The movie opens with a shot of a man, walking in crutches. The idea of it sounds harmless. And yet, with the ominous music playing and the silhouette creeping closer to the camera, the scene efficiently haunts. Within these few seconds, while credits fade in and out, noir, as a style, has already proven its efficacy. It’s an auspicious start for a film that will only get better.
The story of “Double Indemnity” is narrated by an insurance salesman named Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). Through a dictaphone, he confesses to have taken part in a criminal scheme. It all began on a visit to the Dietrichson residence. Walter is on an errand to renew auto insurance. The husband is not present, but Phyllis, the towel-clad wife (Barbara Stanwyck), is. Walter is immediately smitten by her. At first, the two converse about insurance. After gauging their sexual chemistry, they engage in a 40s-style metaphorical flirtation. He leaves amused, itching for another visit. She tells him to come back tomorrow evening.
The next day, she cancels and tells him to come back another time. Walter obeys, but on his second visit, Mr. Dietrichson is once again absent. The insurance man becomes suspicious of the tempting wife. She claims she has relayed the information and her husband is willing to renew. And then, in an act of worry and coy, Phyllis brings up her rich husband’s hazardous line of work. She wonders of attaining an accident policy for him, but without the husband knowing. Walter instantly perceives her brazen intent.
“Look, baby. You can’t get away with it. You want to knock him off, don’t ya?” Walter is repulsed.
”Whaddya think I was anyway? A guy that walks into a good-looking dame’s front parlor and says, ‘Good afternoon. I sell accident insurance on husbands. Have you got one that’s been around too long? One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash? Just give me a smile and I’ll help you collect?’ Huh! Boy, what a dope you must think I am!”
He walks out, but Phyllis seeks him out later that evening. As strong-minded as he might think, he couldn’t will himself to resist the beautiful woman. He surrenders to her seduction and agrees to plot an “accident” on her husband.
Walter deems he has enough insurance experience to outsmart the policy system. His major obstacle is his boss and friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the company’s claims manager. Keyes, who is yet to be wrong, has a dead-accurate intuition for targeting phony claims. Walter would be a fool to trick him, but for a hot dame and monetary fortune, he’s willing to risk it all.
“Double Indemnity” has been branded around as an essential film noir. Such repute turns this amateur reviewer into a Barton Keyes character, suspiciously inspecting if the claim is phony. My finding is this: if there are any misgivings, it’s in the style and not necessarily in the movie itself. A modern viewer would be unaccustomed to the cold and distant attitudes of the characters and their monotonous manner of speaking. Consider that Walter calls Phyllis “baby” so many times, but the delivery is always opaque; there is no hint of coo.
I didn’t find it bad. The effect is rather weird, fascinatingly weird. With all the scheming and seducing going on in a film noir, characters must attain some steely demeanor. However, despite the restrained histrionics, “Double Indemnity” cannot be faulted to lack chemistry. Actors Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck warp the conspiring lovers with insatiable lust and power. Their contained fast-paced dialogues often crackle, in a perverse mixture of danger and desire. In the supporting role, Edward G. Robinson shines as Barton Keyes, that rare antagonist who’s also worth rooting for. Not just because Keyes’ morals are intact. The character is also the movie’s secret weapon in keeping the viewers on edge. His intimidating intuition about the “accident” pushes the story downhill towards a gravitating and deadly ending.
It’s funny that for all the talk of accidents, it’s doubtful if the film contains any genuine accidents at all. If anything, this is a movie about planning. Walter has plans. Phyllis has plans. Keyes has plans. Everybody else has plans. And let’s not forget, those genius minds who planted plans in their heads: the filmmakers. Billy Wilder and co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler have accomplished what Walter and Phyllis couldn’t: a fortuitous accident. “Double Indemnity” comes together so seamlessly that it doesn’t seem planned by humans, but by cinematic gods.
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson
Based on the novel by
James A. Cain