Double Indemnity is cold hard noir at its finest. It has classic film noir credentials: adapted from James McCain’s novel of the same name- and a screenplay co-written by Raymond Chandler. In the hands of director/co-writer Billy Wilder, it’s pulp elevated to cinematic greatness.
The story is wisely kept simple, told in flashback as insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) makes a confession revealing how he became entangled with housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who wants her domineering husband dead. Walter knows the insurance business inside out and reckons that he can beat the system, even though his colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) can flawlessly sift out fraudulent claims. Fuelled by love for Phyllis and unwise arrogance, he concocts a plan that means that when Phyllis’ husband is killed in an ‘accident’, the insurance company will have to pay out under the double indemnity clause: a sort of bonus cash sum for unlikely forms of accident.
Stanwyck perfectly captures Phyllis’ icy coolness- the quality that allures both Walter and the audience. She may have an angelic face but Phyllis is no angel and is not averse to some steamy flirting, in classic innuendo-filled banter of course.
MacMurray matches her performance nicely, though he is greatly helped by Wilder’s one-liners. Walter is not simply a fool for love but is blinded by his own smartness, which in hindsight was not a smart move.
There’s plenty of delicious Hollywood melodrama but Double Indemnity holds up well. Wilder’s cynical tone is not hackneyed but incisive and witty and despite the Motion Picture Production Code’s crackdown on glamorisation of crime, the film remains unscathed.
Double Indemnity is both an example of classic Hollywood craft and a timeless insight into the murky paths in life people take.