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Paramount Studio's 1944 release Double Indemnity is one of the best
examples of true-to-form film noir. The plot of the film is
straightforward. Fueled by greed, a wife decides to take out an
insurance policy on her unsuspecting husband, with plans of murdering
him for the proceeds. The policy contains a double indemnity clause,
which will pay twice the policy amount in the event of death by
accident. To make her plan succeed, she enlists the help of an
accomplice to help murder her spouse and make it seem accidental.
Adapted from a novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity is loosely based on the real-life Snyder-Gray murder case of 1927, in which a New York housewife persuaded her young lover to commit murder. The woman had taken out a double indemnity life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge. The murder succeeded but the killers were caught and executed the following year. Just as actual events influenced the making of this film, Double Indemnity has influenced numerous movies based on the same premise, the most notable of which are 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice and 1981's Body Heat.
The film stars Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, a fast-talking insurance salesman, attempting to pull the perfect fraud job. It is Fred MacMurray who is narratting the film. Of course he didn't start out with that idea - it all stated when he met, and immediately fell for, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). From there the tale she spins of her unhappy marriage, complicated by a tempestuous relationship with stepdaughter Lola, takes him on the slippery slope to crime. With his extensive knowledge of the insurance business, nothing can stop Walter from covering his tracks ingeniously except the analytical skills of his friend, the fraud investigator Barton Keyes.
Frequently told in flashbacks, this movie is utterly compelling from the word go. It's interesting to ponder whether this film could have had the same impact if it had been shot in colour - but I don't think so. The filming is spot on, the camera angles, use of shadow and perspectives on the actors all add to the tension of the film. The screen does sometimes get so dark as to be impossible to tell what's going on in a couple of scenes, but this is done deliberately so as to add to the suspense.
The film is very wordy, as so many films of the era were and the dialogue is often brilliant. Billy Wilder's direction is another part of the key to this film's being in the IMDb Top 250 Movies of All Time list and also features in the Top 50 among the IMDb Film Noir list in fact at # 3 when I last saw it. There are moments of humour to lighten the mood and scenes of compelling drama / intrigue / emotion. With the excellent acting, awesome script and breathtaking art direction / cinematography it makes one of the best films of all time in a lot of peoples' list - including mine.
In case you didn't know (I didn't), the term "Double Indemnity" refers to an insurance clause where a double payment is handed out if someone whose life is insured dies in an unusual manner. Theoretically of course the chances of this happening are remote, meaning little danger of them ever having to pay it out and cases when someone has died in this manner shortly after taking out a life insurance policy would automatically be viewed as suspicious. The way Walter covers his tracks, and the way Barton uncovers them, are quite brilliant and show (to a layman at least) a deep knowledge of the insurance business.
Double Indemnity was nominated for no less that seven Oscars; sadly it didn't win a single one. But from 1944, it's popularity has increased year after year and when you talk of noir movies DOuble Indemnity instantly come to ones mind.
Double Idemnity is very fine film-making - with both Raymond Chandler
and Billy Wilder on board and a killer cast (pun intended) it's a
winner all the way.
For us it's the script, the cool, almost bebop rhythm of the words, staccato and tense - it must have been amazing to hear this first time round - a use of language that just blows you away every time.
An excellent plot, brilliant filming, and great acting all the way - murder never seemed so easy or the guilt and repercussions so brilliantly handled.
It still works - 65 years on this is still a fresh slice of cinema that deserves each of its seven Oscar nominations - dark, cold, twisted - brilliant!
"Double Indemnity" is a 1944 film directed by Billy Wilder, and it's a
classic. The plot has been around forever - a beautiful woman seduces a
man because she wants him to help kill her husband. What Wilder does
with it demonstrates his mastery.
Wilder's genius starts with the casting of Fred MacMurray, Everyman if there ever was one, as Walter, an insurance man. A boring profession and what appears to be an ordinary, albeit attractive man who is also a good salesman. Barbara Stanwyck is Phyllis, the femme fatale. Blonde with a beautiful figure, an icy, challenging manner, and a seductive voice. Edward G. Robinson is Keyes, the insurance investigator and good friend of Walter's. Dogged yet warm as he follows clues to what he believes is a murder and not an accident.
There's nothing tender about the MacMurray-Stanwyck love affair, and Stanwyck delivers her lines in a cold, calculating way - the same way she does the love scenes. Walter comes off as fresh at first - what salesman would flirt with a married woman as obviously as he does - but he probably realizes when Phyllis appears wrapped in a towel that she probably wants him to. There's nothing spontaneous about Phyllis asking about life insurance for her husband; it's been on her mind since Walter showed up to renew the car insurance. The minute she says she doesn't want her husband to know about it, Walter knows what she's up to. Though their plan is brilliant, Keyes is smarter than they realize.
I love the way it's introduced into the plot that Phyllis was the first Mrs. Diedrickson's nurse and that Lola, Phyllis' stepdaughter, suspects Phyllis hurried her mother's death along. I also love Walter's cold feet as he becomes interested in Lola - but it's too late.
"Double Indemnity" can only be described as compelling - it's not action-packed but there isn't a wasted or slow second. Stanwyck, who could be a very likable actress, plays a real conniver, and she does so brilliantly. MacMurray gives a relaxed performance - he's actually perfect casting, as one can see how easily he gets sucked into Phyllis' plan. Edward G. Robinson is the film's anchor as Keyes, who is like a father to Walter but also a man who takes his job very seriously. He's determined to get to the truth of the case, and every word he says is like chalk on a blackboard to the guilty Walter.
Wilder's brilliant direction and pacing shows in every frame, and the surprise ending is the icing on the cake. A great noir, a dream cast, a great director, Hollywood at its very best.
One of the greatest movies of all time. This movie is brilliant in every sense of the word. Technically it plays with shadow as well as any movie ever. It is as dark a movie as can be made without the screen being totally black. The shadows cast by the venetian blinds are beautiful and terrifying. The story is of an insurance salesman(MacMurray) who is quite taken with a lonely housewife (Stanwyck). Together the two plan to do away with the husband of the woman by putting into motion what they both consider to be the perfect crime. It is nearly impossible to find better written dialog. The script crackles with funny one-liners and great plays-on-words. Innuendo has never been better. This is one of my all time favorite movies. The characters are unhappy and bitter people, as they should be in any great film noir. The movie is so simple and yet so complex , making it perfect. The best film noir ever and easily one of the best movies ever made.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Mere words cannot express my love for this film. This movie is a
crystallization of silver screen perfection, a rare event where every
little thing aligns to bestow the lucky viewers with what can only be
described as breathtaking art.
The performances in this movie are superb. In a script riddled with hardboiled dialog and outlandish implausibilities, everyone hits the right note, and makes the endeavor compelling. Stanwyck is at her most seductive and powerful, and Edward G. Robinson gives the movie the perfect moral ground.
But the best performance has to be given to Fred MacMurray who turns the clichéd role of a man seduced by a woman into something more than the sleaze bag he should be. He becomes a character you're invested in, a man who is shaken from his complacent life and thoroughly destroyed by the demons he creates. And through this all, through murder in its many incarnations, you still can't help feel for the man. The character of Walter Neff, in so many words, takes on a life of its own thanks to MacMurray, and keeps the audience compelled no matter what sins he commits. The tics and libido exuded add to his charm and make him deservedly one of the most iconic characters of all time.
A lot of this credit must be given to Billy Wilder, my personal favorite director and a man whose films can all be completely different but possess enough tics to be instantly recognizable. The beauty of his shots and the set up of the script blend perfectly, creating a universe that is tangible and complex.
If you have not seen this movie, please do.
This movie was fantastic. Definitely one of the twenty best films of all-time, maybe 10. The plot was so good that it even put Hitchcock to shame. This is one of the few times that a movie did justice to the book. In this case the movie might have even been better than the book. This is one of those movies where I cannot find a flaw, anywhere in it. In a sense it was a perfect movie. There is not one genre to define this movie. It has romance, crime, noir, mystery, with emphasis on the last 3 in heavy dosages. All I can say is, for those who haven't seen it, you don't know what your missing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I teach critical viewing of film in high school and since this is the
best film noir ever made, I showed it in the fall of 2005 to my
classes, only to be met with universal hatred and scorn. Nothing about
the film pleased and I was rather disheartened. Later in the year,
however, several kids said that they think they probably couldn't
appreciate it that early in the course and suggested that I save it for
later in the year.
So, I showed it in spring of 2007 and got a completely different reaction! The kids loved it and several were rather bowled over by the use of light and shadow and how it contributed to the over-all tone of the film. I also had by this time a really good documentary to show with it that gave good insights into the making of the film which I think helped as well.
Anyway, my hope in the ultimate taste of the adolescent restored, this film will remain a late entry in my syllabus.
What makes "Doubled Indemnity" more sinister and ultimately more
disturbing than other movies of its type are the movies' characters, or
better said the "station" of the characters. Unlike other noir classics
such as "Public Enemy", "Detour", and "The Postman Always Rings Twice",
the characters of DI are not half-forgotten lowlifes crawling in the
gutter of society. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are upright
respectable people. MacMurray is an insurance agent, and Stanwyck, who
is married to a rich businessman, lives among the Los Angeles
upper-crust. I can't remember if her house is supposed to be in Beverly
Hills, but it is in one of the more exclusive areas of LA.
These two characters do not engage in their illicit activities for reasons of pure survival as in "Postman" or "Detour". Their motivation is far more complex and terrifying. They are bored with their present situations. MacMurray realizes that as an insurance agent, he is on a permanent plateau financially. He will probably never exceed what money he has already made. Stanwyck, despite being the wife of a wealthy man, finds her life dull, without excitement, without sex. MacMurray wants greater financial power. She wants greater sexual power and freedom. When the two meet, they sense a strange chemistry in which each can gain something from the other. MacMurray can gain wealth and higher standing from Stanwyck. Stanwyck can gain freedom with the help of MacMurray. And the means to these ends is an insurance policy. Stanwyck holds the policy but MacMurray understands certain implications about the policy that is not even known to Stanwyck. From this very simple seed, an insurance agent, his client, and an insurance policy, grows crime, betrayal, and murder.
And yet these characters are people you might have met in town in 1944. Typical upstanding citizens. And yet what lurks inside them seems at first hideous and evil. And yet, strangely familiar... The characters of DI represent the darker sides that we all have within us. Every hetero male has moments when he might covet the beautiful wife of a wealthy neighbor or acquaintance and wished for a moment that he could take the other man's place. And isn't there something deep inside some hetero married females who wish they could extract themselves from their marriage without losing their wealth?
Certainly, the actions that lead to the undoing of MacMurray and Stanwyck may be grotesque on the surface. But deeper inside, the motivations behind their behavior represent something that is inside many of us. We identify with these characters while the morale of society says we should not.
This is Billy Wilder's masterpiece. Though "Sunset Boulevard" is a
great movie, it has a few script holes that "Double Indemnity" does not
have. For example, in "Double Indemnity," Walter Neff admits at the
beginning of the movie that he has killed a man. He does this by
dictating into a machine. He then proceeds to tell how it happened.
This could very likely take place in the real world. In "Sunset
boulevard" a corpse is floating in a pool; the corpse begins through
narration to tell how it ended up dead. This is a major flaw since dead
people don't tell tales.
The only other film noir thriller that even comes close to capturing the essence of the genre is "Murder, My Sweet." The lines in that movie are almost as clever and memorable as the lines in "Double Indemnity." Interesting that the two were released the same year (1944), one based on a James M. Cain novel, the other on a Raymond Chandler novel. There are so many catchy lines in "Double Indemnity" that aid the viewer in understanding the inner workings and machinations of the characters that they fill almost the entire film. IMDb provides the best lines under "quotes." My favorite because it so defines the relationship between Neff and his boss Barton Keyes is toward the end when Neff stands before Keyes totally exposed. Neff states,"Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. 'Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya." Keyes knowingly replies, "Closer than that, Walter." The father, son relationship of the two men is now broken forever and the tragedy of the severed bond is apparent.
Everyone involved in this movie both before the camera and behind the camera give their inspired all to make this film one of the greatest in cinema history. True, it may rightfully be classified film noir, but the total picture transcends labeling. It is so much more than just the best film noir movie. The three leads could be no better. They play their parts perfectly. The much underrated Fred MacMurray who was so often relegated to minor features was a gifted actor. He stays on top of it all and truly equals the inspired performances of Barbara Stanwyck, the ultimate femme fatale, and Edward G. Robinson in his best role ever. Edward G. Robinson plays the penultimate insurance actuary. He knows the statistics inside and out. He can recognize a false claim almost immediately. Neff knew this but he let another part of his body rather than his brain do his thinking for him. He is completely blinded by love and lust. And what a name given him by Wilder, Walter Neff, so common it compares with the name Willy Loman for some of the same reasons. He is too weak to withstand the wily maneuvering of this cold, callous yet greedy woman, who knows how to shake that thing. He is doomed from the start. In the end everyone loses, even Keyes. He will never be the same man again. He cannot dismiss Neff the way he dismissed all the other frauds and fakes. A part of himself has been removed permanently.
Double Indemnity is a great film noir that keeps your heart beating and
your palms sweating. But none of the greatness in this film could have
been achieved without the three best aspects:
1) John Seitz's stunning cinematography. No other film-noir has managed to contrast black and white so vividly as to capture the perfect mood of the story and characters. Because of this technical achievement, the viewer can't take his eyes of the screen.
2) Barbara Stanwyck's beautiful performance. Only until Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. has there been such a mesmerizing femme fatale. She underplays every line and fills it with innocence, seduction, despair, desperation, and love. She IS Phyllis Dietrichson.
3) Billy Wilder's unforgettable script. A story that nowadays would seem simple turns in great dialogue, plot twists, and a narrative structure that keeps you on the edge of your seat right from the start. The characters do exactly what they're supposed to do and the script shows you exactly how and why.
Other great aspects include the direction, the settings, the music, and the great performances by Robinson and MacMurray.
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