(Paramount) Double Indemnity is now cited as the quintessential work of the film noir movement – despite the fact that director Billy Wilder claimed he'd never heard the term until long after its release. As a classic of American cinema, it may seem to us Future People an inexorable feature of the cultural landscape; however, the truth is that Double Indemnity almost didn't get made.
Doubt Indemnity is the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who chances to meet the sultry Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), wife of a wealthy oil man (Tom Powers). After a couple of flirtatious conversations, Neff surmises that Mrs. Dietrichson is thinking of having her husband killed in order to collect on his insurance policy. His instinct is to have nothing more to do with her, but his heart – and other parts of his anatomy – persuade him otherwise.
The story was taken from a novella by James M. Cain, author of such classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain based it on a real-life 1927 murder plot he'd covered during his days as a reporter in New York City. At the time of its publication in 1935, movie studios were clamoring to buy the film rights. Then a little something called the Motion Picture Production Code – known popularly as the Hays Code – got in the way. Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, wrote a letter stating:
The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater. I am sure you will agree that it is most important … to avoid what the code calls “the hardening of audiences,” especially those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and fact of crime.
Yes, in the 1930s, even the portrayal of crime onscreen was thought to be morally reprehensible. As a result, the studios immediately withdrew their bids. It wasn't until eight years later that Paramount executive Joseph Sistrom and director Billy Wilder secured the rights and pushed the project through against the objections of the PCA.
In many ways, Double Indemnity was the Pulp Fiction of its day. Packed with snappy dialogue and stylish visuals, it was an immediate hit with audiences, and set a new standard for every crime thriller that followed. The dialogue can be credited in part to Cain's original story, but mostly to an excellent script by Wilder and detective fiction legend Raymond Chandler. The visual style came from cinematographer John F. Seitz, who employed the chiaroscuro of German Expressionism to create a world of deep shadows and stripes of light that make the characters look as though they're trapped behind bars.
This bleak and oppressive tone is essential to the theme of the film, implying that these people have already imprisoned themselves in their own heads long before their crimes are actually discovered. What begins as a love story – in which the selfish actions of Neff and Dietrichson almost seem sympathetic – slowly devolves into a nasty mess of manipulation, mistrust, and despair.
In a way, though, the film does deliver on the love story – just not between the people you expected. Neff's relationship with his colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is the true heart of the story, built on a mutual respect and affection, even as one tries to ferret out the other's indiscretions. In the film's framing device, Neff – wishing to confess to his friend – narrates the whole tale into Keyes' dictaphone, and the rest is told in flashback. MacMurray and Robinson are brilliant in their scenes together, convincing us that they truly care for each other despite the cloud of nervous suspicion that envelops them.
The great Alfred Hitchcock once wrote that "Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are 'Billy' and 'Wilder.'" Indeed, this film – which Wilder himself deemed his favorite – showcases Wilder's remarkable talent to its fullest. He takes an unwieldy plot with multiple twists and turns, sub-plots, and intricacies of circumstance, and makes it feel tight and streamlined.
Cain himself loved the film, saying, "It's the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder's ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine — I would have done it if I had thought of it."
There is much, much more to say about Double Indemnity – wonderful little moments between the characters, the decaying splendor of 1930s Los Angeles, the exploration of isolation and self-interest as morally corrosive elements of the human psyche, etc. – but suffice it to say that this is a truly great film that's worth your time in every regard. If you've enjoyed watching a Hitchcock or a Lynch film in the past, then you owe it to yourself to see where classic film noir hit its high point.
For Fans Of: Chinatown, Pulp Fiction, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch
Why We Like It: arresting visual style, sharply memorable dialogue, a real love story within a fake love story, the gloriously seedy romance of detective fiction, an indelible document of its era