Blind Spot: Double Indemnity (1944)

Guest blogger Courtney Small writes about a movie he has a blind spot for, 1944’s Double Indemnity:

Despite being heralded by many as one of the greatest directors of all time, the majority of the works by director Billy Wilder have shamefully been in my blind spot. My experiences with Wilder have been limited to Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, but after watching Double Indemnity I am determined to correct this. If you search the internet for lists of the best film noirs of all time, you would be hard pressed to find a list where Double Indemnity was not mentioned in some fashion or another. Having finally caught up with the film, I now understand why the film has received so many accolades. To put it bluntly this is masterful piece of filmmaking.

The film feels like a blueprint for what a film noir should consist of, while still managing to set a standard that few noirs will ever be able to reach. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity tells the story of a successful insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who falls for a married woman, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and agrees to help her kill her husband for the insurance money. Mr. Dietrichson’s (Tom Powers) insurance policy features a double indemnity clause which ensures that twice the amount gets paid out if the death is deemed an accident. Although Walter and Phyllis go to great lengths to ensure that the murder is made to look like a train-related accident, not everyone is so easily convinced. Walter’s colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a claims adjuster, and Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter from a previous marriage, Lola (Jean Heather), both question the suspicious nature of his death. As more questions arise, Walter soon begins to wonder if he was a patsy in a much bigger plot.

Wilder wastes no time in divulging key plot points. In fact, this is a rather daring decision when you really think about it. Walter sits at the desk, talking into a recorder, and confesses to a murder. He also he explains that he killed for a woman and proudly makes reference to how he outsmarted Keyes, who the recording is intended for. Since all of this all happens within the first seven minutes, it is easy to assume that there is nothing left to do but watch the events unfold. However, Double Indemnity proves that it has plenty of surprises in store, despite being told in flashback, which is why it can afford to give away what it does at the beginning.

The reason why the film manages to feel fresh today is the way it pays attention to the nuances of each character. You never really know what each individual is thinking about a particular situation. For example, Walter is a man who is all about the little details. Walter has been dreaming of pulling off something like this for years, but never had the opportunity, and when his chance arises he is careful to construct the perfect alibi. However, Walter lives in fear of Keyes, who is the only one smart enough to truly figure it out. Phyllis is the typical femme fatale that you would find in pulp novels but she is wonderful at sizing up individuals rather quickly. It is Walter’s aggressive style of flirtation when they first meet that signals to her that he would be easy to manipulate. Even when thrown into situations that she cannot anticipate, such as when Walter’s boss tries to bully her into a modified settlement, Phyllis’ quick thinking is always on display.

Although the performances by MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson are sensational, it is the screenplay (by novelist Raymond Chandler) and Wilder’s direction that makes this film truly outstanding. The dialogue in the film is fantastic, things are often said–and left unsaid–in a way that gives insight into a character while not always revealing what they may truly be thinking. There is a wonderful back and forth between Walter and Phyllis upon their first meeting that is just dripping with sexual tension and innuendoes. There are so many great scenes in Double Indemnity, many involving Walter and Keyes, where you can close your eyes and just get swept away in the crackling banter.

The only thing more entertaining than the dialogue is exploring many of the directorial choices that Wilder makes. In the scene where the murder takes place, Wilder frames the camera solely on Phyllis’ face while she drives. Though her husband is being strangled in the seat beside her, she keeps a cool demeanor throughout. The camera only cuts away from her when she gives what appears to be a sly smile. Wilder could have played many of the scenes in this film on a large scale, but opts to embrace the little moments, such as when characters pause to give each other looks that says way more in that moment than words ever could. Double Indemnity is an exceptional film that I will definitely be revisiting on several occasions.

Born and raised in Toronto, long time film lover Courtney Small shares his passion for all things cinema through his daily blog Big Thoughts From A Small Mind.  Courtney also contributes two monthly features for the Large Association of Movie Blogs as well

  • Joel

    Double Indemnity is on my top 5 list of all time favorites.  Once again, Stanwyck shows why she was the most versatile actress of the recognized top 4 of the time, (Stanwyck, Davis, Crawford and Hepburn).  MacMurray was a revelation in this, his best film.

  • Wayne P.

    This film has more than earned its inclusion at or near the top on the American Film Institutes’ (AFI) top 100 movies of all-time list.  For me it still gives the sense of a…”‘squirrel running around inside me”…, as Edw. G. Robinson said so well in the picture, to think about its many fine qualities of cinematic storytelling!  Billy Wilder showed off his unique talents often as both a director & screenwriter.

  • fogelmama

    It is a great film – no question. But believe it or not, it is much less brutal and ugly than the novel by James M. Cain. Stanwyck’s character is practically nice compared to the psycho portrayed in the book.

  • bonaparte3

    There is no doubt that “Double Indemnity” is one of the masterpieces of film noir.

  • Susan

    This is for me, one of those movies I can watch over & over again and never get tired of it. Come to think of it, I feel that way about a lot of Billy Wilder movies. One of the things I love is the banter in the movie. Here is one of my favorite lines:

     
    Phyllis: “I think you’re rotten!”Walter: “I think you’re swell- so long as I’m not your husband.”The movie is full of really witty dialog and scenes that play interesting because of the acting & direction. Great flick!!!!! :)

  • Juanita123516

    There is a reason why Barbara Stanwyck is my favourite actress of all time and this films proves why beyond a doubt. It is the classic film noir – crackling dialogue, unexpected twists and a femme fatale who steals the show. Even though in the 40’s they couldn’t use  James M Cain’s racy dialogue the double entendres and unspoken looks managed to clearly imply just what was going on. Billy Wilder at his finest!!!!

  • El Bee

    Glad you found this key to great Wilder films. You should also watch “Ace in the Hole” (The Big Carnival), “The Lost Weekend,” and other early Wilder. He seems to get smoother after “Sunset Boulevard,” and I don’t always find that a plus. Add “Witness for the Prosecution” to your list. Watch “Ball of Fire” (also with Stanwcyk) the last film he wrote allowing someone else to direct it. Dated but excellent dialogue and innuendo in this too. I have to disagree that writing and direction are above the three magnificant performances. Holding on Stanwyck’s face may be daring, but it would be nothing without her. Watch again and you’ll see more than a little smile; it is almost orgasmic for her. And the sassy dialogue in their first meeting wouldn’t work if the actors didn’t provide the sass. Smart lines by merely adequate actors lose their smarts fast.

    • Tim

      Thanks for mentioning “The Lost Weekend”…love it!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PODTFFPVEUXYHXVGNS5G5FWKGI DIRK

    DOUBLE INDEMNITY definitely at the Top of my lists!! Pure noir in its story-telling and lighting, etc. And the humor:  when the maid leaves him alone to wait, she tells him off-hand that they keep the liquor locked up, MacMurray quips back: ‘I bring my own keys!’
    I love the fact that you really get caught up in their plan and you DO think they are gonna get away with it!

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/PODTFFPVEUXYHXVGNS5G5FWKGI DIRK

      For readers, James M. Cain also wrote THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (that was filmed twice, in 1944 and again in the 1980s).

      • David Alan

         He also wrote the book “Mildred Pierce” and contributed to the writing in “Out of the Past”

      • Bruce Reber

        TPART was first made in 1946 with John Garfield and Lana Turner (IMO the best version and I also have the DVD), and remade in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon S. Jackson

    Watched it again last week as part of a Billy Wilder double bill with “Sunset Boulevard.” The best!

  • Netherlandj

    You obviously didn’t look too closely at Barbara Stanwyck’s face in the murder scene.  You can actually see the satisfaction, the evil, the greed.  Everything in her character is in that one shot.  Wilder knew what he was doing…..

  • frankie

    What is often overlooked about this film is Edward G.’s dynamite performance. He’s the engine here ! I find him endlessly fascinating as Keyes. The true measure of the film’s greatness is that, when I recently saw it on a double bill with “Psycho”, I preferred it to “Psycho” !

  • Decoman

    to paraphrase Walter, ” that’s a honey of an anklet”  The film rocks!!!

  • Decoman

    PS. you are looking for good dialogue check out Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” aka “The Big Carnival”.  In it Jan Sterling spits out her lines like bullets.  Her reason for not going to church & pray for her husband is because “kneeling bags my nylons!”

    • Bruce Reber

      “Ace In The Hole” aka “The Big Carnival” was one of Wilder’s biggest flops when it was released in 1951. Today it’s regarded by many (including myself) as a very good film noir.

  • Jlyoung10

    Great review of this, one of my favorite movies.  I can watch it every time it comes on TCM.  Who would have thunk it… Fred McMurry so calculating and sexy.  June Haver,his lovely wife,  has said that he was a perfectionist at home, could not stand filled ashtrays or messed up acoutrements.

  • Clpapa1

    I never get tired of watching  Double Indemnity.  All the actors were spectacular.  This film is from time period when actors actually could act!  These were the movie stars unlike most of the actors today.

  • Marcyraye

    I just loved Double Indemnity.   In later years Fred MacMurray took roles that weren’t
    dramatic.  I think that is why I really liked this one.   The strong, silent type   I love
    the old movies and I have a huge library of them.   This one I haven’t bought yet but I definately will.  Just forgot about it.   It hasn’t been on TMC in a while so they need to show it again…..

  • Nils Goering

    A super film and an even better book!  Writers, James Cain along with Texan, Jim Thompson delivered some of the cleverest, vilest, shocking and, oft times, creepiest stories ever commited to print.  They weren’t collaborators (I don’t know that they even knew or met each other) but they each had the knack for tapping into the darker elements of the human condition.  Many of their books (especially Thompson’s) are not for the squeamish.

  • Pacerdad

    I love this movie!!  I need to read the book.  When will this movie come out on Blu-ray??  I cannot wait to add it to my collection of noir! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sam-Molloy/100002980791041 Sam Molloy

    One of my faves. If I remember correctly there was another ending considered, but I like it just fine.

    • Wayne P.

      Would love to know what the alternate ending was, if anyone has heard of it…? But, the original was pretty good as is!  This was one where a sequel or a remake wouldnt work so well.

      • Norman Gillen

        Alternate ending: Fred McMurray goes to the gas chamber, as E. G. Robinson (his surrogate father throughout the film) looks on. There was a still from that never-used footage published in an autobiography of Billy Wilder in 1974 by Maurice Zolotow.

        • Norman Gillen

          Sorry. That should read “biography,” not “autobiography.”

          • Wayne P.

            Thanks much…now thats all cleared up…am glad they left it as is since Fred did generate some empathy at the end and could see EGR holding his hand when his time would come!

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OCBND5C6EE5EVPF4CKVELWQOQ4 tomas moray

          I liked the way it ended.  I have always assumed that Walter Neff bleed out and didn’t live to be carried out of the building.  Thanks for the trivia though.  Veyr interesting.

  • BillinFla

    As much as I admire James Cain, Chandler was the better writer, especially when it came to dialog. So having Chandler, in effect, “polish” the work of Cain produced an absolutely brilliant movie. Because of his later work of Disney and his long-running role on “My Three Sons,” people have forgotten was a great “heel” Fred MacMurray could play.

    Interesting to note that Wilder used the same gimmick of beginning the movie at the end and then telling it all in flashback for “Sunset Boulevard.”

    • Elmyra DelVecchio

      Another memorable ‘heel’ performance by MacMurray is his role in ‘The Caine Mutiny’ – maybe ‘coward’ is a better description.

  • Blair Kramer

    I think I dated a girl like Phyllis when I was in my early 20’s!

    • Wayne P.

      And you lived to tell the tale…well, not yet anyway…I sense a line coming from Grease: …”tell me more, tell me more…whatcha waiting for!?  ;)

      • Blair Kramer

        Oh…  You know the type… She was just interested in getting me to spend, spend, spend…!  And whatever it may have been,  dinner,  theatre tickets,  clothing…  WHATEVER… It absolutely had to be the most expensive available!  But I just never seemed to be able to afford the best.  Certainly not all the time. Heck…  She didn’t even much care to be seen riding with me in my car.  In those days I drove classic corvairs that were beautifully restored.  I was very proud of those cars.  But as far as my lady friend was concerned it was just an old car!  If she hadn’t eventually dumped me (thank God!),  I suspect she would have put me in the ground and sold the cars! 

        • Wayne P.

          Ah, a classic Corvair…unsafe at any speed, so said Ralph Nader ;) but cool story all the same and you certainly dodged a bullet…the last line had me thinking old movies (dont we always?) along with scary rides and at least she didnt put ‘Christine’ after you!

          • Blair Kramer

            Corvairs could be purchased for just a few hundred.  Anyone could afford them after Chevrolet discontinued the model. For parts,  you simply cannibalised other Corvairs.  Painting them cost no more than $50 or $75.  Basically, you didn’t have to be wealthy to drive a neat car.  So…  I drove more than a few Corvairs at any given time.  Ralph Nader was certainly wrong about the Corvair.  I think he just had a personal bug about GM.  Anyway,  they were always economical and easy to maintain.  What more could you want?   

          • Wayne P.

            You may be right, having owned one…when I delivered papers in the 60’s we had one on the block and when that rear engine backfired, you never wanted to be riding on your bike behind it cause you couldnt bail off it fast enough with the paper sack due to all the smoke..they get a bad rap kinda like the Ford Edsel…but who knows, they may make a comeback,  thanks to this blog!? 

          • Blair Kramer

            Backfire?  I never had a Corvair backfire. Kept them clean and filled with oil.  They never gave me any trouble. Anyway,  I always tried to get ragtops.  If the canvas was other than red, I replaced it. Regarding the engine, every Corvair had six cylinders. Single carb engines were too under powered.  Generally, dual carbs were better.  But even that didn’t cut it for me.  I made sure every one of my Corvairs had quad carburetors!  It turned a 110 into a 140!  I knew someone who took the back seat out of a Corvair hard top so he could fit a V8 from an old Impala into it!  It was an instant 320 with very little weight!  It took off like a rocket! However, with the blade directly behind the driver,  I don’t think the car was actually street safe. Try as he might,  he could never get me to take a ride with him!  I’m no fool! 

          • Wayne P.

            That gives new meaning to the term “Blade Runner”!

  • Eli

    I recall reading something many years ago telling that Fred McMurray turned down the roll of Walter Neff in  Double Indemnity at first saying something like, “That script calls for an actor” or “a real actor” which was not be a reflection of Fred McMurray’s acting ability but of his opinion of his own acting ability.

  • Briney

    Caine was a masterful writer. “They threw me off the truck at noon,” his opening line of his first novel ”

    The Postman Always Rings Twice,” hooked his readers. Wilder was a genius, too. As director and writer, he corralled audience within the first 100 feet of film. Such was “Double Indemnity.”  Wilder and the stars have gone.  But this 68-year-old film still magnetizes audiences. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, it didn’t even get one. The three stars got $100,000 each for their performances.  Big money back then in the 40s. Great story. Great movie. No remakes, please.  

  • Blair Kramer

    Fred MacMurray never impressed me. He was certainly likable,  but not much of an actor.  How much better might DOUBLE INDEMNITY have been if Humphrey Bogart,  or ever Clark Gable, had played Walter Neff?  Now…  I can hear you screaming right now:  “No one would believe those familiar macho men could be so easily duped!”  Well,  that’s the idea.  Cast against type,  playing average guys who work as insurance investigators,  a great actor such as Bogart or Gable might have been a standout in DOUBLE INDEMNITY.  As far as casting this particular film was concerned, I always thought it was a missed opportunity.

    • Joel

      I disagree!

    • Wayne P.

      I know he did a lot of fluff pieces except for DI, and being the ‘heavy’ wasnt his normal role,  but have you considered “Alice Adams” or “The Apartment” for more serious fare?   I thought he did a good job as Walter Neff…but its always interesting to speculate ala Gable for Bogie in Casablanca, etc…(am still thanking God that Dennis Morgan, Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan werent in that picture!).

    • OZ ROB

      I would have to disagree, I think D,I stands out because of Fred`s role as Walter Neff,. Had it been Bogie the film would have been hardly distinguishable from Big Sleep ,Maltese Falcon etc..Fred was handsome, a versatile actor,he had a brittle cheerfulness and an anxious smile that could easily change to slyness,his all American male wholesomeness and strength could easily be displaced with instability and shiftiness,,His often overlooked earlier role in the Texas Rangers 1936,,showcases his conflicting personas and his ability to act beyond a one dimensional character.  

    • Dana Thompson

      Totally disagree with you, Fred McMurray ruled in this role, he had a much bigger range than he was given a chance to show throughout the years, no he wasn’t a genius actor, but he nailed this role

  • doc

    I have watched this noir film a dozen times and never tire of the great dialog. Sarcasm and innuendo woven through the narrative and Edward G. Robinson’s great acting make this one of the best noir movies ever made.

  • pocroc

    I always thought MacMurray was a solid actor, did a good job in this movie.

  • Bruce Reber

    In a review I posted for Double Indemnity a couple of years ago I said that it was the best Film Noir of all time (including The Maltese Falcon, Out Of The Past, The Blue Dahlia and the other great ones). DI was the second teaming of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, bookended by Remember The Night (1940) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956). They have a chemistry in this film, probably matched only by John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia. Also may I note that both DI stars had successful TV careers (MacMurray as Steve Douglas on My Three Sons from 1961-1972 and Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley from 1965-1969).

  • larry smith

    Double Indemnity seems to me to be one of those miracle films that seems to get better with age. All About Eve,Chinatown,Casablanca are other films in my list (there are more) that just seem to get better with time,especially when compared to the schlock that’s heaped on us like compost these days. I don’t think you can set out to make a classic..You can do everything right and make a terrible film and then,as in the case of Casablanca,make what appeared to be a disaster by ALL involved in that project and have it become to most popular classic film of all time..They are “happy accidents.” None of these are perfect films but when viewed in there entirety they work brilliantly. Double Indemnity is always high on my list of all time great films because I love Stanwycks work more and more over the years…If you want to have some fun,compare Double Indemnity to its modern cousin,”Body Heat” with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt…I do like Body Heat alot but I never felt that it worked as well as Double Indemnity…It also brings up the dilemma of shooting a film noir in color…It doesn’t seem to me that film noir ever works as well in color…Its a huge compliment to all of the people who worked on Double Indemnity that’s its still being discussed passionately so many years after it was made…

  • buzz daly

    with a single exception, it is clear that most of us d.i. fans here revere and respect fred mcmurray’s acting. he had incredible range.just contrast the conniving, cold-blooded insursnce agent manipulated by phyliss in d.i. with his easy-going, mild-mannered poll taker in “murder, he said.”one role is intense and amoral. the other daffy and sincere.