Double Indemnity (1944) – Billy Wilder
Summary: An insurance salesman and his lover conspire to kill her husband but need to make it look like an accident so that she can claim the insurance money. The only obstacle in the plan is the salesman’s boss, an expert at detecting false claims.
Spoilers, but then again, it’s a film noir – do you honestly think the crooks are going to get away with it?
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is justifiably famous as one of the finest film noir movies ever made. It has several superb examples of the genre’s tropes, including a protagonist playing catch-up with most of the events, witty dialogue spoken by people who behave like grown-ups, murder, and an absolutely unforgettable femme fatale. Like Sunset Boulevard, another Los Angeles set crime-story by Billy Wilder, it’s told entirely in flashback. From a novel by James M. Cain, Wilder co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler, a man who knew how to write about greed and corruption, and who knew Los Angeles. While some of the hardboiled talk may sound almost like parody today, that’s probably only because Double Indemnity is one of a handful of films that set the tone for crime melodramas for many years. People probably never said things like “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” or “You bet I’ll get outta here, baby, I’ll get outta here but quick” or “They’ll hang you just as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar, and I don’t want you to hang, baby.” But does it matter that real people never spoke like this? After all, this is the pictures we’re talking, dollface.
As film noir goes, the story is far less complicated than a lot of its contemporaries. An insurance salesman schemes with his lover to do away with her husband in what looks like an accident, and claim the insurance. The salesman is played by Fred MacMurray acting tough and cold in a part that was out of character for an actor generally considered a lightweight romantic comedian, but that got him the best reviews of his career (no less than eleven actors had turned down the role before it was offered to him.) He’s not as clever as he likes to think, which he realizes as he sits in his office mortally wounded, unfolding his tale. He’s always thought about pulling off the perfect inside job “like the guy behind the roulette wheel” who dreams of crooking the house.
There is a major snag in the plan, and that’s his boss who has an instinct for spotting insurance fraud. He is Edward G. Robinson, who brings cunning, grace and subtlety to what could have been a one-note character (Robinson was far more sophisticated in real life than most of the people he played on screen.)
The third part of the triangle is the salesman’s lover and co-conspirator, and it’s easy to see why a man would kill for her, because it’s Barbara Stanwyck. Her allure was always somewhat brassy, never quite high-class, but it had a sultry and intelligent edge to it that was irresistible. Of course a man would kill for her.
Because MacMurray is our protagonist, the entire film unfolds from his point of view, and we first see Stanwyck as he does: half naked at the top of the stairs. Then she puts some clothes on and descends the staircase, and the camera lingers on the glint of an anklet on her shapely legs. She and MacMurray exchange some sexually-charged banter, and when she smirks at him, well, we know his goose is cooked.
Do insurance companies really pay double to beneficiaries if the policyholder dies in exceptional and bizarre circumstances? In a strained piece of contrivance, the husband needs to die on a train, and it just so happens he’s planning a trip to Stanford, only he breaks his leg, which means MacMurray will take his crutches and impersonate him after the killing. The murder takes place in the car on the way to the train station, and in a stroke of directing genius, it happens off-screen; we hear the struggle as we see Stanwyck in close-up, her features slowly melting into just the hint of a macabre smile. MacMurray boards the train, and all he has to do is be seen going to the observation car at the back so that he can jump off and they can put the man’s body on the tracks. Of course things don’t quite go as planned. As Robinson gets more suspicious about the accident, MacMurray and Stanwyck get more desperate, and MacMurray realizes just how out of his depth he is with this woman.
Wilder is not generally considered a director of suspense, but there’s little doubt that he knew how to ratchet up tension. Because it’s obvious by its structure where it’s going, the film is all the more remarkable for just how thrilling it is. It has great photography by John Seitz that puts most of the characters in shadow (although the film isn’t afraid to have its characters plotting their dark deeds in the bright California sunshine), and a great score by Miklos Rozsa. MacMurray is neither a clean-cut hero or a nasty villain: notice how he is often seen in a grey or light suit, but with a black hat, suggesting he’s caught somewhere between good and evil.
There are a couple of weak spots, mostly the supporting players, who I don’t think match the leads, but the film’s strengths are something to behold. Look at the opening sequence, which cleverly hints at the plot of the film: MacMurray’s car has to detour around a construction crew doing railway maintenance before ignoring a stop signal. The film benefits from its location-shooting; this is the city as it really was, not a sanitised backlot. This is the city of palm trees, Spanish-style houses, underground car parks, bright foodmarts, and cracks in the road.
And the dialogue crackles. Look at the scene where MacMurray and Stanwyck meet.
Wrapped in a towel, she stands at the top of the stairs.
Stanwyck: Is there anything I can do.
MacMurray (looking her up and down): The insurance ran out on the fifteenth. I’d hate to think of you having a smashed fender or something when you’re not fully covered.
Later, the two discuss her husband’s insurance policy.
Stanwyck: He’ll be in around 8:30
Stanwyck: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?
MacMurray: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Stanywck: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
MacMurray: How fast was I going, Officer?
Stanwyck: I’d say around ninety.
MacMurray: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket?
Stanwyck: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time?
MacMurray: Suppose it doesn’t take?
Stanwyck: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles?
MacMurray: Suppose I bust out crying and have to put my head on your shoulder?
Stanwyck: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder?
MacMurray: That tears it.
There is a recurring bit involving MacMurray lighting Robinson’s cheap cigars (younger viewers will be in awe, no doubt, as I don’t think you can get matches you can strike with a thumbnail these days). There’s a lot of smoking in this film, come to think of it, and a fair bit of drinking. Like I said, it’s a movie for grown-ups.