Double Indemnity (1944)

Synopsis:

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.

28 responses to “Double Indemnity (1944)

  1. Agree with all you’ve said. This is the quintessential noir and one of my favorite films. And you’re right about how the restrictions of the era’s censorship actually made this a better film – so much implied – there’s grisly murder scene that could’ve been as chilling as that look on Stanwyck’s face.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wonderful essay on one of my all-time favorite films, one of those rare ones that I call “perfect movies.” Everything works; and no matter how many times you see it, you get drawn in and fully engaged. LOVE the powerhouse chemistry of MacMurray (playing against type) with both Stanwyck and Eddie G. (in the finest performance of his long career.) Just watched this again a few months ago, but if I happened upon it while channel surfing, I would stop and watch it right to the end, again…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Double Indemnity and Soylent Green are both the finest performances of Edward G. Robinson’s long and great career. He almost played Dr. Zaius in Planet Of The Apes, but he had to drop out for health reasons at the time. He looked good in the ape makeup test which is available in the DVD/Blu-Ray bonuses.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Soylent Green was the first time I saw Robinson (ironically, it’s his last movie role), and what a great introduction to the work of this wonderful actor!

        I’ve seen the footage of Robinson as Zaiu and I agree that he would have been great in the role.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Terrific review. The dialogue is so sharp in this film that it can actually cut you: Her “I wonder what you mean.” Him: “I wonder if you wonder.” I mean….a classic that I own on DVD and watch annually!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Wow, awesome article, Eric! Everything works like clockwork in Double Indemnity as you’ve said. The highlight for me is Edward G. Robinson. What he did with the role of Keyes was something else. It must not have been an easy characterization, but he did a brilliant job with it, while managing not to be overshadowed by the outstanding team of Stanwyck and McMurray in the process.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. One of my favorite noirs as well, and one I steer people towards when they want to watch one for the first time. Edward G. Robinson was just awesome…and cool that you mentioned ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’…another favorite!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I’ve looked forward to reading this post for the longest time! 🙂 I’ve only seen Double Indemnity once, but it certainly made an impression on me – one I’ve never been able to fully articulate. I knew your thoughts would help me process my own. 🙂

    I guess the best way to sum up my first impression is that this film is smooth, sleek, and hurts my soul a little. 🙂 I’ll watch it again someday, when it’s available to me, and will probably be able to appreciate it in more detail.

    One thing I know for sure is that I LOVE to see MacMurray play against type! 😀 (The Apartment is another fantastic example, and a personal favorite of mine.) He absolutely deserves more credit for his versatility and how it helped his pictures work. Maybe he made it seem too easy? Or watching such a patented nice guy step into a darker character just as easily is a little too unnerving for most to praise him for it? Regardless, I’m glad you gave him a special mention. 🙂 Also, in regard to this film, “It doesn’t feel right to pounce on a dead guy.”…Awww – so true. 😦

    Have you seen The Carol Burnett Show’s parody, called Double Calamity? It’s on YouTube, and it’s quite good. 🙂

    By the way, you may have noticed that I tagged you in my latest post. Please don’t feel any pressure to actually participate in the tag. I really just wanted to give you and your blog a shoutout! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • When I was a kid, I only knew MacMurray as the guy from all those Disney flicks. Imagine my surprise when I saw him in Double Indemnity and The Apartment, which, incidentally, are probably his best performances.

      LOVE The Carol Burnett Show, but haven’t seen that parody. Burnett was always great at spoofing old movies (love her take on A Stolen Life!).

      Thanks for the shoutout! I’m touched that you remembered me. Thanks again!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Same here with MacMurray (well, Disney plus “Father Was A Fullback”, which is one of my Papa’s favorite movies), and I completely agree. 🙂

        I recently read a post by Silver Screenings about the film Pushover, in which he plays a crooked cop. 😀 I want to seek it out. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s