Double_indemnity

Long before television’s Columbo familiarised us with the detective yarn where the killer is revealed at the beginning, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler gave us the early reveal in their seminal film-noir Double Indemnity. These two great writers had a famously fractious relationship throughout the process of adapting James M. Cain’s novella, but the end result was a dark, beautifully-paced movie full of whip-sharp dialogue. The story concerns insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who, during a routine call to the house of Mr Dietrichson, instead encounters his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and promptly falls for her.

Phyllis has a plan to insure her husband and then arrange for his “accidental” death. It turns out that Neff, whilst considering the ways in which clients might try to commit insurance fraud, has gotten to wondering how he could pull off the perfect fraud himself. The two of them appear to be a match made in heaven (or hell). As an insurance expert, Neff knows that accidental death on a train is almost unheard of, and insurance payouts from such rare causes are twice the usual amount – the double indemnity of the title. He cooks up a plan to knock off the old man on a train but, of course, no sooner is the deed done than problems arise.

It is clear from the outset that the plan has gone badly wrong. Most of the scenes are flashbacks, but the present-time beginning of the film shows a wounded Neff making a voice recording of the whole story, including his confession to murder, for his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The intrigue in the tale is in discovering just what went wrong and the wonderfully tight plotting does this brilliantly.

Double_indemnity_screenshot_3

The characterisation sets the tone for many a noir film to follow. MacMurray’s Neff is tall, handsome, and confident, but turns out to be a complete sap at the mercy of Stanwyck’s femme fatale. Much play is made of the ankle bracelet worn by Phyllis Dietrichson, which is clearly meant to indicate that this is not just a blond but a sleazy one. Almost as soon as Neff encounters her (wrapped in a towel initially) he starts making moves. For all of about two minutes she puts up some token resistance, telling him “There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour”. He says “How fast was I going, officer?” and she tells him “I’d say about ninety”.

The use of shadow, a classic tool of the noir film-maker, is also used to emphasise the sleaze element. In one scene we see Phyllis sitting on a couch whilst she talks to Neff. Her face is in shadow but the side lamp ensures that we are aware of the shape of her breasts through her tight white sweater. Light and shadow is also used elsewhere to great effect. In various of the office scenes the light coming through the venetian blinds throws shadow lines on the walls and floors, an effect copied in many subsequent noir movies.

As well as being an outstanding movie, Double Indemnity is also notable for one curiosity: Raymond Chandler makes his only known film appearance – for about one or two seconds – in one of the early scenes.

Rating: 10/10

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s