Double Indemnity is a magnificent film noir thriller, directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder’s body of work, over a career lasting nearly fifty years, included films with an incredibly eclectic mix of styles and themes, such as classics Some Like it Hot, The Seven Year Itch, Sunset Boulevard and Sabrina.
Wilder co-wrote the Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler (of The Big Sleep novel fame), based on a novel by James M. Cain. The film stars Fred McMurray as insurance salesman Walter Neff (sixteen years prior to his role in another Wilder classic: 1960’s The Apartment - which was co-incidentally the same year he began his famous twelve year run on TV’s My Three Sons), Barbara Stanwyck as scheming Phyllis Dietrichson, and Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, Neff’s senior colleague.
Here are five reasons why Double Indemnity is a Five Star Film:
1. THE OPENING CREDITS
From the moment the film’s opening credits begin, you know you’re in for something intriguing. The striking image of the silhouette of a suited, hatted man slowly walking on crutches towards the camera is absolutely mesmerising. Add to that the haunting opening music by composer Miklós Rózsa - and you’re hooked from the get-go. The next images we see are of a dark, forboding night street, a car driving erratically, and Walter stumbling into his work office to tell the story.
2. THE WALTER / PHYLLIS FLIRTING
Lead actors McMurray and Stanwyck’s Walter/Phyllis flirting is just delicious! Clever and witty, it somehow passed the Hayes code censors. The flirting begins within less than thirty seconds after Walter and Phyllis first meet. She’s standing at the top of the stairs in a towel, and he (from the bottom of the stairs) makes a crack about her family insurance arrangements potentially leaving her ‘not fully covered’. Coming from a lesser actor, or under lesser direction, this line may have just sounded sleazy - but McMurray’s delivery is just superb, and it sets the tone for the initial phase of Walter and Phyllis’ relationship.
Later during their first meeting, Walter starts being suggestive again, and Phyllis replies 'I wonder if I know what you mean' - to which Walter cheekily responds 'I wonder if you wonder'. Perfect!
Robinson was one of the greatest character actors of all time, bringing a beautiful level of gravity to his characters, regardless of their status. Even though he’s often remembered for playing gangsters and the like (eg his famous lead role in Little Caesar), he could also play the ‘little man’ (eg as meek Chris in Scarlet Street). Here in Double Indemnity, Robinson is as wonderful as always – this time as a real dog-with-a-bone insurance fraud investigator Keyes. His trademark distinctive voice and cigar-smoking manner work perfectly for Keyes – and there’s a lovely, delicately balanced combination of toughness and underlining integrity in his portrayal of Walter’s somewhat-mentor.
4. FABULOUS DIALOGUE
The afore-mentioned writing team came up with some absolutely outstanding dialogue, much of it in voice-over by Walter, or spoken into a dictaphone - the 1938 (the film was set six years in the past) version of this technology looking so delightfully quaint and clunky all these years later.
Seriously, can you beat lines like these?:
- 'I kinda always knew that behind the cigar ashes on your vest was a heart as big as a house'
- 'I knew I had hold of a red hot poker, and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off'
- 'They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys'.
5. THE TENSION
Without giving away any major spoiler details, a few terrifically tense moments deserve special mention.
There’s a heart-stopping moment when Keyes turns up unexpectedly and Phyllis needs to hide behind a hallway door. Try watching it and breathing at the same time. I guarantee you’ll have trouble.
There’s also an incredibly suspenseful moment when Walter has to remain poker-faced (while the audience wonder if he can do it), while Keyes tells him his theory about the case – and all the while Walter knows that the man who could undo him is standing right outside the door.
Perhaps the best tension-building location is Jerry’s Market, the lovers’ go-to place for plotting and scheming. Their strain is palpable – as they discuss life-and-death details while surrounded by shoppers, baskets and baby food.
Double Indemnity is a true example of A-grade quality filmmaking, well-deserving of its seven Academy Award nominations. It should be known as nothing less than a Five Star Film.
Lisa Malouf - follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf