Billy Wilder’s 1944 hit Double Indemnity, is a near perfect example of the Film Noir genre.
The film opens on a wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) careening down the streets of Los Angeles in his black 1938 Dodge – narrowly avoiding a collision with a truck. None of this matters, however, for he is about to leave a tell-all confession for his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) to discover the next morning. The rest of the film comes as a narrated flashback while Neff lays bare his confession via dictaphone.
He calmly begins his lurid tale with an interaction between himself and Keyes. Working as an insurance salesman, Neff enters Keyes office (a claims adjuster) to an interrogation. Keyes is telling a man whose truck has recently burned-out that his claim will not be paid due to “a gut feeling from the little man in his stomach”. He had found evidence of insurance fraud in the form of kindling left underneath the truck. Keyes’s keen intuition and relentless attention to detail endear him to Neff, but also prove to be an unavoidable obstacle.
The intrigue arises when Neff is out on a sales call to renew the auto insurance policy of a Mr. Dietrichson. However, Mr. Dietrichson is at work, and in his place, Neff finds only his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) home to meet him. In classic noir style, Neff uses some heavy-handed chauvinistic flirting and charm to ingratiate himself with the ever-coy Mrs. Dietrichson. During their conversation, Mrs. Dietrichson brings up the topic of accident insurance – our narrator alludes to this beings the start of his current predicament. However, the diegetic Neff does not make note of it, and schedules an appointment for later in the week. Neff is almost instantly taken by Mrs. Dietrichson, he obsesses over her beauty – most notably a tight anklet he admired while she descended the staircase in her home. Neff is so obsessed in fact, that when she calls later in the week to reschedule the appointment to mid-afternoon, he does not realize (or care) that Mr. Dietrichson will not likely be home yet again.
As Neff arrives for his newly-rescheduled appointment, he is met by a forlorn Mrs. Dietrichson. The over-sexualized Missus has her mind set on applying for accident insurance in her husband’s name (and her benefit), and leaves Neff with no delusions regarding her intent. He bids her farewell, and takes his leave. Much like the woman herself, Neff cannot get Mrs. Dietrichson’s proposition out of his mind. After much introspection, Neff realizes he wants to help Mrs. Dietrichson rid herself of her abusive husband, and take his place as her lover. A “perfect” crime is planned and subsequently carried out.
The narrative of Double Indemnity serves as little more than monotonous background noise to the tantalizing dialogue and presence of the cold-hearted leading actors. The screenplay (based off of a 1943 novel by James M. Cain) was co-written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who have masterfully adapted the crime novel into a dialogue-heavy big-screen hit. Interviews with Wilder suggest he hated working with Chandler, but it is Chandler’s misogynistic and sarcastic dialogue that is ultimately the winning feature of this film. Wilder made an impressive choice with cinematographer John Seitz, whose brilliant use of German expressionist-esque shadows and lighting make the experience of this film all the more dark and moody. This is where the brilliance of Double Indemnity is derived, not from the nearly flawless murder, but from the immense tension that Wilder is able to build with his use of foreshadowing, narrative dialogue and cinematography. In all, this is a shining (albeit darkly) example of Hollywood Film noir in the 40’s that certainly holds up to the test of time.