1944. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Billy Wilder.
“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps.” So says Walter Neff, who has just sold his soul. But you have to admit, it was a pretty good sale – as an insurance agent, he knew how the accident policy would pay off, even “double indemnity” if the person named in the policy died in certain circumstances, such as an unlikely fall from a train. And with the help of the unhappy wife, he was in the position to make that unlikely accident occur exactly by plan.
This sounds like it was all his idea. The significance of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” is in the quintessential portrayal of the manipulative beauty, a film noir staple. Walter Neff arrives at Phyllis Dietrichson’s home full of smarmy confidence and snarky comments, but he’s the fly coming to rest on the spiderweb.
Wilder casts Fred MacMurray as the smooth Walter Neff – and for those who don’t remember My Three Sons, it would be like casting Ray Romano today – against noir veteran Barbara Stanwyck, who plays Mrs. Dietrichson like a cold straight razor. MacMurray rises to the level of his co-stars, including Edward G. Robinson as his boss, his best friend, and the hardest-working insurance adjuster ever.
Based on a story by James M. Cain, adapted by Raymond Chandler, it’s comprised of all the best of film noir: shadowy sets, sharp dialogue and bitter conclusions. MacMurray sounds like he’s threatening Stanwyck when he calls her “Baby.” They certainly don’t love each other but, as he repeatedly says, they’re on the trolley together until the end. Last stop is the cemetery.
There are so many great scenes in Double Indemnity: Stanwyck wearing sunglasses at the grocery store meeting place; Robinson nearly catching the two together; MacMurray lighting Robinson’s cigars; the ankle bracelet; the little moment after the perfect crime when the car won’t start.
Wilder has the story narrated by MacMurray, recording his confession to Robinson in the empty office, despite an obvious bloodstain growing on the lapel of his jacket. I’ve wondered why MacMurray spends all night building his own gallows instead of making a run for the border. Maybe it’s a last chance for redemption, telling the truth to the one person who believed in him. Or maybe he just wants to brag about how he almost got away with it.
That’ll tear it. . .