Film Review: Double Indemnity

 

In the opening scene Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaks into a Dictaphone, his chin dewy with sweat. He is recording a confession, though he doesn’t “like the word ‘confession.’” This monologue will serve as the narration for the movie. He tells us that he killed a man for a woman and money, and in the end, received neither. With those facts already on the table, the film is still compelling with moments of nail-biting suspense. That’s because the individual scenes are expertly constructed, and because the movie realizes what makes the story compelling isn’t the murder, but what drives the characters to commit it and the consequences that follow.

Walter is an insurance salesman. He visits Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) because her husband’s car insurance is about to expire. We get our first good look at Phyllis from Walter’s POV on the ground floor. She is at the top of the stairs, wrapped in a bath towel, and glowing. After she gets dressed, we see her feet coming down the steps, the camera panning with the curve of the staircase until she reaches the bottom and it pulls back to get a full view. He sits on the arm of a sofa while she huddles on a chair. He’s about a foot taller than her anyway, but their position and the angle of the camera exaggerate the difference in size. She gets up and paces, her head down while the camera follows her back and forth. Every movement of the camera and characters is motivated. All these details are relevant in some way and they are all executed subtly and with precision.

This isn’t the last time the two meet. Phyllis talks Walter into opening a life insurance policy for her husband, then killing him and staging it as an accident. There’s instant chemistry. He makes a pass first, but she’s the one in control. She’s always in control. Their dynamic is one of a trio of sharply drawn relationships Walter has in the film. There’s him and Phyllis’ step-daughter Lola (Jean Heather). He feels protective of her even while conspiring to kill her father. Lola is not naive, but her suspicions don’t extend as far as they should. Then there’s Walter and his co-worker Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the insurance analyst. The two have a mutual respect for each other, and what’s more an affection. This colors their relationship as Keyes’ investigation into the “accident” leads him unknowingly toward Walter.

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) appears almost like a child sitting across from Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray).

What’s there to say? Double Indemnity is a masterpiece. A jewel of film noir (many’s choice for the best of the genre), starring some of Hollywood’s finest, directed by the great Billy Wilder with a screenplay by him and Raymond Chandler based on the novel by James M. Cain. Many people smarter than me have dissected and analyzed the film to the last frame. It doesn’t need my endorsement. Fact is, Criterion released a 4K UHD Blu-ray recently and I finally got around to seeing this classic. Felt like spilling a few words its way.

One aspect that caught me off guard was the dialogue. I forget how great dialogue can be in old movies. That’s a sin, I know. Wilder and Chandler’s dialogue is whip-smart and razor-sharp. It doesn’t merely convey information. Take this exchange of no particular note:

“You should tell me what’s engraved on that anklet.”

“Just my name.”

“As for instance?”

“Phyllis.

“Phyllis, eh. I think I like that.”

“But you’re not sure?”

“Have to drive it around the block a couple of times.”

Magnificent.

If you haven’t seen Double Indemnity, you should. If you have, you should see it again.

The famous title sequence.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Great job, Cat. A fine introduction to one of my favorite films. The French title makes use of the double meaning of the word for “insurance”: “Assurance of Death”. And when you get mixed up with Phyllis, that’s just what you get. 

    I first saw the film when I was 14, in 1966. Although the film was then only 22 years old, it was already set in a vastly different world than the present, a vanished black and white world of suits and gloves and hats, with rounded, potato-shaped cars and black guys who parked them for you. In this strange half-world of venetian blind shadows and backlit cigarette smoke, murder seems almost normal, especially if you’re in the insurance business.

    It is one of the most shocking, unthinkable things a person can do, but a glance at any newspaper will prove that strangely enough, there are always people ready to do it. 

     

    • #1
  2. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    It’s fantastic. For those of us who grew up on “My Three Sons” and Flubber flix it was jarring to see good ol’ kindly dad Fred in this role, but he pulls it off. 

    You mention the dialogue about the ankle bracelet: if I recall correctly, the camera highlights it as she moves down the stairs, and there’s something about that moment that ignites something in Neff, as if he’s never really seen one before. Never really thought about it before. But now, in a flash, it’s opened up everything. 

    The insurance office is, of course, in the Bradbury Building, the cursed chapel of Noir. It shows up in so very many movies – including Blade Runner. Every 40s movie enthusiast should pay a pilgrimage, sit on the bench, and soak in the fevered fictions that took place there. 

    • #2
  3. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I first saw the film when I was 14, in 1966. Although the film was then only 22 years old, it was already set in a vastly different world than the present, a vanished black and white world of suits and gloves and hats, with rounded, potato-shaped cars and black guys who parked them for you. In this strange half-world of venetian blind shadows and backlit cigarette smoke, murder seems almost normal, especially if you’re in the insurance business.

    It is one of the most shocking, unthinkable things a person can do, but a glance at any newspaper will prove that strangely enough, there are always people ready to do it.

    Part of the brilliance is showing how Phyllis’ manipulations could convince Walter to do such a thing, in a relatively short amount of screen time. Walter is obviously not a good person, but he isn’t an evil monster.

    • #3
  4. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    It’s fantastic. For those of us who grew up on “My Three Sons” and Flubber flix it was jarring to see good ol’ kindly dad Fred in this role, but he pulls it off.

    My mom told me the same thing. It’s also unusual seeing Edward G. Robinson on the right side of the law.

    You mention the dialogue about the ankle bracelet: if I recall correctly, the camera highlights it as she moves down the stairs, and there’s something about that moment that ignites something in Neff, as if he’s never really seen one before. Never really thought about it before. But now, in a flash, it’s opened up everything.

    As I said, “Every movement of the camera and characters is motivated. All these details are relevant in some way”.

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The movie is almost a documentary on Forties life in Los Angeles. Wilder always insisted on using real place names and brand names. Los Feliz is a real neighborhood; Franklin and Western is a real corner; the Santa Fe station at Glendale is still there; in the opening moments, you see men welding track on the LARY, the Los Angeles street railway, streetcars in competition with the more famous Red Cars you see in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The supermarket where Walter and Phyllis meet is a now-long-obsolete type with big open windows at the front, a pre-air conditioned L.A. 

    Did I say Forties? Well, kind of Forties; I didn’t notice until later viewings that the dictaphone specifies the date as being 1938. Odd; why bother to adjust the time of the story such a small amount? My theory: because in the middle of World War II, the filmmakers were wary of depicting unfaithful wives. Kicking it back a few years is a subtle way of distancing it a bit. 

    • #5
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Here’s the scene you didn’t see: the original ending of the film–Walter Neff in the gas chamber. 

     

    • #6
  7. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Here’s the scene you didn’t see: the original ending of the film–Walter Neff in the gas chamber.

    I read about that. The ending we got was perfect. Not as grim, but it doesn’t try to put a sunny spin on it either.

    • #7
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Here’s the scene you didn’t see: the original ending of the film–Walter Neff in the gas chamber.

    I read about that. The ending we got was perfect. Not as grim, but it doesn’t try to put a sunny spin on it either.

    No, it certainly doesn’t. It’s cleverly written: Barton Keyes is on the side of the law. When he calls for an ambulance, he quietly adds, “police job”. But when Neff asks him the favor of letting him walk out the door and making up a story, he doesn’t explicitly say no. Of course, he doesn’t have to; he can see as well as we can that Walter is not going to make it to the elevator, let alone the Mexican border. 

    • #8
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    In 1987, I was at the Beverly Hilton to see Barbara Stanwyck receive the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. During her speech she reminisced about her early years in Hollywood. “I wasn’t doing too well in the Talkies”, she confessed. 

    That’s the only time I ever heard someone casually use the term. By ’87, the early talkies were nearly 60 years back. 

    • #9
  10. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    I expect Barbara Stanwyck might’ve talked me into a mess of trouble too.

    • #10
  11. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    It’s fantastic. For those of us who grew up on “My Three Sons” and Flubber flix it was jarring to see good ol’ kindly dad Fred in this role, but he pulls it off.

    You mention the dialogue about the ankle bracelet: if I recall correctly, the camera highlights it as she moves down the stairs, and there’s something about that moment that ignites something in Neff, as if he’s never really seen one before. Never really thought about it before. But now, in a flash, it’s opened up everything.

    The insurance office is, of course, in the Bradbury Building, the cursed chapel of Noir. It shows up in so very many movies – including Blade Runner. Every 40s movie enthusiast should pay a pilgrimage, sit on the bench, and soak in the fevered fictions that took place there.

    Didn’t Barbara tantalize Henry Fonda with an anklet in “The Lady Eve” as well? A lot of hot anklet action back then…

    • #11
  12. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    Dotorimuk (View Comment):

    I expect Barbara Stanwyck might’ve talked me into a mess of trouble too.

    The Stanwyck of Double Indemnity couldn’t talk me into anything. But the luminous Stanwyck of Remember the Night (1940) sure could.

    She plays another shady lady who tempts Fred McMurray, a prosecutor this time, from the path of righteousness.

    BTW, Billy Wilder gave McMurray another chance to show his scary side, in The Apartment (1960) with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.

    • #12
  13. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    It’s fantastic. For those of us who grew up on “My Three Sons” and Flubber flix it was jarring to see good ol’ kindly dad Fred in this role, but he pulls it off. 

    I agree. A very good movie and it does make you wonder what really happened to the mom on “My Three Sons.”

    • #13
  14. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    It’s fantastic. For those of us who grew up on “My Three Sons” and Flubber flix it was jarring to see good ol’ kindly dad Fred in this role, but he pulls it off.

    Like Jimmy Stewart in one of The Thin Man movies . . .

    • #14
  15. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Some Double Indemnity tidbits:

    A tiny “cheat”: There’s a suspenseful scene when MacMurray is talking in a hallway with Robinson, who has unexpectedly shown up at Neff’s apartment building. Phyllis is hiding behind the open door, and silently signals her presence by twisting the doorknob. If Keyes sees her, they’re sunk. 

    The “cheat”? The front doors to apartments open inwards, not outwards. But the scene wouldn’t have worked. 

    Another very suspenseful moment: after jumping from the train that Dietrichson supposedly fell from, Neff and Phyllis dump his body from the car and ready their getaway. But the car has trouble starting. Neff takes over and barely gets it running. This scene wasn’t in the script. At the end of that night’s filming, Billy Wilder’s car wouldn’t start. He suddenly got the inspiration to put that in the film, jumped out of his car and called the departing cast and crew to get back to their places. 

    One of the best things about the film is Miklos Rozsa’s musical score, which Billy Wilder loved and Paramount–at least at first–hated. But when the film became successful, the studio claimed credit for hiring Rozsa. 

    One of Rozsa’s final jobs was writing a very effective, very 40s noirish score for Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, which includes, among other films, scenes from Double Indemnity

     

    • #15
  16. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Some Double Indemnity tidbits:

    A tiny “cheat”: There’s a suspenseful scene when MacMurray is talking in a hallway with Robinson, who has unexpectedly shown up at Neff’s apartment building. Phyllis is hiding behind the open door, and silently signals her presence by twisting the doorknob. If Keyes sees her, they’re sunk.

    The “cheat”? The front doors to apartments open inwards, not outwards. But the scene wouldn’t have worked.

    Another very suspenseful moment: after jumping from the train that Dietrichson supposedly fell from, Neff and Phyllis dump his body from the car and ready their getaway. But the car has trouble starting. Neff takes over and barely gets it running. This scene wasn’t in the script. At the end of that night’s filming, Billy Wilder’s car wouldn’t start. He suddenly got the inspiration to put that in the film, jumped out of his car and called the departing cast and crew to get back to their places.

    I should review more old movies so we get more of your behind-the-scenes tidbits. You’re a treasure trove, Gary.

    One of the best things about the film is Miklos Rozsa’s musical score, which Billy Wilder loved and Paramount–at least at first–hated. But when the film became successful, the studio claimed credit for hiring Rozsa.

    Next time I watch the movie, I’ll have to pay attention to the score. Didn’t stand out to me, which is why I didn’t mention it. It warrants a closer listen.

    • #16
  17. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    Her: “I wonder if I know what you mean.”

    Him: “I wonder if you wonder.” 

    • #17
  18. filmklassik Member
    filmklassik
    @filmklassik

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    The movie is almost a documentary on Forties life in Los Angeles. Wilder always insisted on using real place names and brand names. Los Feliz is a real neighborhood; Franklin and Western is a real corner; the Santa Fe station at Glendale is still there; in the opening moments, you see men welding track on the LARY, the Los Angeles street railway, streetcars in competition with the more famous Red Cars you see in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The supermarket where Walter and Phyllis meet is a now-long-obsolete type with big open windows at the front, a pre-air conditioned L.A.

    Did I say Forties? Well, kind of Forties; I didn’t notice until later viewings that the dictaphone specifies the date as being 1938. Odd; why bother to adjust the time of the story such a small amount? My theory: because in the middle of World War II, the filmmakers were wary of depicting unfaithful wives. Kicking it back a few years is a subtle way of distancing it a bit.

    Yeah, it takes place in 1938 but contains a reference to THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, which came out two years later.  Such discrepancies didn’t mean much to Wilder, nor should they have.  He made a terrific movie. Along with OUT OF THE PAST it’s my favorite noir of the 1940s.

    • #18
  19. The Cynthonian Member
    The Cynthonian
    @TheCynthonian

    This and “Remember the Night” are two of my all-time favorite movies.  Thanks for a great review, Cat, and Gary for your fantastic insider knowledge!

    • #19
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I’ve always wanted to edit Fred MacMurray clips, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid-style, into a pseudo-biography called The Richard Nixon Story

    There’s a scene in Double Indemnity where Walter Neff sneaks into Barton Keyes’ office in the middle of the night and listens to his dictaphone recordings, indicating that Keyes knows that Phyllis is a killer, and has investigated Neff on the insistence of the boss, who is evidently not quite as dumb as he looks. Fortunately for Neff, Keyes (wrongly) rejects the idea. But Neff sweats anyway; Keyes is closing in, much closer than he realized. It’s a suspenseful couple of minutes. 

    I’d take that scene and overdub what Neff is listening to, using the Watergate tapes. H.R. Haldeman’s voice: “And what we can do–and we’re beautifully positioned to do this–is to bring in the CIA and tell the FBI, stay out of this, it’s national security”. 

    Nixon’s voice: “National security. Right. Do whatever we have to do to save, save the plan”. At that, the recording ends. 

    • #20
  21. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Because of this post, Ms The Girlie Show, I said “Double Indemnity” when a friend suggested we watch a movie yesterday. I saw it, or parts of it as a kid. So glad this post made me curious to see what I would think of it now. Thank you.

    The movie is riveting. But Edward G. Robinson absolutely stole it. He creates a character you love. (I suspect he decided to take the part because he suddenly had a moment in which he made contact with his character and couldn’t resist taking it.) MacMurray and Stanwyck are good enough, even very good,  but they don’t hold a candle to Robinson.

    Today, remembering finding out how much more eerie, gritty  and profound a story there is in Cain’s  novel, Mildred Pierce, than there is, or could be in any movie on it, I just bought Double Indemnity on Audible. (Have had the novel on kindle forever, but never read it, and wouldn’t have even remembered I had it if not for this post.) Anyway, after finishing listening to chapter 2, it’s clear that, in the novel, it isn’t exactly in order to have the woman or the money or both that Fred MacMurray’s  character is motivated to commit this murder. He’s tempted to commit the murder by something much more purely spiritual than greed, lust, or an unhealthy emotional need for some other person.

    I wouldn’t say this about Mildred Pierce. (I didn’t care for the Joan Crawford movie.)  In the case of Double Indemnity, it’s more than worth it to both see this movie and read the book.

    • #21
  22. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Because of this post, Ms The Girlie Show, I said “Double Indemnity” when a friend suggested we watch a movie yesterday. I saw it, or parts of it as a kid. So glad this post made me curious to see what I would think of it now. Thank you.

    The movie is riveting. But Edward G. Robinson absolutely stole it. He creates a character you love. (I suspect he decided to take the part because he suddenly had a moment in which he made contact with his character and couldn’t resist taking it.) MacMurray and Stanwyck are good enough, even very good, but they don’t hold a candle to Robinson.

    I’m overjoyed to hear. There’s no better compliment to a reviewer than someone reading a review, deciding to see the movie, and liking it.

    Today, remembering finding out how much more eerie, gritty and profound a story there is in Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce, than there is, or could be in any movie on it, I just bought Double Indemnity on Audible. (Have had the novel on kindle forever, but never read it, and wouldn’t have even remembered I had it if not for this post.) Anyway, after finishing listening to chapter 2, it’s clear that, in the novel, it isn’t exactly in order to have the woman or the money or both that Fred MacMurray’s character is motivated to commit this murder. He’s tempted to commit the murder by something much more purely spiritual than greed, lust, or an unhealthy emotional need for some other person.

    I ought to read Cain’s novel. The audio commentary on Criterion’s Blu-ray (from critic Richard Schickel) goes into many of the changes made for the movie, but listening to that is no replacement for reading the book yourself.

    I do think it’s worth pointing out that in the movie, MacMurray isn’t wholly motivated by lust and greed. Stanwyck’s character finally convinces him when she tells him her husband is controlling and abusive. We don’t see that ourselves, nor does MacMurray, but it is at least plausible based on the interaction we do see between Stanwyck and her husband.

    • #22
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The actor who plays the husband, Tom Powers, was a hard working character actor who I best know from Destination Moon, where he plays the hard-charging visionary general whose belief in the imminent possibility of space travel drives him right out of the Army. 

    Isn’t life strange? You can survive a trip to the Moon, but get killed on a ten minute drive between Los Feliz and Glendale. 

    Billy Wilder, like many European directors, was a big cynic with a sharp, bitter sense of humor. One example in Double Indemnity is the unconventional way he had Miklos Rozsa’s recurrent theme of love placed.  In classic movie making, a film often has at least three elements: The Cause, the Hero, and the Love theme. Even a film about a doomed adulterous couple has a love theme, with its traditional uplifting lilt leading to fulfilment–in most old films, the moment they know they’re in love, or the proposal is accepted, or the baby is healthy. 

    In Double Indemnity, one of the key times that hopeful theme of happy climax plays is when Walter Neff declares that he’s ready to help murder Phyllis’s husband. That’s Billy Wilder’s dark sense of humor. 

    • #23
  24. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Because of this post, Ms The Girlie Show, I said “Double Indemnity” when a friend suggested we watch a movie yesterday. I saw it, or parts of it as a kid. So glad this post made me curious to see what I would think of it now. Thank you.

    The movie is riveting. But Edward G. Robinson absolutely stole it. He creates a character you love. (I suspect he decided to take the part because he suddenly had a moment in which he made contact with his character and couldn’t resist taking it.) MacMurray and Stanwyck are good enough, even very good, but they don’t hold a candle to Robinson.

    I’m overjoyed to hear. There’s no better compliment to a reviewer than someone reading a review, deciding to see the movie, and liking it.

    Today, remembering finding out how much more eerie, gritty and profound a story there is in Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce, than there is, or could be in any movie on it, I just bought Double Indemnity on Audible. (Have had the novel on kindle forever, but never read it, and wouldn’t have even remembered I had it if not for this post.) Anyway, after finishing listening to chapter 2, it’s clear that, in the novel, it isn’t exactly in order to have the woman or the money or both that Fred MacMurray’s character is motivated to commit this murder. He’s tempted to commit the murder by something much more purely spiritual than greed, lust, or an unhealthy emotional need for some other person.

    I ought to read Cain’s novel. The audio commentary on Criterion’s Blu-ray (from critic Richard Schickel) goes into many of the changes made for the movie, but listening to that is no replacement for reading the book yourself.

    I do think it’s worth pointing out that in the movie, MacMurray isn’t wholly motivated by lust and greed. Stanwyck’s character finally convinces him when she tells him her husband is controlling and abusive. We don’t see that ourselves, nor does MacMurray, but it is at least plausible based on the interaction we do see between Stanwyck and her husband.

    I caught that, about Stanwyck’s character making herself out to be abused by her husband, I mean.

    True, that isn’t in the book. But, by “purely spiritual” I mean evil  and purely spiritual. In chapter 2 of the book, you get a sense that Mac Murray’s character has a need to prove or assert his superiority. He views the insurance company as like a gambling casino. A truly superior man can “cheat the house”. (An interesting touch, by the way: through the misuse of the word “don’t” Caine seems to imply that the MacMurray’s character and the E.G.Robinson character are from the same class and might have in common a certain resentment.)

    • #24
  25. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Now, that I finished the book, I’d say that I like the plot changes to the movie of it more, overall, than the plot of the book. The ending of the movie is more believable. I also, even more, appreciate the changes E.G.Robinson made to the character of the character from the book that he plays. (You almost wish Caine had consulted with E.G. Robinson before writing the novel.)

    Still, the bruised Pride and resentment, the need for some kind of domination, that you see in MacMurray’s character, in chapter 2 of the book, seems a lot closer to the truth about what would motivate someone to commit this murder. In the book, it’s clearer Phyllis (Stanwyck’s character) couldn’t have taken Walter (MacMurray’s character) where  he wasn’t, in a dormant way, ready to go. It isn’t just that Phyllis is, deliberately, the catalyst to Walter’s capacity for evil, it’s that Walter KNOWS that she is and knows she is deliberately. Walter in the book isn’t deceived, or self-deceived, about Phyllis. He’s self-deceived about the extent of his own knowledge, insight  and other abilities. The Pride he takes in being able to see through Phyllis actually makes him more vulnerable to her. The photo of a scene in the movie included with this review is perfect because it conveys that Phyllis makes Walter feel big in both the movie and the book. (In the book, Phyllis does this by fooling Walter into imagining he’s a lot smarter than he is. In the movie, by making him see himself as her protector. In the movie there’s also that wonderful similarity and difference between little Phyllis quickly getting under Walter’s skin and the “little man” E. G. Robinson’s character says he has inside him telling him when something about an insurance claim isn’t what it appears to be.)

    Ms The Girlie Show, I love it when people like you write reviews. Even a retired person, like me, has limited time for reading and watching. I have to make choices; and good reviewers, like you, are an enormous help to that.
    Looking forward to your next review.

    • #25
  26. The Cynthonian Member
    The Cynthonian
    @TheCynthonian

    I have seen the movie many times, but now you’ve stirred my curiosity to want to read the book!    It’s going on my TBR list.  

    • #26
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