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Blast from the Past Movie Review – “Double Indemnity” (1944)

August 21, 2011

Billy Wilder is a great director, one of my favorite classic filmmakers. The man has brought us “Some Like it Hot”, “Sunset Blvd.”, and “The Apartment”. He’s the inspiration for such talented filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Lawrence Kasadan, and Cameron Crowe. As much as I love the movies I’ve listed, there’s one I think that is truely Wilder’s finest piece, and one of my all time favorite Film-Noir pieces, “Double Indemnity”.

The late 1930’s really started to pick up on the Eurpoean styling of Film-Noir, with it’s classic themes of betrayal, femme fatales characters, hard noised detectives or scumbags caught in a jab, to the stylistic low-key lighting, and venetian blind shadows. By the 40’s it seemed like there was 3 or 4 Film-Noirs released a month. In 1944, “Double Indemnity” was the quint-essential best. Critics praise the film as being the how to study of what it takes to make a true Film-Noir. It has everything you need. The story is all about greed, murder, and blind love.

Fred MacMurray stars in this film, although it seems quite of an odd choice for him at the time, since he was well known for starring in more light hearted roles. His co-star, Edward G. Robinson, also makes an interesting character choice, while he’s usually known for playing weird/creepy villains, in this film he’s the symbol of reason & deduction as the insurance company boss. Barbara Stanwyck is seductive as the woman who convinces MacMurray’s character to kill her husband, everytime she’s on screen she’s got this look, eerie, yet you cannot look away, and if you know your Film-Noir, inevitably she turns out to be a double crossing two timing bitch.

The story focuses on Walter Neff (MacMurray), an experienced salesman of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. On his daily route going to door to door he meets the flirtatious wife of one of his clients, Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), subsequntially they have an affair. Phyllis proposes an idea to Neff, if they want to live a life together, they need money. The idea, to kill her husband and receive the proceeds of an accident insurance policy. Walter devises a scheme to receive twice the amount based on a double indemnity clause. When Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is found dead on a train-track, the police accept the determination of accidental death. However, the insurance analyst and Walter’s best friend & boss, Barton Keyes (Robinson), does not buy the story and suspects that Phyllis has murdered her husband with the help of another man. Only time will tell when Keyes will get close to the discovery of who’s been behind the whole scheme.

The story is truely captivating, you get sucked into these characters, how they act, what they think, what they say. Wilder was best known for creating great characters & giving them terrific character development. Although the plot may seem simple in the movie; kill the husband, take the insurance money, what happens afterwards is the real complex web of ‘bad to worse’ scenarios. You think, even the characters think, they get away with it, but from the point where Keyes feels funny about this case, the paranoia  kicks in, and ultimately turns Neff & Mrs. Dietrichson against one another. It’s fun watching people fall down the hole of corruption. The movie opens with Neff already injured by a gun shot wound. He ends up in his office recording his entire story incase he dies, so Keyes will know why Neff did what he had to do. There comes in the classic voice over ploy to a classic Film-Noir.

Filled with terrific performances and a plot that will have the audience/viewer hooked from the first shot, leaves us with, what I consider, one of Billy Wilder’s best movies. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, why it didn’t win is beyond me.



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