Movie #74: Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, and Jean Heather

Academy Award Nomination (1945):

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Barbara Stanwyck

Best Cinematography, Black-and-White: John F. Seitz

Best Director: Billy Wilder

Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Miklos Rozsa

Best Picture: Joseph Sistrom

Best Sound, Recording: Loren L, Ryder

Best Writing, Screenplay: Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder

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Walter Neff (MacMurray) an insurance salesman devises a plan with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) to have her husband killed.  They plan on making it look like an accident so she can collect on her recently opened life insurance policy.  They take it a step further by staging the death to look like her husband fell off the back of a train, one of the circumstances that would grant her double indemnity, or a payout of double the policy’s value.  They run into a huge snag though with Barton Keyes (Robinson), the insurance company’s claims investigator.

The film opens with Neff recording his confession and weaving through the elaborate plan as the murder and subsequent investigation by the insurance company.  This was a great way to tell the story, and I must say I was impressed with the script.  This film is based on a murder that took place in the summer of 1927, where a housewife and her boyfriend killed her husband, attempted to make it look like an accident, and were eventually caught for the liars that they were.  I recently heard a little about the original murder on NPR, and it was significant because it was one of the first major murder cases that got the tabloid treatment and widespread publicity that has since become commonplace.  Insurance fraud is certainly something that has also developed and evolved over the years.

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A film like this needs two strong leads, and both MacMurray and Stanwyck perform wonderfully.  Walter’s character is savvy, but there’s the little hint that he knows the plan will ultimately not work.  MacMurray gives a great balanced, laid back performance.  Stanwyck does great as one of the first femme fatale characters.  Though not overtly sexual in her performance (it was still a major Hollywood taboo), she hints just enough to let the audience fill in some of the blanks.

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Edward G Robinson’s performance as Barton Keyes really tied the film together.  He provides a very strong moral compass, listening to his ‘inner man’ who tells him Phyllis’ husband’s death was no accident.  It’s his instinct to be critical where others might brush something like this off.  Keyes’ exchange with Ness at the end of the film was bluntly honest, superbly acted, and was shot very well.  Wilder had originally shot an ending where Ness is killed in a gas chamber, but changed his mind after seeing the exchange these two characters had.  While I think that would’ve been a fitting ending, it would have paled in comparison to the ending they ultimately went with.

Double Indemnity was an enjoyable film.   It laid a great foundation for this type of mystery film, as well as introduced a model for the femme fatale character that Barbara Stanwyck brilliantly pulled off.  While I won’t see this one again, like many others I’m glad to have at least seen it once.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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