75 years on from its release, this is film noir at its best. Insurance salesman Walter Neff [Fred Mac Murray] and LA housewife Phyllis Dietrichson [Barbara Stanwyck] plot the murder of her husband. Wilder’s crisp direction and dialogue by novelist Raymond Chandler are faultless in this much copied story of avarice and ruthless intent.
Dir: Billy Wilder, USA 107mins, 1944
Co-writer-director Billy Wilder’s 1944 film-noir thriller milestone still plays beautifully whether on late-night TV or in cinema revivals. Hugely admired and much imitated, it’s a sizzling movie masterpiece.
Boldly playing against type, Fred MacMurray trades in his regular Hollywood nice guy image and triumphs in his unexpected casting as the wily Walter Neff, a clever but shifty insurance salesman lured into an insurance-killing scam by the wife of one of his clients, slutty femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The two embark on a torrid affair. But she has money on her mind. She wants him to murder her husband for the indemnity money, though it turns out that this can be doubled if he falls from a moving train. Soon, Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is found dead on the tracks. The cops believe that it’s the accident it seems to be, and it looks like the duo have got away with it.
With Stanwyck as a brilliant femme fatale, blonde, bold, brassy and brittle, giving a masterclass (mistressclass?) in duplicity and shallowness, there’s superb acting from the two well-matched stars at their peak. Edward G Robinson is on great form too, showing the importance of being quietly earnest in his role as Barton Keyes, MacMurray’s suspicious boss and friend, an insurance claims investigator who is doggedly looking into the case.
This is ideal material for Wilder. On his best cynical form, he directs atmospherically and tautly, working with a razor-sharp, darkly witty screenplay that he and legendary author Raymond Chandler (who had never worked in film) adapted from the James M Cain novel Three of a Kind, (inspired by the real-life 1927 Snyder-Gray story). With a top-notch score by Miklos Rozsa and luminous cinematography by John Seitz, Double Indemnity is in many ways the quintessential ’40s thriller and one of the finest suspense mysteries ever made.
There were seven Oscar nominations but absolutely no wins. The New York film critics unwittingly insulted Stanwyck and Wilder by placing them third as best actress and director. Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing …
Remade for TV in 1954 and 1973, the film provided the spark that kindled 1981’s similarly themed Body Heat.
Acknowledgments: Derek Winnert, derekwinnert.com
Philip French, The Observer
Seventy five years after its release, Double Indemnity remains an intriguing, entertaining and complex work. The precision of the dialogue, acting, cinematography and editing stands in contrast to most contemporary films which look like amateurish, self-indulgent trivia against Wilder’s oeuvre.
David Walsh & Joanne Launer, World Socialist Web Site
- So gripping
- Riveting throughout!
- What a wonderful choice for starting the new season! Perfect in every detail.
- Brilliant. Really captured the louche atmosphere of LA in the late ’30s
- 75 years after its first release, this film maintained its excellence, with a supporting cast that kept the core narrative from being too talkative in the middle section. Definitely worth a re-visit to appreciate the use of certain character traits throughout the film.
- A good whodunnit with an unusual plot. Pity I couldn’t hear some of the dialogue.
- Excellent in many ways but the acting seemed very over-the-top when viewed 75 years later.
- Didn’t like the format of knowing the ending at the beginning – but it was a good film anyway.
- What a lot of spent matches!