Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a recognized noir classic, preserved by the National Film Registry for being deemed ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. Perhaps you will focus on the venetian blind lighting style that became a staple of the noir film genre or the hard-boiled dialogue from the Raymond Chandler co-penned screenplay, but personally, I think the greatest achievement of this film is to make ‘insurance salesman’ a sexy job. You have to admit that’s a mean feat.
The story follows insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) as he visits a client’s house, pushing for a policy renewal on car insurance. But his client is out and Neff is instead greeted by Mrs Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, then the highest paid woman in Hollywood). They flirt with some of the best flirtatious dialogue I’ve ever heard until Neff works out her true intention: to take out an accident insurance policy against her husband before offing him and collecting. But the stunning woman has infected Neff with desire. He cannot help himself and before long he finds himself planning the perfect murder.
Defining a genre
I am a huge fan of Wilder’s. His films are exquisite in every sense – from the beautifully framed shots, the expert lighting, intriguing plots, and superb acting – each film is a distinct and sumptuous entry. Double Indemnity stands out as being one of the most influential films on an entire genre. Claiming to be unaware of the film critic term ‘noir’ at the time, Wilder came to define much of what would follow in the genre.
Watching the film, I was struck by the lack of interesting lighting in modern films. Perhaps with colour, it is harder to create such interesting shadows and mood lighting, but it seems a shame. As Fred MacMurray’s Neff walks towards his office, the shadows he casts come together towards the door with him, as though he is being stalked. Similar shadows appear every time he notices he has landed himself in the shit. He is always followed by his doubts, by his colleague Keyes, by Stanwyck’s femme fatale…
The film is resourceful when it comes to using the set to create interesting visual effects. Light streams through venetian blinds or soft chiffon curtains, the trees cast eerie shadows across passing pedestrians. These details and interactions with everyday aspects of the set are not limited to creating interesting shots but also grounding the story in the real. Neff decides to help the murderous Phyllis Dietrichson, and after she leaves, he kicks at a curled corner of his rug. It’s a small thing, but this visual cue says a lot about his character. He understands the consequences of his decision, knows it is the ‘wrong’ one, but is resigned to see it through.
Another element so ubiquitous to the noir genre appears in Double Indemnity, but in a slightly altered fashion. The film is overlaid by Neff’s voiceover, framing the story through a series of flashbacks. But unlike many films in the noir canon, there is a narrative reason for the voiceover to exist. Neff is confessing his sins into a dictaphone for his colleague, claims investigator Keyes.
An early bromance
While the marketing might lead you to believe that this is a story of a deadly romance gone wrong, the real story of Double Indemnity is that of Neff and Keyes. Interestingly, this is the biggest change Wilder and Chandler made from the original novella by James M. Cain. Originally, Keyes was a bit of a bumbling buffoon, but he was changed for the film to be a mentor and intelligent nemesis. But it is far more complicated than that. They are friends, they look up to one another, they work together closely. Would it have meant as much to Neff to pull off the perfect crime if Keyes hadn’t been so hot on his tail? Would he have admitted his guilt the way he did if he didn’t respect Keyes?
The ending of the film was also not what was originally envisioned. Wilder even filmed a final scene that was never used – one where Keyes watches Neff executed. I’m glad Wilder cut the scene, ending it with two friends both disappointed and impressed with one another, lighting a cigarette as one lays dying on the floor, is the perfect ending.
The off-screen drama
Like many of these great films, the behind-the-scenes story is almost as interesting as the film itself. Wilder and Chandler did not get on. But rather than packing it in, leaving the project, and citing ‘creative differences’, the two of them stuck it out. That clash of personality and style pushed them to work harder and create a more interesting film. Chandler, known for his drinking, struggled to deal with Wilder while remaining on the wagon. Reportedly, Wilder’s next film, The Lost Weekend, was something of an homage to the alcoholic writer Wilder struggled to work with.
Despite being nominated for seven Academy Awards, Double Indemnity lost out on them all. At the time, studios backed certain films for awards and the voting members of the Academy were expected to tow the line. A musical comedy, Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby, was the studio’s favourite. When its director, Leo McCarey, rose to accept his best director award, an unhappy Wilder tripped him. It is these kind of antics that we miss!
This classic of noir cinema continues to impress modern audiences with its sharp dialogue, unique visual style, precursor to the bromance, and heavy influence on an entire genre of film.