Double Indemnity (1944)
Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) unsuspectingly drops by a client’s house to renew a policy for car insurance and is quickly ensnared into a murder plot with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Neff seemingly equally motivated by the prospects of being with Phyllis and wanting to pull off the perfect crime to scam the company maneuvers through much of the film fooling the best claims investigator in the business and his friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Though Neff has always been honest, he is not exactly an upstanding individual seeming to involve himself with cheap women and Phyllis fit this type. From their first meeting the characters dialogue shows their dance with each other, each trying to get what they want from the other. Phyllis wants to murder her husband, and Neff wants Phyllis.
However, the central relationship in the film is not Neff and Phyllis, but Neff and Keyes. Keyes often appears to be pushing Neff into bigger and better things in the company, not to stay with his same job as a salesman. The two men share a friendship and partnership which is broken by Neff’s involvement with Phyllis and subsequent fall from the straight and narrow.
When Billy Wilder decided to film the James Cain story many in Hollywood thought that with the Production Code the story was unfilmable. Billy Wilder who worked with a partner when working on screenplays chose to work with writer Raymond Chandler to help write this film. Much of the dark poetic dialogue is due to Chandler’s influence. Chandler is often credited with his use of words, evolution of characters through dialogue and images. Wilder was known for his witty fast talk. Together the two men took Cain’s story and turned it into a memorable film which was able to pass the censors.
There is not one single element that defines a noir film, but there are elements that are typically present. Elements include the femme fatal, a quick talking and flawed leading man, an urban setting, and the inclusion of some kind of heist or scam. However, Double Indemnity would further these elements and adds a few more stylized techniques that would become synonymous with film noir, one of these elements being the use of voice over narration of the story. Neff’s Dictaphone confession ends up being a voice over narration for the story. Originally in Cain’s story, Neff’s confession was to be written. However, for this film the use of the Dictaphone works to move the story along and utilize more of the Wilder/Chandler dialogue.
Despite the twist and turns that the story takes what is most noted is the cinematography. John F. Seitz use of light and shadow in the interior scenes sets the stage for the ugliness that happens inside the world of sunny Los Angeles. The use of light coming through the blinds that creates a trap or cage for the character of Neff who is trapped in his murder plot with Phyllis. Many of these elements would be used by other creators of film noir, and Wilder himself would use this formula in his later film Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Given its production date in 1944 it is curious that there is no reference to World War II which was still raging in Europe and the Pacific and on the minds of most film viewers of the time. There is not even an image of a soldier on the street. Wilder sets the date for the story as 1938, thus making an excuse to ignore the war. Wilder too had been affected by Hitler and the war in Europe. During the early rise of Hitler, Wilder as well as others in the German film industry left Germany for Hollywood leaving behind family.
Double Indemnity was nominated for several Academy Awards, however lost to Going My Way (1944). Given the war-time atmosphere of the time, Going My Way was the sentimental and uplifting film that audiences wanted to see and the Academy wished to acknowledge. After the war, noir would become a popular style and audiences where ready to see gritty crime dramas about the ugliness of the world.
No write-up of Double Indemnity is complete without commenting on Stanwyck’s wig worn in the film. Much has been said and written about this famously hideous wig. It is often said that Wilder picked the wig himself to show the cheapness of the character, she was just as cheap on the outside as she was on the inside. Others have also said that by the time Wilder had decided to scrap the wig, he had already shot too much of Stanwyck in the wig that it would be a waste of money to turn back and reshoot using a different hairstyle. Stanwyck was known for playing tough, sexy, low-class characters that often climb they’re way out of their circumstances. She could have easily played this character without the wig and would have had a great effect. However, would the character have been so memorable and still talked about if the wig had not been used?
Double Indemnity will be shown on Friday as part of their Friday Night Spotlight series focusing on Noir Writers (click on the link below to read more about this spotlight series):
Nocturne (1946) 8:00PM (ET)
They Won’t Believe Me (1947) 9:30PM (ET)
Double Indemnity (1944) 11:45PM (ET)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) 1:30AM (ET)
Serenade (1956) 3:15AM (ET)
Images from: Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount Pictures 1944. DVD.