I wrote this introduction for The Mesilla Valley Film Society’s screening of Double Indemnity in November, 2023.
When you get a group of two or more noir nerds together, there are two things that are inevitably going to happen:
- They will argue about what is and isn’t film noir.
- They will agree that Double Indemnity is in the top three films noir, if not the absolute best of the genre.
There are good reasons for both of these phenomena, but let’s just talk about the second.
There had been films noir before — Johnny Apollo, Fury, and Dead End all come to mind — but this movie was a stylistic and narrative bomb, the kind of movie that would realign filmmaking around crime almost immediately. By asking viewers to sympathize with an adulterous couple planning murder, Double Indemnity crossed an invisible line established by Hollywood. It wasn’t good enough to have a gangster get got at the end of a movie about how he rose to power; the audience was going to have to start to feel something for him.
This is the kind of movie I find hard to write about — it’s all on the screen, every bit. There’s no subtext, no hidden message, and that’s what makes it work so well. It’s as visually dark as it is morally murky, a film that balances themes, vibes and plot perfectly.
It shouldn’t work: Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson are morally repugnant. When Neff twigs to the fact that Phyllis is thinking about taking out an insurance policy on her husband for the express purpose of profiting from his death, his initial reaction isn’t out-and-out disgust. He’s actually more concerned about the fact that she (and he, by dint of writing the policy) will get caught by Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes. He’s fine with murdering her husband if it means he’ll get some nice-nice from her; he just doesn’t want to go to jail for it.
But it does work. The screenplay (by a constantly-fueding Wilder and Raymond Chandler and based on a novel by James M. Cain) is as witty as it is clear-cut and fast movie. As complex as the scheme gets, the audience is never lost, even when third parties are introduced to throw a wrench in the works, demonstrating just how tightly edited the whole thing is. If you set aside and focus on the performances, this movie still reveals riches.
When he’s not with Phyllis, MacMurray’s Walter has an undeniable charm and warmth, especially in the scenes he shares with Robinson. Nobody can look at Barbara Stanwyck in this movie and not understand exactly why MacMurray’s character would go down the road he does. And Edward G. Robinson? Despite the overblown caricature that things like Looney Tunes would make of him, he was always a consummate performer, and this may be his best role.
Hell, Even the score (an element I frequently find irritating and overdone in classic Hollywood movies) helps underpin the whole thing with an instantly recognizable leitmotif that you never get tired of.
Everything this movie does echoes through the next decade-plus of genre filmmaking. Do you remember how Pulp Fiction begat a litany of knock-offs like Two Days in the Valley and Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead? Double Indemnity did that on a much larger scale; it allowed studio chiefs to see how they can combine existing sets and contracted actors with talented writers and directors to create higher-quality crime dramas on a budget.
This helps solidify that Double Indemnity is more than just a great film noir, it’s an important piece of moviemaking. While nobody may have hit these heights again, it created a model to follow while allowing artists to make art.