Barbara Stanwyck speaking to Billy Wilder
Sitting outside the office, Raymond Chandler’s appearance in Double Indemnity
DOUBLE INDEMNITY A
USA (108 mi) 1944 d: Billy Wilder
It has all the characteristics of the classic forties film as I respond to it. It’s in black and white, it has fast badinage, it’s very witty, a story from the classic age. It has Edward G. Robinson, and Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and the tough voice-over. It has brilliantly written dialogue, and the perfect score by Miklos Rosza. It’s Billy Wilder’s best movie…practically anybody’s best movie. —Woody Allen
Author James M. Cain had success in 1934 with his book The Postman Always Rings Twice, while Double Indemnity, continuing ruminations on the same themes of infidelity and adultery, was published two years later in serial magazine installments. It would be seven more years before Austrian émigré Billy Wilder, assisted on the screenplay by Raymond Chandler, would take the reins in creating what is arguably the seminal example of Film Noir. Between the Great Depression and the Cold War, especially following the outbreak of World War II, American films created a new style, both visual and narrative, largely based on American crime fiction of the 30’s where the subject is crime and its psychological implications, including gruff, world weary loners who have had their share of bad luck, hard liquor, and failed romances, exuding an existential despair shared by many of the disillusioned returning war vets who found life at home much harder than when they left it. Ironically, many of its leading exponents would be former European directors who escaped German persecution, like Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tourneur, André de Toth, Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, or Robert Zinnemann, all of whom were well versed in Berlin’s Ufa Studio of German Expressionism and understood the dark psychological state of being trapped by forces larger than themselves, as each experienced this personally in their own lives. Film Noir may have had its origins with films like STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) with the mysterious stranger Peter Lorre, or consensus audience favorite THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), introducing Humphrey Bogart as hard boiled detective Sam Spade, surrounded by a cast of exotic characters. But DOUBLE INDEMNITY may be the granddaddy of them all as it appears to be the first to consolidate what is commonly known as noir style, which deploys many notable features, such as dark lighting that accentuates the contrasts between black and white, grimly realistic black and white cinematography, including impressionistic night time city landscapes inhabited by nocturnal creatures who have trouble sleeping at night, cool seductive femme fatale women and men momentarily caught off guard by their sexual allure that feels more like entrapment, tough, brooding voice-overs or sparse but suggestive dialogue punctuated by cynicism and sexual innuendo, a ruthless desire to greedily achieve the American Dream with plans that go awry due to double crosses, misplaced loyalty, and betrayal, oftentimes leading to murder, with a central character usually ending up wracked by guilt or dead.
First and foremost there is this marvelous script that runs like a locomotive through the entire movie, told almost entirely in flashback, a film beloved by Wilder himself “because it had the fewest takes, and because it was taut and moved in the staccato manner of Cain’s novel.” Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, an unsuspecting insurance salesman who’s usually pretty confident about himself, which is apparent when he first sets eyes on blond bombshell Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson as she’s standing on top of a staircase dressed only in a towel, claiming she’s just been sunbathing, to which he amusingly quips “No pigeons around, I hope.” Despite the obvious, what catches his eye is her ankle bracelet, as if this itself is suggestive of illicit sexual provocation. It should be noted that Charles Brackett, who scripted Wilder’s first two Hollywood films, refused to work on this film due to “moral grounds.” Raymond Chandler was never a fan of James Cain and was actually contemptuously dismissive, as the two barely spoke to one another, but the script remained loyal to his original intentions. Even Wilder acknowledged that most of the dialogue that makes the film so memorable was largely Chandler’s. Phyllis’s curiosity about obtaining an accidental death insurance policy without her husband’s knowledge piques Neff’s professional cynicism, as he immediately senses foul play and barks his way out the door. When she arrives at his doorstep shortly thereafter, claiming he forgot his hat, it’s evident he didn’t forget his hat. But after a few shots of bourbon, they’re in each other’s arms. This is as steamy as it got in the 1940’s, as sex and nudity were not on display until European films of the 50’s and 60’s. Instead kisses and crackling dialogue would have to suffice. In no time, Phyllis positions herself as the offended party, claiming marital neglect, while Neff works the numbers on an insurance swindle known as double indemnity, a policy that allows the highest cash payout based on the least likely causes of death. While not as steamy as THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), it follows a similar femme fatale scenario of luring an unsuspecting foil via her sexual prowess to get whatever she wants, where all the time poor Walter is led to believe he’s getting what he wants, the money and the girl. Simply put, the girl has other plans.
This may be Stanwyck’s most boldly provocative role, as she accomplishes the most with the least amount of effort, never raising her voice, never pleading with or browbeating her man, using legs and looks instead of showing a lot of skin, never resorting to caricature. Instead she’s as smart as any man, operates by her own rules and is savvy enough to keep most of what she knows to herself while at the same time allowing the man to have enough of what he thinks he wants to keep him happy. Neff is completely enamored by Phyllis, hoodwinked, sideswiped, harpooned into continually calling her “baby,” showering her with kisses until one point when he finally figures it out and we hear him mutter to himself as he’s walking down the street, “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” Throughout much of this film, it’s as if one hears the voice of Humphrey Bogart speaking, but it is Barbara Stanwyck doing the talking, as she is the one that always remains cool and collected under fire, never breaking a sweat, never acknowledging fear, maintaining her assertiveness throughout. Pauline Kael describes her as follows: “Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson—a platinum blonde who wears tight white sweaters, an anklet, and sleazy-kinky shoes—is perhaps the best acted and the most fixating of all the slutty, cold-blooded femmes fatales of the film noir genre. With her bold stare, her sneering, over-lipsticked, thick-looking mouth, and her strategically displayed legs, she’s a living entrapment device.” Needless to say, the film has its devout followers.
Neff’s insurance boss is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, the guy whose job it is to spot phony claims, and he does so with relish, with the same zeal and conviction displayed in criminal gangland mentality from his earlier pictures, though now spent scouring claims searching for every legal angle that casts suspicion on fraud. He’s a crack investigator who follows every clue and is renowned for his meticulous scrutiny of following the facts, but also a father figure who has taken Neff under his wing. His character is highly reminiscent of Welles’ later film THE STRANGER (1946), where Robinson is a War Crimes investigator hunting down Welles who’s a suspected Nazi collaborator. He utilizes this same cunning to break the case down little by little, where Neff all but feels the noose tightening around his neck. The case has him muttering to himself after awhile, losing all personal conviction once he realizes his perfect plan and his girl have both turned sour. It is Robinson’s revelations at the end that drive the finale, filled with typical Wilder-driven atmosphere and suspense, but also a kind of dread with having to come to terms with it all, having to stare into the face of one’s own disillusionment. The film is particularly influential in presenting an entire feature length movie where the two main box office attractions remain scheming and manipulative right up until the end, where both remain outside all moral boundaries, a place where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards exists in John Ford’s infamous western THE SEARCHERS (1956).