Initially considered unfilmable due to the guidelines set out by the Motion Picture Production Code, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is rightfully recognised as being one of the finest (and bleakest) film noirs ever made, and despite coming away from the Oscars empty-handed its popularity has endured for nigh on 70 years. On the one hand its longevity is unsurprising: James M. Cain was one of the great hard-boiled writers, penning the likes of Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice as well as this gripping tale of murder, fraud and double-crossing, which was adapted for the screen by Wilder and Raymond Chandler (who also knew a thing or two about gritty crime tales). On the other hand it could so easily have been a disaster: it’s well known that Chandler had little experience of the movie business beforehand, that Wilder knew next to nothing about crime, and that the pair clashed repeatedly during the screenwriting process. But if their relationship was as fractious as Hollywood lore suggests it barely matters, given the end results; Cain was fulsome in his praise and admitted his story had been improved, which isn’t something you hear often, while the finished script is packed full of juicy lines. The dialogue snaps throughout, whether it’s between Fred MacMurray’s insurance salesman Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, or Neff and his boss Barton Keyes, memorably played by the great Edward G. Robinson.
Like the similarly bleak back-to-front noir D.O.A it’s a film that instantly captures the imagination with its opening sequence. We see the silhouette of the badly-injured Neff lurching towards the camera; he enters an office – his office – and records a testament using a dictaphone that reveals his part in a series of crimes to Keyes, and Wilder never lets your attention wander for a minute thereafter. It’s a brave move to give away so much information at such an early stage, or indeed to let the audience in on a fairly major plot point – Neff getting shot – around 90 minutes before we actually see it happen, but Wilder chose to do this safe in the knowledge that there’s so much more to this story than its ending. And what an array of classic scenes and passages follow as the characters, both major and minor, meet and repeatedly betray one another. There’s Neff’s first encounter with Phyllis, for example, as she stands at the top of the stairs covered by a towel and he eagerly flirts while waiting at the bottom. There’s the to-and-fro colluding and scheming as Neff first decides to walk away from Phyllis when he realises that she intends to kill her husband (Tom Powers), before later returning when he can’t stop thinking about her. There’s the murder itself, part of a seemingly water-tight plan that ought to make the con foolproof, but ultimately isn’t quite as clever as the perpetrators think. And then there’s Keyes, gradually noticing that some details of the insurance claim do not make sense and continually asserting himself as the master of his domain, an office that has been perfectly decorated by Bertram Granger and designed by Hal Pereira. The prolific John Francis Seitz, who was nominated seven times for an Academy Award but never won, shoots with the contrast turned up high; we see the dust in the shafts of light (actually aluminium particles, blown by Wilder himself) that filter into the Dietrichson house, while the director insisted his cinematographer should ‘make the shadows like night’, which led to some of the darkened rushes being useless. The strong chiaroscuro helped to lay down the template for the noirs that followed in its wake, and you could certainly point to MacMurray’s delivery as being just as influential, or Stanwyck’s career-defining turn as a femme fatale, aped more recently by the likes of Linda Fiorentino and Lara Flynn Boyle. ‘Are you a mouse or an actress?’ Wilder bluntly asked Stanwyck when she expressed her reservations about the part. Her answer was definitive.
Directed by: Billy Wilder.
Written by: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler. Based on Double Indemnity by James M. Cain.
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr.
Cinematography: John Francis Seitz.
Editing: Doane Harrison.
Music: Miklós Rózsa.
Running Time: 107 minutes.