“Ten times twice as dangerous”
What many call the ultimate film noir, the murder mystery that is spoiled at the start, setting the stage for a retelling by our protagonist of the perfect crime, is unraveled before our eyes. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity revolves around an insurance fraud murder that appears foolproof until the seams start to tear. Walter Neff, the top salesman two months in a row, falls in love with the young wife of an oilman, a woman looking for a way to leave her troubled marriage. Who better to get away with the perfect crime then a man that sees false claims avenged everyday? Their tracks must be covered and their guilt assuaged. However, being as our first scene shows Walter confessing to everything, we know the well-laid plans were unsuccessful. The trick to the film becomes how it all went down, how the puzzle pieces fell into place, and the power of a conscience, eating away at you until you can’t stand the pressure any longer.
It is not giving away anything to say that the two complete the task of killing Mr. Dietrichson, a businessman with a temper. The deed is orchestrated to look like he fell off a train, a venue for accidental death that comes with a special double indemnity clause, one that pays twice the cost of his recently purchased insurance of $50,000. That money is the impetus that pushes Neff over the top to help his new mistress. Phyllis Dietrichson is the damsel in distress, the nurse of her husband’s first wife that was naïve and heartbroken for her boss after his loss. She says it compelled her to stay with him in a union that never held any love. The chance arrival of Neff not only opens her eyes to the possibility of a clean break without any strings and actually some cash to boot, but also to a man she can spend time and possibly settle down with. It is a strange coincidence that the Dietrichson’s auto insurance was allowed to lapse, creating a house call, and a happy accident that the man called to visit was one as immoral as Walter. Right from the start he flirts and makes advances towards the woman he knows is married to his client. It’s not until the end that you start to consider whether none of it was by chance at all, but instead carefully planned out and manipulated from the first second.
Neff is played by Fred MacMurray—a perfect fit for the role of a shady salesman, unafraid to get his hands dirty. The confidence and swagger allow us to believe he can win over the girl as easily as he does. He is the kind of guy that can fool the world into thinking he is on the level, a man of intelligence and pride. His boss, Barton Keyes and he have a very close relationship, one based on mutual respect and admiration. Neff has them all fooled into believing he is a man of character, one Keyes would personally vouch for, and his initial balk at the offer to help kill Dietrichson shows that maybe he is. Maybe there is some semblance of humanity behind the quick-witted banter and devious smile, a moral compass that won’t allow him to cross the line. But greed and lust can tempt even a saint, let alone a guy like Neff, and it doesn’t take long for him to begin the blueprints for what will be the perfect crime; one that not even Keyes and his keen lie detector can spot. It is that question of virtue that will ultimately undo him, though, as the strong stomach he thought he had might not be indestructible.
The story revolves around MacMurray and as a result he is onscreen almost the entire time. He is our narrator and our entrance point into the proceedings. However, it is not a role that we necessarily relate to, nor even begin to feel sorry for to hope he gets away with the crime. Instead, knowing about his confession from the beginning, we sit down to watch his hubris shred his world to pieces. Each person is a cog to the tale at hand; it is the plotting of the film that takes center stage and top billing. The pieces are moved and we follow them through the twists and turns and revelations that change our preconceptions of each. No one is truly as they seem and they all have an ulterior motive just below the surface, propelling their actions and attempts for survival whether the other does or not. Our two criminals are selfish at heart, but until you watch the entire journey, you won’t know just how much.
While the acting is definitely dated and a product of its time, it doesn’t mean that it’s not good. Barbara Stanwyck plays MacMurray’s partner-in-crime Phyllis with equal panache. She holds her own in every situation, whether with her sharp tongue in some very funny back and forths or in her steely disposition when things get rough, it’s a part that needs to be strong and is. Barton Keyes is the role that sticks with you, though. Edward G. Robinson is fantastic as the cocky claims agent, self-proclaimed as never being wrong when his gut says something isn’t right. He delivers some of the best lines with such deadpan seriousness that you laugh even harder. The ego, cynicism, and attitude all add up to a man you have to respect, because under the tough exterior lies a man with heart. His dynamic with MacMurray is an interesting one, especially when seen through to the end. While they aren’t completely fleshed out, each character is a detailed piece to the intricate web of deceit on display. Surrogates for the story to be shown to the audience, we watch them not for who they are, but for what they will do.
Double Indemnity 8/10 | ★ ★ ★