Noirvember: “Double Indemnity” (1944)

In honor of Noirvember—a celebration of the film noir genre created by @oldfilmsflicker on Twitter—I wanted to take some time throughout this month to highlight some classic films noir that I love.

Film noir is probably the most intriguing and unique of all film genres; they can sometimes be difficult to characterize. These stylized, black-and-white crime dramas arguably reached their peak in 1940s Hollywood, and there are few better examples of this type of film than Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic “Double Indemnity”.

The film stars Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who one day makes a routine house call to get an automobile insurance policy renewed for a man named Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers). The man is not home, but his wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) is, and she quickly seduces Walter, hoping to get him to help her murder her husband so she can claim his life insurance. At first, Walter wants no part in her plan, but she follows him home and convinces him. Walter decides they should throw Mr. Dietrichson from a train, an unlikely death that would require the insurance company, by their double indemnity clause, to pay the widow twice the usual amount.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity”

The murder seems to go smoothly, but other factors soon jeopardize the success of their scheme. Walter’s colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) begins to suspect that Phyllis and someone else murdered Mr. Dietrichson, and relentlessly pursues this idea, explaining his thoughts and new developments he’s made to Walter all the time. Then there’s Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather), who comes to Walter to tell him that she believed Phyllis killed her father because her mother died mysteriously while Phyllis was her nurse. It all culminates in some startling information Walter learns about Phyllis, altering his opinion of her and the plans they made together.

The casting in this film is very intriguing, as both MacMurray and Robinson are playing against type. MacMurray mostly played the nice guy in comedies, particularly later in his career when he did several films for Disney, including “The Absent-Minded Professor”. In contrast, Robinson was revered as one of the screen’s greatest gangsters. But in this film, MacMurray is the bad guy and Robinson is the good-hearted man out to discover the truth. It seems like it would be quite a stretch for them both, but they rose to the challenge and succeeded at bringing a gritty realism to their characters. Stanwyck is also excellent as the tough and seductive femme fatale (despite her hideous blonde wig).

Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in “Double Indemnity”

The characters these actors play are also incredibly interesting, particularly Walter. There is a sort of moral ambiguity about him. He murders a man, and yet he is the one everyone comes to for help. Keyes sees him as one of his most trusted friends, and confides in him as he tries to solve Mr. Dietrichson’s murder. Lola also sees something in him that makes her trust him enough to go to him with her troubles, particularly to give him, not the police or anyone else, information that makes Phyllis a murder suspect. Even Phyllis is drawn to him, singling him out to assist her in the murder, not some other man. It’s hard to imagine why someone seemingly as trustworthy as Walter would want to kill a man just because a woman he’s just met asked him to, but that’s part of the intrigue of the film: wondering what Walter is going to do next, and if he’s going to reveal who killed Mr. Dietrichson to Keyes or Lola.

Like most noir films, the movie is shot using low-key lighting, creating intense shadows and contrast between light and dark, visually illustrating the lightness and darkness of the characters’ motivations. The shadows also set the dark tone of the film, creating a sense of hopelessness about the characters, particularly Phyllis and Walter and their ill-fated scheme.

“Double Indemnity” is a film that is both technically and emotionally engaging, a character-driven story that is suspenseful, romantic, and dramatic all at once. It can be rented or purchased on all digital platforms. Runtime: 107 minutes.

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