“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?”
These are some of the first words we hear in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, and they serve as a demonstration of the film's startling confidence: it's so certain of its own greatness that it doesn't think spoiling the plot will ruin anything for anybody. That confidence is not misplaced. The film's plot is noir boilerplate (in its broad strokes, anyway), but that plot is executed with such clever insight and technical skill that it begins to feel like one of the greatest crime stories ever told.
The man who delivers that early confession is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, The Apartment), a smooth-talking insurance salesman who now feels compelled to record a message detailing the specifics of his crime. The whole thing begins when Walter pays a visit to the home of Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers, Julius Caesar) in the hopes of getting the man to renew his auto insurance policy. Mr. Dietrichson isn't home, but his gorgeous wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve) most certainly is. She greets Walter wrapped in a towel. He begins making his pitch, and the conversation that follows is a goldmine of innuendo:
Walter: “I'd hate to think of you getting a scratched fender when you're not covered."
Phyllis: “I know what you mean. I've been sunbathing.”
Walter: “No pigeons around, I hope.”
They flirt for a while, then reschedule the meeting for a better time. Phyllis arranges for Walter to return when both her husband and the maid are out of the house. Walter thinks he knows the reason for this arrangement, but Phyllis surprises him by making a business proposition: maybe he could put a life insurance policy on her husband... preferably without her husband knowing about it. Walter immediately recognizes that Phyllis is planning to off her husband and collect a big payment, but his moral outrage begins to falter when he realizes that “the money and the woman” make an awfully attractive prize.
At least, that's the rationale Walter offers, but the film suggests that his real motivation may be a little more complicated. He certainly finds Phyllis attractive (and has no qualms whatsoever about entering into an adulterous affair with her), but he isn't a slave to his desire the way many doomed noir heroes are. He'd be happy to line his pockets, too, but the money isn't something he desperately needs, either – he's the best salesman at his company and makes a comfortable living. The real reason for Walter's crime seems to be something closer to professional curiosity. He's seen so many people try to scam the insurance company and fail miserably, but he knows all of the mistakes to avoid. More than anything, he seems to be attempting to commit the perfect crime just because he's one of the few people who can. At times, the characters seem aware of the fact that they're living in their own version of a crime novel: Phyllis and Walter's hushed conversations in the grocery store feel like scenes of adults play-acting a dark childhood fantasy.
Likewise, Phyllis isn't a conventional femme fatale. She has murder in her eyes, but you get the sense that she'd never actually pull the trigger on her own. She tries to sell Walter on the idea that a murder needs to happen (wobbling between explanations of greed, lust and unhappiness all the way), and if she can convince Walter, she can convince herself. When the deed is finally committed, there's a certain mad joy in her eyes. What is she happy about? Finally having Walter to herself? Knowing that a big payday is just around the corner? Being free of a loveless marriage? Sure, sure and sure, but it's not quite that simple. Neither is her pitilessness, for that matter – Stanwyck's final scene offers one of the film's most brutally cynical and oddly touching twists of fate.
Walter and Phyllis' brilliant plan (the details of which I won't spoil) almost certainly would have worked if not for the intuitive brilliance of the film's third major character: Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, Key Largo), Walter's boss. Barton knows every possible angle of every possible insurance scam, but his investigative skills go beyond mere knowledge. He's got a sixth sense for when something feels off about a case (he refers to this sense as “the little man in my stomach”), and he won't rest until his suspicions are satisfied one way or another. Does Barton put the pieces together a little too quickly? Perhaps, but Robinson sells it and the simultaneous admiration and terror in Walter's eyes justifies it.
Double Indemnity was one of a series of films that helped define the look and sound of film noir, and it's yet another reminder that Wilder was one of the best directors in every genre he dabbled in. There's an abundance of striking imagery on display here; a cinephile's paradise of silhouettes, fedoras and cigarettes. Miklos Rozsa's music introduces a darkly propulsive central motif, and it appears over and over and over again as the film proceeds, urgently pushing Walter toward the end of his tale – appropriate for a story that starts at the end, pulls back and then races forward again. The score covers more ground than that – there's an ominous title theme, delicate romantic material, etc. - but it's that bustling motif that works its way into your subconscious.
It wasn't easy for Wilder to convince any of his actors to accept the roles they were offered. Multiple A-list stars passed on the role of Walter, unwilling to risk letting such an unsavory part tarnish their career. MacMurray finally accepted, but only after Wilder pressured him into it. Stanwyck had similar reservations about her role, and was met with more of Wilder's trademark salesmanship: “Are you a mouse or an actress?” Robinson also hesitated, mostly because the part he was being offered was a supporting role (and he had been a leading man for more than a decade). Even writing the script proved an enormous challenge, as co-writer Raymond Chandler (author of the great Philip Marlowe novels) found Wilder insufferable and threatened to quit due to the director's boorish behavior. Getting the script approved was another struggle, as the film's adult subject matter had to be handled rather delicately. There are a number of reasons the film (or at least this version of the film) could have fallen apart, but somehow Wilder held the pieces together and made a masterpiece.
All three of the leads do great, career-defining work. MacMurray toes the likable/slimy line admirably, giving us a doomed noir protagonist with a bit more brazen confidence than most. Right up to the end, he's at least half-convinced that he can still pull this off (even when it's sadly, painfully obvious that – to borrow another character's phrase - “he's all washed up”). Stanwyck owns every scene she appears in, spinning a web of death and regarding her own handiwork with a sense of surprised awe. Ordinarily, Robinson's part would have been the “boring” one, but his cigar-chomping scenery-chewing is glorious, and he charges through Wilder and Chandler's rat-a-tat dialogue and ornate monologues with gusto.
Speaking of which, Double Indemnity is never less than a pleasure to listen to. Between the lines from James M. Cain's original novel, Wilder's sparkling wit and Chandler's knack for hard-boiled jabs, the film delivers enough memorable banter to fill ten films.
Phyllis: “Neff is the name, isn't it?”
Walter: “Yeah, with two 'F's, like in 'Philadelphia,' if you know the story.”
Phyllis: “What story?”
Walter: “The Philadelphia Story.”
It's such a joy to listen to these people talk, and our illustrious screenwriters even find a way to make the obligatory, Hayes Code-required moralizing in the film's final act sparkle. When Phyllis serves up the age-old “we're both rotten” line (uttered by so many ill-fated lovers in so many old crime movies), Walter fires back: “Yeah, but you're a little bit more rotten.” The climactic scene does a masterful job of de-emphasizing the film's “lessons” and re-emphasizing the complicated friendship between Walter and Barton. There is more love between them than there ever was between Walter and Phyllis. In one of the film's best running gags, Walter keeps offering Barton a light because the latter has once again forgotten his matches. Maybe he hasn't forgotten the matches. Maybe he just enjoys watching Walter light his cigar. The relationship concludes with a four-word phrase and a striking visual cue: a perfect ending for a perfect film. This is the sort of movie that makes a person fall in love with movies.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 1944