An insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray, The Absent-Minded Professor) falls in love with a married woman (Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas), and together they come up with a plan to kill her wealthy husband (Tom Powers, Destination Moon).
Reaction & Thoughts:
“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
“If I had one movie to show people to explain what noir is, it’s Double Indemnity,” noir connoisseur Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley on TCM, once explained. The film is indeed quintessential noir — Billy Wilder’s fatalistic masterpiece Double Indemnity is without a doubt the movie that best encompasses the spirit of the genre.
For a noir fan, it rarely gets better than this. Sardonic narration. Naughty double entendres. Murder. Femme fatale. Double crossings. Betrayal. Everything you love about these types of movies is here in spades. It’s a bit of an old fedora hat by now, but the film offers outstanding craftsmanship and impeccable style.
The attention to detail is particularly impressive. Most of the ideas were taken directly from James Cain’s 1943 novel (Cain based the book on a real-life 1920s murder case), but the things I most admire about the film were a product of Wilder’s creative mind (author Cain graciously acknowledged that the movie was better than his book).
Wilder, with the help of his writing partner, the legendary American novelist Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye), came up with so many unforgettable moments. Who could ever forget Barbara Stanwyck’s first scene? She wears nothing but a towel and an ankle bracelet. Stanwyck also sports a (deliberately fake) blonde wig. In one simple scene, the character’s personality has been established.
The censors of the time inadvertently helped create some of the film’s most memorable sequences. For example, sex is implied but never shown — Stanwyck calmly putting lipstick on is all you need to see. The actual murder takes place off the screen — Wilder leaves the camera on Stanwyck and her smirking face sends shivers down your spine. All of these sequences are enriched by John Seitz’s (Five Graves to Cairo) stylish cinematography and Miklós Rózsa’s (Spellbound) Wagnerian music score.
However, what I like most about Double Indemnity is how Wilder manipulates the viewers into identifying with the story’s amoral protagonist. Perhaps because I was immediately told that he will pay for his sins (the story starts at the end), I didn’t judge the poor sap too harshly — it didn’t feel right to pounce on a dead guy.
The three main actors are sensational. Although Stanwyck received a well-deserved Oscar-nomination, it’s the unnominated MacMurray who really makes the whole thing work — cleverly cast-against-type, MacMurray delivers a surprisingly multi-layered performance. Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar), who plays MacMurray’s cunning co-worker and friend, is responsible for some of the best moments in the movie.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Frankly, I’ve lost count of the times I have watched this cynical study of lust and greed. It’s one of those films I never get tired of watching. In any event, this is the perfect film noir. Double Indemnity was remade as a TV movie in 1973. It also inspired Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Body Heat. And if you are a fan of the movie, don’t miss Steve Martin’s 1982 noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. B&W, 107 minutes, Not Rated.