Edward G. Robinson
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Double Indemnity is a brilliant example of film noir which many say set the bar for noir films that followed.
The story begins as Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), and insurance agent, stumbles into his office suffering from a gunshot wound. He dictates a confession of his part in a sordid tale of fraud and murder to his friend and co-worker Barton Keyes (played brilliantly by Edward G. Robinson). The main part of the story is told via flashbacks, detailing how Neff became tangled up with alluring Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) during a call on her house to get her husband to renew his auto policy. During that meeting, she asks telling questions regarding life insurance policies that makes it clear to Neff that she's planning on murdering her husband for the insurance money.
Originally, Neff wants no part of it, but he can't get Phyllis out of his head. It doesn't help that she pursues him and it doesn't take long before he finds himself falling for her. He uses his knowledge of the insurance industry to help her plot her husband's demise and get twice the face value of the policy with a double indemnity clause.
They hatch a plot wherein they make it appear Phyllis' husband is accidentally killed by falling off a train. The death raises suspicions with the head of the insurance company, Mr. Norton, who believes it was a suicide, but Keyes argues the improbability of a suicide being committed on a slow moving train. Still, the doubts raised by Mr. Norton gets to Keyes and as he investigates further, he begins to suspect foul play.
Slowly, the deception begins to unravel. Neff learns from Lola, Phyllis' step-daughter, that Lola's mother also died under mysterious circumstances and she suspects Phyllis killed both of her parents. Keyes, meanwhile, comes to the conclusion that Phyllis' husband was murdered and Phyllis likely had an accomplice, whom he believes to be Lola's boyfriend Nino.
When Neff learns from Lola that Nino has secretly been seeing Phyllis, he sees a way out of the tangled web he's been ensnared in and arranges a meeting with Phyllis. Once together, he confronts her with his knowledge of her affair with Nino and the assumption that she planned to have Nino kill him. He plans to kill her and frame Nino for the murder, only she is well prepared for Neff's visit and shoots him instead. He's wounded, but not mortally so and dares her to shoot him again. She can't and he takes the gun from her. She tells him that she never loved him until the moment when she couldn't take the second shot. She hugs him, but pulls back when she feels Neff's gun pressed against her. He tells her "Goodbye, baby" and kills her.
Neff waits for Nino to arrive outside the house. He advises him to go back to the woman who truly loves him and not enter the house. Nino listens and leaves. Neff then drives to his office and starts relaying the events surrounding the murder into a dictaphone, and we're back to where the film started off. Unbeknownst to Neff, Keyes overhears enough to know Neff's guilt and confronts him. Neff tells him he's going to Mexico rather than face execution, but collapsing from blood loss before he can leave. The film ends with Keyes lighting a cigarette while waiting for an ambulance and the police to arrive.
The original ending had Neff and Phyllis committing suicide together, but per the Hays code, this was forbidden. So, an ending where Neff goes to the gas chamber was written and filmed, only to be removed from the film when Wilder determined it really wasn't needed. That footage has been lost, but stills of it exist.
Double Indemnity was nominated for 7 Oscars, but sadly, didn't win any, losing most contests to Going My Way, another Paramount Pictures release. Despite not winning any awards during its time, the movie has since gained the recognition it deserves and is held up by many as the definitive example of film noir.
Fred MacMurray, while seeming like an unusual choice for the part of Walter Neff, really makes the role his own. I can't see anyone else playing the part (Alan Ladd, George Raft, Brian Donlevy, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, and Fredric March were all up for it, but passed), which is amusing since MacMurray didn't want the role in the first place. He didn't think he was right for it, since he was known mostly for romantic comedy with Claudette Colbert in such films as The Gilded Lily (1935) and The Bride Comes Home (1936). Casting MacMurray, however, was a stroke of genius, as he puts a completely unexpected face on the idea of who a murderer is. He's a likable average Joe who is led astray, not some tough, heartless career criminal.
My favorite aspect of this film is the snappy dialog, written expertly by Raymond Chandler. The banter between Neff and Phyllis accentuates the chemistry between the two. Edward G. Robinson's lengthy monologues are equally as phenomenal, made even more so by Robinson's amazing, flawless delivery. I wholeheartedly believe he should've won an Oscar for this performance.
The cinematography by John F. Seitz is art itself. The venetian blinds casting shadows that look like prison bars, the dust heavy in the air, the dark and foreboding interiors are almost characters themselves. It underscores the doom that awaits the players.
If you've seen this movie before, or even if you haven't, do yourself a favor and read up on the making of this fantastic film. Because of conflicts with the Hays Code, the difficulty in finding actors to take the parts, and the friction between writer Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder, the fact that this film came together at all is miraculous. The 2-disc Double Indemnity set by Universal includes a great documentary with many behind the scenes stories any fan of the film needs to see.