The wise-cracking, surly chump, the smooth-talking bad girl, and, the devious murder plot gone hopelessly awry: few film noirs can hold a candle to Billy Wilder’s influential Double Indemnity (1944); an excursion into that rancid underbelly of betrayal, lust and unbridled greed. There’s no getting around it; Double Indemnity is an insidious tale of disreputable lowlifes conducting themselves with vial disregard for the sanctity of human life. Even the show’s lone virtuous voice in this cesspool, hardcore insurance adjuster, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), has seen too much. He’s a clenched-fisted hard-bitten realist with few redeeming qualities apart from the ability to spot a flimflam in less than twenty paces; to telescopically redirect his satisfaction to puncture the balloons of its hypocrisy. Too bad for Keyes he is much too close to the latest scam to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Based on James M. Cain’s incendiary novella, Double Indemnity excels in its gutsy dialogue; the razor-backed screenplay co-written by Wilder and noted author, Raymond Chandler, whom Wilder would come to despise during their lengthy collaboration.
Oft credited with kick-starting the noir cycle, 70 years later the looming darkness that envelopes these characters in Double Indemnity is still very much with us; an axiom for movie-styled sin, sex and deliriously clichéd slang banter: the duped/doomed Johnny come lately to this noir party, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) destined to meet his maker via a deadly-as-cancer blonde fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck); her affected loyalties as fake and transparent as the ten dollar platinum mop she has perched atop her wicked little brain. The trick of the screenplay is it makes us care more about what happens to these two reptilian deviants than the hapless victim, Phyllis’ hubby (Tom Powers); the smoldering chemistry between the tawdry Stanwyck and scheming MacMurray enough to burn most any California bungalow to the ground and still have enough of a spark to ignite the audience in third degree burns.
It can safely be said of Phyllis Dietrichson, she suffers from too much of a good thing: too smart, too sexy and with far too much disposable cash and time on her hands merely to be contented as she is. Whereas, Cain’s novel was pure pulp, Chandler, Wilder and Stanwyck’s blistering hot performance take the book’s turbo-charged sexual entrapment to new and disgustingly low heights. It isn’t simply that Phyllis is the nastiest piece of work to ooze perverse, if smoldering, sensuality across the screen. She is happy in her work, bringing wreck and ruin to the men in her life gets her off. Why any man should find this sort of woman a hot little property on which to pin his motto where only janitors can see it, remains just one of the bizarre and affecting anomalies that bear further socio-psychological investigation; because Stanwyck does more than simply hook our ill-starred booby into an impossible fraud. She luxuriates in watching the entire enterprise slip down around his knees, Walt’s emasculation as badly craved as the cash payout for his services rendered; monies neither is destined to ever enjoy. To paraphrase Rodgers and Hart; ‘hey, California…it’s cold and it’s damp; that’s why this lady is a tramp!’
Ingeniously, Stanwyck’s mighty bitch has met her match in being just a tad too clever for her own good; unable to anticipate Neff’s boss, Keyes, will be more devious than even she and just as determined as a pit bull foaming at the mouth, not to let go of his hunches, drawing ever closer to the truth staring him right in the face. Double Indemnity moves with rapid-fire precision through its series of misfires, the ‘perfect’ crime not so perfect after all and ultimately to undo all the evil these co-conspirators have wrought. Keyes is, of course, the fly in their ointment; so close and yet so far from unraveling the knotted threads of yarn in this twisted ball of twine. He toys with these variables, using cat-like playfulness and precision; enjoying baiting Phyllis for a fall, even if he is quite unaware he is doing exactly the opposite by making his own partner sweat out the details and his own anxieties: the hot seat getting hotter by the minute.
Edward G. Robinson, who had begun his stardom playing career criminals over at Warner Bros. was to bear witness as his reputation as a squat – if dapper – scumbag in movies like Little Caesar and Five Star Final (both made in 1931) turned to mush after the imposed code of Hollywood censorship incriminated his particular brand of pugnaciousness as unsavory – though, arguably, never unfashionable. It is one of Hollywood’s ironies this flat-faced and pug-nosed star – diminutive in stature and chronically sneering on the screen – became typecast as the uncouth reprobate; a persona so unlike Robinson – the man: in life, a genial, refined and gentlemanly art lover, who appreciated the finer things. There are still flashes of the gangland goon seeping into Robinson’s Barton Keyes; the cigar-chomping and frenetic hand gestures heavily punctuating the whirling wheels in this character’s brain. But Robinson is very much in a transitional phase in Double Indemnity. He’s given the most hellacious and lengthy speeches to memorize, full of technical jargon he makes sound as though ‘off the cuff’ remarks made in conversation, and equally as compelling as crackling dialogue.
There are still flashes of his former self; the veneer, at times, tissue paper thin. Yet Robinson, apart from being a seasoned pro, is also something of a loveable ham; a sort of wise-cracking precursor to Peter Falk’s Columbo; his ‘just one more thing’ leading to a bittersweet revelation that will unravel this crackpot scheme to defraud his company; the ruse perpetuated by the one man Keyes thinks of as his white knight, work cohort and best friend; amiable insurance salesman, Walter Neff (played with spectacular cynicism by Fred MacMurray). Like Robinson, MacMurray used Double Indemnity to reinvent his movie persona. Only a decade before, MacMurray had been considered solid, second-string leading man material in movies like Alice Adams (1935), Maid of Salem (1937) and Too Many Husbands (1940). Yet arguably, this was a dead-end career. But in Double Indemnity, MacMurray flips out the underside of congeniality, revealing an easily corruptible knave, not a knight, sent on one errand – to sell a police to Phyllis – only to transgress into another; a murder for hire, becoming the unmitigated fop of a most perilous and self-destructive journey. Interestingly, MacMurray was not Wilder’s first choice for the part; not even his tenth. Only after some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters had all turned it down did Wilder suddenly realize his malleable misanthropist required an actor who could play both cynic and good guy turned bad all at once.
Double Indemnity excels for many reasons, though primarily because both MacMurray and Robinson are being transformed into people we only thought we knew. Too many actors are typecast for life as either hero or villain with narrowly the opportunity to flip-flop from one to the other. But both actors herein achieve the near impossible, employing the demonically eloquent Stanwyck as their maypole around which each performs their adversarial dance. Stanwyck’s Dietrichson is undeniably one of the most salacious femme fatales ever to grace a film noir. In a word, she is delicious. In her cheap blonde wig, dark shades and anklet (the latter, then code for a woman of loose morals), Stanwyck’s tramp is both sublimely sexy and tastelessly raunchy, rubbing Neff’s fur the wrong way, but getting more than his dander up in the process. Vixen, harlot, slut, murderess – pick your poison. Phyllis is more potent and lethal than arsenic and strychnine put together. And Walter is just the sewer rat to find the prospect of being caught between her cat-like clutches appealing. At first, Stanwyck (always Wilder’s first choice) was not entirely certain she wanted to play such an awful mantrap, believing it would hurt her reputation. Unable to convince Stanwyck the part was star-worthy, Wilder instead appealed to her sense of professionalism as a character actress and a deal was struck. Years later, Stanwyck would acknowledge her gratitude to Wilder for his faith in both her abilities and the project.
Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s screenplay picks apart the bones of James M. Cain’s grittily dark novella, maintaining the acidic, hard-edged drama of the original, while making concessions to honor the production code. The screenplay benefits from Wilder’s acerbic wit and construction; also from Chandler’s superb penchant for double entendre and punch-packing dialogue. Alas, bringing Double Indemnity to life wasn’t all smooth sailing. Cain had based his novella on an actual 1927 New York City murder investigation. First published in 1935, Double Indemnity began making the rounds in Hollywood shortly thereafter. However, like his other trend-setting crime/thriller of its time – The Postman Always Rings Twice – Double Indemnity would be delayed from reaching the screen for almost a decade; the circumstances depicted in the novel considered un-filmable by Hollywood censors Joseph Breen and Will Hays. Breen had, in fact, killed initial interest in Cain’s novella, shared by virtually all the major studios, competing to pay $25,000 for the rights to produce it, by citing the story’s “general low tone and sordid flavor” as “thoroughly unacceptable”. Screen censorship often gets a bad rap. Yet, it is interesting to note from our present-day absence of it, just how much of Breen’s concerns seem, not only warranted, but sadly come to pass; his prediction - that any depiction of such disreputable human behaviors – would have a “hardening” effect on the audience; particularly those with “impressionable minds” seems to mirror the malaise currently afflicting our movie ‘art’ – as well as reflecting a general and growing tenor of moral decay in contemporary society.
However, in the eight long years intervening between the publication of Cain’s novel and the movie version, Double Indemnity’s reputation had considerably grown. Nevertheless, by the time Paramount bid on the property, its price tag had slipped to the relatively paltry sum of $15,000. Even so, the project was shot down a second time by the Breen Office. Undaunted, Paramount proceeded, executive producer, Joseph Sistrom placing its’ future and his faith in Wilder and co-writer, Charles Brackett’s hands. Somewhere along the way, Brackett decided the material was too crude and unmanageable for his own artistic sensibilities and bowed out; Paramount bringing in Raymond Chandler to collaborate with Wilder and polish the draft. In a relatively short turnaround, Wilder and Chandler submitted an intelligent script for consideration; one almost immediately approved by the censors, with minor caveats and revisions to be incorporated. A proposed gas chamber sequence was dropped, and, the length and girth of the towel worn by Stanwyck for Phyllis Dietrichson’s initial ‘cute meet’ with Walter Neff was emphasized. But perhaps the most influential revision Wilder made was having Phyllis and Walter mortally wound each other. In Cain’s novel they commit suicide as a couple to escape inevitable incarceration. This alteration basically makes their deaths a double assassination; this pair of social pariahs devouring themselves satisfying one of the Production Code’s essential edicts: criminals must pay for their transgressions.
Throughout the many drafts, the Wilder/Chandler alliance was tempestuous at best. In fact, the director was rather disappointed to discover the man behind such hard-boiled crime thrillers, despite being a recovering alcoholic, shared more in the continence of a mild-mannered accountant than a bona fide crime solver. Wilder was equally unimpressed by Chandler’s initial misunderstanding; that he alone would be writing the screenplay, a gesture immediately quashed after Chandler submitted roughly eighty pages that Wilder openly criticized as “useless camera instruction.” Initially, Wilder had wanted to keep as much of Cain’s original dialogue in the movie as possible. Chandler disagreed, and proceeded to do a complete rewrite much to Wilder’s dismay. To prove his point, Wilder then hired a pair of contract players to read whole passages from Cain’s novella aloud. But to Wilder’s chagrin, Chandler’s assessment of Cain’s prose proved right on the money and Wilder begrudgingly realized if the movie was to function, then Chandler’s stichomythia would have to prevail. From this tenuous détente, the friendship between Wilder and Chandler only continued to disintegrate. At one point, Chandler even begged to be released from his contract. Wilder stuck it out, believing their tumultuous discord could only enhance the final product. Besides, he genuinely admired Chandler’s immeasurable gifts as a brilliant wordsmith.
Chandler’s embittered lot on Double Indemnity would cause him to publish a rather scathing critique of Hollywood’s respect (or lack thereof) for the writer after production wrapped. But the Chandler/Wilder brouhaha is also rumored to have been the inspiration for Wilder to make The Lost Weekend (1945); his Oscar-winning tale of a drunken writer’s recovery; in essence, Wilder making a film to explain Raymond Chandler to himself. As for James M. Cain; the author had nothing but good things to say about Double Indemnity when it premiered, complimenting Wilder and Chandler on their ‘improvements’ and even suggesting Wilder had advanced on his own narrative construction. Double Indemnity is also noteworthy for its eerie, all-pervasive California Gothic visual style, typified by a queer oppressiveness looming beyond the perpetually sun-drenched atmosphere. Indeed, there’s something remote and unwelcoming about the entire movie’s visual treatment. In some cases, cinematographer John F. Seitz simply amplified the contrast; creating stark crevices of bleached out light or enveloping pools dedicated to an overpowering darkness. To capture the unsettling atmosphere of danger inside the Dietrichson home, Seitz blew handfuls of talc and aluminum particles into the air, creating the illusion of a thin airborne veil of dust settling about the room. He also insisted on filtering his light through slats (usually Venetian blinds), lending the uncanny illusion of prison bars. The contrast between these gloomy interiors and starkly saturated outdoor settings gave Double Indemnity its trademarked noir look, almost immediately adopted and copied in countless movies throughout the 1940’s.
Double Indemnity opens with the prolonged and suspenseful introduction of one of our three stars – Fred MacMurray – returning to his place of employment in downtown L.A. hours before it is ready to conduct business. Only after Walter Neff has let himself into his private office and slumped back in the chair behind his desk do we take notice of the hemorrhaging gunshot wound to his shoulder. Employing what would become a time-honored cliché of the noir style, we get the story firsthand from Walter, narrating the particulars of his impending demise into a Dictaphone; the sordid tale unraveling in heavy, sustained gasps as we regress, in flashback, to the moment where Walter’s undoing all began. Neff and his boss, curmudgeonly claims adjuster, Barton Keyes, are debating the finer points of a scam being perpetuated on their insurance company. Keyes has been at this racket far too long. He sees corruption everywhere. Truth be told; his hunches are usually right on the money.
Keyes’ abject cynicism amuses Walter. In fact, Keyes considers Neff a brilliant cohort to bounce off ideas and better than just one of the boys; a clear-eyed guy who thinks even worse of the human race than he does. So much for business! Besides, who has time to get all wrapped up in any scheme when there is real work to be done? For Walter, it’s business as usual, or so he thinks as he arrives at the Dietrichson household to pitch a renewal policy to its owners. Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is out. But his wife, Phyllis is definitely in, and into some such mischief, greeting Walter in nothing more substantial than a plush towel after some nude sunbathing on her upstairs balcony. There’s an immediate chemistry – or perhaps, friction is a more apt description of the sparks generated between them. Walter makes Phyllis aware of the advantages of renewing their policy, perhaps as yet unaware how these pros will instantly turn into the deadliest of cons by the end of their conversation. Phyllis inquires how she might take out an accident insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge. Deducing Phyllis is up to no good Walter grows glib and condescending, telling her he wants no part in whatever her gruesome plans may be.
Regrettably – and to his own detriment – a short while later, Walter reconsiders his decision after Phyllis arrives at his apartment to sweeten the deal by seducing him. The two concoct a clever plan to off Mr. Dietrichson and collect the insurance money. These things must be done delicately so as not to draw any undue skepticism. Walter knows the ropes as well as the loopholes. But he also knows Keyes will stop at nothing to investigate and debunk any death as a scam. So, Walt devises a plan to have Mr. Dietrichson take a tumble off a moving train, thus triggering the life insurance policy to pay out its ‘double indemnity’ claim – twice the policy’s value. Luring Mr. Dietrichson to sign the policy after he has already accidentally broken his leg, Walter conceals himself in the backseat of Dietrichson’s Packard. As Phyllis drives her husband to the train depot for his planned college reunion trip to Palo Alto, Neff springs into action and strangles the man. Herein, Billy Wilder choses the infinitely more tantalizing perspective, focusing on Phyllis, a thin grin curling about her pallid cheeks as she continues to drive on; the sound of life being squeezed from her husband’s neck causing her infinite pleasure as the car nears the train depot. Posing as Dietrichson, Walter boards the observation car, stepping onto its open platform; presumably setting up for the real Dietrichson’s ‘accidental’ tumble onto the tracks. Regrettably, another man named Jackson (Porter Hall) is already there, taking in the fresh air. Walter manages to encourage Jackson to go inside for just a moment, jumping off the moving train at precisely the spot where Phyllis had already driven up to dump her husband’s body onto the tracks.
So far it has all worked out exactly as planned…or so it would seem. A short while later, Walter quietly observes as Mr. Norton, the company's chief, tells Keyes he believes Dietrichson’s death was an obvious suicide. Keyes discounts this scenario however, firing off statistics about the improbability of any suicide attempt made by jumping off a slow-moving train. To Walter’s great relief, Keyes does not suspect foul play – at least, not at first. But then Keyes begins to break down the series of events leading up to Dietrichson’s untimely death. Why did he not claim his broken leg? Perhaps, because he did not know he had such a policy. And if Dietrichson did not know and Phyllis did, then perhaps she was also instrumental in arranging her husband’s demise – along with an, as yet unknown, accomplice. Ah yes, the pieces of this puzzle are beginning to fit together.
Walter has already begun to break a sweat; his nervousness compounded after Dietrichson’s teenage daughter, Lola (Jean Heather) confronts him with her suspicions that her stepmother wanted her father dead. Lola explains to Walter about her real mother; an invalid who died under spurious circumstances while under Phyllis’ care. To diffuse the situation, Walter begins to see Lola – at first to quell her doubts and discourage her from going to the police. But pretty soon, Walter is racked with guilt over his complicity in the crime. In fact, it’s eating him alive. And what if Lola is right? What if Phyllis did kill her mother? Will she stop at nothing to get what she wants now, perhaps, even murdering him too? In the meantime, Keyes has located Jackson who informs him the man he had the exchange with on the train’s observation platform was at least fifteen years younger than the one in the archival photo identified as Mr. Dietrichson. Believing he has Phyllis right where he wants her, Keyes decides to suspend the claim and refuse the payout. The only way Phyllis will ever get her hands on the money is if she sues.
Walter steps in, telling Phyllis she cannot take the insurance company to court without facing the very real prospect of revealing her complicity in their crime of murder. Walter also informs Phyllis about Lola’s growing suspicions. In the meantime, Lola has uncovered a love affair between her boyfriend, Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) and her stepmother. Putting two and two together and coming up with twenty-seven, Lola now suspects Nino and Phyllis of conspiring to kill her father. Keyes seems to concur with Lola. After all, Nino has been repeatedly spotted coming and going from the Dietrichson home very late at night, and he is something of a hothead too with a minor rap sheet at police headquarters. Yes, Nino’s ripe for the picking.
Even Walter can see this. Nino as his way out. In a remarkably stupid gesture of self-sacrifice, Walter confronts Phyllis about her affair with Nino and guesses she had planned for Nino to kill him too so they could run off together. Walter now reveals he plans instead to murder her and pin the blame for both homicides on Nino. Instead, Phyllis shoots Walter in the shoulder with a concealed gun. He stumbles, but does not fall, instructing her to shoot him again. But Phyllis really loves Walter…or rather, cannot imagine her life without him. They are two of a kind – bad apples destined to be together for all time. Too bad for Phyllis, Walter doesn’t see things her way. After a brief repudiation of her killer instincts, Phyllis gives Walter her gun and the two embrace. It ought to be the perfect beginning, except Walter meant what he said. He does not love Phyllis and has no compunction about shooting her twice to prove it, coldly whispering “Goodbye, baby”.
Walter waits for Nino in the bushes just outside, advising him not to enter the house, but instead go to the woman who truly loves him - Lola. At first reluctant, Nino agrees and leaves. Walter drives to the insurance company in the dead of night, staggers upstairs to his office and starts speaking into his Dictaphone; the plot having come full circle to the movie’s opener as, Keyes sneaks up to the half open door unnoticed. Hearing Walter’s confession, it all but breaks Keyes’ heart – if only he still had one left to break. Walter informs Keyes he is going to Mexico to escape the gas chamber. Instead, he collapses on the floor near the elevator and Keyes, ever sympathetic, though unwilling to allow any murderer to get off Scott-free, paternally pats Walter on the arm, whispering “Walter, you’re all washed up.”
Double Indemnity is an extraordinary film noir; buoyed by superb performances and a taut script whose killer instincts to enthrall never miss a trick or a beat. Wilder’s direction is superb. He moves his lovers in almost concentric and constricting circles: a real web of lies with their fates drawing them closer together even as the plot continues to unravel and tear them apart. A text book example of the noir thriller; Double Indemnity’s pervasive distillation of evil, eventually trapped by its own methods, is utterly captivating. At some level, the film is a fascinating character study about misguided principles getting in the way of the perfect crime, never more astutely summarized than in Walter’s confessional, “Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray both give iconic and career-altering performances. But Double Indemnity’s most impressive bit of acting, undeniably, belongs to Edward G. Robinson, who is given some of the most complex and lengthy monologues in movie history. These he brilliantly recites with razorback clarity. Consider just one; Keyes confrontation of his boss’ theory Mr. Dietrichson committed suicide. “You know, you ought’a take a look at the statistics on suicide some time. You might learn a little something about the insurance business... Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they've got ten volumes on suicide alone; suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we'll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.”
As fine as Stanwyck and MacMurray are (and they are both very fine indeed) it’s Robinson’s contributions that drive Double Indemnity’s narrative with all the forcefulness of a steam turbine about to explode under pressure. Without Keyes’ intervention we have just another ‘who done it?’ gussied up with chiaroscuro lighting and exquisitely chosen locations, stamped in that distinguishable mark of quality inherent in all Billy Wilder films. Yet, Double Indemnity is Robinson’s show. The rest doesn’t mean much without him and Wilder knows it. Despite being third billed, the weight of the film’s success rests upon Robinson’s diminutive shoulders and he proves he is more than up to this heavy lifting. Seventy years later, Double Indemnity endures because of his contributions – perhaps, not singularly, but primarily, with MacMurray and Stanwyck bringing up the rear in very strong support.
Double Indemnity gets a reissue on Blu-ray from Universal. Like their reissue of Touch of Evil, I don’t much see the point; ditching the artful gold embossed packaging for the more traditional slip sleeve. In Region 2 Masters of Cinema (MoC) has a competing hi-def transfer. Between these two versions, the Universal exhibits considerably less grain and more information within the frame; also - superior black levels. DNR does not appear to have been excessively applied. There is no waxy imagery. The European release has what I would consider more accurately reproduced film grain. But the Universal disc looks more accurate on the whole with its darker contrast levels. Universal also has some additional grading and cleanup. Otherwise it appears as though the same restored elements were used to master both versions of the movie. So, which is preferred? Hmmm. I think I’ll stick with Universal this time. I like its deepened contrast, although I’m still torn because it lacks the more obvious grain structure of the MoC. As with Universal’s Touch of Evil, the DTS mono audio on Double Indemnity is a shay heartier than the MoC, noticeable only on higher end sound systems.
Extras are all ported over from Universal’s 2006 SE DVD, and include a pair of informative audio commentaries; one featuring Richard Schickel, the other showcasing a wealth of information from screenwriter, Lem Dobbs and Twilight Time’s Nick Redman. 2006’s Shadows of Suspense documentary, featuring Eddie Muller, James Ursini, Alain Silver, Drew Casper, William Friendkin and many more is also included herein, as is the rather tepid 1973 TV incarnation of Double Indemnity starring Richard Crenna; badly done, if you ask me. Some junket materials are included but otherwise Universal hasn’t augmented this disc with any previously unreleased ‘must haves.’ Bottom line: I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t already own this film on Blu-ray, but if you are still among the absent-minded, then this version comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)