Review of Double Indemnity (1944)

If someone were to ask, "What is film noir?" my best response would be to sit her down in front of Double Indemnity. It's one of the best films noir, one that weaves together classic elements like lust, murder, double-crossing and the femme fatale (it even has an homme fatale). More importantly, never has an educational experience been so appealing as this smart and wildly entertaining film.

The film opens with an out-of-control car careening through city streets at night--the city at night becoming a motif in other noirs like Night and the City and 1998's Dark City. The driver limps from car to office. Right from the start director Billy Wilder lets us know that Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a doomed man, though Walter's not completely finished, unlike Joe Gillis, dead in the opening scene of Wilder's later noir Sunset Boulevard. Still, that sense of inescapable doom hangs over the rest of the Double Indemnity, told in flashback.

The twisted beauty of this film lies in the ordinariness of its story. Walter is an insurance salesman, hardly a hardboiled criminal mastermind (I only say that because I haven't yet received my auto insurance premium), and his slo-mo auto-destruct begins with an encounter with bored housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (awesome Barbara Stanwyck). While Walter is entranced by the "honey of an anklet" encircling her shapely leg, Wilder subtly lets us know that Phyllis is using his obsession to help her plan an accident for her not-so-dear husband. Home, Wilder and co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler seem to be saying, is where the hatred is.

When Walter has a temporary lapse of sanity, he refuses to help Phyllis. But he's outclassed by her simply brilliant manoeuvring, which includes switching positions from sexy siren to damsel in distress. Spinning a tale that starts with her being casually neglected by her husband and graduates to wife abuse, Phyllis ups the ante till she gets what she wants.

But it's simplistic--and sexist--to blame only the femme fatale for Walter's downfall. Walter is his own homme fatale. In voice over, he says: "it [insurance fraud] was all tied up with something I'd been thinking about for years, since long before I ever ran into Phyllis Dietrichson... In this business, you can't sleep but try to figure out all the tricks they could pull on you. You're like the guy behind the roulette wheel watching the customers to make sure they don't crook the house. And then one night you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself and do it smart."

Doing it smart means staging Mr. Dietrichson's murder as an accident on board a train, and getting a double pay-off from the insurance company--hence the double indemnity of the title. The film follows Walter's and Phyllis' Quick and Easy Murdering Plan for Everyone and their subsequent cover-up, creating great suspense as we wonder if they're going to be able to pull it all off. The film doesn't pander to us, assuming we're as smart as the murderers at understanding the real meaning of their coolheaded performances in front of others. That's what makes this film truly great--the suspense we feel at wondering if the murderers are going to get caught and wishing that they don't. By using suspense, Wilder shifts our loyalties as viewers squarely to the murderers.

Walter's supervisor Keyes, a short round firecracker of a man played by Edward G. Robinson, is the moral centre of the film, or more accurately, its superego. Like the superego of psychoanalysis, Keyes stringently represents the rules and laws of society. His standards for good behaviour are inhumanly good. Again, as viewers, our loyalties track back to the guilty lovers.

Like Walter, we're bound too closely to the dark side--Phyllis. Fred MacMurray tries awfully hard as Walter, but the dear boy is, well, a boy, compared to Barbara Stanwyck, who owns the film. Stanwyck's face is so expressionless, she rarely blinks. Yet even without moving a facial muscle, she manages to radiate sexiness, cunning, wide-eyed innocence, vulnerability and sadistic pleasure. Even though MacMurray narrates the film, Stanwyck tells far more with her minimal, subtle acting that ironizes her performance for Walter or the authorities. Her less is more for us in this honey of a movie.

(December 14, 2000)

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