If you haven’t seen it:
This is one of those movies that is loved by critics and film buffs, but often overlooked by regular viewers. For many years I had noticed it on those (rather morbid) “100 films to see before you die” lists, and it was usually the highest ranked film that I had never seen. Even though I have no plans to die any time soon, I recently decided it was time to rectify this omission, and I am glad I did. I loved it.
It is a carefully stylized movie, well paced, with some great scenes of suspense, and some moments of dark humor. It is old fashioned, but in a good way, and it is also exciting and fun. I recommend it to you whether you think you are about to die soon or not.
If you have seen it:
Scroll down past the trailer for more.
Click below to watch the trailer for Double Indemnity:
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SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.
Double Indemnity begins with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman, staggering into to his office building in downtown Los Angeles late one night. Neff, clearly in pain, sits down at his desk and begins his confession into a Dictaphone.
Neff tells of the time he first met the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) during a routine house call to renew an insurance policy for her husband, and the pair were soon flirting with each other. When Phyllis started asking questions about how she could take out a policy on her husband’s life without him knowing it, Neff realized she intended to murder her husband.
At first Neff was shocked by the idea, but soon they were plotting to kill her husband together. Neff told Phyllis about the ‘double indemnity’ clause in the insurance policy, which said that under certain circumstances the insurance company would pay twice the normal amount. Because of this, they came up with a plan which involved Neff assuming the husband’s identity, to make it look as though he fell from a train.
The murder went ahead as planned. However, Neff’s colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), suspected foul play, and became convinced that the Phyllis and an unknown accomplice must be behind the husband’s death.
Neff was approached by Lola, the victim’s daughter. She told him that she was convinced that her stepmother was behind her father’s death, because Lola’s mother also died under suspicious circumstances when Phyllis was her nurse. Realizing that Phyllis was even more ruthless than he had first thought, Neff started to feel guilty about his part in the murder, and to feel sorry for Lola.
Then he learned Phyllis had been seen with Lola’s boyfriend. He began to suspect that he too had been used, and confronted Phyllis at her home. This confrontation ended with Phyllis shot dead, and Neff wounded.
Neff drove to his office where he dictated his full confession to Keyes. This brings us back to the beginning of the story. Keyes now arrives says he has overheard the confession. Neff announces to Keyes that he is going to flee to Mexico, but collapses before he leaves the building. Keyes, his old friend, was by his side when he died.
Steve Sunday Says:
When I was a kid there used to be a lot of comedy sketch shows on TV that spoofed film noir. So much so, that I realized while watching Double Indemnity that I have probably seen more noir spoof over the course of my lifetime than I have seen actual noir movies. For this reason, it felt at first as though I was watching a comedy, and I kept waiting subconsciously for a punchline that never came. When Edward G Robinson came on screen it got worse – I don’t think I had actually seen him in a movie before, but I recognize him from caricatures in Warner Bros cartoons I watched as a kid, and also, his voice was the inspiration for Chief Wiggum in the Simpsons.
Eventually though, I came to terms with the fact that Double Indemnity was a thriller, and it was indeed pretty thrilling. The murder was really well handled – with suspense that Hitchcock would have been proud of. The tension starts with Neff hiding in the back of the car (I was actually worried he was going to get motion sickness and give the game away by throwing up). Then the scenes on the train are pretty nail-biting. Finally, the scene when the getaway car won’t start was almost unbearable – it was such a relief when the Fonzie technique actually worked.
Femme fatale Phyllis (the alliterative leading lady) turned out not to be all bad after all, but what of our charming/sleazy anti-hero Neff? I couldn’t decide whether I liked him or not, but I definitely liked the way he lit his matches. Where can I find matches like that?
Trivia Trish Says:
- The movie was based on a novel by James Cain, which in turn was inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, the subject of a notorious 1920s murder trial. Miss Snyder had persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband, after having him take out a big insurance policy. She was found guilty and sent to the electric chair.
- The screenplay was written by director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the famous novelist. Chandler makes a cameo appearance 16 minutes 12 seconds into this movie. He is sitting outside an office reading a novel as Fred MacMurray walks past.
- The scene where the car will not start after the murder was not in the original script, but was added at the last minute by Wilder after his own car would not start on the day they were filming that scene.
- In the scene where Walter first kisses Phyllis, he is wearing a wedding ring. MacMurray had forgotten to remove it, and it was not noticed until post-production.
- The scene where Phyllis hides behind the door could not actually happen, because building codes did not (and still do not) allow doors to open into hallways.
- At the time, Barbara Stanwyck was not only the highest paid actress in Hollywood, but the highest paid woman in America.
- Stanwyck is wearing an unconvincing blonde wig throughout Double Indemnity. This was Billy Wilder’s idea; he said he wanted to underscore Phyllis’s sleazy phoniness. A month into shooting Wilder reportedly realized how bad the wig looked, and changed his mind, but by then it was too late. He claimed in later interviews that the wig was unconvincing intentionally, but most people do not believe this was really the case. One of the producers is said to have remarked “We hired Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington”!
An ending was filmed where Walter was sent to the gas chamber, but Wilder eventually decided it would be more fitting if Walter were to die in his office with his friend by his side.
Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars, but did not win any. When Leo McCarey’s went to collect his Best Director award (for Going My Way) Wilder tripped him up on his way to the stage.
- Double Indemnity is one of the films parodied in the 1993 comedy Fatal Instinct, in which a woman conspires to have her husband shot on a moving train and fall into a lake so that she can collect on his insurance, which has a “triple indemnity” rider.
Main Cast and Crew:
Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff
Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson
Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes
directed by Billy Wilder