Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Billy Wilder's third American film - an adaptation of a hardboiled crime novel by James
M. Cain - has by dint of its perfection come to epitomise all that we love about the
genre of film noir. It begins with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray)
confessing all into a dictaphone for the ears of his colleague, claims manager Barton
Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). In this way Neff's voice is established as the narrator
of the tale - a key noir element - and comes to hold the film tightly together as voiceover,
illuminating the dramatised sections. Neff was just a normal, regular guy till one day
he calls at the house of a client, Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers) and instead meets his wife,
Phyllis, a bejewelled siren played by Barbara Stanwyck. He falls for Phyllis and becomes
sucked into a scheme to murder her husband and collect insurance money, using Neff's
inside knowledge to artfully stage the whole thing so it looks like an accident. They
are so confident that they place the accident on a train in order to collect double
the usual payout, hence the film's title. At first all goes according to plan, and
even Neff's friend, the bloodhound-like investigator Keyes, remains unsuspicious when
the claim is made. But then Keyes notices some small inconsistencies and starts to
probe, and soon everything unravels as Neff and Phyllis turn against one another, and
he discovers she was playing him for a sucker all along.
Excellence in writing, direction and acting from the three principals elevate this crime drama into a classic of almost Shakespearian depth. Neff's narration has a poetic beauty about it, and the increments of his descent into corruption are charted with a rare psychological clarity. MacMurray is well cast as the basically good guy with feet of clay, and a young Stanwyck is spot-on as the two-faced cheating broad. But the real scene-stealer is Robinson, playing against his usual gangster type, and revealing the insurance investigator as a moral crusader with the mind of Sherlock Holmes. The scene where he expertly puts down the company boss, who tries to dismiss the claim on the grounds that Dietrichson committed suicide, is one of the film's many unforgettable moments.
Double Indemnity is also very good in the way it details the buddy relationship between Neff and Keyes, and at its core the film is about Neff's betrayal of Keyes by his lurch into crime. It gives the action a believable human face, and the final scene, where Keyes discovers the wounded Neff telling all into the dictaphone, is greatly moving. Wilder used the voiceover technique again in his other masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, employing the marvellous conceit of a narrator who is already dead - borrowed wholesale in American Beauty. And the stamp of Double Indemnity can be seen in modern noir from De Palma to the Coen brothers. The film deserves its place at the top of the noir pyramid for its archetypal rendering of the crazed hopes and broken dreams of small-timers, hoping to beat the system and strike it rich, but instead falling flat; all played out in a seedy L.A. of deserted midnight streets, empty offices and shadowy railroad tracks. The dreamworld that is noir has never been better realised than in Double Indemnity.