins to lure Walter into her nefarious nest as the two eventually decide to partner up and make a mint.
The movie follows the path of three main characters – the afore-mentioned Walter and Phyliss, whilst also focusing on Barton Keyes (Robinson), the friend and mentor of Walter, who has a keen eye for deducing fraudulent insurance claims. The movie actually opens with Neff providing a commentary into a Dictaphone in Keyes’ office, laying out the narrative. As the story unfolds, and the paths of all three get closer and start to bleed into each other, director Billy Wilder wrenches up the tension as they all try to stay one step ahead of the others. Will the plan fall apart? Did Walter and Phyllis miss a step? Is Keyes on to them? Will he notice Phyllis behind that door? The paranoia hangs over them both as the story rumbles on. Speaking of Phyllis behind the door, that is a fabulous scene that provides great fear using a simple concept as the plan begins to unravel at a pace.
The two leads excel in roles that fly in the face of their previous work and images. Primarily used to playing lighter good guy roles, Fred MacMurray shines as the conflicted salesman consumed by desire. The confidence he exudes soon gives way to desperate paranoia as he struggles to keep the plan and Phyllis together, though he remains remarkably restrained as the film concludes. Double Indemnity opened the doors for his career. Introduced to the audience looking down in just a bath towel, Stanwyck bristles with a shadowy seduction as the scheming femme fatale. Her performance is wonderful as she slinks around Walter with only money on her mind, always getting under his collar just enough to get what she wants. A dazzling performance. Robinson is brash and plain-speaking and provides some lighter moments throughout, without feeling out of place. He is very much in the right place throughout in a solid performance.
Though the writing process was riddled with initial issues, Wilder and collaborator Raymond Chandler have created a wonderful story with some killer lines throughout. Phyllis’ hissing at Walter “I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else — I’m rotten to the heart”, to Robinson’s dry humour (“His name was Jackson. Probably still is”) throughout, the movie is littered with great dialogue, snappy humour and hasty exchanges between our leads. Wilder and cinematographer John F. Seitz combine to create a foreboding visual atmosphere that is simply dripping in film noir convention. The striking use of light and shadows throughout lends an almost menacing feel to the scenes, and his venetian blind technique almost seems to imprison the characters – dooming them to their fate.
Set to a beguiling score by Miklós Rózsa, Double Indemnity shimmers and seethes all at once, with a tight story, dynamic characters, fabulous performances and a great payoff all wrapped up in tissue paper with pink ribbons on it, Billy Wilder has created a film noir classic that will endure and provide a template for generations to come.
Walter and Phyllis may be rotten, but Double Indemnity certainly isn’t.
April 24th 2017