Double Indemnity (1944) shows some real film noir
Unlike Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014), Double Indemnity (1944) is one of the finest examples of film noir ever made, without all the melodrama and poor writing. It was directed by Billy Wilder, multiple academy award winner across many different films, including Sunset Blvd, another example of film noir. Double Indemnity stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwick, and Edward G. Robinson, who are not the biggest stars in the industry, but Edward G. Robinson may be the most respected. Although Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon are more famous, this movie was one of the first examples of film noir, which every successor tries to copy.
The term “double indemnity” refers to a clause in an insurance policy, which “doubles” the payout in cases of accidental death. This gives you a clue to the focus of this movie: someone’s going to die, and it’s not going to be an accident, though it likely will be framed as one. This emphasis on murder was something striking back in the day, and that’s pretty much all everyone talks about.
Much like Sin City, the pace of this movie is pretty fast. Cars race back and forth, even at the beginning, as a Ford zips down the street with the main character, Walter Neff. Neff is played by Fred MacMurray, and his performance is pretty good. The dialogue is also delivered fast and furious, and Neff leads the way.
Silhouettes and shadows are used to highlight and accentuate the environment, not make a stylized statement. I would say The Maltese Falcon does office scenes better and its main character, Sam Spade, fits film noir better, though Walter Neff could be considered a deeper character. He has a dark office, smokes, and sits in dim lighting, just like every other main character in film noir history.
Unlike The Maltese Falcon or Sin City itself, Double Indemnity begins en media res, or at the midpoint. Walter Neff looks at the end of his rope just as the movie begins, and the events slowly catch us up and fill us in on why he is so desperate. He admits to murder, for money and for a woman. He recalls this story and the movie goes to flashback.
At this point, Neff begins some narration about his visit to Phyllis Dietrichson’s house, where he sells Phyllis some insurance. Yes, he’s an insurance salesman. Not a cop. Not a private investigator. A regular, boring, insurance salesman, but this doesn’t stop Phyllis from dropping some sexual innuendos. Gasp. Racy.
Barbara Stanwick plays it exactly the same as Eva Green in Sin City, as she uses Walter Neff against her husband. She wants a large accident policy and the reason seems quite obvious to Neff. Unlike Josh Brolin’s character, Neff acts like an intelligent man who’s been around and walks out, although he angsts over the woman like every other main character in every other film noir on Earth. Lucky for him, Phyllis shows up at his apartment to save him a trip. They begin an affair.
All the characters are sad and depressed, or stressed-out and depressed. The women are especially sad and depressed, which is typical of film noir. Phyllis claims to be an abused wife, which justifies her premeditated notions about her husband’s death. Neff tries to talk her out of it, but it’s no use, and he decides to help her kill him. Later, it was hard to decide who was playing who. Together, they murder Phyllis’ husband.
After the movie catches up with where it began, an investigation begins into the murder. The dialogue during these scenes is excellent, especially by Edward G. Robinson. He definitely carries this part of the movie. The insurance company suspects murder, but can’t prove it. Robinson keeps digging and digging into the case, setting Neff on edge.
Robinson unknowingly pulls in Neff to help him investigate. Seeing the tension on Neff’s face was pure gold, that’s for sure. Everything about him was tense, dreading the uncovering of his secret. In the end, Phyllis reveals her deception to Neff, that she was using him the whole time and she pulls an Eva Green, shooting Neff, but she can’t finish him off. Neff sure can though, and he guns down Phyllis. Touche! After Phyllis dies, Neff returns to his office, but slumps over thanks to his wound and is taken in by the police.
All in all, this is a great movie, with well-written dialogue that feels almost entirely natural. Every line. Each scene fits together nicely, even though the story is told en media res. There is no melodrama anywhere. I can see why this movie has become the template for film noir, as it began every single trope ever seen in film noir, from a bleak city setting to a morally ambiguous tone.