Co-Written and Directed by Billy Wilder
I’d like to begin this review a little differently by saying I am no film school student nor am I well-versed in the nuances of storytelling or cinema. I only know what I like and what I don’t like. It’s with a little bit of trepidation that I decided to write about Double Indemnity since it is a classic piece of film noir from a great director with an all-star and extremely talented cast.
Late one night insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) with a severe wound in his shoulder begins to dictate a confession to his friend and claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) about how he murdered the husband of his lover Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and together they committed insurance fraud.
It’s said this movie set a standard for film noir and honestly it does. It is a perfect example of the genre of the time from when the genre was in its prime. The crime and motivations are simple, and things just spiral beyond what Neff had wanted.
What I like is that Walter Neff is not so much undone by Barton Keyes but by himself. His own mind begins to work against him even though there are several points where he gets a reprieve. Even at the end when he could have let Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) and Phyllis take the fall he basically undid himself. All he had to do was play dumb and let Nino go into the house.
The directing and acting are amazing. It must’ve been something else to see this movie in theaters for the first time. The style here has been mimicked ever since. Billy Wilder is deservedly regarded as a directing great. This movie is one reason why.
The relationship between Walter and Barton is built up very well throughout the movie. Their friends of a type and it shows. There’s respect and mutual caring between them. And when Walter is laying in the doorway dying you can feel the sadness that Barton has. It packs some real emotion.
Don’t you just love the cadence that older movies have? That snappy rapid talking with slang that felt awkwardly inserted. It’s an interesting style that was popular throughout movies of the time. It’s completely unnatural but sounds so cool.
Phyllis is a gifted manipulator though as with all good movies this important plot point is not made immediately clear. That she manipulates is shown early but how much and how good she is is slowly revealed as the story goes along. The reveal that she did it before with her current husband was very edgy for the time.
The revelation that she killed or at least helped along the death of her husband’s first wife is surprising and sheds not only new light on the character’s marital situation when it’s revealed but also on what was going on with Walter. She even tried to manipulate Nino into killing her stepdaughter in an apparent effort to eliminate a potential witness. That’s cold!
One thing that bothers me, and it may be because of the times in which the movie was made, is that it’s implied that the husband had some knowledge of what Phyllis did to his first wife based on how quickly they married and things that were said in the movie but he largely escapes any negative light in the story other than being emotionally distant and a jerk. It just gets glossed over at the very end. This is still an amazing movie after all these years. It’s a classic piece of film that set a standard that still holds up to this day. If you haven’t seen it why are you denying yourself?