Skip to main content

Double Indemnity

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.    



Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #316: Trainspotting

In the 1990s Hollywood directors were the kings of cinema, whether it was for big summer blockbusters or smaller independent films. Guys like James Cameron or Michael Bay would blow up the screens while Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino put the emphasis on snappy dialogue that created relatable characters for the moviegoers. Then in 1996, as if to scream “we can do this too,” Danny Boyle released Trainspotting in the United Kingdom.
Based on a novel by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the movie took the world by storm despite having no explosions, a cast of actors who were relatively unknown and a budget that today could barely pay for the catering of a Transformers movie. Furthermore this is not the story of young people going to college to enter a life full of promise, but about young heroine addicts meandering through the streets of Edinburgh. Despite introducing these characters during an energetic montage set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…