First Time Watch: Double Indemnity

Broads… They say that you can’t live with them and you can’t kill them… or can you? Anyway, so goes Billy Wilder’s supremely taut tale of murder and insurance fraud that has tritely (though, very appropriately) been called one of the earliest classic examples of film noir, with its dark style of filmmaking and even darker story tone. Yes, I must admit that I had never seen the film, until recently. There are always going to be “classics” that are missed with all the thousands of films available for consumption, and being a “slightly younger” gentleman, there was a time that getting my hands on—let alone making time for—movies from the ‘40s was a bit tough for me. So, that’s the excuse (as lame as it may be) that I’m going to go with for never viewing the moody thriller, Double Indemnity, until now. Furthermore, I’m not all that familiar with the work of Mr. Wilder (though, I love The Apartment), but that’s something soon to be remedied since I tend to gravitate towards films dealing with grim and controversial subject matter (even when they’re comedies), and Wilder thankfully didn’t seem to shy away from such topics. After all, James M. Cain’s novella of the same name from which the film is based is certainly rife with nasty business, making the project incredibly tough to greenlight due to the rigidity of the era. Wilder was definitely a brave man who deserves credit for thumbing his nose at authority and venturing to make one of the most daring films of the ‘40s (and possibly the best of its kind?) even in spite of stern and conservative opposition.

After viewing DI, I became overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude that I didn’t grow up in the ultra conservative days of the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially when it comes to the movies that would have populated my formative years since they all had to adhere to the dreaded Hays Code. Now, I want to be very clear here: I understand that this is a biased viewpoint, and that folks who did come of age during this time will claim that it wasn’t that bad. After all, most people are always going to hold their childhoods near and dear to their hearts. Furthermore, I’m not trying to rile anyone up. I swear I mean no disrespect to the era nor am I attempting to denigrate the filmmaking that took place during this time. There are tons of worthwhile old movies that are great for a multitude of reasons. Besides, storytelling is storytelling. I don’t feel that any era is particularly superior when it comes to movie-making. There have been good and bad films made every year since the medium was born. That’s kind of my point. Double Indemnity is a pretty incredible film. That’s why it befuddles me that there would ever be an organization that would try to keep a film like this from being made, all in the name of human decency, which is complete nonsense. What I’m trying to say is that while there will always be lost and confused souls who will unfortunately try to control what others do, there really isn’t anything in DI’s filming of the subject matter that’s all that objectionable (even in the elements that were eventually changed or cut, such as the gas chamber scene) looking back on it. I understand that the times were different (I found it very amusing that the furthest the film could go as far as sexuality, was discussion of Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet), but the Hays Code was a little too strict even for the ‘40s. Think of all the cinematic ground that could have been broken if such needless “rules” didn’t exist. I’m just happy that I grew up in a time where the ratings system was implemented to let filmmakers craft the kind of movies that they wanted and freedom of expression in cinema was something that was a little more coveted. Furthermore, I was disappointed to learn that singer Kate Smith actually led a campaign against the release of DI on moral grounds. I’m a lifelong Philadelphia Flyers fan, and Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” that’s always played before pivotal Flyers’ games is considered one of the best good-luck charms in sports. Discovering that Smith was a “moral crusader” was a bit disheartening. Although, writer Cain later recalled that her protest probably added about a million dollars to the film’s gross, perhaps proving that maybe things don’t ever really change that much… but, I digress…

Double Indemnity concerns insurance salesman Fred MacMurray (in a very unconventional role for him) who stumbles into an illicit affair with lonely and embittered housewife Stanwyck (also playing against type as a sultry femme fatale). They eventually decide that together they’ll take out an accidental insurance policy on Stanwyck’s husband (Tom Powers) unbeknownst to him (a feat in itself), and then kill him and make it look like an accident to collect the money. Additionally, they dedicate themselves to making the accident look like Powers fell from a moving train so that the policy will pay out twice as much because it contains, you guessed it, a “double indemnity” clause. (Incidentally, Stanwyck’s mother was killed circa 1911 due to a fall from a trolley car. I can’t help but wonder if this film hit close to home for her). Now, I’ll confess that at first I had a real problem with MacMurray’s character, considering him to be a real slimeball. After all, the guy isn’t in Powers’ house for five minutes before he’s hitting on a man’s wife. However, upon further reflection I came to the conclusion that he was just a bored, weak-willed individual who gave into sinful temptation. In other words, the character was a human being… fallible, like we all are (aside from the whole murder thing, of course). I was also disconcerted that since MacMurray’s character apparently knew all the ins-and-outs of the insurance game, that he would be willing attempt such a harebrained scheme. (Did he really think that no one else would be on the train?) That this would be the case is especially curious, considering his relationship with Edward G. Robinson, the best claims adjuster in the business whose job it is to investigate phony claims. Then again, perhaps that’s also a part of fallible human nature that MacMurray would be so obstinate and megalomaniacal that he would think he could still get away with the crime. Anyway, most of my qualms were quickly assuaged due to the strong performances of the cast and the crackling dialogue of Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s tight script.

Just in case there are folks out there, like myself, who still haven’t seen this film, I’ll forgo spoiling any more of the story’s machinations. Besides, to do so would be missing the point behind why the tale is so suspenseful. Suffice it to state that MacMurray and Stanwyck’s “perfect crime” eventually goes haywire, and all involved are sent scrambling. That’s where the heart of the film lies, in the relationships between the characters. Robinson almost steals the movie as the fast-talking, wise-cracking, sharp-as-a-razor investigator whose explanation to his boss as to why Powers’ death couldn’t be a suicide is possibly the best moment in the film. However, Stanwyck is equally superb, in a part that netted her an Oscar nomination, as the cold and calculating temptress who always keeps the audience guessing as to what she really wants. Although, that could be because she’s unsure of her motives herself. The stunning Stanwyck gained all of this success despite that horrid blonde wig. Wilder claimed the look of the ridiculous wig was intentional in order to telegraph her phoniness, which ostensibly makes sense.

As far as MacMurray is concerned, he could be the unsung hero of the production. I was really taken with how he was able to essay the part of being a heel while simultaneously conveying that guilt and paranoia were eating at him. This is in addition to the almost tender relationship he shared with Robinson (which culminated in an ending most likely far superior to the aforementioned gas chamber scene) as well as with Stanwyck’s stepdaughter (Jean Heather). The only problem with the film that put me off was the EXTREMELY fickle nature of the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen attitudes and feelings change so drastically and so quickly in a film before. Sometimes these turns are so jarring that it flirts with not making any narrative sense. Miraculously, the actors are so good that they manage to get away with these transgressions. Besides, it seems that the film is more concerned with human behavior and the consequences of one’s actions than with their actual motives. Hey, that works for me. I was initially prepared to give DI three and half stars out of five, but considering the performances, I’m going to give it four stars “right down the line.”

Still need proof about Brian’s four-star decision? Check out the theatrical trailer for Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity:

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=582832218 Mike Hartman

    I remember watching this film in my COMM 100 class in Schwab Auditorium up at Penn State.. I remember being riveted and even discussing it with my father and sharing my notes.. I’m pretty sure it was the only B&W I had seen at that point in my life, except maybe Wizard of Oz..

    Thanks for making me want to watch it again!

  • Kellli Marshall

    You’re right: DI is fantastic on so many levels. Have you seen BODY HEAT?

  • Robert

    It was 1949, I was 14, and Double Indemnity was part of a double feature in a small neighborhood theatre. Barbara Stanwyck had only to cross those legs one time and any plot she proposed after that sounded perfectly feasible to me. And then showing up at my apartment to return my hat! What! You kidding me? I don’t know what MacMurray’s problem was but that day I rode my bicycle home with “Right down the line” tattooed on my forehead.
    Hays Code–Schmays Code! In those days the imagination filled-in with scenes even the most skilful of directors could only hope for.

  • John Hutchinson

    I grew up in the 40s and 50s and, believe me, it was not an edenic time… shell shocked unemployed vets from WWII, then the A-bomb hovering over everybody’s head, McCarthy and the Church of Rome running the culture wars. I’m glad to be free of that time and watching DI only reminds how dour the era was.

  • JUanita Curtis

    My all time favourite Barbara Stanwyck film and a classic film noir to boot. I think the Hayes restrictions work in its favour as it is all implied and much more mysterious. I usually find Fred MacMurray to be a bit bland but casting him against type here was a stroke of genius.

  • ROLLAND T.

    The 1st frame on this page has one of the only flaws in the picture. The apartment door opens outward hiding Barbara S. from Edward G. I do not recall ever seeing apartment doors opening out. Alot of people would be hit in the hallway just walking in them.

  • tony payne

    Although Warner Bros. had a galaxy of great actors from the golden age, none in my opinion, had the presence of Edward G Robinson. He almost steals each picture he makes and DI is no exception. I’m a real fan of his films and ‘Dr. Erlich’s magic bullet’ is my favourite. The other Billy Wilder films in my DVD collection are ‘Stalag 17′ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ both great and very memorable.

  • adelaide

    one of the bewt. should always be in the top 10

  • Steve S

    Good review, except for the comment about Stanwyck playing against type. In fact, the manipulating femme fatale was EXACTLY her type. She played these parts for years. Check out some of the pre-code DVD collections for her slimy best.

  • Dave Manning

    While there is nothing shocking in saying you have never viewed the classic “Double Indemnity”,
    it is incredible that one who is purportedly a movie buff to say that he is not familiar with the movies of Billy Wilder, a name syonymous with classics films for decades. Notoriously temperamental and often neurotic, Wilder’s films, despite his controversial reputation are usually ranked with the great films of the industry. Ironically, his masterpiece, “Some Like it Hot” was voted by the American Film Industry as the greatest comedy of all.I would suggest that Brian Sieck keep quite about such lack of familiarity with a certified genius as Wilder and get familiar with his work.

    • Marie

      I rlelay like the habit of happiness’ idea. So true no matter part of life you are talking about!! Your spouse can’t make you happy that’s something you control.

  • Randy Skretvedt

    It’s refreshing to find a review by a “slightly younger gentleman” that’s so well written, and which shows some original thinking. To me, “Double Indemnity” is the first true film noir. (“The Maltese Falcon” is often cited as such, but doesn’t really have all the elements of a classic noir.) DI has the narration (a holdover from the first-person technique of the “hard-boiled” short stories and novels), the guy who’s naively drawn in by the femme fatale, the scheme that unravels, and the sense of impending doom. And you’re absolutely right that Edward G. Robinson (in what I believe is his first film as a supporting actor) steals the picture as the investigator who finds the “Keyes” to unlock the mystery. If you’re just discovering Wilder, you’re bound to see some films which will stay with you for life. “Ace in the Hole” is another film that’s pretty bleak, ditto “Five Graves to Cairo.” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Witness for the Prosecution” and “Stalag 17″ have dramatic stories and lots of black comedy. “The Apartment,” as you’ve discovered, is also a “dramedy.” And then of course, there are the flat-out comedies, “The Seven Year Itch,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Fortune Cookie,” “One, Two, Three.” Wilder (like Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz) made wonderful films in many different genres; I look forward to reading your reviews of these movies.

  • Elizabeth Osborn

    Double Indemnity is my favorite movie. I even love the book (which is different). I recommend reading James Cain – he is wonderful. I love Barbara Stanwyck. I can also recommend “The Lady Eve” and “Ball of Fire.” What I love about this movie is the dialogue (both hilarious and hard bitten) and the relationship between Fred McMurray and Edward G. Robinson. I first saw it with my Father, he loved film noir. I do too. Nothing today can possibly compare to the film noir of the past(or frankly in my opinion the comedies of the past).

  • rvictor

    MacMurray was also the slimeball villain in “The Apartment” so perhaps he was cast to type. In spite of “Hayes” film noir flourished in this era.

  • Neil Blount

    One of the best. I’ve probably watched it 4 times in the past 10 years and as soon as I finish this comment, I will watch it again. As evderyone else has said, Edward G. steals the show. All of the cast is teriffic, particularly the step daughter. To use an oft usede saying *they really don’t make them like that anymore”.

  • Dennis Harrington

    Sieck: That’s “harebrained,” as in bunny, but I don’t think it’s harebrained. MacMurray had worked closely with Robinson for years (Robinson even wants him as his assistant) and, intoxicated with Stanwyck, thinks he knows enough to pull it off. Why he isn’t able to is the heart of the movie.

    Hartman: Wizard is not a b&w film; though its framing sequences are in sepia, it’s mostly technicolor.

    Marshall: Kasdan was very much influenced by DI, without which Body Heat would not exist.

    Robert and Curtis: Much to the point. Code restrictions forced movie makers to play to the imagination, often to the benefit of the film. No Code, no screwball comedies.

    Hutchinson: Those are postwar problems; DI is a wartime movie, though set before the war.

    Rolland: All apartment doors do open inward. Wilder was aware of this problem, but there was no other place to hide Stanwyck, and it’s a great scene.

    Payne: It’s incredible to me, too. Not that Academy Awards mean anything (this is a far better picture than Going My Way, and Stanwyck should have beaten Bergman), but Wilder had two Best Picture Oscars. Oh, and the true best picture of 1951 was Ace in the Hole, recently out on Criterion, a film even more cynical than DI.

  • Lois Bral

    I was about thirteen yers old when this movie came out. I don’t remember seeing it until much later. I was watching movies like “Ma and Pa Kettle”, at the time , Or a Margaret O’Brian movie,etc. DI is a great movie. Another great Barbara Stanwyck movie was “Sorry Wrong Nimber”. I remember that movie theatres were the first to have air conditioning.

  • Terry Peters

    Here is yet another tidbit that has never been mentioned or, perhaps, even noticed as of yet:
    If you look closely at the prints that hang on MacMurray’s wall just above the couch in his apt. you will see that they are male physique drawings done by none other than Tom of Finland, the renowned gay male illustrator.

  • Charles Brown

    I love film noir and Double Indemnity is one of the best ! MacMurray and Stanwyck both did other noirs, and I reccomend that you see them !

  • Movie Maniac

    DI is aurguably the finest example of film noir. No surpprise considering its source is from a James M. Cain novel and the screenplay by Raymond Chandler along with Wilder. The Hays Code restrictions did nothing to cool off Stanwyck’s smoldering sexuality and it’s very clear that she and MacMurray’s character just had sex prior to the start of one scene. Story, dialogue, acting and photography all blend together to create an intoxicating cocktail of sex, murder and betrayal. In other words, film noir.

  • Bonnie Shapiro

    Time for you to see some 30′s pre-code movies. Two great examples with Stanwyck are “Baby Face” and “Night Nurse.” Most pre-code movies would not be made today because they go too far, not in nudity, but in amoral themes.

    • Erika

      holy shit he does JKEITH23 haha and wait what the hell? there is no fnkicug way hes over 40 or even over 35 this dude is fuckin in shape as hell haha

  • DIRK

    My Dad was in the insurance game — quite an unglamourous job — but when I saw this movie he became King. It was a job filled with suspense and mystery, and pretty women luring unsuspecting men to their doom! Full of witty dialogue and atmospheric lighting cues, Right Down The Line its my favorite!
    And I am they edited out the last scenes of him in the gas chamber (some Lobby Card sets have these pictures); I prefer to think he expired on the Lobby floor smoking the last cigarette that Keyes would light for him. It would be a great EXTRA on a DVD though; the ‘lost’ final sequence of his execution.

  • Bob Sproule

    I just recently rewatched Double Indemnity, and agree that it is a true classic. I was never a Stanwyck fan, but she is tremendous in this. I also agree that nothing can be sexier that what can be implied by two skilled actors in the hands of a great director (see Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the train in North by Northwest).

  • BRIAN

    If you liked this your sure to like,The Flame(1947)John Carroll,Vera Ralston,and Broderick Crawford.Another Film Noir Classic.

  • Debbie Coley

    Another great comedy with Barbara Stanwyck is “Christmas in Connecticut”. She plays a Martha Stewart sort of role as the writer of a column for homemakers, even though she is an unmarried career woman. She creates a perfect fictional home in Connecticut, then she has to make it a reality for a visit by a war veteran who was promised a downhome Christmas at her place.

  • Bill G

    Like Rolland T., I’ve always found that scene with the outward-opening door to ring false. Even if it helps make a point dramatically, it’s so obviously wrong that it spoils the scene for me. That said, this is still one of my favorite films. I even loved the scenes lifted from it and twisted in Steve Martin’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”

  • tom davison

    I love this movie. Back when directors understood pace in a story.

  • Sue B

    Double Indemnity was made in a time when the strict code adherence meant that actors had to act and audiences were involved by using their own imaginations. Frankly my imagination provides much more excitement and glamour when the love scenes are played behind closed doors where the audience is not invited. Today Hollywood just makes cheap porn out of what what could be great if left to the imagination.

  • Bob M

    The opening sequence of the movie is pure “Film Noir.” You have a dark foggy night, it is raining, and you have a voice over. When MacMurray is using a dict-a-phone, the scene shifts to a bright sunny day. This is great directing.

    Also, don’t forget tha MacMurray played a not so nice guy in the “Caine Mutiny.” Remember when Jose Ferrer throw the drink in his face?

  • Claudia

    Another little known MacMurray “Film Noir” movie is one of Kim Novak’s first movies, “Pushover” from 1954. Worth your time. Enjoy.

  • linda

    I love Fred MacMurray’s line, to the effect “What’s the matter Baby? We can do this Baby”… Always sounded haunting to me — I love it.

  • Bob M

    Doesn’t the song “Strangers In The Night” come from “Pushover?”

  • Tlynette

    “I love film noir and Double Indemnity is one of the best!”

    Couldn’t have said it better.

  • Christine Harrison

    This was an interesting review of a film I love, but it struck me when I saw it again recently – could it all have been a hallucination by Fred McMurray? I don’t want to say too much in case someone who hasn’t seen the film reads this, but I wonder if the story was a fantasy concocted by him. You get the impression that he had had a pretty uneventful life before he went to see Stanwyck at her home and yet she comes onto him almost immediately and he falls for her without too much resistance. Was he (deliberately or not) getting her to take the blame for the events that followed, making him the innocent and injured party? Whatever the case, real or not, I find something new in it each time I see it.

  • Ron Black

    Great film. I remember a quote from Fred MacMurray saying that he only really acted in two pictures “Double Indemnity” and “The Apartment”, both Billy Wilder films.

  • BRIAN

    George Raft turned down this movie.He made a seriers of errors in those years(Maltese Falcon,High Sierra,and Casablanca)

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  • John Zukar

    Speaking about errors in the film, Fred MacMurray’s role as a bachelor is seen throughout the film wearing a wedding band. Also falling off a slow moving train is no guarantee of a fatality. The injuries were not consistent with fall. Fred’s character should have know that. Even with that, I loved the film.

  • BadGnx2

    Gee….for someone who HASN’T SEEN THE FILM, you sure DO HAVE ALOT TO SAY ABOUT IT.
    Hmmmmm…..

    “Double Indemnity” is a FANTASTIC/GREAT film. Easily if not the best film noir, then the second best. The best probably being “Out Of The Past”. But either one could take the top spot.

    This was a top notch production from beginning to end which is why we’re still talking about it after all of these years.

  • bogart10

    HEY MIKE, “THE WIZARD OF OZ” WAS IN COLOR…….AND IT IS THE MOST OVEREXPOSED FILM EVER……REGARDING “DOUBLE INDEMNITY, IT IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS I HAVE EVER SEEN….STANWYCK WAS FANTASTIC, AND MACMURRAY WAS PERFECT….DICK POWELL QUIT PARAMOUNT BECAUSE THEY WOULD NOT GIVE HIM THIS ROLE….HE WENT TO RKO AND “MURDER MY SWEET” OPENED A WHOLE NEW CAREER FOR HIM AS A HEAVY…SMART MOVE,

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1310635021 Scott Wannberg

    for billy wilder-view ace in the hole

    dick powell wasn’t really a HEAVY but got to be the tough guy
    wound up directing,and directed the conqueror-the ill fated john wayne is genghis khan ditty-shot in utah-many on film got cancer-rumors abound it might be tied to bomb testing-dick powell died of cancer
    he also directed split second with jan sterling and stephen mcnally

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  • Frank Hickey

    I am no movie buff; I go to see and, hopefully, enjoy a film, not to dissect and evaluate it”s elements. A friend and I saw ‘Indemnity’ at the FOX Theatre in Spokane in 1943. We were kids. I do not see/have not seen many films in all my lifetime. This one,and ‘Laura’ are 2 of the best.