Film noirs are great and great film noirs are works of art. In 1944 Billy Wilder directed “Double Indemnity,” which is a great movie by all accounts. Shot in black and white and featuring shadows, cigarette smoke, men wearing fedoras, and a femme fatale this is a tale of greed and lust in Los Angeles.
Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, an insurance investigator who walks into his office late one night bleeding from a gunshot wound. He sits at his desk, turns on a tape recorder and explains how he came to be in this situation. It began when he went to renew coverage for the car of a rich oil man, Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers) but instead he talks to the man’s wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who is standing at the top of a staircase wearing a towel. At first they talk about insurance, then how nice it would be to see each other again. When Walter returns one afternoon Phyllis casually talks about how risky her husband’s job is and if it would be possible to give him a life insurance policy without him knowing about it. Walter sees where she is going with this and quickly walks out.
However, by early evening Walter is pondering if it would be possible to give a rich man life insurance, kill him, make it look like an accident, and then run off with his money and his wife. He makes it sound like beating a casino. Over the years he has seen hundreds of fraud cases where people thought they could fool his agency and collect they do not deserve. Since he knows how the agency works, he should be able to know how to fool the people who work there, right? Just as he is going over these facts, Phyllis knocks at his door, to tell him how much she hates her husband and how much she likes him. By the time she leaves, they are plotting to commit murder. They are both doomed.
The double indemnity in question refers to an accident that occurs in an unlikely setting, making the insurance settlement double the agreed sum. If Mr. Dietrichson was to die by falling off a moving train, the wife would receive $100,000 instead of $50,000. Naturally, the insurance company will investigate to be 100% sure that they have to pay; hence the plan needs to be foolproof. Walter makes sure that he has an alibi, he has Mr. Dietrichson sign a life insurance policy by telling it is form for his car, travels on foot so that no one will recognize him on the bus, and only meets Phyllis at a grocery store. Everything is perfect but it is bound to fail.
When you watch a murder investigation unfold from the point of view of a detective, you are marvelled at the investigator’s skills and powers of observation. When you are watching from the point of view of the criminal, it is like watching a building slowly collapsing. Small details that Walter could not have foreseen, like a witness on the train, begin to make him sweat. Phyllis turns to be more cunning then he had initially imagined, and unfortunately for him his best friend and boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), is possibly the best investigator in the business.
Walter and Barton are very close. Barton is always smoking cigars, but never seems to have any matches or lighter on him. Luckily, Walter is always there to light a match with his fingers. Barton always talk about a little man in his stomach telling him when a case reeks of fraud, and that little man progressively gets louder and louder when the Dietrichson case is dropped on his desk. Yet Walter bears no ill will toward Barton for ruining his plan, in fact he admires him and is never quite sure if Barton is suspicious of him or simply checking all the angles. A great scene of tension occurs when Barton is visiting Walter’s apartment and Phyllis is due to drop by any minute to discuss their plan.
This movie may be old, but it deserves to be a classic because it asks a classic movie question: can anyone commit the perfect murder? The payoff is money and a woman, but Walter seems to be tempted just to see if he can get away with it. Sometimes it isn’t about the prize, but about the journey. Double Indemnity’s moral is that with murder, there is no prize with murder, only punishment.