Double Indemnity is a truly classic film noir.

Mar 18, 2008
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great cast, superb art direction and cinematography, perfectly directed...

Cons:... okay, one or too slightly implausible bits if you're really picky...

The Bottom Line: Double Indemnity is a true classic. I can't believe I'd never seen it before!

Double Indemnity is a superb 1944 thriller starring Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, a fast-talking insurance salesman, attempting to pull the perfect fraud job. Of course he didn’t start out with that idea - it all stated when he met, and immediately fell for, Phyllis Dietrich son (Barbara Stanwyck). From there the tale she spins of her unhappy marriage, complicated by a tempestuous relationship with stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather) takes him on the slippery slope to crime. With his extensive knowledge of the insurance business, nothing can stop Walter from covering his tracks ingeniously… except, perhaps, the analytical skills of his friend, the even faster talking fraud investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).

Frequently told in flashbacks, this movie is utterly compelling from the word go, and any small misgivings caused by some bits that seem to push plausibility a little too far are easily overcome with the amazingly tense atmosphere the film creates. It’s interesting to ponder whether this film could have had the same impact if it had been shot in colour - but I don’t think so. The filming is spot on - the camera angles, use of shadow, and perspectives on the actors all add to the tension of the film. (Art Direction by Hans Drier and Hal Pereira.) John Seitz‘s cinematography is honestly near-perfect. The screen does sometimes get so dark as to be impossible to tell what’s going on in a couple of scenes, but this is done deliberately so as to add to the suspense. The music score (by Milkos Rozsa) also builds up suspense, and never becomes obtrusive.

The film is very wordy, as so many films of the era were, and the dialogue is often brilliant. Fred MacMurray’s performance as the man always on the edge of turning back from the treacherous course he’s plotted for himself is excellent, while Barbara Stanwick is beguiling as the femme fatale who feels no shame, but while it’s easy to dislike her, we can understand why she’s cast such a spell on poor Walter. For me though the star of the show was Edward G. Robinson - his juggernaut performance was so powerful that it virtually pulls you out of your seat. He’s so quick-witted and smooth-talking, you always wonder whether he knows more than he’s letting on, and without anything to the effect being said, you get the impression at the end that he had it basically figured out right from the start. The ending though is not necessarily unexpected but it’s superbly handled nonetheless. You feel involved with the characters from the word go, and even the ones you don’t like very much… you desperately want to know what happens to them.

Billy Wilder’s direction is another part of the key to this film’s being in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of All Time list - at the time of writing this, #58 - there are moments of humour to lighten the mood and scenes of compelling drama / intrigue / emotion. With the excellent acting, awesome script and breathtaking art direction / cinematography it makes one of the best films of all time in a lot of peoples’ books - including mine.

In case you didn’t know (I didn’t), the term “Double Indemnity” refers to an insurance clause where a double payment is handed out if someone whose life is insured dies in an unusual manner. Theoretically of course the chances of this happening are remote, meaning little danger of them ever having to pay it out… and cases when someone has died in this manner shortly after taking out a life insurance policy would automatically be viewed as suspicious. The way Walter covers his tracks, and the way Barton uncovers them, are quite brilliant and show (to a layman at least) a deep knowledge of the insurance business. (The movie was based on a novel by James M. Cain [who also wrote “The Postman Always Rings Twice] called “Double Indemnity in Three of a Kind”. This was adapted to a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.)

Double Indemnity was nominated for no less that seven Oscars; sadly it didn’t win a single one. The Bing Crosby film “Going My Way” won most of the ones this was nominated for - as I haven’t seen that film, I can’t comment on whether this was an injustice or not!

If there‘s a better example of film noir than Double Indemnity, it has to be The Maltese Falcon. But my advice would be to watch them both! :-D

Recommend this product?

Read all comments (3)

Share this product review with your friends   
Share This!